Mongrels, by Stephen Graham Jones (2016) E

Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 9.11.2021
Book from: Library

Bloody, meaty, funny, sly, dreamy, sad, longing, gonzo, dirtbaggy. What Kathryn Bigelow’s Western horror movie Near Dark did for vampires, Stephen Graham Jones’ novel Mongrels does for werewolves. (I was delighted and unsurprised to see Jones citing Near Dark as a foundational influence in the afterword.) I treasured reencountering that texture of gritty, snappish, road-tripping familial love. This novel also captures the anxious, dreamy awkwardness of alienated adolescence through a tone that’s very similar to Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red: both books have that curious way of looking at things so hard, with such a burning desire to understand, that the gaze splits or slides off to the side, becomes strange and oblique.

So many parts of this book are so nakedly about growing up poor and unwelcome and not-white in the American South that it tugs at your heart. At the same time, the werewolf mythos serves as a kind of appetizing cover story, an exciting distraction—just as it did for the teenaged Jones, who is Blackfeet. (Jones is calculatedly coy as to the werewolf family’s physical appearance, but there are a couple references to black hair, and an unpleasant high school classmate once asks the narrator if he’s “Mexican or something.”) It’s deeply touching to me to honor your sustaining childhood fantasy by turning it into a full novel, and a novel that’s vividly charged with its own darkly joyful mythos: Jones clearly revels in the frequently gory elaborations that he brings to werewolf biology and lifeways.

I couldn’t get enough of the episodic, almost diaristic storytelling, the plangent fragments of memory and the macabrely superheroic exploits. (The more outrageously superheroic bits are explained in a brief exchange of dialogue in the last chapter.) All of this is run through with the anxiety and dread that shape the lives of the impoverished and vulnerable.

In short: consumed with fascination and dread, I read this book way too fast. Sadly, this may have resulted in my breaking its spell more abruptly than would have been ideal. After I finished, the content and style dissociated in my head, and it became too easy to remember the book’s more absurd, cartoonish bits, and less so its quietly fierce, tender tone or earthy, sweaty textures.

In the long run, though, what will stick with me is the way that Jones turned a fantasy into a novel in a way that inevitably points back at the real life that gave birth to the fantasy—and in a way that cries out for readers to recognize and value the loving, chaotic lives of the poor and dispossessed.

Related reviews:
Alabaster, by Caitlín R. Kiernan (2006)

The Virgin Suicides, by Jeffrey Eugenides (1993) E

Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 10.19.2021
Book from: Library

Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides is one of the most ecstatically beautiful, dream-like, and mournful books I’ve ever read, up next to Lolita. The two work together well in so many ways: the cuttingly yet not wholly satirical paean to the promise of America; the drenching languor and lust; the pathological yet resplendent objectification of beautiful, inaccessible girls. There’s a bit of Poe in there, too: the Gothic obsessiveness, the unreliable narrators.

The novel centers on many of the same themes as Eugenides’ Middlesex, but it’s much tighter, less sprawling, less broadly tragicomic. The single bullet in a revolver loaded for Russian roulette seems like an appropriate metaphor—elusive yet potent.

From a craft perspective, there was so much I admired about this book: sentence after sentence that floats and twists with metamorphic elegance and surprise; image after image of nightmare-dreamish beauty and suffering. (The final paragraph of the book gives me a wave of goosebumps every time I read it.) There were moments where Eugenides’ fabulist or magical-realist leanings put me in the same space as the horror movie It Follows. The queasy, desperate image of Lux Lisbon copulating on the roof of her parents’ house, night after night, blended in my mind with the scene in It Follows where the entity stands naked on a neighborhood rooftop, looming and improbable. The shadow of sex, death, and disorder falls over suburbia.

