The Summer of the Ubume, by Natsuhiko Kyogoku (1994) E

Date read: 12.27.09
Book from: Personal collection, via Vertical, Inc.
Reviewer: Emera

Natsuhiko Kyogoku - The Summer of the Ubume

Translated 2009 by Alexander O. Smith & Elye J. Alexander. Original title Ubume no Natsu.

“Concerning the Ubume –
Of all the tales told, that of the ubume is the most confounding. It is said that when a woman who is with child passes away, her attachment to the babe takes physical form. She appears then as an apparition, drenched in blood from the waist down, and crying like a bird, saying “wobaryo, wobaryo.” Presented with stories of people transforming into such creatures after they die, how can we truly believe in Hell? It is beyond understanding.
Report on One Hundred Stories
Yamaoka Motosyoshi, Junkyo 3 (1686)”

In the classic mode of the genteel ghost story, a man visits his friend, and shares with him a strange tale: the daughter of a distinguished family of medical practitioners has been pregnant for twenty-one months without giving birth – a pregnancy that was discovered soon after her husband inexplicably disappeared from a sealed room. Scandalous! Throw in Japanese folklore, Gothic dread, and way too much pop psychology, and you have The Summer of the Ubume.

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

Date read: 10.31.09 (unintentional, but awesome)
Read from: Personal collection
Reviewer: Emera

It’s raining, my socks are wet, and for these reasons I think I’d rather finish up my long-overdue review of Caitlín R. Kiernan‘s The Red Tree than do anything else.  And as there’s a red oak outside my window, I took a picture of it looking appropriately old, red, and potentially carnivorous at about the same time that I finished the book:

The review is spoiler-free, by the way.

The Red Tree is one of the best books I’ve read all year, and I’ve already been itching to go back to it and let it screw with my head some more. I’m not quite sure what I was expecting when I started it (probably something more lushly Gothic, like Alabaster), but what I read wasn’t what I was expecting, and then it was better than what I expected. It’s a jagged, rattling, hurtful book, and incredibly atmospheric. The horror is creeping and primal, almost inarticulable. People and paintings and animal bones appear and disappear; proportions and distances are warped; the brittle, chain-smoking protagonists labor under constant, sapping heat and suffer from surreal nightmares. At the same time, the emotions underlying it are so real: reading the book feels like holding an artifact of life, a snarled-up package of fury and self-hatred and despair. Yeah, it’s not the happiest book to read, but its painful authenticity is a large part of what makes it so compelling. There are no pretensions to darkness or the Gothic here, just a lifetime’s worth of the real thing.

After all, protagonist Sarah Crowe is a clear analogue of Kiernan herself: she’s a snarly, black-tempered writer of commercially unsuccessful dark fantasy who lives in Rhode Island, and she struggles with writer’s block and a seizure disorder. In Sarah’s case, she leaves the South to escape the memories of her failed relationship with an artist named Amanda, who committed suicide. Once in New England, she settles into an ancient farm house whose property is marked by a red oak of incredible age and size. Unsurprisingly, she develops a morbid fascination with the mythology surrounding the tree – in particular a half-finished manuscript left by the house’s last tenant in the basement – at the same time that a painter named Constance moves in upstairs. Cue much petty sniping, frustrated desire, and poorly concealed, creeping obsession.

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

Sandman, 10 (and maybe 5) years later

“Change, change, change: Sandman and the ’90s”

I’ve had this link in my bookmarks-to-follow-up-on forever, but didn’t get around to checking it out till now, and thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s an essay about Neil Gaiman‘s The Sandman by the (unnamed?) blogger of Grand Hotel Abyss, and it does a number of wonderful things. One, it elegantly examines the series’ central conflict – how to cope with change – and the ways in which the series’ characters choose to meet that conflict. I’ve always had trouble taking a step back from works and simply synthesizing like this, especially when the work in question is as sprawling, loopy, and multi-layered as Sandman, so I love finding lucidly written essays like this one that help give me a better vantage point.

Two, it considers the series’ characters in light of the particular tensions and concerns of the 90’s, of which it’s often considered an emblematic work. Of course this is only one reference frame within which to examine the series, but as someone whose knowledge of Culture stalled somewhere in the middle of 19th-century France, I found it a very useful and approachable introduction to the series’ immediate literary relevance. (I am yearning to say something about zeitgeist here, but I’m trying to establish an academic buzzword limit, especially since the essay itself segues into some discussion of pre- and postmodernism – though gracefully, I think.)

Three, it considers the series from the perspective of someone who first read the series at 16, and probes the question of why, like so many 16-year-olds at the time, she found the series so relevant – and how that same reader, 10 years older and wiser, feels about it now.

Continue reading Sandman, 10 (and maybe 5) years later

Stalking Tender Prey, by Storm Constantine (1995) K

Date Read: 9.24.07
Book From: Personal Collection
Reviewer: Kakaner

Summary

Stalking Tender Prey sets the stage for an epic trilogy by introducing the intertwining stories of the Grigori (fallen angels) family line which begin in a little countryside town, Lil Moor. Certain people in Lil Moor discover latent psychic abilities and the arrival of a traveling Grigori triggers a cascade of events that uncover the Grigori roots of Lil Moor. (First book of the Grigori Trilogy)

Review

Unfortunately, this book, and subsequently trilogy, pales in comparison to Wraeththu and the Magravandias trilogy. I’m a little bit surprised because Constantine has plenty of material to work with and sets up a rich landscape and sophisticated characters, but fails to do much with them.

