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.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Review: The Wanderer by Timothy J. Jarvis

Since starting this blog and becoming part of the weird fiction community, I've been put in contact with many wonderful people, many of whom love to share their love of fiction. While I often have authors and publishers sending me books to review (I should also note, it's clear which ones actually read the blog based on what they propose to send me) I often review books I come across on my own, or books that ping my radar based on recommendations. The Wanderer by Timothy J. Jarvis falls into the latter category.

Much like the mysterious manuscript that makes up the majority of the book's narrative, The Wanderer was something I stumbled upon. A mention of it on the TLO message boards, an inclusion on a year's best list on a fellow review blog. The cover isn't too busy, and besides title and author it includes a creepy drawing of a Punch & Judy puppet stage. Puppets have long been a macabre fascination of mine, as well as several weird fiction writers and fans that I know, and since I've started reading weird fiction Punch has shown up a couple times and always gives me a chill. There's something inherently dark and twisted about the odd-voiced little demon of a puppet.

Jarvis, whose name struck me as familiar, is someone who knows weird fiction. He truly GETS it. His nonfiction articles published on the Weird Fiction Review website offer further proof of this,

The Wanderer is one of the best books of 2014, hands down. Weird fiction is dominated by short stories and novellas, and it's rare that a novel length piece of work comes along that is as engaging throughout as this book.

The official blurb reads:

After obscure author of strange stories, Simon Peterkin, vanishes in bizarre circumstances, a typescript, of a text entitled, The Wanderer, is found in his flat.

The Wanderer is a weird document. On a dying Earth, in the far-flung future, a man, an immortal, types the tale of his aeon-long life as prey, as a hunted man; he tells of his quitting the Himalayas, his sanctuary for thousands of years, to return to his birthplace, London, to write the memoirs; and writes, also, of the night he learned he was cursed with life without cease, an evening in a pub in that city, early in the twenty-first century, a gathering to tell of eldritch experiences undergone.

Is The Wanderer a fiction, perhaps Peterkin's last novel, or something far stranger? Perhaps more account than story?

The book opens with a Foreword and a Note On The Text to set the stage for the bulk of the book, which is the found typescript. Jarvis tells a sprawling, epic story and deftly weaves together a plot taking place over several millennia. The script is written in the far future, near the Earth's end, and tell's the narrator's story in a non-linear fashion. Parts of his story take place in our modern day, parts during his years of wandering the Earth, and others telling of the moments he is writing the manuscript. 

The narrator's prose is often rambling, and includes some interesting syntax (consciously, as the Notes on the Text mention this) which lends a sort of authenticity to the entire book, allowing the frame narrative and book to work together towards becoming more than just a piece of fiction, but an excellent piece of meta-fiction.

Jarvis explores many ideas over the course of his novel: what happens when man crosses borders into strange places he is not meant to be, what is it like to be hunted and live in fear, how does immortality over the ages affect a person? The novel is filled with scenes of terror, scenes of awe, and a glimpse into an ordinary man's millenia-spanning world.

I say this is my favorite novel of 2014, and it's a statement I stand by. Jarvis has chops, and The Wanderer is an epic sized tale of weirdness and horror that no one should miss. It's terrifying, mind-bending, beautiful and unforgettable.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Review: Skillute Cycle by S.P Miskowski

Enter Skillute, WA: a small, blue collar town that is pretty much ignored by outsiders. A rural black hole, a town that grabs ahold of you and doesn't let go. Men grow old and pass the time by drinking beer, and the women grow up and pass the time playing bingo and gossiping among one another. The town has some dark moments in its history, and the books themselves give a look at Skillute over 50+ years.

The main narrative doesn't focus as much on the town itself, as it does a select few people populating the town, and how they're affected by living in such a place. At the heart of the narrative are three women: Ethel, Beverly and Marietta. Knock Knock, the first novel, follows these women over a 50+  year period, starting when they are young girls.

