weird fiction

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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.

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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.

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Storm Constantine

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Date Read: 7.05.06
Book From: Borrowed from Kathy
Reviewer: Kakaner

Summary

A culling song is a song Africans used to sing to people about to die to ease the suffering of passing. However, one particular culling song is able to kill instantly upon being heard. A reporter investigating infant deaths discovers that by each infant’s death crib is a poem book opened to a culling song on page 27. He takes it upon himself to rid the evil and is determined to destroy all copies of the book.

Review

Lullaby has terribly interesting origins. Apparently,  Palahniuk’s father, Fred Palahniuk, and his girlfriend had been murdered by a man named Dale Shackleford in 1999. Palahniuk was asked to be part of the capital punishment decision, and this prompted him to start working on Lullaby, a novel very much centered on death. Shackleford was ultimately sentenced to death, and Palahniuk was said to have struggled very much with the decision.

Initially, I was incredibly excited to read this based on the summary. I mean, doesn’t it just sound so hauntingly dark and magical? And with an amazing horror premise to boot? The exposition was gripping, intense, and extremely interesting, but of course, weird. Lullaby is written in the signature Palahniuk prose– hard, gritty, a stop-and-go that is slightly nauseating. But as the book progressed, I grew more and more disappointed as the story of the book simply did not call for this type of prose. The story was still there, but it seemed so scattered halfway in.

Instead of experiencing horrible sucking immersion, I ended up plodding along noncommittally.  I think Lullaby definitely needed dark and lyrical prose to intensify the entire premise of the culling song. I feel like since Palahniuk’s writing is so abstract, it is much more appropriate for schizoid general ideas like in Fight Club rather than a concentrated linear storyline. Ultimately, the story fell apart for me and the ending was a huge letdown.

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Chuck Palahniuk

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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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Date read: 2.6.09
Read from: Originally borrowed from Kakaner; now in personal collection, via Burning Building
Reviewer: Emera

At twelve, David falls asleep on a schoolbus, and meets, literally, the girl of his dreams. In real life, he grows up, marries a woman he thinks he loves, and proceeds to destroy both of their lives. He is unable to shed the belief that somewhere beyond the world he sees every day, there’s another one that’s more vital, more beautiful – and most importantly, is home to the girl whom he still glimpses in maddeningly brief and unpredictable snatches. Soon, even his waking life is invaded by the inexplicable: radio towers appear and disappear; cryptic cassette tapes appear on his welcome mat; he wakes up in his car in places that he doesn’t remember driving to. David is terrified, infuriated, and eventually obsessed by these “messages,” desperate to take control and escape a life that seems to hold no meaning except for the conviction that love lies elsewhere.

The Inside is a strange book. Though I hate to pin it down with genre terms (I know, then why am I doing it?), it’s most easily described as part psychological horror/suspense, part romance, part weird. After Kakaner lent me her copy (I bought my own later), I was haunted by it every moment that I wasn’t actually reading it, quite as obsessed as David, and a little frightened. Ultimately, I didn’t even care so much about the eventual reveals as I did about the process of getting to them, which is absolutely absorbing, often moving, and beautiful in a crazed, pained kind of way. I do think the novel falters towards the end, which I found somewhat rushed and a little incoherent, and there are certain other moments when Marion tries too hard to maintain the book’s tone, and slips into wryer-than-thou territory. Overall, though, Marion is an extremely assured writer, with a distinctive, effective voice and good control of pacing and plot.

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Date read: 6.03.09

Book from: Personal Collection

Reviewer: Kakaner

Summary

The City & The City is dark, brooding, and meticulous. It is the story of Inspector Tyador Borlu who investigates a mysterious and highly delicate murder case. “Highly delicate” for Borlu soon discovers that he must invoke Breach, a mysterious judicial force that governs disputes in the rare case that they involve a crossing of the cities, Ul Qoma and Beszel. However, help is not so easily found and Borlu must undertake this investigation himself. Using not-exactly-by-the-book methods, Borlu uncovers mysteries of the murdered girl, the very archaelogy of these two odd cities, and Breach.

Review

Mieville pulls the reader in with promises of the same great and dark fantastical adventures of his previous novels– we concoct a terrible conspiracy in our minds when first confronted with the murder, we imagine the city divide must have come about as a result of a great otherworldly battle, we provide ancient magical powers for each mention of a mysterious artifact… and although these theories are shattered one by one as the novel progresses, we still imagine the epic Big Reveal will, in fact, prove all our thoughts to be correct. Instead, The City & The City is cold and harsh, and there is never a magical solution. There is definitely a depressing, suffocating atmosphere that comes from knowing that every death, every misunderstanding, every unnecessarily gruesome fact of life is caused for humans, by humans.

