dark fantasy

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 4.9.2013
Read it online here - and don’t forget the preface!

I can’t call myself a Hawthorne fan – I would compare the charm that his prose has for me to that of a room full of massive and hideously overcarved ancestral furniture. I can’t help but succumb to the effect of somber impressiveness at times, and the proceedings are occasionally enlivened by a sly wit snaking through (e.g. the self-reviewing preface to “Rappacini’s Daughter,” linked above – aubépine is French for hawthorn) - but I still remember rolling my eyes through the entirety of The House of the Seven Gables. But in smaller doses? I saw a not-too-battered Dover Thrift edition of selected Hawthorne short stories – with a scratchily rendered cover image of very New Englandy headstone ornaments, which I loved – at Lorem Ipsum last weekend, and couldn’t resist adding it to my pile of Gothic stuff.

The romantic melodrama of “Rappacini’s Daughter” is great fun. I think I’d watched the 1980 made-for-TV adaptation before (which appears to have become visually confused in my head with the 2004 film adaptation of the Merchant of Venice? forbidden daughters and Renaissance Italy and all that), but never actually read the story. I still had to haul myself over some of the more pompous prose, but the air of darkly glowing, morbid eroticism and the portrait of perverse desire – with its distorted echoes of Dante and Beatrice, and Romeo and Juliet – are a fair trade for enduring the stiff, orotund moral tone. (Hawthorne points a condemning finger at the corruptibility of the intellect and the imagination, whereas nature he roots in Godly love.)

And Hawthorne creates fantastically sensual effects in the elegant, grotesque confusion of woman and flower:

“Night was already closing in; oppressive exhalations seemed to proceed from the plants and steal upward past the open window; and Giovanni, closing the lattice, went to his couch and dreamed of a rich flower and beautiful girl. Flower and maiden were different, and yet the same, and fraught with some strange peril in either shape.”

“Nor did he fail again to observe, or imagine, an analogy between the beautiful girl and the gorgeous shrub that hung its gemlike flowers over the fountain, — a resemblance which Beatrice seemed to have indulged a fantastic humor in heightening, both by the arrangement of her dress and the selection of its hues.

Approaching the shrub, she threw open her arms, as with a passionate ardor, and drew its branches into an intimate embrace — so intimate that her features were hidden in its leafy bosom and her glistening ringlets all intermingled with the flowers.”

Additionally – I can’t seem to stop referring to Poppy Brite and Storm Constantine lately – I could swear that one of the two wrote an retelling of this, or at least a short story inspired by, but a title properly suggestive of poisonous beauties isn’t jumping out at me from either of their bibliographies. Hmm.

Go to:
Nathaniel Hawthorne: bio and works reviewed

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 11.18.2012
Book from: Library. Lovecraft’s works are also available online in various archives, such as hplovecraft.com.

Last Halloween I realized I hadn’t really read any Lovecraft since high school, and set out to rectify that by picking up a couple collections from the library.

This one had a cover that I would class as “moderately metal” -

book wakingup

 

- and contained the following stories: Cool Air, The Hound, The Lurking Fear, The Terrible Old Man, The Unnamable, Beyond the Wall of Sleep, The Shadow Over Innsmouth, The White Ship, The Outsider, Herbert West – Reanimator, Arthur Jermyn, The Moon-Bog, The Temple, Dagon, From Beyond, and The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.

Assorted thoughts on some of those:

  • “The Hound” – Lovecraft scholar S. T. Joshi suggests that Lovecraft deliberately, (self-)parodically overheated the language in this Gothickest of Gothic tales, wherein two Decadents struck by “devastating ennui” stray from Baudelaire and Huysmans, and into the accursed pages of the Necronomicon. Unsurprisingly, it’s long been one of my favorites. It’s so ripely morbid and hysteria-stricken. I also have a fondness for doggish ghouls, and the one summoned in this story is pretty kingly.

(Poppy Z. Brite/Billy Martin, who provided a brief foreword for this collection, turned up the decadence of “The Hound” another couple of notches in his amply homoerotic Louisana Gothic retelling “His Mouth Will Taste of Wormwood,” which I remember reading with fierce delight in high school.)

