A Season in Carcosa is an exceptionally well-edited tribute anthology in honor of Robert W. Chambers' The King in Yellow and Other Horror Stories, a s...moreA Season in Carcosa is an exceptionally well-edited tribute anthology in honor of Robert W. Chambers' The King in Yellow and Other Horror Stories, a story cycle about an accursed play, set in "dim Carcosa," which, when merely read (never staged!), leaves madness and chaos in its wake. Chambers' "KiY" stories, though there are only five, left a small but persistent imprint on the weird, influencing Lovecraft, to start with, whose Necronomicon owes not a little to that "cursed book"-within-a-book trope.
But on to Pulver's collection: a couple of the tales are a bit mannered for me; for example "The Theater and its Double" by Edward Morris, which marries Artaud's surrealism and "Theater of Cruelty" with the infamous play. I've never much liked the Surrealists, and, though Morris does slip in some beautiful language, that particular story felt bloated and self-indulgent, containing as it does both an imagined version of the play, and "Artaud's" musings on art, politics, morphine, dreams, and the terrors of the Yellow King. Also, Gary McMahon's "it sees me when I'm not looking," which tells a fine tale, but does so with purposefully mangled punctuation and random capitalization, an artistic decision which only made me want to copy-edit it.
However, the bulk of the stories evoke the drear decadence of "dead Carcosa" with its pallid masks and its tattered King to uneasy perfection. R.W. Chambers' vision of cosmic horror, though Victorian in its origins, holds up well to contemporary scenarios; issues of mental health and the media's omnipotent hold on our minds underpin many of the stories in the collection. Highlights include "Slick Black Bones and Soft Black Stars," by Gemma Files, in which a Physicians for Human Rights forensic anthropologist investigating a massacre pit unwittingly unearths something still more dreadful; and Joel Lane's "My Voice is Dead," whose narrator, a devout Catholic losing his religion and dying of cancer, finds faith in Carcosa on the internet. And addressing media manipulation of our collective sanity, we have a fantastic trifecta: John Langan's "Sweetums," in which a struggling actress gets more than she bargained for when hired for an experimental film; in Don Webb's dark and hilarious "Movie Night at Phil's," the wrong videotape puts a gruesome end to a family tradition; and my favorite in the book, Cody Goodfellow's "Wishing Well," in which a mentally unstable former child actor traces his problems back to his role in "Golden Class," a cult children's show something like "Romper Room," only with a lot more creepy masks, ritualistic games, and marionette "visitors" from the "Golden City of Carcosa."
I only stumbled over the cult of the King in Yellow by way of its interbreeding with the Lovecraft mythos, and initially I was surprised so many gifted artists are still influenced by Chambers' little-known mythical play-within-a-play. But it certainly spawned one disturbing and compelling collection. It seems as though Chambers' tales may be having a cultural moment -- HBO's slow-burn creepshow "True Detective" has referenced Carcosa and the King in Yellow several times in just the first four episodes. Not sure where they are going with it, but I'm hooked. Maybe the time is right for the return of the King?
This book opens with one of the coolest stories I've read in awhile: the short, brutal, and kind of hilarious "Kids." Within just a few paragraphs, La...moreThis book opens with one of the coolest stories I've read in awhile: the short, brutal, and kind of hilarious "Kids." Within just a few paragraphs, Langan had me both howling with uneasy laughter and wondering if he was plundering my mind for its deepest fears, and that's very much the way to my heart. (Other than through my chest, natch.)
The Wide, Carnivorous Sky and Other Monstrous Geographies has been on my TBR list ever since it came out last spring. I can only say I wish I'd gotten to it sooner, because this collection is as close to perfect as it gets. There are no bad stories here, not even any "meh" ones. Just a series of really inventive tales, well told.
Of course I had favorites. But I had several. Besides "Kids," which I won't spoil by even hinting at its contents, there was also "Technicolor," a wild (and darkly genius) take on "The Masque of the Red Death," which may have inspired me to re-evaluate Poe. (I secretly find him awfully florid.) There are two new-Lovecraftian tales: "The Shallows," a slice-of-life story about a man and his mutant crab, going about their business in a world where the Old Ones now control reality; and the truly disturbing "City of the Dog," which takes as its inspiration HPL's underused ghouls (think "Pickman's Model"), and turns Albany into a carnivorously haunted blot on the landscape. Finally, the closing, and longest, tale in the collection is "Mother of Stone," in which a bloody pre-historic rite is accidentally resurrected at an otherwise homey Hudson Valley inn. Also, do not miss Langan's story notes (which illuminate several of the stories in unexpected ways), and Laird Barron's hilarious afterword.