The book’s narrative technique, Eugenides’ choice of a “we” perspective, whose identity and role become clearer and clearer over the course of the novel, is quietly astonishing, hypnotic, and unnerving. It might be this choice that does the most work to lend the book its ineffable quality. We hear the story of a neighborhood as filtered through a shifting surveillance network, an aggregate view that is ultimately fallible, individual, and selfish, yet by assuming the status of “we” insists on a semblance of omniscience and authority.

This paradox of collective identity seems like the crux of the novel, and Eugenides plays on it in several configurations: through the narrating “we;” through the despairing alliance of the Lisbon sisters; and through the social landscape that surrounds them, the tidy suburbia crumbling at the edges, where the decay and racial tension of neighboring Detroit are seeping through. Every union is imperfect; everything contains the seeds of entropy.

Related reviews:
Picnic at Hanging Rock, by Joan Lindsay (2020)

The Buried Giant, by Kazuo Ishiguro (2015) E

Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 9.28.2020
Book from: Personal collection

In post-Arthurian Britain, the wars that once raged between the Saxons and the Britons have finally ceased. Axl and Beatrice, an elderly British couple, set off to visit their son, whom they haven’t seen in years. And, because a strange mist has caused mass amnesia throughout the land, they can scarcely remember anything about him. As they are joined on their journey by a Saxon warrior, his orphan charge, and an illustrious knight, Axl and Beatrice slowly begin to remember the dark and troubled past they all share.

The Buried Giant has the slow-motion horror of a nightmare: the confused repetitiousness of the dialogue; Axl and Beatrice’s frailty and tentativeness; the blurred, clouded landscape; the increasing sense of building towards a terrible revelation or shattering. As is typical of Ishiguro, the prose is carefully flat and affectless: an acres-wide, inch-deep pool of water, any ripples almost imperceptible. To be blunt, the prose is boring—and yet I also kept thinking that this was the most entrancingly, sublimely boring book I’ve ever read. I felt like Beatrice in the scene where she’s swarmed by rat-like, life-stealing pixies and nearly subsides into death. Slow-motion horror.

I was transfixed by these outbreaks of folk horror: the woman stroking a rabbit’s fur with a knife in a rain-dripping ruin, the underground beast described as looking something like “a large skinless animal,” the tunnels full of infant skeletons. As indelible as these images are—like Symbolist paintings—they become indescribably more disturbing because of the way that Ishiguro doesn’t describe them head-on. He robs us of a sense of clarity, control—the narrator’s vision is always glancing away, blurring at the edges.

The gradual revelation of mass slaughter that arises from these grotesque suggestions, and the slow topple towards renewed slaughter, is almost unbearably tragic, tearing. Ishiguro establishes his main characters as tragicomically human: vulnerable, bumbling, striving, absurd, valiant, kind. Then he shows us that they are walking towards a point of no return. There will be no reconciliation, no peace for the land, once the Buried Giant rises. Saxons will fight Britons once more; Axl and Beatrice fear the permanent oblivion of an afterlife with no kindness toward lovers. Companionship and love, hard-earned, will fade into another generation of helpless loss and strife. Did it all matter, that they loved? Of course it does: over the course of the novel, we see how much it matters to them, and to us, that these characters loved. But in the eyes of history, it does not.

An oil painting of a small boat with a shrouded standing figure approaching a wooded island under a dark skyThe Isle of the Dead, 1880 version, Arnold Böcklin

Related reading:
The Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro (1989): review by Emera
The Ballad of Sir Dinadan, by Gerald Morris (2003): review by Emera

Picnic at Hanging Rock, by Joan Lindsay (2020) E

Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 7.17.2020
Book from: Library

It was a cloudless summer day in the year 1900. Everyone at Appleyard College for Young Ladies agreed it was just right for a picnic at Hanging Rock. After lunch, a group of three girls climbed into the blaze of the afternoon sun, pressing on through the scrub into the shadows of the secluded volcanic outcropping. Farther, higher, until at last they disappeared. They never returned… Mysterious and subtly erotic, Picnic at Hanging Rock inspired the iconic 1975 film of the same name by Peter Weir. A beguiling landmark of Australian literature, it stands with Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, and Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides as a masterpiece of intrigue.

