It strikes me as weird that I have never read Edgar Allan Poe before. I mean, I think an English teacher read The Raven to us once, but I barely remem...moreIt strikes me as weird that I have never read Edgar Allan Poe before. I mean, I think an English teacher read The Raven to us once, but I barely remember it. In my effort to correct this gap and oversight, I read The Pit And The Pendulum via a read-by-email service called DailyLit.
I guess the biggest marvel for me was that this was such an effective bit of mood evocation. Even read serially, even with the sort of obvious tense spoiler, even with the requisite stodgy and old-fashioned language, I found this kind of heart-stopping and deliciously horrible. It helped that somehow I had no preconception of the story's structure or progression, but the tale of Inquisitional torture from a first-person account was able to crawl under my skin.
I think what really makes it work is the visceral way Poe inhabits his unnamed narrator's body, working within the confines of a dark cell. I've written in the past about my distaste for "torture porn" in which human cruelty is the villain in horror story contexts, where the threshold for disturbing events is showcasing the brutal activities and the aching ends of the victims. And I think what Poe showcased back in 1842 is that the fear of such things is far more effective than the bland display of them. A modern writer might not give a story like this a happy ending, but it is telling that Poe can (and in fact must, considering the first-person account unless it were to be some ridiculous "I'm sending this from heaven" claptrap) while still retaining the sinister and macabre atmosphere throughout the bulk of the story. Perhaps the reason why the devastating "ironic" tragedy that caps most modern horror tales feels unfulfilling is that it seems more or less logically sound but provides no relief to the suspense, like a piece of music with no coda. As a result it may feel as if the suspense and tension to that downbeat was wasted as there was no resolution, no satisfaction to lend it resonance.
I say all this because my first reaction to the conclusion of The Pit And The Pendulum was, "What? Really?" And then I thought about it some more and realized it not only had to work that way but it was perfect that it did because it lent heft to the narrative. It helps also that Poe doesn't telegraph his plot; it doesn't feel contrived that the narrator almost but not quite falls into the pit. It seems for a time as if there will be no way for him to escape the swing of the pendulum. There is equal parts cleverness and serendipity in the climax and finale.
And any story that teaches me awesome new words like "surcingle" and "viand" I can't possibly criticize. More Poe to come, I'm sure of it.(less)
During the course of a discussion with a friend who recommended this book to me, I confessed that while I love fiction and settings that harken to H.P...moreDuring the course of a discussion with a friend who recommended this book to me, I confessed that while I love fiction and settings that harken to H.P. Lovecraft's body of work, especially the Cthulhu Mythos, I haven't read very much of Lovecraft's work itself, due in large part to the fact that every time I try the style glares at me from the page. Thus, in a way, Cthulhu 2000 might have been exactly up my alley, as it ostensibly contains an assortment of stories told more or less within the Mythos by some solid modern writers. What could go wrong?
In some cases, the answer is: nothing. Granted, it's difficult to effectively review an anthology of short stories by various authors because some are liable to be very good and others less so, possibly even bad which means recommending the book as a whole is sort of impossible and it becomes some kind of oddly calculated scoresheet. In the case of Cthulhu 2000, I think the score falls mostly on the side of worthy reading.
It should be noted perhaps that the title of this collection is somewhat misleading, as these are (for the most part) not modern retellings of Lovecraft classics nor are they the sort of "expected" Mythos tales. As editor Jim Turner says in his introduction, the keys of Lovecraft's Mythos in his eyes are less about specific Elder Gods and creepy cults (though both make a number of appearances throughout the volume) and more about the existence of a sort of indifferent, reality-spanning life or intelligence that, by it's mere fact, renders humanity to a much more insignificant role in the cosmos than we are accustomed to presiding.
Another recurring theme here that is less forgivable is the presence and repeated reference to Lovecraft and his works, even as he appears as a character in several of the tales. For some reason this didn't sit well with me and I found myself missing the sense of discovery and exploration present in other more straightforward tellings of Lovecraft-style stories. Too often here it is accepted as canon that Lovecraft and his work exist within these story settings and, frequently, his work is less fiction than scholarly or occult research. The end result is a sort of posthumous association with academics for Lovecraft that I guess is supposed to lend a certain credence to the more fantastic elements, but I can't fathom why this role couldn't have been played by a fresh take on the beloved scribe character without blaring aloud: "This is a Lovecraftian story!"