Knock Knock is a powerful debut, opening strong and ending with a punch. The three girls at the heart of the story are revolted by a health class video and from a fellow student's story about how her mother's pregnancy is enacting gross changes on the woman. The three set out into the woods, where they conduct a small ritual and make a pact. Unbeknownst to them at the time, there is something of a cruel and dark nature that they awake, setting in motion events that take several decades to come to an end. 

Miskowski's novel follows the girls as they grow old, all while something dark is stirring under the surface. Beverly has an edge to her, a sarcasm that seems a self defense mechanism. She's strong, and learns some of life's hard lessons early on when she has a teen pregnancy, which her parents hide until the baby is born and can be given away for adoption. Over the years she marries, and becomes a widow, yet she remains strong and independent.

Ethel grows up in a broken household. Her parents are drunks, and her mother has a cruel streak, bringing other men home and spending much of her time out at bars. Tragedy strikes early, leaving Ethel to be raised by an aunt. Ethel is the meek one of the bunch. She's quiet, polite. She goes along with things. It isn't until middle age that Ethel finds love and marries, and even gets pregnant. It's clear from the start that something is wrong with her daughter.

Marietta is the mysterious one. The girl raised by her aunt, a midwife that many refer to as being a witch. Strange things happen around Marietta, and she sees things no one else sees. 

The narrative's strength lies in restraint. Much of it is ambiguous. One of my favorite parts of the book is when Ethel is home alone with her baby, Connie Sara. The baby reminds her of her mother, and just silently stares at her, following her from room to room. Ethel becomes frightened, and is then torn. Is something wrong with her or is something wrong with the baby? Is it only in her head? Maybe she's not fit to be a mother? Maybe everyone is right and she was too old to have a baby? Why does her husband not seem to have a difficult time like she does? The paranoia and fear is so well handled that the reader doesn't know what to believe. 

Miskowski does a fine job of giving the reader a glimpse into the horrors of womanhood: Beverly's teen pregnancy and forced adoption, Marietta's abusive brute of a husband and sacrifices she has to make, Ethel and the horrors of parenting. These are trials that many women have had to face, and are all too real.

Knock Knock can be read alone, and is one of the better weird horror novels of the past few years, but the full story unfolds over three more novellas, all of which are published by Omnium Gatherum.

The first novella in the cycle, Delphine Dodd, is a prequel and is a first person account as told by Marietta's aunt Delphine. One of the more interesting characters in Knock Knock, Delphine Dodd only appeared briefly as a wise old woman. This novella gives readers her backstory. The majority of the novella follows Delphine as a child, when she, along with her sister, are dropped off at their grandmothers house. Her grandmother is a healer, midwife, "witch of the woods" type, and it is from her that Delphine learns her trade. The other part of the novel follows Delphine a few decades later, when she moves to Skillute, and shows the history of the malevolent force in Knock Knock.

The second novella, Astoria, takes place during the time frame of Knock Knock, and follows Ethel after we last saw her. This gives more closure to her character, and although it mostly takes place outside of Skillute's borders, it may be my favorite of the bunch. The narrative is surreal, with small oddities bringing a strong sense of doom throughout, leading to a wonderful conclusion. Miskowski is at her best here.

The cycle ends with In the Light, which takes place several years after the events of Knock Knock. The first half of the novella focuses on Ruth, a young new girl who recently moved to Skillute, and the second half follows Henry Colquitt, a former pastor and son of Marietta. Everything comes full circle in this volume, providing readers with a solid conclusion. 

S.P. Miskowski has become one of my favorite writers with these books. Fans of weird fiction, and dark small town stories should pick these up without hesitation. While I'm sad my time in Skillute has come to an end, I look forward to seeing what Miskowski does next.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Interview: Helen Marshall

Helen Marshall is one of the finest practitioners of strange fiction working today. I recently read and reviewed her latest collection, Gifts For The One Who Comes After and found it to be one of the best fiction collections of 2015.

Gifts For The One Who Comes After is one of the finest fiction collections of the year. The themes of legacy and of family are a common thread throughout. What is important to you about these themes and what made you want to explore them?

