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I didn’t realize that Shirley Jackson’s children were still discovering unpublished stories of hers; the New Yorker has published two in recent years, “The Man in the Woods” and “Paranoia.”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

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

The Lodgers (2017)

INCEST, the answer is incest.

If you’re marketing anything in the line of gothic horror, it takes a minimum of three words to establish that the big reveal is incest: “twins” and “no outsiders.” 

2017 Irish horror film The Lodgers is lusciously beautiful, slightly underbaked, and very much undercut in the suspense department if you happen to take the above deductive shortcut. The Gothic is one of the preeminent genres where obviousness doesn’t necessarily undercut efficacy – in fact, can easily be an asset, a piece of set dressing that evokes delicious foreboding. The Lodgers, though, suffers from a general sense of unrealized intensity and suspense: lukewarm chemistry among the actors, ghosts that are scary-ish at best, etc. This makes the hand-wringing over what ails those reclusive twins, and all the film’s other emotional stakes, all seem a bit empty or tedious, sometimes comically so.

That said, the film is atmospherically beautiful enough to be enjoyed purely on the basis of looks and sound. On those counts, it has the deeply satisfying sensory and emotional coherence of a fairy-tale pocket universe – the psychogeographic trinity of the haunted mansion, the deep woods, and the huddled village. I’ve also mentioned before my affinity for water-based imagery, and The Lodgers overfloweth with mists, depths, drowning phantoms, and surreal, gravity-defying drips.

Anglo-Irish twins Rachel and and Edward live in a decaying country mansion, governed by a set of nursery-rhyme rules (be in bed by midnight; no outsiders), surrounded by phantoms, and feared/scorned by the nearby villagers. The film opens on their 18th birthday, the brink of rupture: Edward is both traumatized by and deeply loyal to the legacy of their house and its rules, while Rachel is restless, defiant, and drawn to a young villager, Sean, who has recently returned from World War I.

Continue reading The Lodgers (2017)

The Midnight Swim (2015, dir. by Sarah Adina Smith)

I watched Sarah Adina Smith’s The Midnight Swim (2015) late last fall. It’s a strange, quiet psychological horror movie, with the soft-yet-tense quality that I love about a lot of domestic thrillers that focus on female experience. (The Virgin Suicides, for example, or the first act of mother!.)

The film focuses on three half-sisters who reunite at the family home on Spirit Lake – a cold, deep lake in Washington State – after the disappearance of their mother while diving. The movie is finely textured by the various strands of affection, loyalty, resentment, and mistrust that run between the sisters, who are perfectly cast: almost uncomfortably plausible as sisters, interesting to watch even when little is obviously happening. Eventually, those strands of connection run back to their mother, whom they resurrect through videos and playacting, revealing her as both absurd and terrifying, as mothers so often are: hippie-dippie eco-goddess; domestic tyrant.

The women’s relationships are cradled by the deep quiet and chill of the surrounding wilderness, and the spiritually luminous yet ominous expanse of the lake. I love water, so the lake imagery, the evocation of its magnetic depthlessness, was particularly sensually effective for me.

Certain narrative elements felt expected, generic in both senses of the word: the appearance of dead birds around the house by night, the increasingly strange behavior of one sister, who refuses to get out from behind her handheld video camera. Still, the movie is effective in using prolonged quiet and unexpected little tweaks to keep ratcheting up the tension. There’s a pervasive sense of not-quite-nameable wrongness: what exactly is going on here?

The ending of the movie I found pleasantly baffling: deeply gentle, perhaps even hopeful, but also terrifying in its strangeness. It strikes me as audaciously weird, and merciful.

Related reading:

I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House (2016)

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

Flesh and Bone, by Julia Gfrörer (2013) E

Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 6.16.2017
Book from: Gift from K. (<3)

Flesh and Blood is Julia Gfrörer’s first published comic, and my second-favorite of the three I’ve read, after Black is the Color. Grim, wry, blood-and-hemlock-flavored, this is highly recommended for lovers of Robert Eggers’ film The Witch.

This is so narratively satisfying, all the symmetry and the sinewy Machiavellian strength of the witch’s plotting. She’s a dark free agent, pulling snare-cords neat and tight around convenient prey. She’s not quite so dispassionate a predator as the mermaids in Black is the Color, though. Displaced romantic and erotic desire teases the otherwise calm, chilly surface of her calculations. This culminates in an uncomfortably powerful erotic scene involving a mandrake. Period.