My final overall note is that there isn't much in the way of genuine thrills or chills present here. Much like the few actual Lovecraft stories I've read, the subject matter is more gloomy and sinister than creepy and terrifying, perhaps due to the subject matter being so abstract. Often the stories are slow-moving or atmospheric as opposed to gripping, so while there are plenty of good stories here, this isn't what I'd call a compulsively readable book.
To better give a sense of the book, here are micro-reviews for each story contained within.
The Barrens by F. Paul Wilson - One of the few in the traditional Mythos vein, features an increasingly obsessed man on the verge of a new sort of enlightenment, set in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey and handily incorporating the Jersey Devil and pine lights into the canon.
Pickman's Modem by Lawrence Watt-Evans - A sort of obvious (and now very outdated) haunted object story.
Shaft Number 247 by Basil Copper - Interesting sort of story about a civilization that lives underground. Lovecraftian in the depiction of creeping madness and obsession with the unknown, but otherwise sort of a tangental inclusion.
His Mouth Will Taste of Wormwood by Poppy Z. Brite - A bland, brief, uninspired voodoo story.
The Adder by Fred Chappell - Despite being one of the premier offenders of the "let's make Lovecraft a scholar instead of a fiction writer," this is a very cool and clever story that mostly focuses on the Necronomicon.
Fat Face by Michael Shea - One of the few stories here that can easily be counted as horror in the non-Lovecraftian sense, it's a well told tale of an unlucky LA hooker and the enigmatic neighbor she feels sorry for.
The Big Fish by Kim Newman - Another of the very few classic Lovecraftish stories, this follows a California Private Investigator looking for a shady Hollywood fixture shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Great setting, great pacing, fun characters and conclusion. One of my favorites.
"I Had Vacantly Crumpled It into My Pocket...But by God, Eliot, IT WAS A PHOTOGRAPH FROM LIFE!" by Joanna Russ - A quirky little tale (with an incredibly awkward title) about an unlikable man who finally meets a girl who is not at all what she appears to be.
H.P.L. by Gahan Wilson - Possibly the only truly forgivable example of the egregious insertion of Lovecraft as a character, describes a meeting between a Lovecraft-inspired writer with his literary hero.
The Unthinkable by Bruce Sterling - A forgettable, vague wisp of a story.
Black Man with a Horn by T. E. D. Klein - Another fun one, which does a good job of playing with and analyzing the nature of storytelling in order to describe a recurring sighting of a mythic bad omen which seems to leave mystery and destruction in its wake.
Love's Eldritch Ichor by Esther M. Friesner - One of my favorites in the collection, a funny, scary send-up of both publishing, genre mash-ups and the next in line of Lovecraft's writing progenies.
The Last Feast of Harlequin by Thomas Ligotti - Sort of overwrought and altogether too long, but still intriguing story about the fictional town of Micaw and its curious winter solstice celebration. Features one of the best creepy endings in the collection.
The Shadow on the Doorstep by James P. Blaylock - Good at evoking mood and tone, but lacks sufficient plotting to be a really effective story.
Lord of the Land by Gene Wolf - Kind of half-forgettable but does a nice job weaving folklore into a tale that is only lightly seasoned with anything that might be considered Lovecraftian.
The Faces at Pine Dunes by Ramsey Campbell - There's something funky happening at the beginning of this story wherein I wasn't able to get a good handle on the events or characters, even protagonist Michael, until about page three. Even then, my mental picture of him revised several times throughout the course of reading. Not a bad story overall, once you shake off the baffling first few pages.
On the Slab by Harlan Ellison - Breezy, well-told story of a giant creature whose body is found in an apple orchard and the unexpected truth behind its origin.
