dark fantasy

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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

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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.”

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“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.

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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

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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. Read the rest of this entry »

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 1.30.2016
Book from: Personal collection

The House with a Clock in its Walls - cover

Orphaned Lewis Barnavelt comes to live with his Uncle Jonathan and quickly learns that both his uncle and his next-door neighbor are witches on a quest to discover the terrifying clock ticking within the walls of Jonathan’s house. Can the three of them save the world from certain destruction?

Bellaaaairs! Such a landmark of my childhood spookyscape. When I was in elementary school, I was already obsessed with spooky shit, even though I was also too weak of constitution to not end up with nightmares for a month after reading something particularly choice. Poe at 9 years old was one high-water mark; Bellairs at 10 or 11 was another. (Isn’t even just the name Bellairs perfect? So rich and old-world; it sounds like old libraries with bell-pulls.)

Bellairs’ preoccupation with the occult was, I think, several layers more complex and esoteric than the more traditional ghost stories I typically found in the library, and correspondingly struck me as something much wickeder, with potentially apocalyptic consequences. Even though M. R. James is considered Bellairs’ most immediate stylistic influence, in my head he’s more immediately the YA answer to Lovecraft (who is also a James descendant, of course). I hadn’t ever encountered something like his red doomsday skies, resurrected corpses, and convincingly evil necromancers before. That mixture of human wickedness and imminence of the terrible sublime – very Lovecraftian, it seems to me. Read the rest of this entry »

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I’m trying to do something about the massive backlog of 60-98% complete post drafts. It’s scary in there! For example, both of these bits are from (gulp) 2012.

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Daredevil: The Man Without Fear (1993), by Frank Miller & John Romita Jr.

While Daredevil has long been my favorite single superhero, I wasn’t the right kind of fan to be the target audience for this. This is an origin-story miniseries that fills in gaps and juicy details (the rise of Kingpin, Matt’s childhood training, and his initial relationship with Elektra in college). I grew up with 4 or 5 single Daredevil issues around the house – much obsessed-over, but far from exhaustive enough for me to be able to appreciate the back-filling that Miller does. Since Miller compresses over a decade into 5 issues, the pace was also too breakneck for me to feel like I could really sink my teeth into the narrative, until Miller slows down enough to focus on a crucial kidnapping incident at the end of the series.

General thoughts: the style is strikingly noir, which is not surprising given that it’s Miller. Matt’s rage is always simmering in the background, and his rough upbringing in Hell’s Kitchen lays down the basic growth medium and texture for his character. Miller emphasizes in his intro that Daredevil could easily have been a supervillain. The emotional hook of the miniseries is that Matt’s righteous anger and physical prowess aren’t enough to make him a hero (there’s a really awful moment where he accidentally kills a prostitute while trying to attack one of his father’s killers); he must also learn self-mastery.

I warmed very slowly to Romita’s art, as it’s sort of blockily formless a lot of the time. However, there are occasionally really effective panels that made me okay with him by the end – in particular, the poetic silhouettes of Daredevil bounding across the Manhattan skyline, and one creepy close-up of Kingpin’s chilly eyes.

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Hellboy: Wake the Devil (Vol. 2) (1993), by Mike Mignola

Paranormal folkloric bingo! On top of the evil Nazis + Rasputin + cosmic/Revelations-flavored menace from last time, there are a Napoleonic-era vampire lord kickin’ it old school, Thessalian witches, Baba Yaga, an iron maiden broken in by Elizabeth Bathory, Lamia, Hecate, a homunculus… Honestly, it got overwhelming at times (I felt whiplashed), and occasionally I questioned the lumping of so many mythologies together, given that it really did start to feel like “lumped together” instead of “woven together.”

But the goofy dialogue lightens things up well, and Mignola’s art always sells it. There’s a spectacular cosmic setpiece of about 5 pages towards the end of the arc that actually had me reading with my mouth open. And then – emo Rasputin! Because even villains bent on universal chaos have to question themselves sadly sometimes, even if it’s just to ask if they’re being selfish enough.

Plotwise, this is really just expanding on the “evil Nazis/Rasputin plot for cosmic chaos” direction. Not too much more character development, sadly, although there’s plenty of character exposition.

– E

 

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 3.13.2016
Book from: Personal collection

Elephantasm is a violent, brooding, erotic fantasy of revenge against imperialism and patriarchy: Tanith Lee takes on Heart of Darkness, by way of colonial India. Elephants, monsoons, open wounds, whips, trauma survivors, immolation. Lush madness and harsh justice prevail against the privileged and callous. Lee’s usual interest in tough, quiet, street-bred, canny/uncanny heroines is in evidence.

More unusual is the sense of social and emotional reality around the secondary characters, especially the villains, who tend to be brutish to the point of caricature in Lee’s work. Here, she builds up thoughtful layers of pathos and longing around the Gormenghastly members of the Smolte household, as despicable as they are. This makes the book more interesting – earthier, more human – at the same time that it sharpens the implacable moral judgment that eventually arrives. Structurally, Lee also does some good work with the interleaved perspectives and flashbacks; Elephantasm had more of a sense of being a constructed novel than many of her works, which often register as simply a bewildering outpouring of strange events.

The obsession with the physical whiteness of the heroic characters is troubling, but unsurprising given Lee’s vampiric tastes in human beauty. It is meant to mirror the importance of ivory and bone in the plot, and Lee also consciously works against the ‘white savior’ narrative by positioning her heroine as a conduit, not an incarnation, of the Hindu gods. Nonetheless, it’s an off note, and undermines the book’s desired radical message.

