“The Man in the Woods,” by Shirley Jackson (2014) E

Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 4.18.2019
Read from: The New Yorker

I didn’t realize that Shirley Jackson’s children were still discovering unpublished stories of hers; the New Yorker has published two in recent years, “The Man in the Woods” and “Paranoia.”

“The Man in the Woods” is a delightful choice for a stand-alone publication. Sense, elegant, and cryptic, its dense mythological and folkloric allusions beg for toying and unpicking – even if its determined evasiveness means that it is not sharply compelling as a work of psychological fiction. If it were presented in a collection, it would likely sink into the shadow of any of Jackson’s more spectacularly psychological stories. But even taking it simply as a sort of playful, appreciative remix of a handful of dark folkloric tropes, it stands out as being pretty much perfect on a line-by-line level: economical, vivid, and singing with tension.

The cat had joined him shortly after he entered the forest, emerging from between the trees in a quick, shadowy movement that surprised Christopher at first and then, oddly, comforted him, and the cat had stayed beside him, moving closer to Christopher as the trees pressed insistently closer to them both, trotting along in the casual acceptance of human company that cats exhibit when they are frightened.

The two stories that immediately popped into my head when reading this: Angela Carter’s “The Erl-King” (a previous, brief appreciation here) with its likewise claustrophobic trees and its building towards the inevitability of kingly sacrifice; and Hansel and Gretel. In fact, with regard to Hansel, I was sure at first that this was going to be “just” a witch-story, and that the two otherworldly women whom Christopher meets in the stone cottage in the woods would be joined by a third – Hecate. So it was a strange little thrill when the third in the house turned out rather to be a Mr. Oakes: a green-man, and a sacrificial priest-king straight out of Frazer’s The Golden Bough.

Fans of Elizabeth Marie Pope’s Tam Lin retelling, The Perilous Gard, will be well familiar with the reading of “Christopher” as “Christ-bearer” specifically in the context of pagan sacrifice. Her Christopher, like Jackson’s, is a youth who offers up to pagan captors the temptation of a double sacrifice – an intermingling of two different sacred powers – through the symbolic weight of his name.

Though Jackson’s protagonist Christopher offers this tantalizing symbolism (“‘Christopher,’ [Mr. Oakes] said softly, as though estimating the name”), he’s otherwise strangely devoid of anything resembling narrative or, let’s call it, a symbolic system. He carries the modernish signifier of having been at “college,” and allows that that loosely qualifies him to be deemed a “scholar” by Mr. Oakes, but he doesn’t know why he left college and started wandering, and he doesn’t know what to name a cat other than “kitty.” So far as personality is concerned, he is careful, courteous, and expresses glints of humor and curiosity, including a faint appetite for the younger woman, Phyllis. But it’s all diffused through a screen of something like mild dissociation, or at least ennui. He seems like a refugee from the modern world, stripped of meaning and motivation.

His encounter with the household in the wood seems destined to force him into meaning, just as his unnamed cat attains the witchy title of “Grimalkin” by displacing the household’s original cat. In the end, Christopher follows along with a sort of tranced acquiescence. But even assuming that his challenge of Mr. Oakes will be successful, it’s unclear whether this new (ancient) system of meaning will be any more compelling than whatever he left behind in his old life. Phyllis, Circe, and Oakes seem listless and weary. (Circe alone, appropriately, shows a trace of defiance: “Circe I was born and Circe I will have for my name till I die.”) Oakes, despite his name, doesn’t seem any more fond of the woods than Christopher is; he plants roses as a challenge to their oppressiveness. Civilization, it seems, erects various defenses against the void, but over time they all grow, as Hamlet put it, flat, weary, stale, and unprofitable – oppressions of their own.

Final note: they were totally eating the previous challengers –

“…Phyllis, sent to fetch a special utensil from an alcove in the corner of the kitchen, came back to report that it had been mislaid “since the last time” and could not be found…”

“…Aunt Cissy disappeared into the kitchen alcove again and came back carrying the trussed carcass of what seemed to Christopher to be a wild pig.”

Related reading:
We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson (1962): review by Emera
Angela Carter’s “The Courtship of Mr. Lyon”
A very happy October to all
“Where is Rowan Morrison?”