24 Views of Mt. Fuji, by Hokusai by Roger Zelanzny - The story that incited the recommendation, and my absolute favorite of them all. It has little to do with Lovecraft or Cthulhu or anything Mythos-related (other than a dream sequence and a few offhanded references), but it's a great story that follows a widow who is searching for her husband, who has found a way to exist inside an Internet-like network and has become malevolent.(less)
I noticed something interesting in reading Neil Gaiman's 2001 short story collection: I read these kinds of collections a lot more slowly than I might...moreI noticed something interesting in reading Neil Gaiman's 2001 short story collection: I read these kinds of collections a lot more slowly than I might a similar length novel. I suspect it has something to do with the regular clear stopping points which resist the "okay just one more chapter tonight…" phenomenon, because despite it taking me nearly a month to get through, I really enjoyed this collection. In fact, if I had one main complaint with it, it would be the way he handles the little tidbits of behind-the-scenes info for each story. They are included in the introduction which struck me as odd because I read them all before beginning the stories but they really need to be read after finishing them. I think it would have been better to include them at the end. I wound up bookmarking the intro page and flipping back to each blurb after I finished the associated story but it was, I thought, an unnecessarily clunky way to handle it.
There are quite a lot of stories within so I won't bother mentioning each one, but instead I'll highlight a few of my favorites and mention a couple that don't really work.
The Price - A fascinating depiction which, if the intro blurb is to be believed, is more fact than fiction making it all the more intriguing. As a premise, this one is simply top notch and Gaiman executes to perfection.
Changes - This is a gripping true-Science Fiction study of gender that makes me wish Gaiman would write more full-on SF.
Tastings - An erotic tale with a dark supernatural edge, which is something that felt fairly unexplored to me. Quite good, if you aren't prone to blushing while you read.
Murder Mysteries - In a way, I kind of wish the story-within-a-story depicted here were fleshed into a fuller standalone story, but on the other hand I love the framing device. Creepy, powerful, richly imagined, I think it's probably the best of the whole lot.
Snow, Glass, Apples - I admit it took me a while to catch the original source of this retelling and when I did it was kind of a sucker punch. But even on its own merit this is a fantastic short story.
The few that stand out as not as great are Babycakes which is the kind of over-exaggerated fable that makes me roll my eyes for its intellectual contrivances; Virus both because it feels dated and because I didn't quite get the juxtaposition Gaiman was aiming for until I read the background (which shouldn't be necessary); and Desert Wind, which isn't bad just bland and forgettable.
I should also mention that there are a number of narrative poems which it took me until about the third one to realize are lacking in rhyme and structure but not necessarily meter and rhythm, of which they each have their own. They are subtly different from straight prose and it's an interesting device that I'd be interested to see other examples from or find out where it originated.(less)
Classic literature, especially classic Russian literature, vexes me. I know roughly nothing about the Russian language so I sometimes console myself a...moreClassic literature, especially classic Russian literature, vexes me. I know roughly nothing about the Russian language so I sometimes console myself as I struggle with Dostoevsky or Tolstoy (which I've occasionally attempted but never fully conquered) with the notion that written Russian is particularly difficult to translate into smooth reading English. But then again, I get this way about classic English lit sometimes as well, where I see words on the page and just can't seem to get through them into that fugue state where I'm not really reading as a mechanical word-eye-brain-context-thought-idea process, but as a sort of direct input from the author's imagination, utterly unaware of the printing or the sentence construction; it's like drawing ideas from the page via some kind of mind vacuum.
I guess there is a reason why I'm not an English major (or any kind of major for that matter). Chalk me up as just another filthy soul populating the unwashed masses.
But I like stories. I love books and written words and I have enjoyed some classics, even some stuffy and difficult works, both modern and time-honored. So I don't always know what it is that may cause me to go cross-eyed with frustrated agitation that a story just won't seem to let me in.
So consider my first foray into Anton Chekhov. On one hand, there are moments in the fairly limited collection of Chekhov's work included in this old paperback printing I found for a song at a used bookstore which reveal clearly why he is considered a master of the short form. "The Kiss," for example, an early inclusion about a lonely young soldier who happens upon a stolen moment of intimacy, intended for someone else entirely, and uses that off-handed experience to construct for himself an entirely new persona, a boosted ego of imagination and possibility which has, in spite of the joy it brings him, a tragic collision with the reality of, well, reality. Another pair of tales, "A Father" and "A Problem," highlight a certain astonishing insight into human nature, simply revealing complex elements to relationships in a relatable way.
But then you get to some of the longer works included here, such as "Ward No. 6," and I start to hang back on the dry exposition, the deliberate pace to a character study that, too, has something interesting to say but says it in such a dull fashion that I struggled to get through the 30-some page short over the course of about four days. Again I found myself looking back on my own Russian lit crutch and saying, "Well, maybe it's just the translation?" But maybe it isn't. At least in the case of Chekhov, or perhaps in the case of this particular collection, the longer the story gets the harder it was for me to muddle through. I like the way I can see his mind working: his philosophy and his understanding of what makes a character interesting combined with a detailed sense of realistic arc make for living souls in the stories but at some point it's like reading 500 pages about a grandmother spending an evening watching TV: no matter how good the writing is, the subject is bound to wear out its welcome if you linger too long.
I couldn't help contrast this selection with the Raymond Carver volume, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love that I read earlier in the year. Carver's direct-to-the-point simplicity doesn't need fantastical things to happen to be compelling. The slice of life examinations are reminiscent to Chekhov's, in spite of being separated by nearly one hundred years and half a planet. But Carver (or his editor) never let those tales overstay their welcome, stripping them down to their barest necessities leaving only that which absolutely must be revealed. They both traffic in sadness and irony and the bitter pill that is life, but where I could not put down What We Talk About, I couldn't wait to set down Great Stories. I can attribute this fact to the editors, to the translators, to the authors or to myself but in any case, what I cannot escape is that I didn't much care for enough of this book to recommend it or even like it. At best I can say it was okay and I'm intrigued to know more about the author's work, but when I dive in again, I'll be sure to be more selective about which volume I choose and not let a bargain make my decision for me.(less)
The short stories in Raymond Carver's collection of brief, desperate shorts read like things that should be taped to the backs of old photographs. Mut...moreThe short stories in Raymond Carver's collection of brief, desperate shorts read like things that should be taped to the backs of old photographs. Muted colors and slept-in clothing bought from Woolworth's were conjured as I read, reminding me of a world filtered through the red-brown of a whiskey bottle. People speak of "Carver's America" as if it were a place he made up, but I suspect it was as much a real location as the country I grew up in only without all the disco pop and day-glo colors and quirky cultural fads like Rubik's cubes and video arcades. The thing is, Carver understands that it doesn't matter when a person is, they still don't know how to handle the life they're handed.
Carver's stories start somewhere and end somewhere else. Often the end isn't the ending, it's just the place where the story stops. There are often questions, those questions aren't answered. The writing style is bare, almost curt. But unlike fellow minimalist Hemingway, it isn't abrupt or stilted, Carver's writing has a rhythmic, almost percussive quality. Reading Carver is like listening to jazz, where so often the essence of a song is not in what notes are played as in what notes aren't. As often as not, what Carver doesn't reveal or discuss matters more than what he does. The peculiar cadence to the words and—especially—the dialogue gives the sense that the characters are eternally pre-occupied. Often a conversation will happen between two people not with each other or even at each other but just in each other's presence, trading non-sequiturs because their self-absorbtion is complete enough that the other's reply is inconsequential.
Some of the stories in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love are vicious, aggressive. Others are sad and solemn, maybe even a little sweet. You feel as you meander through the pages as if you were walking through a neighborhood, stopping to look through the invisible walls along the way, catching a conversation, a fight, a beginning, an end. Certain tales resonate stronger than others: Gazebo, a conversation between a remorseful husband and a resigned wife; The Bath, a slice of a parent's nightmare; Tell The Women We're Going, a haunting tale of two old friends who don't really know each other at all; Popular Mechanics, possibly the best/worst story ever told in two pages; the title story which fogs the windows with heartaching insight. This is a readable book, but a difficult one. It makes you want to drink, or quit drinking forever. It goes quickly but it's hard to finish. I kind of loved it.(less)