By now, I’m sure you’ve seen Emera’s and my numerous reviews of Isaac Marion‘s works, namely The Inside, Warm Bodies, and Anna. These works are pretty much all highly recommended, and are self-published by Marion (links provided at the bottom of this post). Marion is noted for his strange genre niche that is, for the most part, a mix of horror, weird fiction, and romanticism.
Date read: 10.29.08
Read from: Personal collection
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.
Date read: 8.3.09
Read from: Personal collection
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.
Date Read: 7.05.06
Book From: Borrowed from Kathy
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.
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.
Date read: 8.31.09
Read from: Personal collection, via Subterranean Press
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.
Author Catherynne M. Valente made a beautiful blog post yesterday on her reaction to reading Caitlin R. Kiernan’s newest release, The Red Tree. She discusses how she read the book, her early relationship (read: obsession) with horror novels, New England’s unique signficance in the horror genre, and what really lies at the center (or bottom) of horror – that is, not gore, but death, and secrets, and the horrible tension of not knowing them:
I just want to know. I always want to know. I want to know the secret at the bottom, and maybe horror as a genre still eats at me because it will not give me that answer, and so I can stay at the swollen, drawn out moment before revelation, the pre-orgasmic stretching before the inevitable tumble into disappointment and continuity errors. Good horror almost never shows all its cards, and yet I know the Queen of Spades and Clubs, oh, my terrible black Queens are there, and they would tell me all their worst deeds, if I could only keep my eyes open when the scary parts come, if I could only go down into my own basement, where the earth is frozen and lumpy and moldy, where I cannot bear to look.
I, for one, would be way excited to see Valente do a horror novel, which is what she certainly hints at wanting to do at the end of the post. Also, of course, this makes me want to get on top of reading Kiernan’s work – Alabaster came in the mail for me just this week!
Catherynne M. Valente
Date Read: 6.13.09
Book From: Personal collection
Oskar is an alienated twelve-year-old living in a decaying Swedish suburb in the 1980’s. He is brutally bullied at school, and fantasizes often about striking back at his tormentors, keeping a scrapbook of newspaper articles about murders as his inspiration. Two new neighbors move into Oskar’s apartment complex: one an older man, and one, apparently his daughter, an androgynous girl named Eli who smells terrible, walks barefoot in the snow, and only comes out at night, but is nonetheless befriended by Oskar.
If you know anything about vampires, you can imagine where this is going. Let the Right One In (Låt den rätte komma in, translated by Ebba Segerberg) was a bestseller in Sweden when it was published in 2004, and gained further international attention when the 2008 Swedish-language film adaptation (IMDB) won a number of awards and became a surprise hit. I’m not sure now if I heard about the movie or the book first, but unusually for me, I ended up watching the movie first, and read the book shortly after. I enjoyed both immensely, but for slightly different reasons in each case. Given that, I thought I’d do a combined film and book review. Please note that mild spoilers follow.
Date Read: 2.17.06
Book From: Personal collection
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: