Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Review: Vermilion by Molly Tanzer

Author Molly Tanzer has been a longtime favorite here at the Arkham Digest. Both of her collections, A Pretty Mouth and Rumbullion help set the standard for modern weird fiction. Vermilion is Molly Tanzer's first novel, and is one of the biggest releases of the year. The description from publisher Word Horde's website:

Gunslinging, chain smoking, Stetson-wearing Taoist psychopomp, Elouise “Lou” Merriwether might not be a normal 19-year-old, but she’s too busy keeping San Francisco safe from ghosts, shades, and geung si to care much about that. It’s an important job, though most folks consider it downright spooky. Some have even accused Lou of being more comfortable with the dead than the living, and, well… they’re not wrong.
When Lou hears that a bunch of Chinatown boys have gone missing somewhere deep in the Colorado Rockies she decides to saddle up and head into the wilderness to investigate. Lou fears her particular talents make her better suited to help placate their spirits than ensure they get home alive, but it’s the right thing to do, and she’s the only one willing to do it.

On the road to a mysterious sanatorium known as Fountain of Youth, Lou will encounter bears, desperate men, a very undead villain, and even stranger challenges. Lou will need every one of her talents and a whole lot of luck to make it home alive…

The West is always best when it's served with a liberal dose of weird. Tanzer's novel is unique in many ways. Lou Merriwether, the protagonist, is a half-Chinese girl in a time and place where the Chinese are looked upon as being less than human. Being a psychopomp also further alienates her from the world, as people seem to regard people in her line of work as being creepy. Lou has a few close friends, but is a bit of a loner. She's stubborn and tough and far from perfect. She makes mistakes, sometimes acting without thinking, and berates herself for not thinking things through. She doesn't give up though, she is determined and tenacious.

Gender fluidity is also a prevalent theme throughout the novel, and the willingness to explore the subject is one of the novel's great strengths. Too often fantasy protagonists are generic, cookie-cutter characters, but not so in Molly Tanzer's fiction. Lou  is at her most comfortable wearing men's clothing and cutting her hair short, and going by Lou instead of Elouise. Her sexuality itself is a little less clear and defined. Gender fluidity doesn't end with Lou, but for the sake of spoilers I'll leave it at that. 

The diversity on display is perfect. Characters of all races and orientations are represented. The world building is excellent, and Molly has created a gritty Western world in which the supernatural exists alongside the normal. Bears talk and have their own civilization, co-existing with man despite tensions. Spiritual and undead threats are handled by professional psychopomps like Lou, while monsters are dealt with by licensed monster hunters. 

Woven throughout are elements of Chinese folklore and mythology. Geung Si, a hopping vampire/zombie hybrid from Chinese folklore, make a few appearances. While Lou has many tools at her disposal for her psychopompery, she deals with Geung Si by using more traditional Chinese methods. Her other methods deal with using some interesting, steampunk-esque technology. Tanzer created a really interesting system for how it all works, and I'd love to see more.

My only real complaint with the novel was the villain. At times he was way too hammy, one of those villains who catches the character only to reveal all by talking and talking and talking. Tanzer handled this well however, as even the protagonist refers to tiring of the villain and his "hammy" ways. This self-awareness helped me overlook what I thought to be the novel's one deficit.

Fans of fantastic adventure books and readers looking for something fun and different shouldn't hesitate to pick this one up, as it's already one of the best books of 2015.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Interview: Jesse Bullington, editor of Letters to Lovecraft

So far you've penned three published novels and numerous short fiction. As far as I know this is your first time editing an anthology. How did you adjust to the change? Is editing something you see yourself doing again in the future?

You're correct that this is my editorial debut, but I made my first fiction sale something like fifteen years ago, so I've logged a lot of hours working closely with professional editors. The funny thing is you learn as much from the bad editors as from the good ones. I've also beta-read a lot of my colleagues' work, so critically eyeballing other people's work isn't anything new. So adapting to being on the other end of the process was fairly painless, and a nice change of pace. That said, the work itself is just as time-consuming and headache-inducing as writing, so while I'm sure I'll do more of it in the future I doubt I'll make a regular habit out of it.

Letters to Lovecraft is an anthology with a concept that really stands out to me. Mythos anthologies abound, and there's also a good deal of non-Mythos themed Lovecraft anthologies, so seeing an anthology tackling his essay Supernatural Horror in Literature was refreshing. What inspired you with such an original anthology idea? Why have authors respond with fiction instead of short essays of their own?

The premise was something Stone Skin Press already had in mind when they invited me to edit the project. As soon as I found out what exactly they had in mind for the anthology my enthusiasm doubled, because as a longtime Lovecraft fan I'm of course very familiar with the essay, and it seemed a remarkably novel way of engaging with the Gentleman of Providence. Asking for original fiction in response instead of essays seemed far more intriguing, because by doing so they'd be demonstrating their ethos instead of simply explaining it. Since including your own work in projects like this can often seem gauche, the only downside was knowing that as anthologist I wouldn't be able to write something myself for such a neat premise.

With the anthology, what was it you most hoped to accomplish and what did you want to avoid? 

My primary goal was providing readers with an interesting anthology, one that represented a wide array of tones and styles instead of just ringing the same bell over and over.

The fictional responses from authors varied greatly. Some chose similar passages, some did not. Some wrote stories supporting statements from the essay and some wrote stories opposing the same statements. Are there any portions of the essay in which you think Lovecraft was 'spot on' and were there any portions where you felt he was totally or partially wrong?

