Mongrels, by Stephen Graham Jones (2016) E

Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 9.11.2021
Book from: Library

Bloody, meaty, funny, sly, dreamy, sad, longing, gonzo, dirtbaggy. What Kathryn Bigelow’s Western horror movie Near Dark did for vampires, Stephen Graham Jones’ novel Mongrels does for werewolves. (I was delighted and unsurprised to see Jones citing Near Dark as a foundational influence in the afterword.) I treasured reencountering that texture of gritty, snappish, road-tripping familial love. This novel also captures the anxious, dreamy awkwardness of alienated adolescence through a tone that’s very similar to Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red: both books have that curious way of looking at things so hard, with such a burning desire to understand, that the gaze splits or slides off to the side, becomes strange and oblique.

So many parts of this book are so nakedly about growing up poor and unwelcome and not-white in the American South that it tugs at your heart. At the same time, the werewolf mythos serves as a kind of appetizing cover story, an exciting distraction—just as it did for the teenaged Jones, who is Blackfeet. (Jones is calculatedly coy as to the werewolf family’s physical appearance, but there are a couple references to black hair, and an unpleasant high school classmate once asks the narrator if he’s “Mexican or something.”) It’s deeply touching to me to honor your sustaining childhood fantasy by turning it into a full novel, and a novel that’s vividly charged with its own darkly joyful mythos: Jones clearly revels in the frequently gory elaborations that he brings to werewolf biology and lifeways.

I couldn’t get enough of the episodic, almost diaristic storytelling, the plangent fragments of memory and the macabrely superheroic exploits. (The more outrageously superheroic bits are explained in a brief exchange of dialogue in the last chapter.) All of this is run through with the anxiety and dread that shape the lives of the impoverished and vulnerable.

In short: consumed with fascination and dread, I read this book way too fast. Sadly, this may have resulted in my breaking its spell more abruptly than would have been ideal. After I finished, the content and style dissociated in my head, and it became too easy to remember the book’s more absurd, cartoonish bits, and less so its quietly fierce, tender tone or earthy, sweaty textures.

In the long run, though, what will stick with me is the way that Jones turned a fantasy into a novel in a way that inevitably points back at the real life that gave birth to the fantasy—and in a way that cries out for readers to recognize and value the loving, chaotic lives of the poor and dispossessed.

Related reviews:
Alabaster, by Caitlín R. Kiernan (2006)

The Buried Giant, by Kazuo Ishiguro (2015) E

Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 9.28.2020
Book from: Personal collection

In post-Arthurian Britain, the wars that once raged between the Saxons and the Britons have finally ceased. Axl and Beatrice, an elderly British couple, set off to visit their son, whom they haven’t seen in years. And, because a strange mist has caused mass amnesia throughout the land, they can scarcely remember anything about him. As they are joined on their journey by a Saxon warrior, his orphan charge, and an illustrious knight, Axl and Beatrice slowly begin to remember the dark and troubled past they all share.

The Buried Giant has the slow-motion horror of a nightmare: the confused repetitiousness of the dialogue; Axl and Beatrice’s frailty and tentativeness; the blurred, clouded landscape; the increasing sense of building towards a terrible revelation or shattering. As is typical of Ishiguro, the prose is carefully flat and affectless: an acres-wide, inch-deep pool of water, any ripples almost imperceptible. To be blunt, the prose is boring—and yet I also kept thinking that this was the most entrancingly, sublimely boring book I’ve ever read. I felt like Beatrice in the scene where she’s swarmed by rat-like, life-stealing pixies and nearly subsides into death. Slow-motion horror.

I was transfixed by these outbreaks of folk horror: the woman stroking a rabbit’s fur with a knife in a rain-dripping ruin, the underground beast described as looking something like “a large skinless animal,” the tunnels full of infant skeletons. As indelible as these images are—like Symbolist paintings—they become indescribably more disturbing because of the way that Ishiguro doesn’t describe them head-on. He robs us of a sense of clarity, control—the narrator’s vision is always glancing away, blurring at the edges.