  • “The Lurking Fear” boasted by far the best and most B-movie-worthy back-of-cover blurb for this collection – “An upstate New York clan degenerates into thunder-crazed mole like creatures with a taste for human flesh[!!!!!!!!!!!!]” – as well as, I think, the highest concentration of of delightfully absurd Lovecraftiness. Behold:

“With what manner of far-reaching tentacles did it prey?”

“Then, as I playfully shook him and turned him around, I felt the strangling tendrils of a cancerous horror whose roots reached into illimitable pasts and fathomless abysms of the night that broods beyond time.”

“But that fright was so mixed with wonder and alluring grotesqueness, that it was almost a pleasant sensation. Sometimes, in the throes of a nightmare when unseen powers whirl one over the roofs of strange dead cities toward the grinning chasm of Nis, it is a relief and even a delight to shriek wildly and throw oneself voluntarily along with the hideous vortex of dream-doom into whatever bottomless gulf may yawn.”

Abysms!!! Dream-doom!!!!!! That Thing about the Gryphons, too, hails from these parts.

  • “The Terrible Old Man” is a fable about the triumph of xenophobia. Hooray! It’s funny that Lovecraft attributes the same kind of thuggish, bestial degeneracy to non-WASP immigrants as he does to the ancient-monster-interbred New Englanders in “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” and to miscegenators in general (see also “Arthur Jermyn”). One imagines his ideal man as a skinny white fellow valiantly sandwiched between the forces of ancient evil and the rising, filthy tide of new immigrants. The taste of his neuroses – the smell of sheer fearfulness – is frequently almost overwhelming.
  • “The Unnamable” is striking in that Lovecraft seems to be having a conversation with some of his literary detractors in it, yet turns it into an earnest philosophical assertion rather than simply a cheeky comeback, as I’d initially assumed it might be. (Though there is an element of wishfully vengeful thinking to it, too, in the tradition of Poe.)

The narrator is an obvious stand-in for Lovecraft himself, and debates with a friend who “object[ed] to my preoccupation with the mystical and the unexplained; for although believing in the supernatural much more fully than I, he would not admit that it is sufficiently commonplace for literary treatment. … With him all things and feelings had fixed dimensions, properties, causes, and effects; and although he vaguely knew that the mind sometimes holds visions and sensations of far less geometrical, classifiable, and workable nature, he believed himself justified in drawing an arbitrary line and ruling out of court all that cannot be experienced and understood by the average citizen. Besides, he was almost sure that nothing can be really ‘unnamable’. It didn’t sound sensible to him.”

Of course, matters pan out such that the skeptical friend, too, is forced into a sense of cosmic and epistemological abjection. A lot of my thinking about life, the universe, and everything Unnamable has, in fact, been flavored by Lovecraftian cosmicism in the past few years – mostly instigated by Caitlín Kiernan‘s science fiction – so I was inclined to offer plauditory fingersnaps at the end of it.

Go to:
H. P. Lovecraft: bio and works reviewed

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 2.8.2013
Book from: Personal collection

“My name’s Quinn. If you buy into my reputation, I’m the most notorious demon hunter in New England. But rumors of my badassery have been slightly exaggerated. Instead of having kung-fu skills and a closet full of medieval weapons, I’m an ex-junkie with a talent for being in the wrong place at the right time. Or the right place at the wrong time. Or…whatever.

Wanted for crimes against inhumanity I (mostly) didn’t commit, I was nearly a midnight snack for a werewolf until I was ‘saved’ by a vampire calling itself the Bride of Quiet. Already cursed by a werewolf bite, the vamp took a pint out of me too. So now… now, well, you wouldn’t think it could get worse, but you’d be dead wrong.”

The recently released Blood Oranges looks to be kicking up some dust in the vicinity of urban/paranormal fantasy, which is as it should be: Caitlín Kiernan, writing under the pseudonym of Kathleen Tierney, aimed it as a rejoinder to many of the more questionable indulgences of the genre, whether they be tramp-stamped, pleather-clad heroines or beglittered vampires. It’s also a fast-paced, profane, and combustive little thriller with an unapologetically queer, thoroughly ornery protagonist who’s suffered the tragicomical fate of being transformed into the world’s only werepire. (At least her heroin addiction is gone.)