Well, I don't wish to simply repeat the particulars I singled out in my introduction to the anthology, so let me see...I'm in harmony with a lot of Lovecraft's assertions, and even those I don't necessarily agree with are of course well-reasoned and articulate. If we can consider anyone a preeminent authority on the titular topic, it would be Howie, but as a result the essay is full of broad-sweeping generalizations--that there's one test of what constitutes "the really weird," etc.--which I find more interesting than convincing. But then I'm not much for absolutes in general--that this philosophy worked for Lovecraft is evident enough, and it's fun to contemplate. Oh, and in terms of his assessment of his predecessors, I'm more or less in agreement with him in some instances (William Hope Hodgson, Arthur Machen,and his particularly rich survey of Poe), but think he gives others short shrift--Matthew Lewis' The Monk, for example.

Do you feel that Lovecraft's essay is still relevant today, nearly a century after it was written?

Absolutely, or else I never would have edited the project! For all his shortcomings, Lovecraft remains one of the most interesting writers of the 20th century, and I think future generations will always be able to learn a thing or five from both his fiction and his literary philosophy.

Finally, are there any future projects that you're willing to talk about?

A lot of my works in progress remain Top Secret Clown Business, but one that I can talk about is Swords v. Cthulhu, an anthology that I'm co-editing with Molly Tanzer. As you might guess from the title, it's a collection of action-heavy fantasy with a dark or historical bent. After the somewhat esoteric nature of my first anthology it's been refreshing to take a turn at something much more straightforward--we're still finalizing the table of contents, so while I don't want to drop any names just yet, I will say we've scored a number of luminaries of modern Lovecraftiana, as well as veterans of neighboring genres...

Thanks for your time, it was pleasure.

Thank you for the opportunity, and of course for taking the time to read the book.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Review: Letters To Lovecraft edited by Jesse Bullington

Love him or hate him, it's impossible to deny Lovecraft's legacy. He is considered a pioneer of weird fiction, even if others of his time or before his time wrote stories that could easily qualify as being in that category. His work has inspired many, and his Mythos alone has swollen to obese proportions with fiction, some of which are finely polished gems and others are borderline fan fiction and pastiche.

For many, myself included,  Lovecraft was an introduction into the world of weird fiction. I still remember reading "Call of Cthulhu" for the first time, home on break from college and the only one awake in the house, reading the story which had been posted on some website, white letters on a black background. It called to me, and the following day I found myself walking out of a bookshop with a Lovecraft collection in hand.

Lovecraft's fiction lives on, and Lovecraft scholarship is still alive and well. Books collecting his letters (he wrote letters like you wouldn't believe) can easily be found, as well as anthologies containing stories said to be Lovecraft's favorites among his predecessors and contemporaries.

Fiction and letters aside, Lovecraft penned an essay titled "Supernatural Horror in Literature." In it he spoke of other horror writers and stories, and laid out his own philosophy on what makes successful horror fiction.

Author Jesse Bullington recently edited Letters to Lovecraft, an anthology of fiction written in response to portions of Lovecraft's essay. The title is a slight bit misleading, as these are not letters written to Lovecraft in response to the essay, but pieces of fiction. In a world where the market is glutted by Mythos fiction and Lovecraftian anthologies such a different approach is a welcome treat.

In his hefty intro, Bullington puts it all on the table. The good, the bad, and the ugly of Lovecraft is laid bare without bias. The editor also makes an excellent point about "Supernatural Horror in Literature" being important not just for writers deriving inspiration from Lovecraft, but for anyone working in horror. The writer asked several authors he admires to read the essay, choose a quote that resonates with them in some way, and write a fictional response. Some stories support the quote they chose, others set out to prove that quote wrong, and others do a bit of both. This isn't a clear cut "I agree/disagree" with the passage as much as it is an emotional response. Some authors chose the same passage and came up with wildly different stories, depending on what the passage meant for them. The result is an anthology unlike any I have read before, one that truly stands out as one of 2014's finest.

Many readers decide whether or not an anthology is worthwhile based on the ratio of great/good/bad stories. In this case the anthology was to this reviewer's taste, as there isn't a bad story in the bunch, although some are more effective than others.

Brian Evenson's "Past Reno" and Gemma Files's "That Place" both use the same quote for inspiration and both deal with children settling the estates of their deceased parents. Otherwise they are very different stories. Evenson focuses on the idea of uncertainty and the unknown. His subtle tale of a man suffering severe anxiety on his drive to settle his estranged father's estate is an ambiguous tale. Is the man's reality coming apart because reality is truly wearing thin, or is it all a manifestation of his fear and anxiety? Gemma Files works with an expanded version of the quote from Lovecraft's essay, and uses the basis of Narnia novels as a foundation for a much darker tale. Siblings return home to settle their parents' estate and remember a weird game they played in childhood, which turns out to be a little more than just a game. Angela Slatter works with the second half of the quote Gemma Files chose,  and her story "Only the Dead and the Moonstruck" is a bit more overtly Lovecraftian. Another tale of loss, this story instead deals with a family coping with the disappearance of one of the siblings. Emotions run high, and guilt is shared by the mother and also the sister, who may have seen something the night her brother went missing. A very effective tale of dread indeed.

Writers Nadia Bulkin, Robin D. Laws, and Paul Tremblay all responded to a quote about how proper weird tales have "a certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces." The three stories were some of my favorites from the anthology. Bulkin's "Only Unity Saves the Damned" is a story about three outsider friends who make a hoax based on an urban legend, and how it leads to all of their downfalls. The idea of small towns being a "black hole" whose pull is impossible for many to escape is a theme of her story and one she executes perfectly. In "The Trees" Robin D. Laws brings readers on a sailing voyage with a grieving man who is brought on board by his uncle. He feels out of place for the entire voyage, and even more so when the ship reaches it's mysterious destination and he realizes what the purpose of the voyage is. Paul Tremblay sets out to prove Lovecraft wrong with "_______." The story draws dread not from atmosphere but from a very commonplace setting and an awkward conversation where something is just not right. The story is a true chiller, and it takes an author with talent to infuse such a scenario with as much dread as Tremblay does.

