western

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Rikki Ducornet, “Wormwood” (1997)
Available in the Iowa Review and in Ducornet’s collection The Word ‘Desire’

Strange, jagged, haunted, heated – like an animal taking little bites out of a freshly killed rabbit. Two children whisper dark stories and dirty, childish love-words to each other as a grandfather lies dying and a terrifying sculpture presides. The last batch of short fiction that I read by Ducornet – her collection The One Marvelous Thing – tended to the precious, in my opinion. I much preferred “Wormwood” for its rawness, its closeness to nightmare or fever-dream.

Stephen King, “A Death” (2015)
Read for free online: The New Yorker

The jury took an hour and a half. “We voted to hang him on the first ballot,” Kelton Fisher said later, “but we wanted it to look decent.”

A spare Western tale of moral doubt and casual miscarriage of justice. I admired its extreme tautness of language, and darkly funny dialogue. I had to read it two or three times before I’d satisfied myself that I’d explored plot possibilities other than the most obvious one presented at the story’s end.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “Apollo” (2015)
Read for free online: The New Yorker

and

Rikki Ducornet’s “Bazar” (1991)
Available in the Chicago Review and in Ducornet’s collection The Complete Butcher’s Tales

These two get filed together on account of both being stories of repressed homosexual desire – one narrated by a Nigerian man revisiting his childhood friendship with his parents’ houseboy, and the other set in the heat and clutter of a bazaar in French Algeria shortly before its war for independence in the 1950’s.

“Apollo” is quietly tragic; disappointed affection turns into a moment of severance, of irreversible cruelty; this brings us back round to contemplate things initially unsaid by the the adult narrator. The story is also very much about class, and about the wary orbit that children maintain around their parents, and about reevaluating things seen at a distance (parents included).

Speaking of orbiting: Adichie relates in the accompanying interview that the etymology for “Apollo,” a colloquial term for conjunctivitis, might have to do with the Apollo-11 mission, and the American Academy of Optometry confirms so here. In the body of the story itself, no etymology is mentioned, and so I loved the term’s potent mysteriousness – its bittersweet glow, its intimations of an idealized, youthful homoeroticism, and of health and healing. (On revisiting the story, I noticed that the houseboy who preceded Raphael has the similarly suggestive name of “Hyginus” – also Greek, and having to do with health.)

Ducornet’s “Bazar” is almost explosively cruel by comparison – further explosions being foreshadowed by the impending Algerian War – though interspersed also with extremely funny dialogue between the bazar-owner and his bossy, canny American-expat friend. As with “Wormwood,” there’s a nightmarish viciousness to it; Ducornet’s trademark baroque language tumbles, slithers, lurches, and plunges among the crowded topography of the bazar, and the pitfalls of its proprietor’s psychology.

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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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Date read: 5.5.10
Book from: Borrowed from Kakaner
Reviewer: Emera

On an Earth whose surface has been scorched into uninhabitability by the expanding sun, a lone, gun-toting traveler arrives at what may be humanity’s last outpost. At the bottom of the former Marianas Trench, a group of scientists have established a settlement complete with gardens and a space shuttle equipped for escape from the burned-out planet. The new arrival, who simply calls himself the Pilgrim, is at first welcomed as a much-needed defender against the various mutated beings that prowl the trench, but his fanaticism-fueled taste for destruction may bring unwanted consequences.

This mini-series (a sequel to the 2001 Just a Pilgrim, which I realized only belatedly) got a big meh from me. While the concepts and imagery are gratifyingly ambitious, the overall direction of the plot is way too obvious if you know anything at all about Garth Ennis and his pet topics, i.e. have read Preacher. As much as I love Preacher, Ennis’ expression of his anti-Christianity is so extreme and lacking in nuance that I had no interest in swallowing it twice. Just a Pilgrim was pretty hilarious to read shortly after seeing the recent film The Book of Eli, though, which is diametrically opposed in its message and about as lacking in depth – I think if you put a copy of Pilgrim and a recording of Eliin the same room, they’d explode each other.

Artwise, I did like Ezquerra’s monumental vistas and Paul Mounts’ mucky textures and bruised, sweltering color palette of intense purples and oranges, although occasionally the color choices did end up being hard on the eyes.

For the record, I also tried to read the original series but couldn’t maintain interest, for about the same set of reasons that I had a hard time getting through Garden of Eden, but also because the art had a much cruder look to it, despite the artistic team being the same.

Conclusion: if you’re looking for Western grit, post-apocalyptic atmosphere, and fairly mindless violence involving mutant jellyfish and hammerhead sharks, you may like this. Just don’t expect depth or anything approaching meaningful commentary on… anything, really.

Go to:
Garth Ennis
The Boys, by Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson (2006-200*) E

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Date read: 10.29.08
Read from: Personal collection
Reviewer: Emera

In 19th-century Boston, a brilliant medical student falls in with a group of young spiritualists, only to see his hopes and plans go terribly awry as a result of their experimentations. A century and a half later, he walks the earth weary and immortal, wielding instruments made from the bones of a murdered angel, and seeking to discharge the task that he took upon himself at the height of his despair. Finally seeing a candidate worthy of becoming his successor, he enters the dreams of a boy named Walter. The young and frightened Walter learns that all he needs to do to banish his bad dreams is tell the monster in his closet to go away – only to learn too late that it was the monster who stood between him and a force banished from the universe at the beginning of time.

If the above summary sounds complicated, it doesn’t even begin to represent the full breadth of the mythology of The Music of Razors. This is a universe big enough for fallen angels, closet monsters, and a clockwork ballerina to coexist over several centuries and in the same 300 pages. The novel’s pace and complexity are undeniably demanding, especially in the beginning chapters, but the reward is that every time the page is turned, you uncover a new secret of this strange mythology, and your mind constantly stretches to keep up with the narrative’s wicked twists and hinted truths. All of these elements are convincingly and for the most part satisfyingly intertwined, and the ending of the novel delivers a volley of heavy emotional punches before leaving the reader with that perfect combination of feeling fulfilled, yet still wanting more.

I do think that the pacing could have used some stretching and breathing space to improve coherence, allow the reader more time with the characters’ emotions, and reduce the ending’s frenzied, overexplosive feel. However, from what I understand of the novel’s publishing history, there were constraints placed on its length. The first, Australian publication, released in 2001, was even shorter. Significantly more material was added to the American release, but from the sounds of it, Rogers would have liked even more.

Rogers’ writing is briskly dark, his brief sentences filled with a subtle, glancing menace, capable of both brutality and a wistful, fairy-tale loveliness. He seems to write with a grim kind of exhilaration, as aware of the emotional and spiritual weight of the story and its characters as he is of the breathtaking leaps of imagination employed in fully animating it.

This is a novel that offers immediate, visceral pleasure and sorrow, as well as food for later thought – in particular, Rogers has fascinating things to say about the role of our fears in shaping our selves. The panoply of fantastical elements also means that there is something here for all tastes, from historical fantasy to horror. All in all, I highly recommend The Music of Razors. Even if flawed, this is one of the most memorable fantasy novels I have read in recent years, and I know that many of its denizens will be staying with me for the rest of my life. Fans of Neil Gaiman and Caitlín R. Kiernan will likely enjoy this book.

Go to:
Cameron Rogers
Cameron Rogers interview with Tabula Rasa

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