Since I lack a generalized sense of vindictiveness towards urban-whatever fantasy, I don’t find particular satisfaction in trope-busting per se, and some of Quinn’s acid meta-commentaries – about how if she had been a character in that kind of book, this would have happened that way, but she’s not, so it didn’t – do go on a bit. What does interest me about the device is how it helps inform Quinn as a character. As fun as pyrotechnics and various deaths-by-werewolf can be, I found it far more rousing to watch the way that, tedious particulars aside, Quinn constructs and references narratives, then unceremoniously shreds them in her wake. Junkies lie, she tells us very early on. And so, after she’s rattled off a grimly spectacular rendition of her origins as a monster-slayer, it soon comes out that in fact she’s “been stretching the truth like it was a big handful of raspberry-flavored saltwater taffy.” The real origin story involves significantly more clumsiness and bad timing on the part of the defunct monsters.

While Quinn never repeats that gambit to quite that degree in the rest of the novel, digressions and evasions continue to criss-cross and loop around her narration – pop-cultural riffs and potshots, reminiscences that slide back and forth across time and various shadings of the truth. Combined with the raw prose (Quinn warns us that she’s no writer), what comes across is the voice of a young woman who’s talking too fast, sometimes too loudly or too softly, compulsively running her hands through her hair, and not much meeting your eyes – someone rough, vibrant, and, despite the efforts of numerous supernatural beings, very much alive.

Quinn doesn’t have enough agency to be a really free-wheeling trickster character (like many of Kiernan’s characters, she’s trapped in a relationship with a dubiously benevolent protector/mentor/creator), but in her exuberant roughness, her scrappiness, her avowed suspicion of anything resembling a moral code, there’s a definite, electric touch of the trickster spirit. Temper that with the sense of submerged loss that’s another constant in Kiernan’s work, and you have a protagonist whose wry, sometimes melancholy self-awareness convincingly undergirds the satire.

Go to:
Caitlin R. Kiernan: bio and works reviewed
“So Runs the World Away,” by Caitlin R. Kiernan (2001): review by Emera
Alabaster, by Caitlin R. Kiernan (2006): review by Emera
The Red Tree, by Caitlin R. Kiernan (2009): review by Emera

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 4.24.2012
Book from: Personal collection

 “Strange things can happen at a crossroads, and the crossroads outside of Arcane, Missouri, is no exception. Thirteen-year-old Natalie Minks knows all the odd, mysterious tales about her little town – she grew up hearing her mother tell them. But even Natalie is not prepared for the strangeness that’s unleashed when Dr. Jake Limberleg’s Nostrum Fair and Technological Medicine Show rolls into Arcane with its bizarre tonics and elaborate, inexplicable machines. When Natalie finally gets a close look at the intricate maze of the medicine show, she knows in her gut that something about this caravan healers is not right… and that Arcane is in grave danger.”

Like Bradbury’s classic Something Wicked This Way Comes, Kate Milford’s The Boneshaker is a spooky circus mystery-adventure set in a Midwestern town, and featuring young protagonists who must reckon with the insinuation of evil into their lives. Realizations about both mortality and morality loom large. The Boneshaker has more of a Western feel, though, shaded with near-apocalyptic gloom; the seductions of the circus have an even more explicitly diabolical flavor. Nick Cave’s “Red Right Hand” would be right at home on a soundtrack for the novel, I think.

As protagonist, Natalie is an intriguing foil to the unearthly disruptions of Limberleg’s Nostrum Fair: inquisitive, skeptical, mechanically minded, a little bristly and imperious. Admirably, her inquisitiveness extends to the emotional realm, as increasingly throughout the book, she tries to get inside the heads of the people she’s known for all her life, but frequently taken for granted. From the townspeople who have encountered evil in its various forms before, including her own mother, she gleans haunting snatches of narrative that deepen the novel’s Biblical mythos and lend it an absorbing sense of grandeur and pathos.

Unfortunately, Milford’s prose, though carefully detailed, is on the flat and list-y side, even when she write scenes that should be demonically animated:

“She didn’t have to be told to run. The harlequin lunged after her.

She sprinted and dodged, not caring which twists and turns she took in the maze of tents. Bells jingled overhead; the harlequin had taken to the wires again.