The last authors to tackle a shared quote are Jeffrey Ford and Chesya Burke. They chose a quote about fertility rites being performed by some degenerate, subhuman minorities. Jeffrey Ford's darkly humorous "The Order of the Haunted Wood" sees a fertility cult evolve alongside civilization, and to continue to exist behind the scenes of the corporate pharmaceutical world of "male enhancement" medicine. Chesya Burke's approach to the quote instead has nothing to do with fertility cults, and all to do about Lovecraft's racism, which is apparent in the quote. In "The Horror at Castle of the Cumberland" Burke writes about a young white man who has fits, whether they are of a religious nature or purely biological and accompanied with hallucinations isn't too clear. The story is about having a choice, and whether people make a choice based on what they believe or what everyone around them believes. For many, sadly, it is easier to be a follower rather than a leader. The boy witnesses a black man and his daughter become the victim of a mob for a crime they didn't commit, and the boy is left with the choice of going along or speaking out. It's a story that packs quite a punch.

The rest of the stories didn't overlap in which quotes they chose to respond to, but some overlapped in other ways. Stories by Orrin Grey and Ken Asamatsu both involve Lovecraft himself. In Grey's wonderful "Lovecrafting" HP is referenced, along with other classic weird fiction writers, but doesn't take center stage. The story is written in movie script format, making it further standout, and is one of the highlights of the anthology. Asamatsu's "Glimmer in the Darkness" features Lovecraft more at the forefront, as he has a conversation with a strange man while eating ice cream. Not the most effective story in the anthology, but entertaining nonetheless.

Livia Llewellyn's fiction always hits the mark, and "Allocthon" is one of the most effective stories in the anthology. It follows a woman in the 30's living in a company house in some sort of depression work town. Llewellyn chose a quote about nature and it's mysteries, and how nature "speaks" to man. The woman in Livia's story is stuck in a humdrum life and feels much like a bird trapped in a cage, longing for escape. Things change as she goes on a company picnic and nature has an odd effect on her. She seems to be stuck in a loop, replaying the same day over and over, different every time.  A powerful story, as Llewellyn writes nothing less.

"The Lonely Wood" by Tim Lebbon follows a man visiting a cathedral and experiencing a sort of "personal apocalypse" making him question his beliefs (or lack thereof). Cameron Pierce's "Help Me" tackles a quote about judging a weird tale not on it's highest points, but on what it can achieve emotionally at it's most mundane point. Inspiration from Lovecraft's Innsmouth permeate this creepy little tale. David Yale Ardanuy tackles the legend of the Wendigo in "One Last Meal, Before the End." The story takes place in isolation, and gore abounds. Stephen Graham Jones brings his master storytelling talents to bear in "Doc's Story", a werewolf tale. Kirsten Alene's "There Has Been a Fire" is a subtle, poetic story about a professor. This was one of my favorite stories and the first fiction I've read from Kirsten Alene. The story is surreal, and manages to be both creepy and lyrically beautiful at the same time. A powerful combination.

The anthology ends with stories from two heavy-hitters of current weird fiction. Molly Tanzer chooses a quote about weird often appearing in works that viewed as a whole could fit a different genre entirely. "Food From the Clouds" goes forward in time to a London which has reverted back to more ancient ways of doing things. Barons own private lands in the aftermath of some sort of semi-apocalyptic comet crash. The story follows two poachers as they enter a walled-in area that no one else has set foot in since the comet crash. A fun story with bits of creepiness, Tanzer has managed to convey the feel of a much more fleshed within the confines of a short story. Not many fantasy authors can pull off such a feat.

The Mandela Effect, which is when people (usually many) remember things happening differently. Often these are unimportant things, such as people swearing that the Berenstain Bears was once spelled Berenstein Bears. It's mostly chalked up to man's memory being unreliable at best, but more esoteric theories abound dealing with parallel dimensions and all sorts of strangeness. "The Semi-Finished Basement" by Nick Mamatas is about four people meeting in a basement as a sort of support group. They eat blondies and bicker and discuss how they remember certain things in history as different from the rest of society. That the change was effected over the whole race but for some reason the veil wasn't pulled over their eyes. One man, a schizophrenic, goes on and on about The Crawling Chaos and Egypt. The ending is a riot, and a definite twist that I didn't see coming. Mamatas is an intelligent writer, and his Lovecraft-inspired tales are among the best.

By looking beyond the superficialities of the Cthulhu Mythos, and bypassing common Lovecraftian themes to look instead at the essay that outlines Lovecraft's philosophies behind weird horror, Jesse Bullington and his 18 authors have done something truly special. Letters to Lovecraft is easily one of 2014's best anthologies, and a must read for weird horror fans.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Interview: Rich Hawkins

With your latest novella you take readers to a small, seemingly isolated, small British town. I find that a setting can have a huge effect on a piece of horror fiction, as atmosphere can make or break a story. What drew you to this type of setting?

I was born and raised in a village very similar to the one in ‘Black Star, Black Sun’, and I’ve always loved horror/weird stories set in small communities. The sense of dread and isolation seems to work well in those stories, especially when combined with Lovecraftian themes. I spent twenty-seven years of my life living in my home village, so the idea that I could take that small village mundaneness and add some cosmic horror themes to it was very appealing to me.

Black Star, Black Sun is a novella, and is your second book to be published. Your first, The Last Plague, is a much longer work. Do you find the novel length or novella length to be more challenging?