The Moonlit Road & others by Ambrose Bierce (1909-12) E

Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 3.27.2019
Book from: Personal collection, but Bierce’s work is in the public domain & can be found online for free; see ambrosebierce.org, for example.

The Moonlit Road and Other Ghost & Horror Stories is a collection of twelve of Ambrose Bierce’s stories (selected from 1909 and 1912 collections of his work), published by Dover.

Contents, with my favorites starred: The Eyes of the Panther*, The Moonlit Road, The Boarded Window, The Man and the Snake*, The Secret of Macarger’s Gulch, The Middle Toe of the Right Foot*, A Psychological Shipwreck*, A Holy Terror*, John Bartine’s Watch, Beyond the Wall, A Watcher by the Dead, Moxon’s Master

Sampler o’ themes: Ambiguity of state (dead/alive, woman/animal, natural/supernatural, real/imagined), close intimacy with the dead, fear overcoming men’s rational defenses, the grief and shame of men who have failed to protect the women who loved them

These stories are very smart, very darkly witty, and often wonderfully atmospheric, but for my taste far too reliant on twist endings that can variously come off as silly, obvious, excessively neat, etc. In the worse stories, there’s a tangible sense of self-satisfaction with his own wit – like Bierce is constantly waggling his eyebrows at you while you try to focus on reading.

The best have a deeper sense of elemental weirdness, a real conviction of darkness and not just a desire to titillate and dazzle. In this collection, “The Eyes of the Panther” and “The Man and the Snake” by far maximize this quality of weird darkness, “The Man and the Snake” especially so. While “The Eyes of the Panther” can be fitted into the context of “animal bride” fairy tales (as well as the fact that mountain lion screams sound unnervingly like those of a human woman), “The Man and the Snake” is wonderfully its own thing. It’s deeply idiosyncratic, darkly funny (“A snake in the bedroom of a modern city dwelling of the better sort is, happily, not so common a phenomenon as to make explanation altogether unnecessary”), and simultaneously so vivid and so ambiguous that it’s borderline surreal:

“The snake’s malignant head was still thrust forth from the inner coil as before, the neck level. It had not moved, but its eyes were now electric sparks, radiating an infinity of luminous needles.”

“A Psychological Shipwreck” is also quite compellingly weird; call it a psychic romantic tragedy. In most of these stories I was annoyed/bored by the extent to which Bierce’s female characters serve as blank slates upon which men write their tragic obsessions; the stories, like “Shipwreck,” where the women seem to emanate some supernatural force of their own are commensurately more interesting to me. Hence also my enjoyment of the darkly vital “The Eyes of the Panther.”

Among the more traditional stories, I appreciated “The Middle Toe of the Right Foot” first of all for its hilarious and intriguing title, secondly for introducing me to the folkloric anecdote of Jim Bowie having fought and won a barefoot knife fight in a dark room, and ultimately simply as a grimly satisfying tale of revenge wrought by the occupants of a haunted house. The quick shifts of time and perspective that Bierce often uses felt particularly witty here, almost caper-esque, and there’s also just some delightful haunted-house descriptions.

Finally, “A Holy Terror,” while close to annoyingly twisty, has some fantastically flavorful writing about an abandoned western mining town, which was a much-appreciated complement to my recent reading of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. I’ll conclude with my favorite paragraph – peak Bierce:

It is necessary to explain that one of the adjuncts to Hurdy-Gurdy—one to which that metropolis became afterward itself an adjunct—was a cemetery. In the first week of the camp’s existence this had been thoughtfully laid out by a committee of citizens. The day after had been signalized by a debate between two members of the committee, with reference to a more eligible site, and on the third day the necropolis was inaugurated by a double funeral. As the camp had waned the cemetery had waxed; and long before the ultimate inhabitant, victorious alike over the insidious malaria and the forthright revolver, had turned the tail of his pack-ass upon Injun Creek the outlying settlement had become a populous if not popular suburb. And now, when the town was fallen into the sere and yellow leaf of an unlovely senility, the graveyard—though somewhat marred by time and circumstance, and not altogether exempt from innovations in grammar and experiments in orthography, to say nothing of the devastating coyote—answered the humble needs of its denizens with reasonable completeness. It comprised a generous two acres of ground, which with commendable thrift but needless care had been selected for its mineral unworth, contained two or three skeleton trees (one of which had a stout lateral branch from which a weather-wasted rope still significantly dangled), half a hundred gravelly mounds, a score of rude headboards displaying the literary peculiarities above mentioned and a struggling colony of prickly pears. Altogether, God’s Location, as with characteristic reverence it had been called, could justly boast of an indubitably superior quality of desolation. It was in the most thickly settled part of this interesting demesne that Mr. Jefferson Doman staked off his claim. If in the prosecution of his design he should deem it expedient to remove any of the dead they would have the right to be suitably reinterred.