I have to say I harbored this niggling disappointment each time a plot turn indicated that there was in fact no magic. I was naive– I should have paid closer attention to the genre titles “noir fiction” and “weird fiction”, but Mieville has always had a way with enchanting the story no matter what genre. I found the mentions of Myspace and Chuck Palanhiuk highly jarring, but undoubtedly genius. These references really made the reader think and realize he was reading about a country off somewhere in the Middle East that existed in the same world at the same time, that if he travelled far enough he would perchance bump into the city of Beszel. This effect was definitely unnerving and brought the story closer to home.

In many ways, I found Beszel and Ul Qoma to be the darkest of any of Mieville’s cities to date. Beszel and Ul Qoma encapsulate the grimness of today’s most rundown urban centers, without the usual gems of beauty that one can find in Mieville’s other works. While New Crobuzon was covered with filth, death, and corruption, the reader was still made to understand the powerful potential of inner beauty– Lin’s amazing (although admittedly grotesque) artwork, the majestic surrealism of The Weaver, the slowly nurtured romance between Bellis and Silas– and in the end, the Baslag books were just as much about the good as they were about the bad.  And of course, the London underground setting of King Rat also contained an edgy artistically musical appeal. I didn’t see any of this hope or light in these cities– whenever I uncovered more about a good person or a seemingly magical concept, there was simply only… dirt and muck underneath. Basically, I didn’t come away seeing promise dangling on the ends of story threads in the same way I did for other Mieville works. This, perhaps more than the downward spiral to nowhere, frightened me the most and in many ways, made the story as a whole less appealing.

This is not to say that The City & The City isn’t another great work of art created by China Mieville. I was so accustomed to floating along in the waves of Mieville’s greatly fantastical settings and characters, only to find myself rudely shoved into a hard and entirely unforgiving setting. I am under the opinion that this novel is extremely mislabeled as a fantasy work…there is an explanation and a science behind everything plot turn, and ultimately, my point is do NOT walk into The City & The City expecting fantasy. Although I have not read much detective noir fiction, I can confidently say The City & The City must be among the cream of the crop– as usual with Mieville, you can see the literary quality dripping off the edges of each page and feel the weight of a great imagination.

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China Mieville

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Date Read: 2.17.06

Book From: Personal collection

Reviewer: Kakaner

Summary

Looking for Jake is Mieville’s first published short story collection, containing tidbits of every lustworthy genre– weird and urban fantasy, sci-fi, noird, horror, and of course, baslag. The collection is an extremely welcome contrast to Mieville’s previous works– one, his first novel, and the other three a sprawling epic trilogy. Mieville definitely clings (and I suspect will always cling) to the urban setting, which in my opinion, is the best type of backdrop to broil all types of conspiracies, folklore, and war. In the case of suspense and horror literature, I feel the urban setting also lends itself very well to relatability, and while you as the reader might find yourself soaring to distant lands and imaginations with high fantasy, urban fantasy brings the weird and excitement directly to you. My reactions to the stories in this collection range from indifferent to eyes-glued-to-the-page drooling– here I have some thoughts and mini-summaries of each story:

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Date Read: 5.24.09
Book From: Borrowed from kakaner
Reviewer: Emera

The Etched City is one of the most memorable books I’ve read this year, and certainly one of the best and most memorable fantasy books I have ever read. I hate to make hand-waving pronouncements like that, but I really can’t think of any other way to begin this review.

The book follows two protagonists, both wanted for having fought on the losing side of a civil war: Raule, an emotionally deadened physician, and Gwynn, an elegant, amoral, and apparently indestructible gun- and swordsman. Somewhat begrudgingly reunited by circumstance, the two flee the Copper Country, to lose themselves in what Raule prematurely hopes will be a “proper” civilization.

Bishop’s writing in the beginning is stark and straightforward, but daubed with bursts of unexpected vividness, as she describes the Copper Country, a searing, deathly land that seems equal parts Middle East, American Old West, and Australian outback. The scenes are painted with a memorable and somehow terrible clarity – there’s a frightening kind of oppression and lostness to the Copper Country, with its sand-channeled beds of nail grass, black ruins, and rotting hamlets whose stillness is punctuated only by gunfights. (The book opens with a gratifying bang, as a four-man gunfight ends in the shooting and decapitation of three of the four.) The weight of the country, the sense of both mythic and mundane desolation, actually reminded me of many scenes in Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea Cycle. Read the rest of this entry »

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