Her feet kicked up dust and slid on old straw. The things in her arms stirred restlessly. The Amazing Quinn raced alongside and above on a wire parallel to her path.”

And so on; the rhythm and syntax remain monotonous, and the descriptive choices expected. It’s troublesome, too, that one of Natalie’s mentors seems to have been tipped out directly from the Magical Negro mold. “Nothing to do but play my guitar and dispense advice to white folks in need, doot de doo…”

What Milford does do beautifully is frame rational-minded Natalie’s collision with the realization that the world is insistently, terrifyingly irrational. Her town and the crossroads are much older and stranger than she thinks they are; many of the adults around her have known far more suffering and struggle than she could have imagined; and moreover – worst of all, even – they, too, are fallible and vulnerable. Milford has things to say, too, about the power of story and memory, and weaves in the usual YA subplot of learning to stand your ground in the face of fear, but Natalie’s coming to grips with the pervasiveness of evil and mortality is by far the most affecting narrative strand.

I won’t be seeking out the sequels, but all in all, The Boneshaker was an entertaining read, both thoughtful and goosebumpily suspenseful, with satisfying lashings of American folklore and Christian mythology. I’d recommend it as a companion for a thunderstormy summer afternoon.

For a previously reviewed dark fantasy also featuring Western and Biblical touches (and, coincidentally, a red-haired doctor of dubious humanity), see: The Music of Razors, by Cameron Rogers.

Go to:
Kate Milford: bio and works reviewed
The Music of Razors, by Cameron Rogers (2007): review by Emera

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 10.8.2012
Read the story online at Tor.com here.

This is my first time reading anything by Rachel Swirsky; I’ve had her multiply-award-winning/nominated “The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers Beneath the Queen’s Window” bookmarked for a while, but got lured into this one first on the basis that it’s illustrated by Sam Weber, one of my favorite contemporary illustrators of weird stuff.

“Portrait of Lisane de Patagnia” is a dark, erotically charged tale concerning an embittered artist with more magical than painterly ability, who is summoned to fulfill a final commission for her former teacher, the incandescent, ambition-devoured Lisane de Patagnia. In this world, magically imbued artwork is considered inferior to sheer human talent, which is a good parallel to contemporary regard of technology-assisted/-enhanced skills – the devaluation by some of digital artwork as compared to traditional, say.

The story’s Italian-Renaissance-inspired setting is refreshing, and the few descriptions of magic are unsettlingly beautiful, playing off of the cool poise of the narrator’s voice. (I particularly liked the opening description: the narrator’s process of painting a river sips away at the jug of water next to her.)

However, though Swirsky is clearly familiar with the principles and history of visual art (the story touches on a Brunelleschi-analogue who invented linear perspective, which serves as the basis of a pleasing image of his artistic lineage stretching out into the present), she doesn’t write about any of it very movingly. The descriptions of composition are labored (“the oval of his head bowed toward the shaking rectangle of his chest, his newly shorn hair dark against his pale scalp”), and when writing about color, rather than the evocative, alchemical specificity of actual artists’ pigments, she relies on a commonplace toolkit of “emerald” green, “faint yellow,” and so forth. When you could be using names like Naples yellow, madder lake, azurite, and bone black instead, why wouldn’t you? The cumulative effect was that I rarely felt as if I were actually inside an artist’s head.

When it comes to the story’s negotiation of the relationship between artist and art, I cringed to see a scene dramatically hinged on the old chestnut, “What is art but madness anyway?” Clearly it’s meant as an indictment of Lisane’s psychological failings that she pulls that one out, but such literal use was to me indicative of the story’s failings as a whole: it renders a conflict centered on romantic clichés about art in careful but often broad strokes, and lacks in freshness and exactitude of image and feeling as a result. It’s thoughtful, but not complex. (See also the fact that it succumbs to the temptation to explain its conclusions, thumpety-thump, in the last few paragraphs, when it could have ended just as well with them hanging unsaid but obvious.)

Go to:

Rachel Swirsky: author bio and works reviewed
Read the story at Tor.com

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 7.22.2012
Book from: Personal collection

I know the universe loves me because there’s a new comic called The New Deadwardians, and it’s about vampires, zombies, and class conflicts in alternate Edwardian England. I saw the first issue (from March of this year; there are to be 8 issues total) still hanging around in a comic store, picked it up, read it as soon as I got home, and wished I had bought the rest.