The displacement of desire and passion – longing for what’s not close to hand, fulfillment through proxies – creates a weird kind of momentum throughout Flesh and Bone. I imagine water continually spilling from unstable vessel to vessel, never at rest, and shared between vessels only in passing.

Like all of Gfrörer’s other work that I’ve read, the comic is also an inhabitation of the experience of grief – grief that is more than sorrow, grief that wrings to the bone. This grief that strains the limits of human capability – and the teasing touches of hopeful sweetness, as expressed through longing and eroticism – all that mixed together, in one brief comic, it’s exquisite, and sublime.

Gfrörer’s work is an uncommonly raw expression of the intensity of existence. It goes deep, deep, deep, like almost nothing I’ve read or seen before, except (as I said before) Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. There is nothing precious, or half-way, or untrue about her work. I think she’s a visionary not in the sense of seeing something beyond – I think she looks at human existence and sees in.

Related reading:

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


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

Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 7.2.2016
Book from: Personal collection

Thanks to Kakaner for reminding me that I had a serviceable, if brief, draft of a Machen review lying around –

(I find this cover so upsetting)

Collection contents, with favorites in bold: 

The Great God PanThe White People, The Inmost Light, The Shining Pyramid, The Great Return, The Novel of the Black Seal, The Novel of the White Powder, The Bowmen, The Happy Children, The Bright BoyOut of the Earth, N, Children of the Pool, The Terror

I find Machen simultaneously infuriating, and delightful and unforgettable. The first because his stories are so goddamn long, pedantic, and fussy – even for my easily delighted-by-Britishness tastes – and his prose, though cultivated, is basically conventional and uninteresting to me on the sentence level. Lots of things are described as “emerald,” for example.

Where he wins me over is

1) that same lengthiness… which sneakily builds and builds atmosphere and suspense, even while I was superficially chafing at his repetition and persnicketing, so that afterwards I was left quite a bit more uncomfortable and spooked than I had realized –

and 2) the ideas. Machen is famous for being a mystic, and I was rather dazzled watching him elaborate, in a dozen different configurations, the same basis of horror.

Machen’s is an ontological horror, where evil, sin, and wrongness arise from violation of categories and hierarchies: human and animal, human and proto-human, human and supernatural. The essential pagan in me is somewhat baffled by his strict definition of the primitive supernatural (Pan, fairies) as evil, baleful and actively malign (in contrast with Lovecraft’s other beings, which are rather colossally indifferent to humanity). This point remains emotionally and conceptually obtuse to me, but I find dreadfully fun his execution thereof. I’m particularly entertained by just how graphic and pulpy he gets at times, which seems at odds with his stodgy scholarliness.

More beautiful and transfixing, though, are the stories where the details of death are more obscure and metaphysical. “The White People” stands out in this respect, in addition to being of a narrative type that I love – cryptic young women’s diaries, which document a slow seduction or transformation into the magical. (See also Robert Aickman’s self-evidently titled “Pages from a Young Girl’s Journal.”)

The psychogeographic stuff is fun too, but I’ll have to leave it to a future reread to write about that. Also, so much Wales!

Related reading:

Lovecraft the terrible, the ridiculous, the great
The Haunted Dolls’ House and Other Ghost Stories, by M. R. James (1919, 1925) E

The Pastel City, by M. John Harrison (1971) E

Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 2.23.2017
Book from: Personal collection

Cover art by the wonderfully named Gray Morrow

“Some seventeen notable empires rose in the Middle Period of Earth. These were the Afternoon Cultures. All but one are unimportant to this narrative, and there is little need to speak of them save to say that none of them lasted for less than a millennium, none for more than ten; that each extracted such secrets and obtained such comforts as its nature (and the nature of the Universe) enabled it to find; and that each fell back from the Universe in confusion, dwindled, and died …

tegeus-Cromis, sometime soldier and sophisticate of Viriconium, the Pastel City, who now dwelt quite alone in a tower by the sea and imagined himself a better poet than swordsman, stood at early morning on the sand-dunes that lay between his tall home and the gray line of the surf. Like swift and tattered scraps of rag, black gulls sped and fought over his downcast head. It was a catastrophe that had driven him from his tower, something that he had witnessed from its topmost room during the night.”

Such mixed feelings I have about this direst and 70’s-est of fantasy novels! On the one hand, who am I to say no to prose that is that dire, and that arch. (see: my obsession with Tanith Lee) Also on that hand, M. John Harrison’s blog is one of my favorites; I’m fascinated by his intellect and sensibilities. On the other hand, this is almost 50 years distant, the plot and characters are so silly and derivative (battles for the fate of an empire, the reassembly of a band of elite warriors in order to defend a beloved queen), and there are giant sloths that are meant to be taken seriously as noble and tragic creatures. I’m not sure even 12-year-old me could have managed that sentiment successfully.