One of the odder elements of the book is the character of Elizabeth Willow, the Smoltes’ deranged cat-daughter, who maybe crept in from a story of her own, or arrived (now that I think of it) as a weird domestic inverse of The Jungle Book‘s Mowgli. I mention her a) because the proliferative violence of Tanith Lee’s imagination never fails to amuse me – that, having established a grotesque household of sexually obsessive parvenu malcontents, she just had to stuff in one more oddity; and b) because the predatory girl-child is one of my favorite figures (see also Merricat Blackwood), and I’m always happy to see her. I hope Elizabeth Willow had an interesting, if likely not long, life after the main events of the novel blew by.

Go to:
Tanith Lee: bio and works reviewed
The Book of the Damned, by Tanith Lee (1988): review by Emera
Madame Two Swords, by Tanith Lee (1988): review by Emera
Louisa the Poisoner, by Tanith Lee (1995): review by Emera

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“Here is Egg Comic in its entirety.”

Kakaner, someone made a comic for you! Z. Akhmetova’s Egg Comic is seven pages of woodsy textures and homey comforts, paired with thick unease and late-night misdeeds.

The big-eyed, big-nosed auntie character and the way that eeriness is played off of a warmly inhabited setting had me thinking of Miyazaki movies. Also, you will probably want an omelet after reading it.

– E

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 10.31.13
Book from: Public library, and then personal collection.

“At an exclusive girls’ boarding school, a sixteen-year-old girl records her most intimate thoughts in a diary. The object of her growing obsession is her roommate, Lucy Blake, and Lucy’s friendship with their new and disturbing classmate. Ernessa is an enigmatic, moody presence with pale skin and hypnotic eyes.

Around her swirl rumors, suspicions, and secrets – and a series of ominous disasters. As fear spreads through the school and Lucy isn’t Lucy anymore, fantasy and reality mingle until what is true and what is dreamed bleed together into a waking nightmare that evokes with gothic menace the anxieties, lusts, and fears of adolescence. At the center of the diary is the question that haunts all who read it: Is Ernessa really a vampire? Or has the narrator trapped herself in the fevered world of her own imagining?”

I had the great honor and pleasure recently of instigating Kakaner’s first-ever read of J. S. Le Fanu’s “Carmilla;” many squees were squeed between the two of us. I had first read the sapphic vampire classic in one bleary sitting around midnight several winters ago, as I was in bed with a fever: perfect.

Rachel Klein’s 2002 novel The Moth Diaries, a self-aware successor to both “Carmilla” and Dracula, absorbed my autumn last year in an even more protracted fever dream. The book is barely over 200 pages long, but I read and reread its middle parts continuously, hypnotically, for almost two months before I finally brought the affair to a close and committed myself to reading the last chapter.

The book feels hermetic, labyrinthine: a maze constructed not of stone or hedges but of wood-paneled walls and prim New England convention, boarding-school propriety fencing in the daughters of unhappy families.

The novel’s narrator – an unnamed diarist – is severe, intellectual, and morbid, but also mordantly funny in her teenaged forthrightness. Cafeteria food, the indignities of boarding-school routines, and the pretensions and fixations of her classmates are scrutinized and discussed with nearly equal intensity to her idolization of Lucy, her hateful fascination with Ernessa, and her anguish over her poet father’s suicide. Donuts, gossip, LSD, field hockey, school dances; sex, blood, fear, death, eating disorders, anti-Semitism. (The narrator and Ernessa are two of the only three Jews in their entire, WASPy school, in the 1970’s.) And the specter of homosexuality in an all-girls’ school: “We were always so careful not to be like that. Girls who go too far.”

All of it is felt keenly, absorbed entirely. “She was […] excruciatingly alive, as if she had been born without a skin,” the adult narrator says of her younger self in the afterword. There’s horror, awe, regret, tenderness, and involuntary longing all in that statement. “I had affection for her, and I have much less for the one who has replaced her.”

From start to finish, The Moth Diaries engages more passionately and personally with the opposition between youth and ageing than any other vampire story I’ve read. Eternal youth means something painfully specific in this book. It means always feeling, always needing, never having enough. It means never getting better, never being able to admit that what’s lost is lost and not coming back. It means being violently alive.

The narrator does get better; her preface and afterword tell us so. But survival, in her straitlaced milieu, also means ossification, it means surrender to convention and a convenient degree of unfeeling. The novel’s conclusion is deeply melancholy: the narrator has survived the turmoil and burning intensity of her adolescence, but finds herself adrift in a colorless marriage, with daughters who are so blissfully functional as to seem alien. Having achieved distance from her pain also means being distanced from the chief sources of meaning in her teenaged life – the loss of her father, and her relationship with Lucy. “[The girl who wrote the diary] had a father. I don’t.”

Even as someone who’s always had a peculiar relationship to ideas of childhood and childishness, I would never choose to return to my adolescent self. I am really, unspeakably appreciative of the comfortable clarity and calmness that getting older has brought. But I do sometimes feel, in a detached way, strangely admiring of that unmediated intensity of feeling: how was feeling that much, obsessing that much, even possible? Reading The Moth Diaries brought me to a troubled sense of comradeship with its narrator. The idea that the rarefied selfishness of adolescence is in some way a purer, elemental state becomes a temptation. The young woman as vampire: helplessly, reflexively appetitive; monstrous yet pure.

Relevant reading: Helen Oyeyemi’s equally Carmilla-flavored haunted-house/vampire novel White is for Witching (which I wrote about here). Oyeyemi likewise draws the connection between female vampires and disordered eating.

Relevant viewing: Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures. Mary Harron’s 2012 film adaptation of The Moth Diaries felt dismayingly insubstantial and silly, despite strong performances by both Sarah Bolger as the protagonist (named Rebecca in the film) and Lily Cole as Ernessa. Two or three of the fantastical scenes were lovely, terrifying, and eerie; otherwise, the film is very missable.

Go to:
Rachel Klein: bio and works reviewed

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