Related reading:
The Haunted Dolls’ House and Other Ghost Stories, by M. R. James (1919, 1925): review by Emera
Best Ghost Stories of J. S. LeFanu (1861-1923): review by Emera
LeFanu II: Haunted houses, gouty judges, over-familiars
Seven Gothic Tales, by Isak Dinesen (1935): review by Emera

Tempests & Slaughter, by Tamora Pierce (2018) E

Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 12.24.2018
Book from: Personal collection

Kakaner & I are still make the occasional foray back into YA fantasy; last year we achieved the particular landmark of her first introduction to the worlds of Tamora Pierce, author of much-beloved if not critically acclaimed YA fantasy. Pierce’s numerous four-book series, populated with tough heroines and colorful magic, were a staple in both my and my brother’s childhoods. Even at the time I knew this wasn’t great writing, but oh, was it great reading.

Tempests & Slaughter is a prequel to my favorite of her series, The Immortals Quartet. In it, we get to witness the childhood of one of the most powerful “present-day” characters in the land of Tortall: the mage Numair Salmalín, né Arram Draper. The novel follows Arram’s schooling at the University of Carthak as an uncommonly powerful boy mage of 11 to 14.

I love magical apprenticeship narratives, but despite its title (which Pierce admits she generated with every expectation of her editor rejecting it), Tempests & Slaughter is mainly boring in a soothing way. It’s hard not to take away the impression that there’s little plot other than “and then Arram grew older and took different, harder classes and boy did he like learning because he sure liked learning, and being the learning of things, and look how all nice almost all of his masters are.” However, Pierce does work to build the impression of conspiracy manipulating the line of succession to the Carthaki throne, as well as exploring Arram’s discomfort with the Carthaki institution of slavery; both of these threads introduce more darkness and tension.

Continue reading Tempests & Slaughter, by Tamora Pierce (2018) E

Seven Gothic Tales, by Isak Dinesen (1935) E

Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 11.25.2018
Book from: Personal collection

On a rainy night in the winter of 1874, on an avenue in Paris, a drunken young girl came up and spoke to me. I was then, as you will understand, quite a young man. I was very upset and unhappy, and was sitting bareheaded in the rain on a seat along the avenue becaues I had just parted from a lady whom, as we said then, I did adore, and who had within this last hour tried to posion me.

This, though it has nothing to do with what I was going to tell you, was in itself a curious story…

from “The Old Chevalier”

I’m so, so very glad that I finally read this, almost 10 years after picking it up in a used bookstore. Dinesen’s gothic tales are very elegant and very strange, in a way that’s difficult to communicate. But their strangeness has to do, I think, with their extreme subtlety (if such a thing can exist), the way that the narrator always seems to be smiling very gently as she delicately manipulates the pieces of the story into a more pleasing – yet curious – configuration. The surprises are frequent and witty yet so quiet that I often ended up laughing not so much at the surprise itself, as at the fact that it almost flowed by me unremarked.

Many of her stories do have a puzzle-box construction, where the pieces gradually become available, and a “solution” is eventually possible, revealing a full picture, a completed tableau. (References to marionette theater are frequent, and the clearest moral and artistic ethic that Dinesen offers is an ideal of humanity as actors arranged through the action of the divine.) Such solutions, if directly addressed by the characters, tend to be declared only in a handful of half-obscured phrases, which leaves one with a sense of a kind of twilight elegance and, again strangeness – frail, fey silhouettes glimpsed from a distance against a sunset sky.

Dinesen loves liminally gendered characters (and so I love her!): cross-dressing women, gay or bisexual men, women of all ages who are obsessed with defending their virginity – but especially old maids, whom Dinesen writes frequently and with fascinating psychological sharpness; they project their unrealized hopes or distorted convictions onto the young around them with such ferocity that they cannot be merely tragic figures.