Let's start here: shock for shock's sake as a genre has kind of lost its shock value. While I'm sure all of these stories were considered in-your-face...moreLet's start here: shock for shock's sake as a genre has kind of lost its shock value. While I'm sure all of these stories were considered in-your-face transgressive in their initial releases (some were even banned), after a decade of torture porn in the theaters -- piles of sharp objects and body parts on the "Hostel"/"Saw" franchise model, the puke-inducing zenith of which has to be the Human Centipede Trilogy -- we have become comfortably numb to mindless, graphic horror. Splattering fluids, unfathomably unsafe sex games, torture, mutilation, necrophilia, cannibalism. . . . yawn. I mean really, wasn't all that just, like, a clip from next week's episode of "The Walking Dead"? (I kid. I enjoy TWD very much. I don't, however, take it very seriously, and still find it unreal that it's one of the most popular shows on TV.)
In some ways, this collection is an interesting reflection of its times, as it lingers on many of the subversive subcultures of the millennium years. There was a free-floating cloud of nihilism, a lot of pain and anger bubbling up as self-mutilation in the name of self-expression and mind-expansion, the brute reality of AIDS for everybody, Y2K, whatever. It's no surprise this era bred a particularly dark brand of horror story.
But these transgressions today? No longer so transgressive, and many of these stories from splatterpunk's heyday seem dated, almost quaint, even as they try so very hard to shock. The boundaries having moved, these stories now have to rely on good writing to keep the reader's interest, and there are about four, maybe five actually good stories out of nineteen:
The collection, wisely, starts off strong. George R.R. Martin's "Meathouse Man" from 1976 (!) still retains its visceral shock, maybe because the idea at its core is a still-fresh twist on the undead genre, and one that's deeply psychologically disquieting. And it's George Martin . . . we know he can write. But Horror George is not much like jolly old "kill ALL the Starks" George. I mean, some of his short pieces make the Red Wedding look like a baby shower. This is one of those.
Next up: Joe R. Lansdale's "Night They Missed the Horror Show," a hair-raising no-good-very-bad night in the Deep South story that makes "Deliverance" look like a weekend in Ibiza. But again -- established writer in his element. Sociopolitical commentary. A real, meaty story.
The others I really enjoyed, if that's what one calls it, were Bentley Little's outrageously, sneeringly cruel "Pop Star in the Ugly Bar," which still works because pop stars and audiences never change (the author's note on this one is quite interesting); Elizabeth Massie's "Abed," another unique zombie story, and possibly the most tragic (yet repulsive) piece of shock fiction ever; and Charlee Jacob's "The Spirit Wolves," which captures the modern primitive ethos in a dark fairy tale about fur and teeth.
So what's not to like? Obviously it's pointless to expect to "enjoy" this kind of extreme horror, but I do expect to find the pleasure of a well-crafted tale, one with a point, if you will. Unfortunately, many of these are just badly crafted excuses to pile shock-upon-viscera-upon-snuff-club. Also? Full of cliched characters, riddled with plot holes and without much in the way of any profound insights to ponder. And I'm not even going to touch the misogyny and sexual violence. I try not to conflate sexual politics and fiction, but even I became uncomfortably aware of a pattern. (There are, however, a few stories where the women come out on top; John Everson's "Every Last Drop" had the potential to be a clever morality play on the dangers of anonymous sex, until I noticed a fairly large logic hole. You might enjoy it if you don't pick that out.)
There's probably a cultural historian's thesis in the themes of Millennium-era Horror Fiction, but I'm too tired to write it. Basically, this collection contains a small number of really good stories, a whole lot of "meh" stories that just didn't hold together or were ridiculously predictable, some that were just violent, juvenile prurience, and some that were offensive in a purely literary sense. (One author cited Clive Barker's truly masterful story "Dread" as the inspiration for her tale. Clive should be wildly offended.)