Politically, this has a provocative flavor: anti-capitalist, anti-industrialist. The conceit of the setting is that numerous high-technological societies have ravaged the earth’s resources, and fallen, leaving crumbling medieval cities that harvest glowing, deadly technology from wastelands to wage intermittent wars. Remaining civilizations, namely Viriconium, are burdened by a sense of their own impending failure; entropy is the order of the day. Jack Vance’s Dying Earth is an obvious influence, and I assume there’s a lot of Moorcock in there too, but I still have yet to read any of his work. There’s also a lot of T. S. Eliot, sometimes pastiched very directly via the not-great poetry of tegeus-Cromis. (Sorry, Cromis.)

Aesthetically, let’s just say it: this book is fucking nuts. The main appeal of the book for me is really just Harrison’s visionary, desolate, cavernous nature-writing, which could so easily be translated to some kind of 2-hour-long Pink Floyd music video, and I wish somebody would. Here’s tegeus-Cromis, he of the nameless sword, traversing the rocky hills:

“In a day, he came to the bleak hills of Monar that lay between Viriconium and Duirinish, where the wind lamented considerably some gigantic sorrow it was unable to put into words. He trembled the high paths that wound over slopes of shale and between cold still lochans in empty corries. No birds lived there. Once he saw a crystal launch drift overhead, a dark smoke seeping from its hull.”

Continue reading The Pastel City, by M. John Harrison (1971) E

“The Love of Beauty,” by K. J. Bishop (1999/2012) E

“The Love of Beauty” is collected in Bishop’s That Book Your Mad Ancestor Wrote, and you can read the story free online at the Weird Fiction Review.

Near the middle of the night, Seaming dithered in front of the brick arch – formerly a minor gate in the old city wall and now a decoration in a lane. If there existed a main entrance to the Ravels, it was that arch. It stood only half a furlong from the glitz of Cake Street, but the short distance marked a change of register from the demimonde to the underworld proper. Behind the gaudy theatres and beer halls the streets became dark, the buildings closely pressed, the walls bare of signs, posters, paint – of everything except light-absorbing soot.

Seaming smoked a cigarette, a last procrastination, while a polka spinning down from a loft somewhere invited him to head back, spend the rest of the night with friends, and let that be that.

Act as if you belong, she had told him, and you’ll be safe enough.

“The Love of Beauty” is one of the ur-Etched City stories in Bishop’s collection. Though none of The Etched City‘s characters appear here (unlike the Gwynn-centric “The Art of Dying”), Bishop, in playing out an alternative ending to Beauty and the Beast, here stages some of the central questions and themes that are later enacted between the artist Beth and her duellist-muse Gwynn: the exercise of power and choice by traditionally passive female archetypes; and the ability of art to remake reality, especially through alchemical modes like transmutation, refinement, and, conversely, the generation of hybrid forms. There are also echoes of Gwynn and the Rev’s amiable debates over the baseness (or not) of humanity’s desires and capabilities: the Decadent hypothesis advanced by several of the characters in “Beauty” is that art simply represents an opportunity for humans to indulge to the maximum their sensual desires, under the guise of exercising “their highest and holiest faculties.”

I read this past summer a biography of John Singer Sargent, and couldn’t help thinking of him on this reread of “Beauty” – self-effacing, determinedly apolitical, fiendishly talented but only timidly experimental, ultimately a bourgeois sensualist, he rhymes rather well with the character of Seaming. Seaming is a traditionalist and idealist, a wan foil to the morbid recklessness of ideas brandished by the rest of the cast. It’s his idealism that invests his art with alchemical potency, but leaves him defenseless against the revelation of a world activated by animal desires. Seaming’s moral universe is incompatible with the notion that the animal might be sublime.

Continue reading “The Love of Beauty,” by K. J. Bishop (1999/2012) E

Revisiting the Old Kingdom

Reviewer: Emera

As might have been suggested over the past couple months, I (and Kakaner too) was engaged in a full reread of Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom series in order to prepare for the arrival of Goldenhand, the latest book. Some thoughts , mostly high-level, somewhat scattered –

I.