Continue reading Seven Gothic Tales, by Isak Dinesen (1935) E

Dracula: A Symphony in Moonlight & Nightmares, by Jon J. Muth (1993) E

Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 1.5.2019
Book from: Personal collection

Jon J. Muth’s graphic-novel retelling of Dracula is delicate, foreboding, and ravishingly lovely – if slightly unconvincing from a narrative perspective; luckily the written narrative is almost beside the point when the art is this lovely. I ride or die for watercolors, and had to locate a copy of this out-of-print volume after seeing Muth’s watercolor illustrations for it online: sheer lavender shadows, chill expanses of castle stone, translucently pale flesh, and an overall air of elegant, sensual hush and expectancy.

Honestly, I think it’s a shame that he decided to do the cover of the novel in oils (though I understand that watercolors often don’t hold up as dramatic cover art) since it looks that much more generic, in addition to that particular illustration aesthetically betraying the work’s 90s vintage. (There are also a couple of interior illustrations where the women have seriously 90s hair, which makes me smile, but undermines what I otherwise feel to be a timeless style.)

Narratively, this is what I’d call a slightly transposed Dracula, where characters’ identities are swapped or merged, so that ultimately the focus rests even more firmly on the experience of the female protagonists. Here, Mina is the red-headed, morbid hysteric/consumptive, while Lucy is the grave and dark one. Both are subtly at odds with the masculine society around them, here represented by a conglomeration of most of the sympathetic male cast of Dracula into a few paternal[istic] figures. With this choice, Muth removes the Bachelorette sideshow of Mina’s courtship, foregrounding instead the telos of Dracula, Lucy, and Mina.

Continue reading Dracula: A Symphony in Moonlight & Nightmares, by Jon J. Muth (1993) E

Selected poems, by C. P. Cavafy, trans. Edward Keeley & Philip Sherrard [E]

Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 7.1.2018
Book from: Personal collection

All links below go to reproductions of Keeley’s translations by the official Cavafy Archive.

Cavafy is considered the greatest modern Greek poet. Gay, eccentric, private (though not reclusive), and obscure as a poet during his lifetime, he wrote poems during the late 19th and early 20th century, both about his sensual life, and about life in antiquity (often political life) through a deeply personal, everyday lens. His historical poems made immensely more sense to me after I saw translator Keeley report that he “had [the] fascinating capacity to gossip about historical figures from the distant past so as to make them seem a part of some scandalous intrigue taking place in the Alexandrian world immediately below the poet’s second-floor balcony.” Illustrative poem title: “For Ammonis, Who Died at 29, in 610

Cavafy’s poems also often deal with questions of the many possible spheres of Greek cultural identity: Alexandrian, Hellene, Pan-Hellene… all versus, of course, barbarian. I can’t pretend to understand all the nuances of historical and cultural reference that Cavafy draws upon, but I did come away with a sense of the vivid importance for him of embodying belonging to not only an ethnic group or city, but a way of living and bearing oneself, a proud weight of cultural and historical inheritance.

At the same time, “quirky” is actually the first word that came to mind when I thought about how to describe the feel of Cavafy’s poetry. His language is typically flat in tone and diction, yet his point-of-view is always wry, quirked, with an odd and wistful twist often arriving at the end – “Waiting for the Barbarians” probably being the most famous example on that front, but “Morning Sea” being my personal favorite. His attitude towards himself is self-deprecating, self-effacing; likewise he plays with wry affection on the pomposity, short-sightedness, and pettish egos of the ancient historical figures whom he brings to life for brief flashes.

And what of loveliness? The loveliest Cavafy poems have a soft, understated glow of sensuality, tenderness, regret; they distinctly evoke for me the hour or two after sunset, the lucid glow on the horizon, a harborside town rousing to a nocturnal life of furtive delights that quickly slip away.