The gradual revelation of mass slaughter that arises from these grotesque suggestions, and the slow topple towards renewed slaughter, is almost unbearably tragic, tearing. Ishiguro establishes his main characters as tragicomically human: vulnerable, bumbling, striving, absurd, valiant, kind. Then he shows us that they are walking towards a point of no return. There will be no reconciliation, no peace for the land, once the Buried Giant rises. Saxons will fight Britons once more; Axl and Beatrice fear the permanent oblivion of an afterlife with no kindness toward lovers. Companionship and love, hard-earned, will fade into another generation of helpless loss and strife. Did it all matter, that they loved? Of course it does: over the course of the novel, we see how much it matters to them, and to us, that these characters loved. But in the eyes of history, it does not.

An oil painting of a small boat with a shrouded standing figure approaching a wooded island under a dark skyThe Isle of the Dead, 1880 version, Arnold Böcklin

Related reading:
The Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro (1989): review by Emera
The Ballad of Sir Dinadan, by Gerald Morris (2003): review by Emera

“The Man in the Woods,” by Shirley Jackson (2014) E

Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 4.18.2019
Read from: The New Yorker

I didn’t realize that Shirley Jackson’s children were still discovering unpublished stories of hers; the New Yorker has published two in recent years, “The Man in the Woods” and “Paranoia.”

“The Man in the Woods” is a delightful choice for a stand-alone publication. Tense, elegant, and cryptic, its dense mythological and folkloric allusions beg for toying and unpicking – even if its determined evasiveness means that it is not sharply compelling as a work of psychological fiction. If it were presented in a collection, it would likely sink into the shadow of any of Jackson’s more spectacularly psychological stories. But even taking it simply as a sort of playful, appreciative remix of a handful of dark folkloric tropes, it stands out as being pretty much perfect on a line-by-line level: economical, vivid, and singing with tension.

The cat had joined him shortly after he entered the forest, emerging from between the trees in a quick, shadowy movement that surprised Christopher at first and then, oddly, comforted him, and the cat had stayed beside him, moving closer to Christopher as the trees pressed insistently closer to them both, trotting along in the casual acceptance of human company that cats exhibit when they are frightened.

The two stories that immediately popped into my head when reading this: Angela Carter’s “The Erl-King” (a previous, brief appreciation here) with its likewise claustrophobic trees and its building towards the inevitability of kingly sacrifice; and Hansel and Gretel. In fact, with regard to Hansel, I was sure at first that this was going to be “just” a witch-story, and that the two otherworldly women whom Christopher meets in the stone cottage in the woods would be joined by a third – Hecate. So it was a strange little thrill when the third in the house turned out rather to be a Mr. Oakes: a green-man, and a sacrificial priest-king straight out of Frazer’s The Golden Bough.

Fans of Elizabeth Marie Pope’s Tam Lin retelling, The Perilous Gard, will be well familiar with the reading of “Christopher” as “Christ-bearer” specifically in the context of pagan sacrifice. Her Christopher, like Jackson’s, is a youth who offers up to pagan captors the temptation of a double sacrifice – an intermingling of two different sacred powers – through the symbolic weight of his name.

Though Jackson’s protagonist Christopher offers this tantalizing symbolism (“‘Christopher,’ [Mr. Oakes] said softly, as though estimating the name”), he’s otherwise strangely devoid of anything resembling narrative or, let’s call it, a symbolic system. He carries the modernish signifier of having been at “college,” and allows that that loosely qualifies him to be deemed a “scholar” by Mr. Oakes. But he doesn’t know why he left college and started wandering, and he doesn’t know what to name a cat other than “kitty.” So far as personality is concerned, he is careful, courteous, and expresses glints of humor and curiosity, including a faint appetite for the younger woman, Phyllis. But it’s all diffused through a screen of something like mild dissociation, or at least ennui. He seems like a refugee from the modern world, stripped of meaning and motivation.

His encounter with the household in the wood seems destined to force him into meaning, just as his unnamed cat attains the witchy title of “Grimalkin” by displacing the household’s original cat. In the end, Christopher follows along with a sort of tranced acquiescence.