The novel, definitely. It’s a long road and I seem to put more pressure on myself with a novel.This leads to bouts of anxiety and stress punctuated by moments of relief after a good day’s writing. I’m a bit fucked up, I suppose.  The novella holds a different challenge in that its brevity compared to a novel demands a leaner, more streamlined plot, but at the same time needs some meat on the bones. At the moment, I feel more drawn towards novellas, but that may change in the future - I’m still a rookie and I’ve got a lot to learn.

Besides Lovecraft, what other authors and pieces of fiction lent inspiration for Black Star, Black Sun?

I’m a big fan of Adam Nevill, and while I think his writing is not particularly Lovecraftian, it was a great inspiration to me when I was working on the novella. Also, Laird Barron’s work has influenced me greatly and continues to do so. I first read ‘The Imago Sequence’ about two years ago, and it floored me. It’s fantastic.

Growing up, were you always a reader of dark fiction? What draws you to these types of stories? Do you have any personal favorites (stories, novels, authors)?

Not always. I began reading horror/sci-fi/dark fiction in my early teens, but as I grew older, into my late teens and early twenties, I stopped reading any sort of fiction due to a greater interest in alcohol, women and sports. That was until my mid-twenties and I picked up a copy of Stephen King’s ‘Pet Cemetery’, and I rediscovered my love of horror fiction. King, in turn, led me to Lovecraft and contemporary writers, and ten years later my house is full of books.
I’m not sure what draws me to horror. I’m quite pessimistic, if that matters. I was a strange child. Horrific things have always intrigued me. If I’m honest, I think I find comfort in horror.
As I said above, the works of Adam Nevill and Laird Barron are great favourites of mine. Other writers whose work I admire greatly are Gary McMahon, MR James, Tim Curran, David Moody, Wayne Simmons, Conrad Williams and Nathan Ballingrud.I would advise anyone who hasn’t read their work to check it out.
And Lovecraft, of course…

As an author of dark fiction, what is it you hope most to accomplish with your work? What do you want readers to take away from your stories?

At the moment I’m just trying to build a portfolio of work and see where it takes me. I’m not writing for the money (or lack of it); I write because I have to, I think. It’s a strange feeling. I couldn’t even tell you why I started writing stories in the first place.
I’m just grateful that some people are reading my stories. If I can scare, unsettle or even affect them in some way, I’ll be overjoyed.

As of the time of this writing I haven't had a chance to read The Last Plague yet. Does it draw any parallel with Black Star, Black Sun?

Not really. There are undertones of cosmic horror in The Last Plague, but I never intended it to be overtly Lovecraftian, and it’s a different story in many ways. They are both very bleak stories, however, so they’ve got that in common, and they both deal with humanity’s helplessness against alien horrors.

Any future writing projects that you would care to tell readers about?

I’m currently working on the sequel to The Last Plague, set some months after the events of the first book. Once that’s done I have an idea for a horror novel about religious fundamentalismand missing children.

Thanks for taking the time to talk to me.

Thanks for inviting me over, Justin. It’s been a pleasure.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Review: Black Star, Black Sun by Rich Hawkins

Black Star, Black Sun is my first exposure to author Rich Hawkins. He previously penned The Last Plague, a novel about a not quite zombie apocalypse, that picked up some good reviews. This work is much shorter, making it a novella, although it is still quite a good size.

The story follows a man named Ben Ottway who, still reeling from his wife's mysterious disappearance, returns to his old hometown to stay with his father and put his life back together. Things take a turn for the worse as Ben begins having disturbing dreams that start to cross over into reality. He thinks he may be going mad, until he realizes that the "dreams" are not experienced by him alone.

Hawkins brings the otherwordly, cosmic horror in droves. Once things begin they escalate very quickly, grotesque scenes abound and the town soon becomes a Boschian nightmare. There are some wonderfully done, creepy segments, but some later parts of the book came across as being laid on a bit too thick. The scenes that were subtle were much more effective, and where the author shined. Many of the earlier scenes with Ben traipsing around and having off-putting encounters were handled like a pro.

The protagonist was very convincing as a man whose life was falling apart, barely hanging on with the the help from nicotine and caffeine. He existed in parallel with his father, who numbed the pain of his widower lifestyle with alcohol. At times I felt like the dad wasn't as developed, but I instead came to see him purposefully portrayed as an almost-empty shell of a man, lonely and filling his time with television and booze while wearing a ratty dressy gown, church being his only real social outlet.

This is a good novella, but it's not without it's problems, many of which are common among newer authors. Some of the side characters came across as rather one-dimensional, and at times I was struck by a repetitiveness. Later parts of the book seemed overlong, and lost some of their effectiveness as a result, whereas a trimming may have resulted in these segments packing more of a punch.

Criticisms aside, I enjoyed the novella quite a bit. Many segments of it really resonated with me. It's the second published book from a new author, and at times it is obvious that this is an early work of fiction. That said, I see a lot of talent in Mr. Hawkins, and I have a feeling I will be doubly pleased with his next offering. In the meantime, fans of Lovecraftian horror should check this novella out, as I have a feeling that many of them will really love this one.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Review Roundup & News: March

Apologies for not updating sooner, but at the end of January I took on the duties of a school counselor at a nearby school while continuing my full time time counseling job. Doing the work of two school counselors has taken a lot of time, and I fell behind on my reviews. Also I have been reading some books that probably don't belong on the blog, since early on I decided the blog was going to focus on dark and weird fiction, so when I read the occasional fantasy novel I won't be reviewing it here (Joe Abercrombie's Half the World is amazing though, if you like fantasy then READ MORE ABERCROMBIE). Things are still busy, but I plan to make more blog posts.

