"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

Friday, August 25, 2017

Thirteen Days By Sunset Beach by Ramsey Campbell

‘I regard writing not as an investigation of character, but as an exercise in the use of language, and with this I am obsessed. I have no technical psychological interest. It is drama, speech and events that interest me.’

Evelyn Waugh

In the last thirty years I purchased and read every short story collection published by Ramsey Campbell.  His characters, each in the cell of themselves (pace Auden), thwarted by their own conclusions and the actions of others, die-away like doomed protagonists out of tales by Hardy or Maugham or Waugh.

Campbell's skills are well-displayed in short fiction: adumbrative, smothering freak-puts that end just before the culmination of personal disaster.

The many novels Campbell has produced are a real challenge for me. To date I have only read Ancient Images and the novella The Last Revelation of Glaaki. One reason might be expressed this way: the stories are brilliantly unbearable and unnerving; I'm not sure I could tough it out over a longer work. Another reason: Campbell's stylistic choices often push me away from the narrative; the prospect of reading an entire novel in present tense, for instance, makes me slightly light-headed.

Recently, I came by a copy of Campbell's 2015 novel Thirteen Days By Sunset Beach. The story takes place in Greece. I particularly enjoyed the Greek chapters in Simon Raven's Doctors Wear Scarlet when I read it in June, so I decided to take the plunge.

Thirteen Days By Sunset Beach begins in media res with a vengeance:

The First Day: 20 August

"Don't joke about it, Ray. I gave you my passport before we got on the plane."

"Sandra, I'm not joking." Once he might have, but no longer. "You didn't give it me," he said, "the last time we had to show them."

When he reached for her capacious tapestry shoulder-bag she swung it and herself away from him. "Just let me have a chance to see."

Beyond her all three queues for the immigration desks were shrinking fast, but he managed not to urge her to be quick, even when she searched the bag a second time.

"See, it isn't here," she said, surely not in triumph. "You must have it, Ray."

"I promise you I haven't," he protested, digging in the bag he'd used for carrying his laptop when he had one, and fished out the travel wallet that the agency provided.

"You know I always keep them in here. There's just mine, look."

"Don't say we've left it on the plane."

And the anxiety bordering on panic proceeds like that for the next 200 pages.

(The most we ever get to know of the appearance of Ray is that he is old and heavy: I enjoyed imagining Arthur Lowe in the part.)

Campbell builds up our understanding of the characters not through physical description or flashbacks, but dialogue. Ray, over whose shoulder we observe the entire novel, will sometimes say too much, or not enough, or not listen closely. (Indeed, Thirteen Days By Sunset Beach could almost be a fable on not listening carefully enough to strangers.)

Ray and Sandra Thornton have arrived on the Greek island of Vasilema, where they and their children and grandchildren are spending thirteen days in Teleftaiafos, just next to Sunset Beach, which has a reputation akin to Sodom and Gomorrah.

The adult children:

Doug: married to Pri, their teenage son is Tim.

Natalie: married to Julian. They have a 5 year old, William. Natalie has a teenage daughter, Jonquil, from a previous marriage.

It took me a hundred pages to figure out the above names and interrelations, so I advise you to copy that dramatic personae into the endpapers of your copy.

Vasilema's population treat the Thorntons in a reticent way, though half understood talks always seem to suggest a warning that the tourists miss. Campbell is always at his best when protagonists run up against the limits of language and vocabulary, and he has a field day here.

The island's patron is Saint Titus. His image appears everywhere, but always close to thriving spider webs. Shadows around alleys and the beach at dusk are filled with improbable figures and shifting shadows.

Ray's attempt to check a beach cave for safety before letting the grandkids enter is pure Campbell:

....While the waves had chilled his feet, he wasn't prepared for how cold an immersion would be. An icy ache raced up his legs and seemed to clench around his stomach. Wasn't this enough to warn William against? But the boy and the rest of them could well be used to the temperature of the sea by now, which meant just Ray was weak. The toes of his sandals scrabbled at the submerged wall, and he couldn't judge how deep the water might be. He bruised his fingers on the ridge as he lowered himself, not fast but excessively fast. When the water clamped his hips he felt his penis shrivel, and his gasp echoed through the cave. He twisted around in a flurry of water to see if he'd alarmed anyone, only to find that the bend had already blocked his view out of the cave. All the dim light came from reflections on the nervous waves. The loss of his family—even of the sight of them—disconcerted him so much that he didn't immediately grasp that his feet had found the cave floor.

It felt no more secure to walk on than the ridge had. Ray kept one hand on the ridge as he ventured forward until the arm was submerged up to the wrist, forcing him to stoop sideways, and then he groped for handholds higher up the wall. The ripples he was making surrounded him with echoes that seemed to render distance audible—the remoteness of the beach. Just enough light reached around the bend to let him make out some of the way ahead.

Beyond the bend the cave grew several times as wide and extended further than he could be sure of. Traces of light almost too feeble for the name fluttered under the roof, and some faint illumination must be reaching the far end of the cavern, if that was the end. Certainly Ray thought he saw movement there, an extensive whitish glimpse that immediately withdrew into the dark. A high-pitched giggle distracted him, a sound that seemed more senile than he wanted ever to be, but of course it was one of the watery echoes that were lending the cave a kind of life. As his vision started to cope with the dark he became aware of a pale shape in the water to his left, against the wall he was following. It was a tangle of vegetation, which meant he needn't have recoiled, sending dim ripples into the cave. While the clump of pallid weeds did resemble the top half of a scrawny figure with its hands raised, it was stirring only with the movement of the water. As it bobbed up and down it put him in mind of somebody eager to catch a ball, and he wondered how it would look to William.