So I didn't love it. But it was like $1.99 on Kindle, and it's a curious time capsule of millennial nihilism and hopelessness. (less)
Wow, this book took me a long time to read. Not in a bad way; it's just that Lindqvist's first collection of short stores, while beautifully written (...moreWow, this book took me a long time to read. Not in a bad way; it's just that Lindqvist's first collection of short stores, while beautifully written (and beautifully translated by Ebba Segerberg), is dense, with the majority of the dozen stories on the long side, some to good and others to not-so-great effect.
Fortunately, there were only two stories I simply didn't care for in Let the Old Dreams Die. One, "To Put My Arms Around You, to Music," Linqvist admits in his amusing afterword, nobody but the author himself likes. (So it's okay that my notes on this story consisted of "I don't get it.") The other, "Itsy-Bitsy," is short and sharp modern morality tale about a paparazzo, but its moral is kind of hamhanded, and it's just not of the emotional complexity I've come to expect from Linqvist and his characters. (Ironically, considering what I just said about long stories, I think those two are the shortest in the book.)
Overall, though, the collection is top-notch, with stories dark, surreal and moving all at once. Favorites include: "The Border," in which a middle-aged woman slowly realizes she's something other than she'd always believed (avoiding spoilers here); "Eternal/Love," about a couple who discover how to manipulate Death; "A Village in the Sky," about an apartment building gone subtly wrong and getting wronger fast; and "Tindalos," a tour-de-force portrait of one woman's anxiety which somehow morphs into a giant monster movie. These last three especially have a cosmic horror vibe that I really loved.
Finally, I'm sure people are wondering about the advertised "sequel" stories to Handling the Undead -- "Final Processing" -- and Let the Right One In -- "Let the Old Dreams Die." So how are they? Harrowing and beautiful, in that order. "Final Processing" brings us up to date on the un-pretty status of the "re-living," and is a pretty grueling read. It's also bordering on novella-length, losing some of its punch along the way. But "Let the Old Dreams Die," which closes the book, is a beautiful love story about a couple who met while working on Oskar's "kidnapping." (She was a cop; he was the station worker who punched Oskar's train ticket the last time he was seen alive. They clicked in the interview room.) The case continues to be an ongoing hobby for the pair, though the trail has long ago gone cold. I won't say any more, but the final page of this story is a little miracle, and a perfect note on which to end. (Except you should also read Lindqvist's afterword, which is funny and self effacing, as well as lending some insight to his madness.)(less)
This grisly tale of a Miami cop's descent into hell courtesy of palo mayombe* is not for the faint of heart, but it's pretty gut-punch great supernatu...moreThis grisly tale of a Miami cop's descent into hell courtesy of palo mayombe* is not for the faint of heart, but it's pretty gut-punch great supernatural noir. Alas, it's far too short! Looking forward to more from D'Enfer . . . maybe a collection?
*Palo mayombe originated in the African Congo and is said to be the world's most powerful and feared form of black magic. The titular nganga, which is a consecrated cauldron filled with sacred earth, sticks (palos), bones and other items, is dedicated to a specific spiritual energy. This cauldron is also inhabited by a spirit of the Dead, which acts as interface for all magical and religious activities which are performed on the nganga. (less)
I have a love/hate relationship with Chuck Palahniuk,as I know many other readers do. The good news is that, though short, "Phoenix" definitely goes i...moreI have a love/hate relationship with Chuck Palahniuk,as I know many other readers do. The good news is that, though short, "Phoenix" definitely goes in the "love" column. Quirky and creepy and hilarious and sad, "Phoenix" tracks the decay and collapse of a modern marriage, and the destruction wrought by one "Belinda Carlisle." (Yes: Belinda Carlisle.)
Just read it . . . when Chuck is good, he's very good.(less)
A great, creepy little story -- until it ends on a complete cliffhanger! Not surprising, as it's kind of a teaser for The Narrows; still, it felt like...moreA great, creepy little story -- until it ends on a complete cliffhanger! Not surprising, as it's kind of a teaser for The Narrows; still, it felt like libris interruptus. Darn it . . . guess I'll need to read that novel!(less)
I waited for The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All to be released for what seemed like years, and began devouring it immediately. Because Laird Barro...moreI waited for The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All to be released for what seemed like years, and began devouring it immediately. Because Laird Barron is about the best thing going in the horror branch of the weird, it's no surprise that it gets my five glowing stars. Barron's prose just gets richer and his cthonic mythology more resonant with each publication.