I have some cool news. I conducted an interview with author Laird Barron which will appear in the Lazy Fascist Review. I also reviewed Gabriel Blackwell's The Natural Dissolution of Fleeting-Improvised-Men which should also appear in volume three or four of Lazy Fascist Review.

Jordan Krall's Dunhams Manor Press is having an Indiegogo campaign to raise money for their 2015 lineup. This is a really cool micropress and their limited edition chapbooks are essential for weird fiction fans. The campaign is also a great chance to pay upfront for the books coming out in 2015 so you don't have to worry about ordering them all individually. The campaign is HERE and now is the chance to meet some stretch goals before the campaign closes on March 26th at 11:59 PM.

Also, some good news regarding some colleagues: Clint Hale recently started a new review blog, The Dark of Things. Clint knows his weird, so I have high hopes for this venture. C.M. Muller, a reviewer and published author, is starting an annual journal of weird fiction, Nightscript. Mr. Muller has excellent taste and I have no doubt that this will be premiere publication. Also recently, my friend Sam Cowan has also announced that his micropress Dim Shores will announce their first publication soon. Dim Shores will publish novella and short story chapbooks. Sam is very knowledgeable about weird fiction as well, and has a background in book design and publishing so I have no doubt this will also be a top notch micropress. Exciting times ahead!!!!!

Now, on to the reviews.

Vox Terrae by John Claude Smith (Dunhams Manor Press)

John Claude Smith is a new writer for me. I have both of his story collections, but haven't cracked them open yet. One weekend I found myself with some reading time, and decided to devote it to several chapbooks from Jordan Krall's Dunhams Manor Press, the weird fiction imprint of Dynatox Ministries. This was also the day I became a fan of John Claude Smith. I started with Vox Terrae, a disturbing tale about a grieving man seeking a way to his beloved. As a couple they were both engaged in the occult, and sought a way to the other side. Kenneth, the main character, contacts his old friend and occult mentor Ivan, and the two seek out a woman whose translation of a vile tome led to Kenneth's girlfriend's death. Their journey leads them to a house of horrors that brought to mind Laird Barron's Children of Old Leech.

Dandelions by John Claude Smith (Dunhams Manor Press)

Dandelions is a bit more of a slow burn, and the author handles it perfectly.Two couples take a trip and stay at an eerie little motel by the seashore. The place is permeated by a sense of wrongness. Small oddities taking on sinister connotations and added together to create a surreal nightmare. An excellent use of atmosphere and location, and a terrifying little gem of a weird tale.

Twisted Histories by Tom Lynch (Dunhams Manor Press)

Tom Lynch brings a B-movie aesthetic to these two stories based on Lovecraft's Mythos. The first of the two stories, and the creepier of the two, is a telling of how John Dee translated the Necronomicon. A desperate attempt of saving his career and reputation quickly becomes a descent into madness. The second story is an action-filled yarn of Cold War spies in Berlin. Some weird experiments are being carried out on the Eastern side of the Wall, and some American spies find out the hard way that it's often best not to meddle where weird science is concerned. The two stories lack the literary punch some of the other Dunhams Manor books go for, but they are nonetheless very fun reads.

The Queen in Green by Gina Ranalli (Dunhams Manor Press)

Another author that I've yet to read before, Gina Ranalli delivers a creepy tale set in the woods. A young boy leave his family's campsite to explore the woods and collect kindling. He meets a mysterious dwarf who wants to introduce him to a very special tree. The story is quite short, but Ranalli manages to paint a rather creepy picture.

At the time of this writing, copies are still available HERE.

This Fragmented Body by Christopher Slatsky (Dunhams Manor Press)

The first of three chapbooks by Christopher Slatsky I read in one day, and enough to get me excited about this author. Amputees, run down apartment buildings, and puppets make for a heady brew. A blackout hits the city, and several amputees of all ages who make the building their home confront their personal tragedies and recurring nightmares. Slatsky builds dread from page one, and is not shy about amping up the weird.

No One Is sleeping In This World by Christopher Slatsky (Dunhams Manor Press)

Two artistic friends are making a documentary about architecture, and decide to visit an old warehouse designed by an eccentric, one-of-a-kind architect. Somehow the building managed to be forgotten, tucked away in a run-down industrial district, until one of the friends finds out about it. They visit it to find a sort of Cult of Cities. Slatsky offers a glimpse of American urban decay, and early on layers on the unease that makes for some of the best weird fiction. Wind blown plastic bags appear to be floating faces, strange homeless people seem to rule the streets in a forgotten, dying part of town, and an incongruous warehouse built by an infamous architect is somewhere where it makes no sense for it to be. A wonderful story.

Alectryomancer by Christopher Slatsky (Dunhams Manor Press)

This strange tale is a surreal, sci-fi masterpiece. At a depression era work camp, Rey spends the days working in the fields and contemplating a strange recurring hallucination he has of a burning horse. People have been disappearing, but Rey is mostly concerned with cockfighting, as his successful gamecock is set to fight an undefeated, otherworldly gamecock called Alectryomancer. Rey kills time in between work and cockfighting with looking at pictures of a family he hasn't seen in a long time, and reading passages from a bizarre, nonsensical journal that he found. The journal discusses time travel, ancient engines at the                                                               core of the earth and similar concepts. Slatsky has succeeded in                                                             creating an original, bizarre tale that left me full of dread and                                                                 wonder.

                                                      At the time of this writing, copies are still available to order HERE.