Let me first say, thanks very much for saying that! It’s tremendously kind! I suppose, in some ways, the themes in Gifts followed on naturally from my first collection, Hair Side, Flesh Side. In that collection, I was exploring issues of history in a broad sense, which no doubt came from the fact that I was in the final stages of a PhD in book history and medieval studies. I was interested in the physical traces of history, and in books particularly. But when I started writing Gifts, my brother had just had his second child; the question of family, what binds them together, what is passed on from generation to generation, seemed very important to me. And when you think about it, it’s just another way of thinking about history—not textbook history, but personal histories, the stories you hear from your grandparents, the fables you make up for your children. And in some ways it seemed like a warmer sort of history, closer to the oral tradition.

Have you always had a love for the fantastic? What brought this about?

I started reading fantasy at a very early age: E Nesbit and Susan Cooper, Patricia C Wrede, Scott O’Dell, Lloyd Alexander. When I got older then I moved onto Robert Jordan, Terry Goodkind, Charles de Lint and Guy Gavriel Kay. My mom would read to my sister and me every night until we were old enough to read ourselves. With me it never really stopped. I was a reader—that peculiar type of child who never stops reading, no matter what. If my family was going to drive from my hometown in Sarnia to Toronto, about three hours away, then I’d get to choose a new book from the bookstore and that would be the best part of the trip. I remember very vividly that my grade one teacher brought over a girl for me to play with at recess because I was always stuck in a book. The whole situation confused me. I didn’t know what to do with her. And I hadn’t been lonely at all.          

What were some of the authors and books that you've read throughout your life that have stuck with you the most?

I mentioned some of them above but, oddly, although those writers made up much of my childhood, they don’t have such a strong connection with what I write now. There’s a part of me that wishes I felt more comfortable with high fantasy. I have a PhD in medieval studies and that seems the perfect background to go write a big, fat, epic trilogy. But I can’t—or I can’t yet. I don’t understand, narratively, how those books work. Or I don’t feel it intuitively the way I can with other kinds of stories. But picking at random amongst the works that have stuck with me, Guy Kay’s Fionavar Tapestries would rank highly. It seemed to me that there was tremendous humanity written into his mythic reworkings, particular the Arthur and Guinevere strand. Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia is another. I came to it much later in life, as a graduate student on one of my first research trips to London, and it still strikes me as one of the finest pieces of literature ever produced. Just watching it makes me tear up—not even at the sad bits, just because it’s so damn good. The whopper of a novel It was my first introduction to Stephen King and it has a profound effect on my writing. King is a master of the yarn. I read recently that there are stories you fall into effortlessly and stories that give pleasure in the work you do: King is one of the most engrossing storytellers I’ve ever encountered and the way he writes about children and growing up always moves me and charms me at the same time. And then Robert Shearman’s collection Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical made me fall in love with the form of the short story. Like King, Shearman has an easy, offhand style but there’s such deadly precision in what he does. And I had never encountered absurdist fiction before that—there was something about it that instantly chimed with my own sense of humour, which is both very whimsical and quite dark.

Of your own fiction, what are your favorites and why? 

It’s strange because when I think back on my stories, what I remember most about them is the process rather than the final product. And so I do have favourites—of course I do!—but they’re my favourites because of the way I wrote them. In that respect, “Lessons in the Raising of Household Objects” is probably at the top for me. I wrote that story for Kelly Link and Gavin Grant at Clarion West, an intensive six-week workshop I did in 2012. And I was coming up on my deadline to submit but the story I had been trying to get to work—a complex beast of a thing I never managed to crack—completely dissolved. I was trying to force it but I never had the right sense of what I was doing. So in a panic I went to the only part of the story I had written that seemed like it had any life, and that turned out to be the beginning of “Household Objects”, a story about a little girl who adopts two cans of tomato soup. What followed was a mad rush of gleeful typing where I said to myself, “no rules except at the beginning of every section something must happen.”
But some of my other favourites in Gifts for the One Who Comes After are “Supply Limited, Act Now”, about a group of kids who get a working shrink ray, because it’s much lighter. Also—miniature dogs! And from Hair Side, Flesh Side my favourite story is “Sanditon”, about a woman who finds a lost manuscript of Jane Austen written on the inside of her skin. That was the first story I wrote where I really felt as if I tapped into something that was my own, something that felt new and distinctly me rather than an experiment in someone else’s style.