I did find some surprises in this collection, but I want to do this book justice, so I'm starting my second read through now. Stay tuned. But if you can't wait . . . no fan of Barron, cosmic horror or the new weird will be disappointed by The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All.
Okay . . . one surprise? The gracefully and ominously and oh-so-Laird-Barron-y titled title story doesn't exist in its own collection, except as a throw-away reference to another, much maligned, quasi-fictional author's work in the book's satirical closer "More Dark." Yep. Barron's gone more than a bit postmodern here. I am officially weak in the knees.
If you are familiar with Chris Adrian's work, you will already know that it's beautiful, unsettling, and pretty much impossible to categorize. Is it m...moreIf you are familiar with Chris Adrian's work, you will already know that it's beautiful, unsettling, and pretty much impossible to categorize. Is it magical realism? Literary fantasy? Modern fable? Certainly the recondite and sensitive subjects of illness, faith, and apocalypse are never far from the surface in his tales; sometimes bringing tragedy and other times visionary ecstasy.
The tales in A Better Angel nearly all feature children or teens, most carrying some kind of "mark" which separates them from their peers: a young boy becomes dissociative (or perhaps he's possessed?) after his mother's death; another mourns his dead twin in a peculiar way; and a 19th century farm boy has debilitating visions of angels and burning towers. There are also some funnier moments: In "Why, Antichrist?" a teenage boy grudgingly comes to accept that he is, in fact, the Antichrist; a sassy young woman with "short gut" delivers reports on life and death from the pediatric ICU; and in the hilarious title story, a man recalls his experiences growing up with an overly-critical guardian angel.
September 11th also hangs heavy over this 2008 collection, with the burning towers haunting it in both concrete and symbolic ways. Adrian's characters grieve loved ones lost that day, speak for its dead, and obsessively watch the unreal video footage of fiery blooms and people falling from the skies. It could be grisly, in lesser hands. Instead, Adrian is concerned with something infinitely more interesting than mere shock value. He's examining how we, as a culture and as individuals, cope with the paralyzing specters of illness and death, how faith might work for (or against) us, and how we begin to heal from tragedies both personal and universal.
I might knock off half a star just because, thematically, A Better Angel often covers very similar ground to Adrian's 2006 novel The Children's Hospital. It could easily feel repetitive, but Adrian's ability to bring the surreal into tales of daily life, with wit and honesty and crystalline prose, really blossoms in the short form. A truly weird and gorgeous book.(less)
An excellent new-Lovecraftian anthology. Each of the tales is unique; none of them lean too heavily on a mythos pastiche, instead largely paying homma...moreAn excellent new-Lovecraftian anthology. Each of the tales is unique; none of them lean too heavily on a mythos pastiche, instead largely paying hommage to Lovecraft in the form of evocative squirmy things and an enormous and mindlessly carnivorous universe. Highlights come from Laird Barron, Caitlin Kiernan, Michael Chabon, and Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear.(less)
Read over the long weekend I spent with a cold. I'll need some time to digest, but off the top of my head I can say I very much enjoyed Aickman's unca...moreRead over the long weekend I spent with a cold. I'll need some time to digest, but off the top of my head I can say I very much enjoyed Aickman's uncanny sensibility. On the other hand, he does tend to go on -- particularly in descriptions of people interacting with nature -- which in some cases takes the air out of stories that might have been masterpieces had they 20 fewer pages and a bit more punch. The ones that will stick: "The Wine-Dark Sea"; "Never Visit Venice"; "Into the Wood." A more thoughtful review coming eventually.(less)
I normally love Burke's writing, and recently raved about the collection The Number 121 to Pennsylvania and Others, but this one is just a "like" for me. Still better than a lot of stuff out there, though! Many of these stories seem as if Burke is experimenting with the craft in various ways -- creating atmosphere with really dense descriptive passages; several very abrupt or open-ended (as in "huh?") endings; and some themes that get a persistent working-over. The stories are listed as copyright 2001-2011, and I'd wager many are from the earlier end of that spectrum. While it's interesting to watch a writer you respect at play with his craft, I don't think these are Burke's best . . . mainly because you can see the puppetmaster at work.