The Wrenchies by Farel Dalrymple (First Second)

I very much enjoy graphic novels but tend to not review them. The Wrenchies deserves a mention here because it is one of the strangest ones I have read, and one of the best. The story begins with two brothers who enter a cave and defeat a demon. One brother, Sherman, takes an amulet as his prize. What follows is a disjointed, surreal narrative that follows several threads as they weave together. Children gangs roam a post-apocalyptic America, fighting against the Demons who have control. An outsider child named Hollis lives in out time as a neighbor of the adult Sherman, and when he finds the amulet he is transported to this strange, futuristic world where he finally finds people he fits in with - the child gang called The Wrenchies. An adult group of Wrenchies that exists in Sherman's comic is through a timewarp to join their young counterparts. There are all sorts of things going on in this novel. Modern day Sherman seems a very troubled man, unhappy and filling his time off from work doing drugs and drinking, only     productive when he writes his comic. It seems he is haunted by some sort of tragedy in the past, and the line is blurred as to what is truth and what is fantasy when it comes to Sherman. The fantastical version seems to have been many things: a child spy, a demon-slaying warrior, a space explorer. A hard to understand book, The Wrenchies will benefit from multiple rereads. The book is wonderfully entertaining and thought provoking, and the art is absolutely gorgeous.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Interview: Timothy J. Jarvis

Timothy J. Jarvis is the author of The Wanderer, which was my choice for weird fiction novel of the year. Below is an interview I conducted with the young author in which he brings his knowledge of the weird to the table to share. Enjoy!

I'd first like to thank you for taking the time to talk to me. What can you tell readers about yourself and your work?

Thanks for interviewing me; it’s a pleasure. Though that’s quite a tough question to open with. Well, in brief biographies I’ve called myself, ‘a writer and scholar with an interest in the antic, the weird, the strange.’ Which is close enough, and though that ‘scholar’ is deliberately archaic, it is true that I’m an academic as well as a writer. I’ve lived in London for a good while, and the city is one of my main inspirations.

In my writing, I attempt to fuse a fustian old Gothic sensibility with a more contemporary pulpish narrative, to bring together various tendrils of weird fiction, and to be jarringly odd: at times horrible, at others cloyingly sentimental, at times tense, at others comically absurd. The Romantic Gothic writer, Charles Robert Maturin, whose Melmoth the Wanderer is a key influence on my book, once wrote, venting his frustration at the critics and theatre managers who wished for him to exercise restraint, to curb his grotesque excesses:

‘I have no power of affecting, no hopes of instructing, no play or other production of mine will ever draw a tear from the eye, or teach a lesson to the Heart, so I wish they would let me do what I am good for, sit down by my magic Cauldron, mix my dark ingredients, see the bubbles work, and the spirits rise, and by the pale and mystic light, I might show them “the best of my delights”.’

While I see much to admire in subtlety, consistency of atmosphere, controlled prose, in the end, like Maturin, I just want to throw everything at the page, see what sticks, then drench it in gore.

The Wanderer is quite a complex narrative for a debut novel, and works out quite well. What made you to decide to write it in the framed narrative format?

Thanks! I partly wanted to go back to the roots of the Gothic, with its found manuscripts and strange tale fragments, and in particular to those later, more complex and antic versions of the tropes, found in books like Melmoth and Jan Potocki’s The Manuscript Found in Saragossa. And some of the most powerful weird tales, from William Hope Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland, to more recent examples, like Caitlín R. Kiernan’s The Red Tree, Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, and Gemma Files’s and Stephen J. Barringer’s ‘each thing i show you is a piece of my death’ (which I reckon one of the most terrifying short stories ever written) have been convoluted found text stories. It’s my sense that complex, many-stranded plot structures are like mazes, in which the reader becomes lost. They also, especially those involving storytelling, threaten contamination; the borders of the text are corroded, the tale seeps out, and the setting in which the reader reads seems just another frame. When the found text’s strange appearance of truth, its suggestion of being more account than story, is added to this, then the effect can be positively nightmarish.

What were the biggest influences on The Wanderer? While reading it there seemed to be many that stood out to me, and a few names readers of weird fiction should pick up on scattered throughout the book. What were you hoping to accomplish with this novel?

As I’ve mentioned, the key influence was Maturin’s strange book of 1820, Melmoth, a novel often considered the very last of the original Gothic mode. Melmoth is very odd text, which brings, to the violence and ‘bad taste’ of the Gothic, a high-Romantic sensibility, and also, more incongruously, the comical, sceptical, and metatextual mood of Renaissance and Enlightenment satire: Rabelais, Cervantes, Swift, Sterne, and Diderot. I hope to set up a similar jarring clash of tones in The Wanderer.

Another important precursor, was Poe’s only longer work, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. Poe seems to have hated writing it and to have done so for quite cynical commercial reasons. He was, of course, a master of lyric verse and the powerfully atmospheric short tale, and based his poetics on a unity of effect, but I think those stories of his that leaven the ‘Arabesque’ seriousness, with the impish and ‘grotesque’, his most enthralling. And in Arthur Gordon Pym, a book often criticised as awkward, episodic, unable to sustain a mood, there is much that is grotesque, and downright odd.

Poe’s general disinclination for the novel also led him to attempt to make of it a hoax, and present it as a true travelogue; it seems he thought he could, in this way, ease his financial hardships with the sale of the book, while distancing himself from the potboiler nature of the project. But sometimes it’s parodic, makes its fictionality apparent, and at others, when Poe appears to have had a moment of enthusiasm for the book, a more sublime, philosophical tone predominates. It is a novel of confused motives and disparate moods, and also one in which the world of appearances is a bizarre puzzle, and the numinous lying beneath no less absurd. And I love it for all of these things.