The cover art gives away the punchline, though the first issue never says it outright: the English aristocracy have embraced vampirism – “the cure” – in order to escape the zombified lower classes. (It’s not clear yet what’s happened to the rest of the world.) As Twilight literalized class (and race) conflict via Bella’s choice between sleek, chilly, uber-white vampires vs. rough-n-tumble, blue-collar, Native American werewolves, so Deadwardians does with poker-faced pish-posh vampires vs. sloppy Cockney zombies. Caught in between are living servants, police officers, and other members of the working class, who also appear distantly as angry unionists demonstrating against the military zoning of London. The undead – and presumably some living survivors – have been pushed back beyond “Zone B,” and hence are referred to as Zone-B’s. Har de har. I also winced at the use of “Deadwardian” in the comic itself – it’s too cutesy to be believable in-universe. Luckily, it’s the only false note struck in this issue.

The protagonist is George Suttle, a vampirized detective afflicted with some degree of existential angst, and a pruny mum who should appeal to fans of Maggie Smith as the dowager duchess in Downton Abbey. The end of the issue sees Suttle confronted with a puzzling mystery: the murder of an already undead man.

Most of the issue is devoted to building up atmosphere and setting. Artist I. N. J. Culbard and colorist Patricia Mulvihill work gorgeously together in the ligne clair/clear-line style, with smooth inking and planes of muted color that emphasize the setting’s eerie placidity and the script’s deliberate, brooding pace. A scene of Suttle walking into his almost entirely deserted office building, its many untenanted desks draped over with white sheets, and numerous shots of meticulously rendered architecture looming over sparse inhabitants, recall the trademark scenes of deserted London streets that opened 28 Days Later – this is just a century earlier.

Gloomy atmosphere, sociopolitical satire, a burgeoning mystery, immersive art: I’m hooked. I can’t wait to see what Abnett and Culbard do with the rest of the series; I’m particularly excited to see how hard they’ll play the alternate history angle. The Edwardian era was characterized by both great economic disparity, and increasing social mobility and political activism – I can’t imagine the latter two will do very well against an immortal and literally parasitic upper class…

You can see a free 6-page preview of The New Deadwardians and a brief interview with Culbard here (source: L. A. Times – did you know they covered comics? I didn’t).

Go to:
Dan Abnett: bio and works reviewed

 

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Reviewer: Emera
Dates read: The very end of December 2011
Read from: Vampire Stories by Women, ed. by Stephen Jones (2001).

“Venus Rising on Water” (1991), by Tanith Lee:

“Like long hair, the weeds grew down the façades of the city, over shutters and leaden doors, into the pale green silk of the lagoon. Ten hundred ancient mansions crumbled. Sometimes a flight of birds was exhaled from their crowded mass, or a thread of smoke was drawn up into the sky. Day long a mist bloomed on the water, out of which distant towers rose like snakes of deadly gold. Once in every month a boat passed, carving the lagoon that had seemed thickened beyond movement. Far less often, here and there, a shutter cracked open and the weed hair broke, a stream of plaster fell like a blue ray. Then, some faint face peered out, probably eclipsed by a mask. It was a place of veils. Visitors were occasional…”

Tanith Lee, you’re my favorite. Lee frames this story as a “clash between the future and the past” – I read it as something approaching cosmic horror, although here the cosmic is actually subsumed by more domestic monsters. Either way, Lee writes a humanity under threat.

A plucky girl reporter with the wonderfully foolishly exuberant name of Jonquil Hare goes exploring in a decaying future Venice, haunted by white rats, holograms of inhabitants past, and an ancient astronomer’s painting of a blue-skinned woman. (Lunar/aquatic blue-green, blue-yellow is the story’s sickly, unearthly color theme.) This not being the comfortingly rational universe of Tintin or Holmes, the irrational and unearthly win out, resoundingly declaring both their supremacy over and indifference to humanity. Jonquil is left in a destabilized reality. Sexual unease and gender ambiguity amplify the sense of murkiness, clammy fever dreams.