I end with an attempt at picking out my three favorite Cavafy poems, both for that wistful evening quality, and in general:

The God Abandons Antony

Body, Remember

and maaaybe The Afternoon Sun

Go to:
More poetry reviews on The Black Letters

 

His Majesty’s Dragon, by Naomi Novik (2006) E

Reviewer: Emera
Date read: May 27, 2018
Book from: Personal collection

Capt. Will Laurence is serving with honor in the British Navy when his ship captures a French frigate harboring most a unusual cargo–an incalculably valuable dragon egg. When the egg hatches, Laurence unexpectedly becomes the master of the young dragon Temeraire and finds himself on an extraordinary journey that will shatter his orderly, respectable life and alter the course of his nation’s history.

Thrust into England’s Aerial Corps, Laurence and Temeraire undergo rigorous training while staving off French forces intent on breaching British soil. But the pair has more than France to contend with when China learns that an imperial dragon intended for Napoleon–Temeraire himself– has fallen into British hands. The emperor summons the new pilot and his dragon to the Far East, a long voyage fraught with peril and intrigue. From England’s shores to China’s palaces, from the Silk Road’s outer limits to the embattled borders of Prussia and Poland, Laurence and Temeraire must defend their partnership and their country from powerful adversaries around the globe. But can they succeed against the massed forces of Bonaparte’s implacable army?

I’d been meaning to read Naomi Novik’s Napoleonic dragon (!) series since it came out, couldn’t believe it took me so long, and felt more than well rewarded for finally breaking into the series, especially as a summer read. (Though I admit my interest slowly tapered while reading the second volume, a few weeks after this one.) His Majesty’s Dragon is an utterly delightful read, and one I expect to revisit many times. The methodical, economical precision of the historical detail and characterization is both engrossing and comforting, especially as punctuated by occasional leaps of quiet wit or irreverence. And the “stranger in a strange land” narrative, with staunch, conservative, thoroughly honorable Capt. Lawrence being thrust into the rough company of dragon aviators, is just so well executed. Lawrence is my favorite part of the series: I love his acuity, his brusque yet cultivated style of masculinity, his carefulness of observation, and his unbending sense of duty toward his country and fellow military men and women. On a personal level, I honestly aspire to be as capable and honorable as him; on a craft level, I loved the narrative execution of his uncomfortable yet determined entry into the world of the dragon aviators, and all of their upturnings of British class and gender conventions.

Surprisingly, Temeraire, Lawrence’s unlooked-for dragon, is a bit too charmingly idealized for my taste; I felt my interest played upon in a rather automatic way whenever the book detailed how endlessly graceful, intelligent, ingenious, etc. he is. Yes, his youthful impetuousness is intended to offset his many virtues, but he’s still too perfect to be really interesting. It’s far more amusing and engaging, for example, to watch Lawrence reach the limits of his own intelligence and have throw up his hands in bafflement at having to “parent” a hyperintelligent dragon. (And, more broadly, to watch Lawrence unconsciously adjusting the boundaries of his masculinity to accommodate the deeply solicitous, tender relationship he has with Temeraire.)

Regardless – highly recommended if you love fantasy that’s deeply grounded in a convincing sense of practical reality, if you love alternate history or historical fantasy that plays on gender and class tensions, or if you’ve ever wondered just how the Battle of Trafalgar would have worked out if the European powers had aerial dragon corps.

Related reading:
Sorcery and Cecelia, by Patricia C. Wrede & Caroline Stevermer (1988): review by Emera
Dealing With Dragons, by Patricia C. Wrede (1990): review by Emera
Flight of the Dragon Kyn, by Susan Fletcher (1993): review by Emera

LeFanu II: Haunted houses, gouty judges, over-familiars

Reviewer: Emera
Date read: December 2017
Book from: Personal collection

Reviews of Best Ghost Stories of J. S. LeFanu, pt. I: Green Tea, Squire Toby’s Will, The White Cat of Drumgunniol

Many of J. S. LeFanu’s human ghosts share a moral type – grasping, corrupt old men of power – and a countenance: “sensual, malignant, and unwholesome” in “Ghost Stories of the Tiled House,” “[wearing] a smile so sensual, so unspeakably dreadful that my senses were nearly overpowered” in “An Account of Some Strange Disturbances on Aungier Street.” Both of these are brief, emininently rereadable traditional haunted-house stories, more reliably delivering a pleasurable chill (in my opinion) than many of his weirder, more wandering tales of guilt and spirits. (The second section of “Tiled House” has also been published or anthologized as “The Ghost of a Hand,” notably in Roald Dahl’s Book of Ghost Stories.)