Writing The Wanderer, I was inspired not just by Arthur Gordon Pym itself, but also by what I see as two failed attempts to solve Poe’s enigma: Jules Verne’s The Sphinx of the Ice-Fields and Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness. Both attempt to make of Poe’s chaos some stable order, Verne through tedious scientistic explanation, Lovecraft by aligning the text with the events of his nihilistic cosmos. But Poe’s ridiculous text just sticks its tongue out, scampers about, clubs them to the ground.

This idea of the victory of the absurd led me to put Punch at the heart of the book. Punch is as brutal an example of the Carnivalesque prevailing over reason as can be imagined. I was thinking also of Alfred Jarry’s Pere Ubu, who, like Punch, is a scion of the commedia dell'arte figure of Pulcinella, and is also perhaps a descendant, via Lautréamont’s vile Maldoror, of Melmoth’s.

Arthur Machen’s London tales were also an important influence. In his work, characters may find themselves rounding an ordinary street corner in the middle of the afternoon, only to find themselves confronted with something utterly bizarre. I tried to infuse my book with this sense that you might just happen on something strange and terrible when wandering the city.

I also wished to weave together yarns pulpish, but believable, with threads of theory, to produce a rough and unevenly textured cloth. In this I was inspired by Angela Carter’s extraordinary The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman, a book in which philosophical musings clash with Sadean picaresque. Among the ideas that shaped my book are Vico’s argument that the nature of history is cyclical, Gilles Deleuze’s discussion of writing as a plunge into the abyss, and Eugene Thacker’s horror of philosophy.

There were a number of other key literary inspirations. A notion as to the structure of The Wanderer came from Machen’s The Three Imposters, M.P. Shiel’s The Purple Cloud was a particular influence on my thinking about the desolated world I wished to depict, and from Jorge Luis Borges’s short story, ‘The Immortal’, I took a sense of disaffection and amorality in the undying. I also wanted to find an odd and apt voice for my eternal narrator, and cast about looking for models. I ended up taking quite a bit from Thomas Browne’s prose style, and allusions to Hydriotaphia and The Garden of Cyrus crop up in the book. I also took cues from the digressive nature of Laurence Sterne’s eponymous narrator in Tristram Shandy.

And there was one further influence on the book – eerily, a retrospective one. While editing the book, after completing my first draft, I came across a reference to a novel by Walter Owen, More Things in Heaven…, a book made up of linked narratives about cursed manuscripts, manuscripts that cause readers to spontaneously combust, a book itself supposedly cursed. Intrigued by the seeming resemblance to The Wanderer and undeterred by claims of malign influence, I ordered up More Things in Heaven… at the British Library. On opening it, I felt an eerie shock. The first line of Owen’s work runs: ‘On the 14th July 1935 Mr Cornelius Letherbotham, an English gentleman resident in Buenos Aires, died under extraordinary and distressing circumstances.’ The first line of The Wanderer was (and is): ‘On the 18th December 2010, Simon Peterkin, a British Library archivist and writer of weird tales with a small, if cultic, following, disappeared from his Highgate flat.’ I read on, gripped by a horrid fascination, and discovered more and more correspondences. Then I began dabbling, working more, this time intentional, allusions to More Things in Heaven… into my book.

Then, in the block I lived in at the time, there was a bad fire. No one was hurt, but the building was gutted. I stopped tinkering after that.

I guess my main aims for The Wanderer were to evoke a creeping weird horror, but also to create a riotous clash of tones and modes that would in itself be weird, to move from gruesome violence, to mawkish sentimentality, to the absurd and comic, without any respect for a unity of impression.

Or rather, I should say these would have been my influences, methods, and aims, had I written The Wanderer. But the fact is I found it in the flat of an obscure author of strange stories, Simon Peterkin, after he’d vanished in uncanny circumstances. Initially I thought it a novel by Peterkin, now I’m not sure who wrote it. I merely brought it to publication. And I’m no longer sure that was at all a good idea…

As a reader of the Weird, how would you describe weird fiction to a reader unfamiliar with the genre? What would you describe as essential reading for fans of the weird, both works of antiquity as well as their modern counterparts?

It is my sense the Weird is defined by a slow realisation, which dawns, dread and ineluctable, that things were never what we thought them to be, that they were always already weird. This is the etymology of the word after all; what the Weird shows us is what is, and has always been, fated for us. This is the main way the Weird differs from horror, I think. In horror, things as they are, are attacked by something which slops forth from some rent in reality. This thing may be defeated, or prevail, and the world will return to normal, or all will be changed utterly, but there is always the sense that the horror is something from outside, from beyond, that disrupts the world. In the Weird the world is shown to have been weird all along – we simply had our eyes closed to its weirdness before. Weird therefore lacks narrative climax, but has more subtlety: the true face of the world can inspire dread, but also ecstasy, or evoke both at the same time.

I think there are actually two kinds of weird. The first is the Weird as a true genre, a genre of stories in which, in a broadly realistic setting, a speculative element strips the mantle from the world, shows us its numinous flesh. But I think there is a broader category too, in which the general meaning of the word is present alongside its etymology; weird fiction here is simply what’s weird, what doesn’t sit neatly anywhere, is unsettling. This kind of story also shows us that what we thought we could trust – the stability of a narrative, the consistency of tone, sense and reason – can also be enweirded, betray us.

Because the Weird contains these two possibly categories, it can accommodate the visceral and scalpel-keen horrors of Laird Barron’s The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All, alongside the chilling ecstasies of D.P. Watt’s The Phantasmagorical Imperative, and Anna Tambour’s delightfully delirious Crandolin – to pick at haphazard three brilliant books I’ve recently read, three very different books, but all weird.