 —–

Another excellent name: Gala Blau’s 2001 “Outfangthief” takes its title from a Middle English term meaning “the right of a lord to pursue a thief outside the lord’s own jurisdiction.” This is the first splatterpunk – horror driven by extremity of violence, physical violence as emotional climax – I’ve read in a long while, and the effect does seem dated to me now. The villain’s cartoonish perversion takes away from the tragedy of the protagonist: a mother on the run from debts, who sees her teenage daughter drifting, and eventually, taken away from her.

Still, I was taken with Blau’s smoky, dire prose (“…Laura’s hand was splayed against the window, spreading mist from the star her fingers made. She was watching the obliteration of her view intently”) and Gothily surreal vampires (“The women were hunched on the back fence, regarding her with owlish eyes. They didn’t speak. Maybe they couldn’t”). I’ll be keeping an eye out for more of her work.

—-

I saved Caitlín Kiernan‘s “So Runs the World Away” (2001) for nearly last because, as with Lee, I admire and enjoy just about every one of her works. “So Runs…” introduces us to Dead Girl and Bobby, whom I first met (achronologically) in the collection Alabaster. As in “Les Fleurs Empoisonnées” in that collection, cruel, eccentric, clannish undead who dabble in taxidermy make an appearance; the emotional center is the kernel of less-dysfunctional family formed by Dead Girl and Bobby, and Dead Girl’s subaqueous stream-of-consciousness as she fumbles to distinguish her memories from those of her victims.

“And at the muddy bottom of the Seekonk River, in the lee of the Henderson Bridge, Dead Girl’s eyelids flutter as she stirs uneasily, frightening fish, fighting sleep and her dreams. But the night is still hours away, waiting on the far side of the scalding day, and so she holds Bobby tighter and he sighs and makes a small, lost sound that the river snatches and drags away towards the sea.”

The story ultimately hinges on Dead Girl’s choice to separate herself, and her chosen family: to cut them loose from paralyzing and toxic influences. Ultimately, she declares herself distinct, individual (though not solitary), and therefore valuable. Like many of Kiernan’s stories, then, “So Runs…” can be read as being about the negotiation of an abusive relationship.

- E

Go to:

Tanith Lee: bio and works reviewed
Caitlín R. Kiernan: bio and works reviewed

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 11.24.11
Book from: Personal collection

“Of all the things Anya expected to find at the bottom of an old well, a new friend was not one of them. Especially not a new friend who’s been dead for a century. Falling down a well is bad enough, but Anya’s normal life might actually be worse. She’s embarrassed by her immigrant family, self-conscious about her body, and she’s pretty much given up on fitting in at school.

Anya really could use a friend – even a ghost. But her new BFF isn’t kidding about the “Forever” part . . .”

Great characters, great dialogue, fabulous art. Brosgol’s style is elastic and rounded, equally ideal for conveying weightless movement and solid figures; the same could be said of her writing.

The resolutions to Anya’s emotional and social conflicts head towards conventional teen-movie territory, but Brosgol has such a light touch (her sharply contemporary dialogue often comes in handy) that none of the “wholesome realization! reconciliation and mutual understanding!” moments feel too heavy or forced. The climax, in particular, surprises by deliberately backing off of a too-easy, emotionally violent “conclusion.” I love how honest Anya comes to be about her own shortcomings. I’m also rather in love with her acerbic, squinty, spiky-skinny best friend Siobhan:

Siobhan
Siobhan, Exhibit A.

I found the comic a clear-eyed exploration of how so much of what makes teen girls unhappy – social pressure, body image, embarrassing family, lack of perspective – can come close to making some into little monsters of selfishness, and how they/we (been there, not so long ago) can come to back away from that brink. All in all: Anya’s Ghost is funny, scary, sad, and beautifully drawn.

(I first found Brosgol’s work, by the way, through the Draw This Dress Tumblr she shares with Emily Carroll, where the two post their lively illustrations of historical and sometimes not-so-historical fashion. Anya actually models a Victorian bathing suit in one post!)

Go to:
Vera Brosgol: bio and works reviewed

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 2011.10.16
Book from: Personal collection

Cassel Sharpe is the only non-magical member of a family of curse workers, in a world where magic is illegal and hence “worker” families constitute the magical equivalent of the mafia. Despite his disappointing failure to inherit curse-working powers, Cassel somehow managed to murder his childhood friend and love, Lila – though why he can’t remember. Add in life-threatening bouts of nightmares and sleepwalking, a dysfunctional crime family, and the beginnings of an elaborate conspiracy, and Cassel’s attempts at passing himself off as a normal kid seem like they might be over for good.