If an unfamiliar reader asks you about your fiction, how would you best describe it to them?

Clumsily, for the most part. I still don’t have a good answer to this question and in part that’s because my fiction is quite changeable. Sometimes it’s surrealistic, sometimes more openly fantastic or horrific, sometimes poetic. I don’t know. Many people call me a horror writer but I have a sort of push-pull relationship with horror. I quite enjoy certain kinds of horror fiction: ghost stories, the strange and the weird. But there are aspects of the horror genre that I find myself resisting: namely, brutality and open violence, excessive gore, the sometimes shoddy characterizations of women. But I suppose that’s the best reason to be part of a genre—because you feel invested but you still have something to push against.

In another recent interview you said you were a lover of single malt scotch. I'm also quite a fan, and have been considering writing up whiskey (or booze in general) pairings to go with books. What are your favorite whiskeys? If you  had to choose a whiskey to pair with each of your ChiZine collections, which would you choose?

I’d choose Glen Morangie to go with Gifts for the One Who Comes After: it’s sweet on top but it’s still got a bit of smoke and fire to it underneath. Hair Side, Flesh Side would probably be a dirty martini. There’s a touch more bitterness there, but also it’s a bit naughty. (When I was writing Hair Side, I eventually ran out of gin and vermouth and came up with a pretty poor substitute—olive juice and tequila. I’m not sure I recommend it.)

What are you currently reading? Do you have any recommendations for fans of the weird and fantastic?

I’ve been working my way through all of David Mitchell’s books. What a find! He’s brilliant! I started off with The Bone Clocks but in all honesty my favourite of his is probably Black Swan Green, a completely realistic novel about a kid growing up in Worcestershire in the eighties. The writing is extraordinary. As for recommendations for fans of the weird and fantastic, well, I discovered Robert Aickman’s short stories this year and he’s wonderful: dry, witty and very, very odd. Julio Cortázar was an Argentinian short story writer who I like very, very much. He wrote a short story called “Letter to a Lady in Paris” in the collection Blow-up about a tenant who starts vomiting up rabbits. His work is so wonderfully surreal and often hilarious. More people should be reading him, I think. I also came across a fantastic collection of graphic short stories called Through the Woods by the Canadian web cartoonist Emily Carroll. She’s a wonderful inventor of grisly little ghost stories and her use of space is amazing. You can also find her work online at

What's the weirdest thing that's ever happened to you, and/or the weirdest place you've ever been?

I visited the island of Delos last year. It is hard to explain how amazingly cool it is: it’s one of the most geologically stable places in the Mediterranean and so, as a result, it became a holy sanctuary and was the reputed birthplace of Apollo and Artemis. The site, which is huge, is filled with numerous temples belonging to the Greeks, the Romans, the Egyptians, my favourite of which was the temple of Dionysus, which featured relief carvings of chickens with entirely phallic heads. I ended up wandering around with my notepad for most of the day, writing roughly a series of passages which eventually became “All My Love, a Fishhook”. But near the museum there was a large forested area that used to be the sacred lake of Zeus, which apparently held the spermatozoa until it was drained on account of the mosquitoes which were breeding there. There were benches set up so I sat down to write. About twenty minutes in, I heard chanting. There were men and women in bright orange robes all around who were getting on with a ritual of some sort—apparently, so the guard at the museum told me, they were cultists and they regularly performed their rites there.

What can readers expect from you in the future?

I have a couple of stories coming out in collections in 2015 including “The Vault of Heaven” in Aickman’s Heirs, edited by Simon Strantzas; “Stud” in Twenty-First Century Bestiary edited by Heather Wood; and a story in Cassilda’s Song, edited by Joe Pulver. I’m also hard at work on a novel called Icarus Kids about children who come back from the dead with wings. I hope to have that finished off in a month or so!