As expected, this was a delicious summer treat – though it didn’t go down without some misgivings. On the whole, Picnic at Hanging Rock is satirical, dreamy, sensuous, and occasionally quite sinister and chilling—mainly in how Lindsay refers to the dark, inscrutable mass of the Hanging Rock brooding in the metaphysical distance behind or beyond the characters ever after the girls’ disappearance, the source of some kind of alien causality.

The book is also quite, quite gay. I was astonished by how Sapphic the movie is when I saw it back in undergrad, but the book is far more explicit than the movie’s languid, soft-focus erotic glow. The novel opens with five pages of the students and the prettiest teacher fluttering over their Valentine’s Day cards and take turns thinking about how much pleasure they derive from gazing at each other’s curls and bosoms and OH MY. Check it—this is from the perspective of Mademoiselle, the French teacher:

The girl’s voluptuous little breasts, her dimples, full red lips, naughty black eyes, and glossy black ringlets, were a continual source of aesthetic pleasure.

It’s also immensely “interesting” that the book’s only two male characters effectively end up riding into the sunset together. It may be that Lindsay largely intends the spiritual bachelorhood of young, wealthy Michael Fitzhubert as tragic: he’s positioned in a love quadrangle with the vanished Miranda (his true love, seen once and never recovered); Irma, the one returned girl (who regards Michael as her true love, but is spurned); and his best mate, the rough horseman Albert (who, finally, is in love with Irma). I found this love-quadrangulation silly as a romantic device, mainly because I found it hard to take any of the characters seriously – a point to which I’ll return later. I think what’s interesting about it is its alienating, distancing effect, the way that these four young people are strangely offset from one another, incapable of moving in the same space. This heightens, of course, the book’s central element of feminine-as-mystery. At one point, Michael even wonders to himself what “feminine secrets” were shared among the girls before they disappeared. Estranged from these unattainable, sometimes uncanny nymphs, Michael and Albert (hairy, tattooed, streetwise, occasionally lounging naked in Michael’s presence…) ride off into the optimism of undefined masculine adventures together.

Let’s return to the problem of how Lindsay handles her characters, generally. I think one of the book’s biggest weaknesses is that Lindsay treats the characters so archly that it comes off as self-satisfaction with her own satirical wit. Any dignity or intelligence the characters might have is often diminished by her heavy-handed descriptions. It doesn’t help that Michael, who is crushingly boring except for how he plays off of Albert, gets to occupy the middle third of the book with an immensely slow, inchoately mopey convalescence sequence. No, thanks. Luckily, Lindsay recovers from there with one of the book’s most climactically disturbing scenes, Irma’s final return to Appleyard College.

Continue reading Picnic at Hanging Rock, by Joan Lindsay (2020) E

The Bridal Wreath & The Wife, by Sigrid Undset (1920, 1921) E

Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 9.22.2019, 11.21.2019
Book from: Library

This is a review of the first two books in the Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy: The Bridal Wreath and The Wife. I read the recent translations from the Norwegian by Tiina Nunnally, after giving up on the original translations by Charles Archer and J. S. Scott, which are self-consciously archaic and expurgated significant passages.

In early 1300s Norway, Kristin Lavransdatter is the eldest daughter of a charismatic, gentle, and adoring father, and a distant, melancholy mother. In The Bridal Wreath, Kristin grows from a quiet child into a quietly fiery – and occasionally cruel – young woman, and thwarts her parents’ plans for her future by flinging herself into a romance with the passionate but disastrously irresponsible nobleman Erlend Nikulausson. In The Wife, Kristin struggles to live with the guilt of the sins that she and Erlend committed in the course of clinging to their relationship, while now striving to lead her new household – where she is initially regarded with derision – with grace and strength. Her fervent embrace of Christianity serves sometimes as a comfort, and sometimes as one of several wedges between her and Erlend. Meanwhile, foolhardy Erlend is drawn further and further into the turbulent politics surrounding the fate of the Norwegian throne at the time, with eventually ruinous consequences for their family’s fortunes.