I’d say the best point of this book was the character development, what I believe is consistently one of Constantine‘s strengths. Constantine somehow (I wouldn’t say masterfully) uses dialogue, subtle nuances of action, and atmosphere to create enchanting characters, who whether by their own self-realizations or due to the fantastical circumstances of their current lives, develop in amazing ways. Also unlike Wraeththu and Magravandias characters, each of the ones in Stalking Tender Prey seem to be shrouded in this veil of impenetrable mystery, and unfortunately I haven’t been able to quite grasp or connect to any on a personal level.

However, there was just about… no plot. The only plot that moved was a recurring flashback that mainly consisted of character develop of the Grigori traveler. Well, maybe “no plot” is a bit harsh, but the novel was basically a stagnant story about this little town in which nothing happens. Nevertheless, there was a climax and sex with a cat. Judging from this book, there is plenty of potential for the second book with respect to characters and plot threads, so I am still excited.

Go to:
Storm Constantine

The Little Stranger, by Sarah Waters (2009) K

Date Read: 9.26.09
Book From: Personal Collection
Reviewer: Kakaner

Summary

The story follows Doctor Faraday, a lonely bachelor who calls upon the residents of the once glorious Hundreds Hall and begins to form a friendship with the remaining family and staff that reside there. His friendship to the family becomes a crux on which they rely, and soon he finds himself involved in ever stranger circumstances at Hundreds Hall.  The interactions of the story are characterized by mysterious fires, writings, and sounds with the underlying ever-increasing tension of Faraday’s relationship to the mother and daughter of the house.

Review

It took me a really long time to review this because I couldn’t form a concrete opinion. Basically, there was good and bad, but the good was oh so good and the bad was characterized by raging mediocrity. Every time the scales tipped in favor of one side, I’d remember something to the contrary and the dilemma would reassert itself.

The Good: Superb writing and storytelling. Of course, it is apparent from Waters‘ four previous novels that she knows how to write, and once again she demonstrates her ability to spin a tale out of not an incredible amount of material. I was reading along the first 100 pages, and I was still, somewhat inexplicably, waiting eagerly to find out what would transpire during Faraday’s fourth visit to the same dreary hall. There’s no rampant drama or lgbt overtones that characterize her previous novels, which I found quite refreshing, as if I were here for the sole purpose of enjoying raw word manipulation.

Continue reading The Little Stranger, by Sarah Waters (2009) K

The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror 16, ed. Stephen Jones (2005) E

Date read: 8.3.09
Read from: Personal collection
Reviewer: Emera

I picked this and #15 up at a used book sale, partly out of a fit of pique that I couldn’t find anything else to my taste – even though I didn’t know anything about the actual quality of the anthology series. Luckily, every story in this was well written and solidly above average, which is more than can be said for most of the anthologies I’ve read in my life.

To begin with the best, my absolute favorites, in no particular order:

  • Kelly Link’s feverish, extremely unnerving “Stone Animals” (come on, even the title is creepy). Young couple with poor communication and two small children, including a sleepwalking daughter, moves into a new house where all is not quite well – classic set-up for horror, and Link plays it gleefully. I imagined her whooping maniacally while writing the story, truth be told.
  • Lisa Tuttle’s “My Death,” the story of a recently widowed writer who travels in search of new inspiration, and becomes strangely entangled in the legacy of an early 20th-century painter and his muse. This builds slowly, but goes places that are increasingly strange and tap into very primitive, raw forces. The ending was completely unpredictable and bewildering in the best way possible. Masterfully executed, all in all.
  • Michael Marshall Smith’s supremely atmospheric and ever-so-delicately frightening “This Is Now.” Describing it would ruin it, so I won’t. This gave me the most chills-down-the-spine read, yet the fear is so deliciously subtle and evanescent.

Continue reading The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror 16, ed. Stephen Jones (2005) E

Alabaster, by Caitlín R. Kiernan (2006) E

Date read: 8.31.09
Read from: Personal collection, via Subterranean Press
Reviewer: Emera

Alabaster collects five works of Kiernan’s short fiction, all centered on her character Dancy Flammarion, first introduced in her novel Threshold. (Note that I’d never read any of Kiernan’s work before this, so this collection clearly stands well on its own, both as introduction to Dancy as a character and to Kiernan’s work in general.) Dancy is an orphaned, albino girl who seeks out and kills monsters on the command of a terrifying angel. Each of the stories records her encounter with one of the monsters that the angel sends her to find, and peels back a layer of Dancy’s past and psyche, to reveal how deeply damaged and used she is.

To say that Dancy is a tragic character doesn’t even come close. Each of the monsters she meets, though technically monstrous so far as it comes to killing people in horrible ways and so on, is far more self-aware than is Dancy – and thus, in a certain sense, more fully human. Likewise, they can see her situation far more clearly than she ever does. Ultimately, what the stories show the reader is that Dancy is a monster of another kind: a crippled soul who will never truly understand who she is, what she does, or why she does it, and will never be loved by another being, human or otherwise. I would like to think that she’s not irredeemable, but at least within these stories, she’s hopelessly lost and severed from humanity, and sustained only by her faith in an angel that the reader soon realizes has no interest in her as an individual and is, of course, yet another kind of monster in an endless and highly relative bestiary.

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