“Mr. Justice Harbottle” is another of that spirit-type: “an elder man, stout, and blotched with scurvy, and whose features, fixed as a corpse’s, were stamped with dreadful force with a character of sensuality and villainy.” His story is a Jacobite-era ghost story; I’ve tended to enjoy that setting ever since reading Peter Beagle’s Tamsin; and M. R. James of course has several Jacobite tales. But I confess to finding most of “Harbottle” slow and predictably moralizing – except for the spectacular nightmare-journey midway through, featuring a “gigantic gallows” with capering hangman, a hell-court, and other demonic delights. I want to say that the story reminded me a bit of Washington Irving thanks to its combination of delirious horror and dark satire, but I’m still not quite sure that Irving is the comparison I really have in mind…

The prominence of evil judges did make me wonder about the impact of LeFanu’s courtroom experience on his moral landscape – but a quick Wiki search reminded me that while he studied law at Trinity College, he never actually practiced. Perhaps LeFanu encountered Harbottle’s original during his work as a journalist, instead? It’s hard not to indulge in this kind of biographical speculation when the type recurs with such exactness.

“An Authentic Narrative of a Haunted House,” as its name suggests, is another traditional haunted-house story. Nothing spectacular, but very satisfactorily eerie:

“This figure was seen always in the act of retreating, its back turned, generally getting round the corner of the passage into the area, in a stealthy and hurried way, and, when closely followed, imperfectly seen again entering one of the coal-vaults, and when pursued into it, nowhere to be found.”

And there’s also something pleasantly eerie, just unresolved-enough, about the way LeFanu’s narrator ends the story with a bit of speculation about who the specters are and what they might be about. I think it’s the only one of LeFanu’s stories where I liked how he enacted his tendency to over-explanation.

On the subject of less-gripping guilt ‘n’ spirits: “The Familiar” I thought overlong and repetitive. It shares the narrative device used in “Green Tea” of increasingly close confrontations with a persistent specter, but feels punishingly plodding at over 30 pages. As suggested above, I was also very disappointed by the way LeFanu diffuses its main mystery – why an upright naval officer should be haunted by a menacing figure – with a blatant explanation at the end. The title was intriguing to me, though: LeFanu diverges from the more, well, familiar sense of a witch’s companion spirit, and uses “familiar” in a sense a bit closer to a doppelganger. This, together with the prominence of seamen, gave the story a slight Poe-ish aura to me.

Finally, “The Dead Sexton” I enjoyed well enough while reading, but had trouble recalling afterwards. Set in LeFanu’s fictional, idyllic-yet-haunted town of Golden Friars, Northumbria, it’s all a bit cute about the earnest, bustly village types, and the petty villainy of the title character. The dark visitation who leads to the story’s final climax is charismatically drawn, but as with “Harbottle,” the narrative’s predictable morality undercuts the impact of its spookier bits.

Go to:
Tales of Horror and the Supernatural, by Arthur Machen (1948): review by Emera
The Haunted Dolls’ House and Other Ghost Stories, by M. R. James (1919, 1925): review by Emera

Agents of Dreamland, by Caitlín R. Kiernan (2017) E

Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 4.21.2018 (reread)
Book from: Personal collection (you can read an excerpt online at Tor.com)

The word for this Lovecraftian novella is not exactly luscious, but somehow that’s always what comes to mind when I think about it. Kiernan just does something exceptional with style and tone here: the prose is implacably menacing, cuttingly witty, and both those tones run together with a free-floating, sinuous, sometimes psychedelically inflected quality that is what I want to call luscious. This is also the work that made me realize that while I tend to think of Kiernan as a Gothic writer, she’s also tremendous at noir.

Here’s the scene: It’s Thursday evening, and the Signalman sits smoking and nursing a flat Diet Dr Pepper, allowing himself to breathe a stingy sigh of relief as twilight finally, mercifully comes crashing down on the desert. The heavens above West Second Street are blazing like it’s 1945 all over again and the Manhattan Project has mistakenly triggered the Trinity blast one state over from the White Sands Proving Ground. Or, he thinks, like this is the moment fifty thousand years ago when a huge nickel-iron meteorite vaporized herds of mastodons, horses, and giant ground sloths just sixteen miles southwest of this shitty little diner and its cracked Naugahyde seats and flyblown windows. Either simile works just fine by the Signalman; either way, the sky’s falling. Either way is entirely apropos. He checks his wristwatch again, sees that it’s been only seven minutes since the last time, then goes back to staring out the plate glass as shadows and fire vie for control of the dingy, sunbaked soul of Winslow, Arizona. His unkind face stares at him from the glass, easily ten years older than the date on his birth certificate. He curses, stubs out his cigarette, and lights another.