The way I keep on describing these books (which won the 1928 Nobel Prize) to people is a medieval Scandinavian version of Anna Karenina. They concern themselves with a span of decades in the lives of aristocrats in a severe land, but viewed through incredibly intimate, often stream-of-consciousness renditions of women’s experience in particular. The conflict between personal passion and social responsibility, the torment of guilt, the struggle to understand what it is to live a Christian life, hypocrisy, infidelity, the temptation of cruelty, and the closeness of mortality all weigh heavily on the characters. This all plays out against a medieval setting that is rendered so vividly and naturalistically that it seems as if Undset is reporting directly from that century. (It made a lot more sense to me when I read that Undset’s father was an archaeologist and her mother his secretary/illustrator: she grew up immersed in history.)

How to describe the effect of these books – what is so piercingly compelling about them? The experience of Undset’s cool, fluid, and methodical prose – especially with Nunnally’s exactingly clean translation – is immersive, hypnotic, yet, frankly, at times boring. Even though I love nature writing, for example, I was frequently bored during the first quarter or so of The Bridal Wreath, when Kristin is a child, no obvious narrative stakes have been established, and there are lengthy descriptions of their days amid the fields, mountains, seasonal turns, etc.

But as soon as any emotional stakes have been raised – I can’t think of many authors who can equal the way that Undset writes emotional pain and difficult love. Her distinct coolness is an asset: she has this devastating way of leading you directly into a character’s emotional crisis, and then departing just as the scene barely begins to round off, so that the aftermath must simply be imagined. Or, she mentions devastating revelations about previously beloved characters in a mere one or two sentences, slipping by in the relentless onward march of time. (It “helps” that Undset makes no bones about the closeness of death in medieval times: characters die with great frequency, whether through illness, accident, or violence.)

There are so many moments in the books of purely emotional experience that I feel I’ll never forget – the incredibly cold ending of The Bridal Wreath, or the several heart-rending scenes of devotion between Kristin’s aging parents in The Wife, or Kristin’s pained reflections on how little she understood the depths of her parents’ lives, or their love for her.

Again, I’ll be honest that I questioned several times (out of boredom, overwhelming melancholy, or both) whether I really wanted to finish the series. But Undset’s sort of gentle severity is so uniquely compelling and transportative; again and again, I concluded that I had to see it through, and follow her characters to their ends. I’ll be reading the final volume of the trilogy, The Cross, over the next month or two.

Go to:
Laid Waste, by Julia Gfrörer (2016): review by Emera

‘Salem’s Lot, by Stephen King (1975) E

Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 12.7.2019
Book from: Library

‘Salem’s Lot was originally published in 1975. I read the 2005 special edition, which includes the prequel story “Jerusalem’s Lot,” the sequel story “One for the Road,” and deleted scenes.

Jerusalem’s Lot is a small, blue-collar town in Maine, rife with gossip and the petty drama of adultery, alcoholism, greed, and thwarted desires. Widowed young writer Ben Mears returns to the town – briefly his childhood home – to work on a new book triggered by a disturbing childhood memory. As October begins, children begin dying and disappearing, and Ben and a small circle of allies must confront the encroachment of a latter-day Dracula who preys on the residents of ‘Salem’s Lot with increasingly terrifying speed and cruelty.

I pegged ‘Salem’s Lot as my Halloween read this year, but felt sadly lukewarm about the whole thing. The Shining remains the scariest reading experience I can remember, so how could I go wrong with Stephen King + New England vampires?! In short, this is at best highly competent, tends to be hammy rather than spectacular, and lacks compelling characters. (It is impressive considering that King was 23 when he wrote it, though, and I do adore that his ambition was to craft the “Moby Dick of vampire novels.”)