Friday, December 19, 2014

Review: Written in Darkness by Mark Samuels

I've been a fan of Mark Samuels ever since I read The White Hands in early 2013. Afterwards, I went on to buy every book he's written, even hunting down a copy of his long out of print first collection Black Altars. Written in Darkness sees Samuels teaming up with Egaeus Press, a publisher who is putting out some of the finest books weird fiction has to offer.

The nine stories within are sure to please any Samuels fan. As usual with his works, the prose has a certain formality, bringing to mind some old school weird fiction. They are narrated in an erudite manner, which seems to fit the image of the lonely academic, which lends itself to the themes of much of his fiction. In the introduction, author Reggie Oliver used a phrase from Samuels' The White Hands, which sums this up well: “I believe that mental isolation is the essence of weird fiction.” The characters in his stories are isolated, they tend to be loners who don't fit into modern society. They struggle with many concepts and themes: decay, change, technology. 

My favorite stories:

The Other Tenant follows a man with no friends or family, on early retirement due to an illness. He is not a likable man, and is rather honest about only caring for himself. At night he is bothered what seems to be a television program or recording of a very dubious nature that is playing in the neighboring apartment.

Technology, and more specifically the dehumanization due to technology, comes into play in An Hourglass of the Soul and Outside Interference, which are my two favorite stories in the book. In the first story a man is sought out and hired by a new company, and within days is sent on a business trip to a remote area in Mongolia. The pace is fast, and readers are just as flustered as the protagonist as he is quickly whisked away on his trip, arriving only to be taken straight to the job site where he finds something he isn't expecting. Outside Interference stands out for not following a lone person, but focusing on an entire group. It takes place in a recently abandoned office building in an abandoned business park, which makes for an excellently creepy venue. A few slacker types are left behind in a company's move in order to transfer their paper records onto the computer. Things seem bad enough when a blizzard begins and they fear being snowed in, but when the elevator door opens and unleashes what was once their minibus driver it is apparent that the blizzard is the least of their worries. Both stories show a fear of technology and what it can do to people, and the "static zombies" of Outside Interference are rather symbolic of today's smartphone culture.

While the previous two stories both included some corporate, Ligotti-esque horror, it is The Ruins of Reality which, to me, is the most Ligottian story of the bunch. A decayed, urban setting is filled with the desperate dregs of society and when recruitment posters for the mysterious "N Factory" show up around town, they are overtaken by a wary sense of hope. The story is dreamlike and surreal, and what seems like a possible answer to the problems of the people seems to instead be a fate much worse.

In My World Has No Memories a man wakes on a boat in the middle of an ocean. He doesn't remember anything, and can't seem to get his bearings due to malfunctioning of compasses and stars that don't match his star charts. His predicament is frightening enough in itself, but once he discovers a glass jar filled with some of migraine and vision inducing growth, he learns what frightening really is.

My Heretical Existence first appeared in an anthology in tribute to Bruno Schulz, and is a story of a man seeking something more, when he stumbled onto a mysterious, hidden area of the city, and a tavern full of very different people. He then begins his own transformation.

The collection finishes with In Eternity Two Lines Intersect, a story in tribute to Arthur Machen. A man is released from some sort of institution and takes up residence in an apartment of a missing man. He tells the building's owner that he doesn't have to throw away the missing man's effects, that he will take care of them  himself. As he settles into his new home he becomes fixated on these belongings, a church across the street, and an area of woodland on a nearby hill. As the days wear on he finds his thought patterns changing, and begins to wear the missing man's clothes, which fit perfectly. He reads his books. He begins to have dreams and visions, sometimes waking up from dreams clutching an object he was not in possession of before. Reality and dream become blurred as the man has a spiritual awakening, leading others into the woods for a celebration of transcendence.

Overall this is a very enjoyable, if short, collection, and in line with other offerings from Egaeus Press the book is very aesthetically pleasing. Titles are done in calligraphy by Geoff Cox and the book features haunting endpapers. As of today there should still be some copies left, so order direct from the publisher to secure one before you miss out.

Other books by Mark Samuels reviewed by The Arkham Digest: Black Altars, The White Hands, Glyphotech.