That’s the first paragraph; it makes me want to read the whole thing all over again. The sense of place throughout Agents of Dreamland is extraordinary: a smoked-out, hard-baked, rusty-blood-stained West, even featuring the Salton Sea, which I’ve been fascinated by for a while. (Inland seas = automatically uncanny?) There’s also a lot of Lovecraftian and UFO-theory allusion that I think pulls together into a compellingly sticky web (this universe of UFO-intercepting spooks feels real, and worn), even if one happens to be foggy on the particular referents. Namely, I had no idea that Dreamland and Paradise Ranch were nicknames for Area 51, and I had forgotten that Lovecraft’s Mi-Go were fungoid in nature – a feature that makes logical the nature of the extraterrestrial pathogen with which the Signalman comes face-to-face.

Darkly lovely also are the jangly, free-associating chapters from the point of view of the wonderfully/sadly named Chloe Stringfellow, a heroin addict turned Lovecraftian cult victim. (If some of her cult leader’s apocalyptic babble sounds a bit silly, callow, I think that that makes sense, in the same way that, say, Beat Poets sound silly once one starts to feel external to the experience of disillusioned adolescence.) I especially appreciated Kiernan’s evocation of Chloe’s longing for belonging – simultaneously diffuse and fire-hot – because right after my first read of Agents of Dreamland, I read John Darnielle‘s Universal Harvester (one of my top three reads of 2017), in which a ragtag Western cult also ends up playing a major role – but we never get to see it from the inside. I always find it strangely moving when accidental echoes run between books I’m reading.

Oddly, even though the future that Agents of Dreamland looks forward to is Grim with a capital G, the novella leaves me in a dreamy, appreciative mood, and one that approaches humorous. There’s a sense that our fates are ruled by a cosmic wink-and-shrug, that we’ve come near to disaster a hundred-hundred times, but chance (or human nature, in Chloe’s case) conspires to deflect us away at the last moment. The Signalman sets the tone here: he tempers fear and resignation with a very hard-bitten humanism, and with a sardonicism that feels beautifully human in direct proportion to the magnitude of horror that he faces.

Related reading:

“Houses Under the Sea,” by Caitlín R. Kiernan (2003)

Alabaster, by Caitlín R. Kiernan (2006)

The Red Tree, by Caitlín R. Kiernan (2009)

The Drowning Girl, by Caitlín R. Kiernan (2012)

 


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“The Hill and the Hole,” by Fritz Leiber (1942) E

Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 3.13.2018
Read from: Reproduction posted by The Sanguine Wood; also available here on unz.org

Tom Digby swabbed his face against the rolled-up sleeve of his drill shirt, and good-naturedly damned the whole practice of measuring altitudes by barometric instruments…

This Leiber tale has a rock-solid Weird premise: a geological surveyor’s instruments tell him that the hill he is looking at is, in fact, a hole. Well, which is it? The premise taps into the same what’s in there unease as fairy mounds, without directly drawing on that body of folklore, and adds a Lovecraftish space/geometry-warping flavor.

Execution is just okay – the prose and pacing have a slightly thick, ungainly feeling, as if Leiber is laboring to maneuver the expected narrative accoutrements into position – the creepy blue-eyed little girl to provide cryptic warnings, the surveyor’s internal protestations in favor of rationality: “If there was anything he detested, it was admitting the possibility of supernatural agencies, even in jest.” We all know how that will go. (Also, how ridiculous is it that the surveyor is named Digby?)

But this is the sort of thing that – like urban legends – lives on in the imagination regardless of execution, helped along by Leiber’s evocation of suffocating summer heat and dust. Yum.

Related reading:

Lovecraft the terrible, the ridiculous, the great

Tales of Horror and the Supernatural, by Arthur Machen (1948) E

Are you listening closely