King spends the first third of the book building up the ensemble small-town cast, but the tone is so heavy-handedly, even campily satirical that few of the side characters inspire more than mild amusement or wistfulness. (I admit I was a sucker for the melancholy of the late-in-life almost-romance between boardinghouse-keeper Eva Miller and town drunk Weasel Craig.) The heroic characters, meanwhile, are drawn with a kind of strained virtuousness that comes off as either bland (Ben) or, again, hammy (especially the precociously serious 10-year-old Mark, bleh). The action in the second half is intense and well-paced, but I still felt like I was just following along and waiting to see how things resolved themselves.

A big part of the issue is that I don’t find vampires frightening anymore – though some of the most fun moments of the book are when evil Count Barlow goes off on florid megalomaniacal monologues. (These are more engaging by far than the various ponderous speeches made about the nature of evil, all of which are written in the same voice – for bonus tedium – despite being delivered by different protagonists.) The last chapter is also grimly satisfying, harnessing as it does the hard-bitten mystique of the veteran vampire hunter.

One final point in the book’s favor, as a detailed portrait of small-town darkness: the parallels now to the opiate crisis are chilling.

Predictably, though, I was much more into the Lovecraftian prequel story “Jerusalem’s Lot,” set near the Lot in 1850. Rats in the mansion walls, a profaned church, and an accursed tome If you’re gonna be campy, just give me the Gothic, please.

Worst line in the novel: “He saw that his hands were glowing, as if wreathed in ghost gloves.”

A favorite line from the novel: “Tourists and through-travelers still passed by on Route 12, seeing nothing of the Lot but an Elks billboard and a thirty-five mile-an-hour speed sign. Outside of town they went back up to sixty and perhaps dismissed it with a single thought: Christ, what a dead little place.

Related reading:
Dracula: A Symphony in Moonlight & Nightmares, by Jon J. Muth (1993) – review by Emera
100 Vicious Little Vampire Stories, ed. Robert Weinberg (1995): review by Emera
Vampire Stories by Women: Venus, Outfangthief, So Runs the World… : review by Emera

 


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Tempests & Slaughter, by Tamora Pierce (2018) E

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

Kakaner & I 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

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

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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An Obedient Father, by Akhil Sharma (2017) K

Reviewer: Kakaner

Date read: 12.31.2017

Book from: Bookstore browse session

An Obedient Father is a harrowing story of a rather run-of-the-mill moneyman Ram, a middle rung manager within a governmental structure, corrupt and unambitious, who repeatedly molested and raped his daughter when she was pre-pubescent, and now finds circumstances forcing her and his granddaughter to live with him again.

Generally, I thought this was a rather successful first novel– the premise and backstory felt kind of contrived and heavy-handed but the emotional exploration was well done. However, I hesitate to ever label any story of sexual wrongdoing as heavy-handed or unrealistic because I only have reason to believe that fiction has happened many times over, and reality is worse than fiction. I feel it is my duty to consider these kinds of stories seriously.

I was immediately overcome with the horror of seeing the emotional journey of a family ripped apart by this kind of tragedy from the perpetrator’s perspective. Ram is very much simply a product of his culture and context, and I think one takeaway from the novel is that it’s very hard to engineer and live by your own moral compass when there is no external impetus for doing so. Of course, a lot of this lack of impetus is entrenched in the darker aspects of Indian culture and the patriarchy. I was struck by the helplessness of both sides of the act– the daughter Anita and the father Ram, but especially how weak Ram was, fixating on his inability to control himself despite hating himself for what he was doing. Sharma manages to immediately elicit sympathy for Ram without ever being apologetic for him, a tricky act to pull off. The whole journey was just this incredibly strange crumbling and dismantling of the health of a family while the distributions of love, privilege, progressiveness, greed, and justice shifted within the family. Finally, it’s a painful, cautionary highlighting of the belief that no one is going to look out for you, that stigma and society can be thicker than blood.