But even assuming that his challenge of Mr. Oakes will be successful, it’s unclear whether this new (ancient) system of meaning will be any more compelling than whatever he left behind in his old life. Phyllis, Circe, and Oakes seem listless and weary. (Only Circe, appropriately, shows a trace of defiance: “Circe I was born and Circe I will have for my name till I die.”) Oakes, despite his name, doesn’t seem any more fond of the woods than Christopher is; he plants roses as a challenge to their oppressiveness. Civilization, it seems, erects various defenses against the void, but over time they all grow, as Hamlet put it, flat, weary, stale, and unprofitable. They become oppressions of their own.

Final note: they were totally eating the previous challengers –

“…Phyllis, sent to fetch a special utensil from an alcove in the corner of the kitchen, came back to report that it had been mislaid “since the last time” and could not be found…”

“…Aunt Cissy disappeared into the kitchen alcove again and came back carrying the trussed carcass of what seemed to Christopher to be a wild pig.”

Related reading:
We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson (1962): review by Emera
Angela Carter’s “The Courtship of Mr. Lyon”
A very happy October to all
“Where is Rowan Morrison?”

Dracula: A Symphony in Moonlight & Nightmares, by Jon J. Muth (1993) E

Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 1.5.2019
Book from: Personal collection

Jon J. Muth’s graphic-novel retelling of Dracula is delicate, foreboding, and ravishingly lovely – if slightly unconvincing from a narrative perspective; luckily the written narrative is almost beside the point when the art is this lovely. I ride or die for watercolors, and had to locate a copy of this out-of-print volume after seeing Muth’s watercolor illustrations for it online: sheer lavender shadows, chill expanses of castle stone, translucently pale flesh, and an overall air of elegant, sensual hush and expectancy.

Honestly, I think it’s a shame that he decided to do the cover of the novel in oils (though I understand that watercolors often don’t hold up as dramatic cover art) since it looks that much more generic, in addition to that particular illustration aesthetically betraying the work’s 90s vintage. (There are also a couple of interior illustrations where the women have seriously 90s hair, which makes me smile, but undermines what I otherwise feel to be a timeless style.)

Narratively, this is what I’d call a slightly transposed Dracula, where characters’ identities are swapped or merged, so that ultimately the focus rests even more firmly on the experience of the female protagonists. Here, Mina is the red-headed, morbid hysteric/consumptive, while Lucy is the grave and dark one. Both are subtly at odds with the masculine society around them, here represented by a conglomeration of most of the sympathetic male cast of Dracula into a few paternal[istic] figures. With this choice, Muth removes the Bachelorette sideshow of Mina’s courtship, foregrounding instead the telos of Dracula, Lucy, and Mina.

Continue reading Dracula: A Symphony in Moonlight & Nightmares, by Jon J. Muth (1993) E

The Lodgers (2017)

INCEST, the answer is incest.

If you’re marketing anything in the line of gothic horror, it takes a minimum of three words to establish that the big reveal is incest: “twins” and “no outsiders.” 

2017 Irish horror film The Lodgers is lusciously beautiful, slightly underbaked, and very much undercut in the suspense department if you happen to take the above deductive shortcut. The Gothic is one of the preeminent genres where obviousness doesn’t necessarily undercut efficacy – in fact, can easily be an asset, a piece of set dressing that evokes delicious foreboding. The Lodgers, though, suffers from a general sense of unrealized intensity and suspense: lukewarm chemistry among the actors, ghosts that are scary-ish at best, etc. This makes the hand-wringing over what ails those reclusive twins, and all the film’s other emotional stakes, all seem a bit empty or tedious, sometimes comically so.

That said, the film is atmospherically beautiful enough to be enjoyed purely on the basis of looks and sound. On those counts, it has the deeply satisfying sensory and emotional coherence of a fairy-tale pocket universe – the psychogeographic trinity of the haunted mansion, the deep woods, and the huddled village. I’ve also mentioned before my affinity for water-based imagery, and The Lodgers overfloweth with mists, depths, drowning phantoms, and surreal, gravity-defying drips.

Anglo-Irish twins Rachel and and Edward live in a decaying country mansion, governed by a set of nursery-rhyme rules (be in bed by midnight; no outsiders), surrounded by phantoms, and feared/scorned by the nearby villagers. The film opens on their 18th birthday, the brink of rupture: Edward is both traumatized by and deeply loyal to the legacy of their house and its rules, while Rachel is restless, defiant, and drawn to a young villager, Sean, who has recently returned from World War I.