I read White Cat in one sitting after accidentally meeting Holly Black at a book festival and picking up a copy from her. This is addictive stuff: magical con artists and Russian mobsters; family melodrama; a hard-driving, twisty-turny plot; a mouthy, self-deprecating protagonist with likably grounded sidekicks. I must give a particular hurrah for there being a male Asian-American character: Sam Yu, Cassel’s roommate, a theater geek whose vehicle of choice is a converted hearse.

Black’s prose is a lot sharper and cleaner than I remember it being in her Modern Faerie trilogy, which I sorta-loved for its heroines, but mostly remember as a swill of angst. Cassel angsts plenty, too (I admit to skimming some of the whinier passages), but there are moments – particularly the ending – where his emotional experience deepens into real, wrenching anguish. That, and plenty of sharp detail – the world-building, Cassel’s slickly laid out cons, characters who convince you of their reality – kept me invested. I can’t wait to see where the series goes from here. Let this stand as a reminder to myself to pick up Red Glove whenever I find the chance.

Go to:
Holly Black: bio and works reviewed

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Reviewer: Emera
Dates read: The very end of December 2011
Read from: Vampire Stories by Women, ed. by Stephen Jones (2001). (I’ll be putting together an index post for this collection once I’m done reviewing the stories I found the most interesting.)

Roberta Lannes says in the introduction to her short story, “Turkish Delight” (2001),that the most interesting element of the vampiric repertoire to her is the seduction. The vampiric “granddad” in this story seduces by shaping himself to fill a lack; his eventual victim is Andrew, a gentle-hearted boy who lives in claustrophobically close quarters with his aunt and controlling, abusive mother, and dreams of finding his absent father’s family. (Enter the vampire…) Lannes does an excellent job of drawing the web of tensions and hidden desires at work in Andrew’s household, with its additional layer of vampiric subtext in how Andrew’s mother uses him as fuel for her pettish rages. Unfortunately, the end of the story loses emotional focus, once a slew of more conventionally “genre” elements are introduced (luxurious mansion full of vampire victims, etc.), and the narration seems to drift out of contact with Andrew’s experience. (It’s hard to imagine a 10-year-old boy thinking that “everything the old man said was full of vagaries and obfuscation.”) Still, Lannes’ story is often moving in its examination of deception and manipulation.

Stupid admission: I often confuse Elizabeth Hand with Elizabeth Bear. Same with Gene Wolfe and Gary Wolfe. That said – Elizabeth HAND’s “Prince of Flowers” (1988) starts with some absolutely gorgeous evocations of the vasty, esoteric innards of Washington D.C.’s Natural History Museum:

“Her favorite was Paleontology, an annex where the air smelled damp and clean, as though beneath the marble floors tricked hidden water, undiscovered caves, mammoth bones to match those stored above…

The Anthropology Department was in the most remote corner of the museum; its proximity to the boiler room made it warmer than the Natural Sciences wing, the air redolent of spice woods and exotic unguents used to polish arrowheads and axe-shafts. The ceiling reared so high overhead that the rickety lamps swayed slightly in drafts that Helen longed to feel. The constant subtle motion of the lamps sent flickering waves of light across the floor. Raised arms of Balinese statues seemed to undulate, and points of light winked behind the empty eyeholes of feathered masks.”

The prose continues to be gorgeous, but “Prince of Flowers” (the eponymous resident vampire is a beautiful Balinese puppet that Helen steals from the museum) unfortunately runs along monster-movie lines, and so lacks thematic or emotional resonance, outside of the unease conjured by the increasingly sinisterly lush descriptions.

Still, considering that this was Hand’s first published story, I’m definitely going to make a point of looking for more of her work. I’ve also read a couple of her reviews for F&SF, and found them a pleasure to read – thoughtful and wide-ranging.

Go to:
Stephen Jones: bio and works reviewed
Vampire Stories by Women: “Rampling Gate,” “Miss Massingberd”

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