Of the Old Kingdom series, I think Sabriel is the most formally perfect – it’s effortlessly swift and lean; not a single page feels narratively wasted. (There’s an undeniable parallel there to Sabriel’s own character, whereas the later books stretch in proportion to their protagonists’ adolescent angst.) Sabriel also benefits from first-in-the-series effect, where the world, magic, and tone feel most fresh and mysterious. Sabriel is a tiny, dark explosion in my heart; I feel I could read it three times in a row in one week and not get tired of it.

The endlessly oncoming thunderstorm that is the final few chapters is still one of the most spectacular and atmospheric climaxes I’ve read. Though I still remembered much of it with almost paragraph-by-paragraph clarity, this reread still left me wide-eyed and prickling with goosebumps.

Out of context, this probably isn’t as striking, but I’ve always loved this bit of scene-setting when they’re struggling to recover Kerrigor’s coffin – darkness and the Dead are coming –

Sunshine poured down between the trees, rich and golden, but already losing its warmth, like a butter-coloured wine that was all taste and no potency.

II.

Lirael is probably the fan favorite. When I saw Garth Nix speak last winter on the release tour for Goldenhand, he mentioned that he actually first wrote that book starting from the halfway point of its current form; his editor read it, and told him that he had to go back and tell more of Lirael’s younger years. Thank the Charter: Lirael without more Lirael is unimaginable. The book’s opening half is a paean to the sorrow of the out-of-place teenage woman. It was wrenching when I was that age, and I still think it’s sensitive, loving, and engrossing. It is also an unmissable exploration of one of my most most most favorite fictional settings, the Library of the Clayr, in which it makes perfect sense that all librarians ought to be steely women with swords, combat magic, and emergency clockwork mice.

I also really, really appreciate Sameth as the secondary protagonist (be it noted that in the Old Kingdom series, the male characters are always secondary), thanks to many years of struggling with a sense of myself as a useless person. Younger Emera found the women in the Old Kingdom almost deifically aspirational, and inspirational, while identifying with nervous, striving Sam. Thanks, Sam.

III.

Abhorsen is a slog. Is grim slogging a formal prerequisite of books involving an approaching cataclysm? Arguable, but I think the book also suffers from a general shapelessness, in addition to generically motivated villains (though I enjoy the necromancer Hedge purely on the basis of picturesqueness – he looks a lot like Peter Cushing in my head) and (this is Kakaner’s biggest gripe) an overabundance of nearly deus-ex-machina-level magical solutions. Nevertheless, the ending still makes me cry like a baby.

IV.

I talked about Clariel here, and the novellas here.

Goldenhand next!

Go to:
Clariel, by Garth Nix (2014) E

Undercover: Clariel

Two novellas of the Old Kingdom

The Lies of Locke Lamora, by Scott Lynch (2006) E

Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 7.14.2016
Book from: Personal collection

The Lies of Locke Lamora features long cons, crime-boss uprisings, and bloody revenge plots amid the cluttered criminal underworld of a bustling, sweltering, alchemy-infused alternative medieval Venice. Our heroes: the Gentleman Bastards, a tiny brotherhood of con artists, led by the unparalleled liar Locke Lamora.

One of my good reading buddies went crazy for this novel shortly after it came out, and I had always wanted to read it since, especially because the title was so mischievous, lyrical, and evocative. The fact that it continually resurfaces as a fan favorite 10 years on also piqued my interest. (e.g., it’s still on the bestseller list at my local sff bookstore, Pandemonium.)

Based on the hoopla, I’d been expecting something Dorothy Sayers-esque – exceptionally witty and elegant – but unfortunately found this, prose-wise, to be a solid B+ at best. Lynch’s writing is markedly juvenile: he overuses italics and parentheticals, and treats profanity in large quantities as funny per se. Characters emote by gritting their teeth, gulping, and squeaking. I would describe the humor as geekily goofy, rather than witty. His descriptions are colorful and involving, but not sharply observed. He does a good job of conveying personality more through dialogue than exposition, but again, isn’t quite sharp enough to fully resolve characters purely through these means. I wouldn’t say the characters feel hollow, as they often do in mediocre fantasy – symbols of people rather than people – but there’s a general feeling of a slightly unfocused photograph about the whole thing. The villains in particular are dreadfully boilerplate.

That said, I stuck it out, and had a lot of fun with it. This book has vim – it has bounce and fun and grit and texture – qualities that are helped along by Lynch’s obvious enjoyment at sharing his created city, and a greater part of lightheartedness than grimness. Continue reading The Lies of Locke Lamora, by Scott Lynch (2006) E