My notion of what is essential weird reading is constantly changing, but off the top of my head, aside from those books I’ve already mentioned, here are a few I think really potent examples of the mode. William Beckford’s dark Arabian Nights fantasia, Vathek, is one of the oddest novels of the original Gothic I’ve read, and is certainly deeply weird. Sheridan Le Fanu’s In a Glass Darkly’s linked tales are harrowing and deeply strange. Stefan Grabiński’s tales, in which the occult and the technological are melded, are uniquely haunting. The Hearing Trumpet by Leonora Carrington is one of the most consistently bizarre novels of all literature, constantly wrong-footing its reader. Kenneth Patchen’s The Journal of Albion Moonlight is a bizarre odyssey across a surreal USA, reminiscent of some of William Burroughs’s novels, a novel of furious compassion and belligerent pacifism. The mundane strangeness of Shirley Jackson’s short fiction is, for me, utterly compelling. Robert Aickman’s work contains more overt supernatural and surreal elements than Jackson’s, but also conveys the horrible sense of a real that is unreliable, or has been compromised somehow. Eric Basso’s The Beak Doctor is an extraordinarily evocative work of fantastical urban decay. Kōbō Abe’s The Face of Another is a delirious and nightmarish work of philosophical horror. The Course of the Heart, by M. John Harrison is one of the most affecting and devastating novels of all weird fiction. And I find the bleak vision of Thomas Ligotti’s tales always gives a shudder.

As a number of commentators have noted, we seem to be in the midst of a weird renaissance at the moment, and there are a number of recent books that I think have expanded the possibilities of the mode: K.J. Bishop’s The Etched City took the New Weird urban fantasy template and gave it a fin de siècle, decadent mood; Kelly Link’s scintillating stories are bogglingly complex, structurally and generically, but with a real human core to them; Hal Duncan’s work has powerfully queered the mode, and woven in myth and folklore; Reggie Oliver has taken the classic English ghost story and made of it a brutal bludgeon; Mark Valentine’s and John Howard’s Connoisseur stories take the psychic detective tale and infuse it with a revelatory mysticism; John Langan has shown that the weird tale can be made metafictional and playful without sacrificing even a jot of its horror, and Nathan Ballingrud has shown that a spare literary prose style and brilliantly realised characters can be added to the form. And Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy has demonstrated that the weird can cannibalize other genres, be genuinely horrifying and transmutative at the same time, and can deal both with vast concerns and the minutiae of human life.

Does film interest you as well? What films do you think best express the sense of The Weird?

I think the Weird has translated really well into cinema – inventive filmmakers have found powerful visual analogues for the linguistic estrangement of weird fiction. Growing up I watched lots of horror films, particularly relishing ’80s slashers, but it wasn’t till I got to university and watched surrealist classics, such as Luis Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou and Maya Deren’s At Land, that I realized a film could be strange and unsettling, without being overtly frightening.

David Lynch is a master of using striking visual effects and powerful sound design to enhance the weirdness of his strange, transgressive narratives. They are also utterly tonally inconsistent, rapidly cycling from horror to comedy to melodrama to crime and so on. I think my favourite of his films is probably Inland Empire, though I also love the often underrated Lost Highway, which contains, for me, perhaps the most terrifying moment in all cinema – the protagonist, Fred Madison, meets at a party a mysterious man, who tells him to call home, and when he does so, the mystery man, who still stands before him, picks up…

Other films with a powerful weird sensibility include: Bella Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies, a film based on László Krasznahorkai’s novel, The Melancholy of Resistance, which enhances the strangeness of the central premise – a travelling show displaying a stuffed whale and a Machiavellian dwarf comes to town and rioting ensues – by using just 39 shots in its two and a half hour running time; Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker, which takes an already very odd sf novel, Roadside Picnic by the Strugatsky brothers, and makes it truly weird by refusing to explain anything and suffusing it with a wan melancholy; The House with the Laughing Windows, directed by Pupi Avati, is a ’70s Italian horror, but is utterly unlike a conventional giallo –muted in its colours and effects, odd and etiolated in its plotting, it’s a captivatingly weird film; Andrzej Żuławski’s Posession is a truly bizarre piece, a harrowing relationship breakdown mixed with highly sexualized Lovecraftian elements, and espionage; Marebito by Takashi Shimizu is a far cry from the director’s Ju-on (The Grudge) films – there is no attempt to explain the speculative elements in supernatural terms, and few jump scares, instead there’s just creeping dread and a plot that mashes together weird influences into an impossible to parse story of manifestations of fear, an underworld beneath Tokyo, and vampire robots; Lars von Trier’s The Kingdom is quite possibly the weirdest TV show ever made, mixing up a number of utterly incongruous elements – a hospital built on cursed ground, a sentimental ghost story, child abuse, silly, and often ribald, comedy, medical drama, the rebirth of a monstrous evil – into something that makes absolutely no sense, but lingers in the mind; and Jessica Hausner’s film, Hotel, which is a masterpiece of restrained terror, taking a series of horror film tropes – a bullied new girl working in a strange hotel in the woods, a cave rumoured to be inhabited by a child-eating witch, another missing girl, whose glasses the protagonist is forced to wear – and inverts, twists them, building up such a cloying tension that a late revelation that a long corridor simply goes nowhere is enough to utterly harrow you.

Can you tell readers about any upcoming project or plans for the future?

I’ve been told that there exists a set of critical notes and an essay about The Wanderer, or a version of it, written by a student of the weird, who has apparently disappeared; I’m trying to track these down, and get to the bottom of the story. I have also been passed a collection of manuscripts that tell a very strange tale of a London under threat from some demonic source, of the tutelary spirits of the city, of the death of the scholar who discovered the texts, and of parallels with the demise of a decadent Belgian poet during the siege of Paris in 1870. I’m trying to see if I can make head nor tail of this before compiling these; I’m kind of hoping I won’t.