Continue reading The Lodgers (2017)

The Midnight Swim (2015, dir. by Sarah Adina Smith)

I watched Sarah Adina Smith’s The Midnight Swim (2015) late last fall. It’s a strange, quiet psychological horror movie, with the soft-yet-tense quality that I love about a lot of domestic thrillers that focus on female experience. (The Virgin Suicides, for example, or the first act of mother!.)

The film focuses on three half-sisters who reunite at the family home on Spirit Lake – a cold, deep lake in Washington State – after the disappearance of their mother while diving. The movie is finely textured by the various strands of affection, loyalty, resentment, and mistrust that run between the sisters, who are perfectly cast: almost uncomfortably plausible as sisters, interesting to watch even when little is obviously happening. Eventually, those strands of connection run back to their mother, whom they resurrect through videos and playacting, revealing her as both absurd and terrifying, as mothers so often are: hippie-dippie eco-goddess; domestic tyrant.

The women’s relationships are cradled by the deep quiet and chill of the surrounding wilderness, and the spiritually luminous yet ominous expanse of the lake. I love water, so the lake imagery, the evocation of its magnetic depthlessness, was particularly sensually effective for me.

Certain narrative elements felt expected, generic in both senses of the word: the appearance of dead birds around the house by night, the increasingly strange behavior of one sister, who refuses to get out from behind her handheld video camera. Still, the movie is effective in using prolonged quiet and unexpected little tweaks to keep ratcheting up the tension. There’s a pervasive sense of not-quite-nameable wrongness: what exactly is going on here?

The ending of the movie I found pleasantly baffling: deeply gentle, perhaps even hopeful, but also terrifying in its strangeness. It strikes me as audaciously weird, and merciful.

Related reading:

I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House (2016)

The Drowning Girl, by Caitlín R. Kiernan (2012): review by Emera

Flesh and Bone, by Julia Gfrörer (2013) E

Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 6.16.2017
Book from: Gift from K. (<3)

Flesh and Blood is Julia Gfrörer’s first published comic, and my second-favorite of the three I’ve read, after Black is the Color. Grim, wry, blood-and-hemlock-flavored, this is highly recommended for lovers of Robert Eggers’ film The Witch.

This is so narratively satisfying, all the symmetry and the sinewy Machiavellian strength of the witch’s plotting. She’s a dark free agent, pulling snare-cords neat and tight around convenient prey. She’s not quite so dispassionate a predator as the mermaids in Black is the Color, though. Displaced romantic and erotic desire teases the otherwise calm, chilly surface of her calculations. This culminates in an uncomfortably powerful erotic scene involving a mandrake. Period.

The displacement of desire and passion – longing for what’s not close to hand, fulfillment through proxies – creates a weird kind of momentum throughout Flesh and Bone. I imagine water continually spilling from unstable vessel to vessel, never at rest, and shared between vessels only in passing.

Like all of Gfrörer’s work that I’ve read, the comic is also an inhabitation of the experience of grief – grief that is more than sorrow, grief that wrings to the bone. This grief that strains the limits of human capability – and the teasing touches of hopeful sweetness, as expressed through longing and eroticism – all that mixed together, in one brief comic, it’s exquisite, and sublime.

Gfrörer’s work is an uncommonly raw expression of the intensity of existence. It goes deep, deep, deep, like almost nothing I’ve read or seen before, except (as I said before) Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. There is nothing precious, or half-way, or untrue about her work. I think she’s a visionary not in the sense of seeing something beyond – I think she looks at human existence and sees in.

Related reading:

Laid Waste, by Julia Gfrörer (2016): review by Emera


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Tales of Horror and the Supernatural, by Arthur Machen (1948) E

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

The Pastel City, by M. John Harrison (1971) E

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.”

Continue reading The Pastel City, by M. John Harrison (1971) E

“The Love of Beauty,” by K. J. Bishop (1999/2012) E

“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.

Continue reading “The Love of Beauty,” by K. J. Bishop (1999/2012) E