He had a feeling that Natalie and Julian mightn't like the similarity. Perhaps even William wouldn't if it or his parents made him nervous. His grandfather was meant to be seeing the place was safe, and Ray supposed this ought to include establishing exactly what the object was. Sliding his hand along the rough wall, he shuffled inch by inch through the dark water.

He was advancing into blackness. Such illumination as there was—more like a memory of light than any aid to seeing—fell short of this stretch of the wall. He could have used the flashlight on his mobile, but however waterproof the phone was claimed to be, he didn't want to test that more than was essential. He groped along the wall and edged his feet over slippery submerged rock. Seaweed fingered his shivering legs, and once a pebbly protrusion sprouted limbs beneath his hand before scuttling down the wall to plop into the water. The object he was trying to discern kept nodding what would have been its head as though to encourage his approach. He'd inched within a few yards of it, and was starting to marvel at how nearly human its shape remained even at this distance, when it spoke his name....

Ray’s son-in-law Julian is soon on hand to scramble any hope Ray has of piecing together the cave experience. (Indeed, Julian plays that role at several points in the action: an ugly Brit abroad if ever there was one.)

But the figure of the drowned man seems to reappear the next morning, and more members of the family than just Ray have had an uneasy night.

....Ray thought that Sandra was standing by the bed, and then he recognised the corpse from the cave. It was leaning towards her, and he took it to be weeping for her until he saw it was blind, not to mention far from tearful. The bulging white eyes were cocoons from which spiders streamed down the loose withered cheeks. At least Ray was able to realise it was a dream, and now he grasped that the visitor wasn't the carcass he'd found but some other creature animated by a parody of life. For some reason this disturbed him more, and it took him far too long to struggle awake.

The room was grey with dawn. Sandra was lying beside him, resting her head on one arm on the thin pillow. In the dim light he could just distinguish the mark on her upturned neck. Was that how she'd lain in his dream? He didn't know why it seemed important to remember. He slipped an arm around her waist and then inched his hand over her ribs as though groping for her breath. When he felt her chest rise and fall he managed to relax before his embrace could waken her. He ought to let her rest—stay peaceful while she had the chance—though he had to fend off the phrase his thoughts suggested. For a while he watched her shape grow almost imperceptibly brighter as the light in the room became less subdued, and then he edged out of bed.

When he emerged from the bathroom Sandra still wasn't awake. He needn't rouse her, since over dinner everyone had agreed to spend today on the beach by the Sunny View. He was on the balcony, watching small waves snatch at the sunlight, when he heard William protesting down below. Once the boy raised his voice Ray was able to make out the words "I thought he came to see Jonquil."

"You were dreaming, William."

"No call to be so fierce about it, Jonquil," Julian said. "We know it had to be a dream."

"So long as he does."

A day trip to the catacombs beneath an abandoned monastery gives Ray another sight he forces himself to dismiss:

.... Ray stood aside for Pris before trailing her and Doug up the corridor. Her flashlight beam snagged on the entrance to each cell, releasing a shadow that fled into its lair. Shadows swarmed away like vermin from the debris in the largest space, and at last the beam reached the foot of the steps, up which Natalie was urging William after Julian. As Pris began to climb, Ray switched on his own flashlight for a last look along the corridor. He hadn't turned when he heard movement behind him—the restlessness he'd heard earlier. He swung around to see a shape emerging from the furthest cell.
The legs came first—eight of them creeping around the far edge of the entrance to the cell. In a moment, though by no means a reassuring one, Ray saw they weren't legs at all; they were scrawny fingers clutching at the rock. As he struggled to breathe they brought their owner forth into the corridor. It was bent low with age or stealth, and entirely bald. Although it was naked, the whitish body was so withered that he couldn't guess at its sex. It twisted its thin head towards the light, and Ray glimpsed a face like a flimsy paper mask moulded to a skull. Were the eyes as entirely black as the rock? Even so, they gleamed with a life so fierce that it seemed to be concentrated in them, draining the ribbed torso of substance, shrivelling the crippled limbs. It bared its teeth at the light and stayed in its spidery crouch as it scuttled on all fours to the steps beyond the corridor. Before Ray could suck in a laboured breath it vanished into the dark.
      He staggered around to find he was alone in the corridor. Even the other lights were no longer to be seen. He was shivering from head to foot, and not just with the underground chill. As he fought to recapture enough breath to call out or to set about climbing the steps he heard Doug, altogether too far away. "Is my dad behind you?"
      "I don't see him," Pris said as a faint glow found a single step high above.
      "Dad, are you all right down there?"
      "Where are you, grandad?" William contributed.
       While the voices were closer than Ray had feared, that meant William was too close for Ray to mention what he'd seen. Surely it had only been someone who had taken refuge. Wasn't that what even derelict monasteries were for? "I'm coming," he managed to gasp....

Eventually Ray puts together enough pieces of the Vasilema puzzle: half-heard arguments in a church; odd mottos and graffiti on walls; the fact that Sandra, Tim, and Jonquil hide under beach umbrellas, floppy hats, and sunglasses all day. Oh, and Sandra's increasingly fuzzy reflection in the bathroom mirror.

When Ray presents his case to the family, his kids think he is losing his mind.

The climax of Thirteen Days By Sunset Beach is ingeniously handled with real dexterity. It's the perfect novel to read on vacation. While sunning on the beach.

25 August 2017

Foreword and Introduction to The Dark Side of Guy de Maupassant: A Selection and Translation

The Dark Side of Guy de Maupassant: A Selection and Translation is the book, read in 1991, that got me to read Guy de Maupassant. Without the foreword by Ramsey Campbell and the introduction by Arnold Kellett, I would have been completely at sea.

25 August 2017

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Pinned and taxonimized: My week with The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov

IX. The highest point reached by contemplative materialism, that is, materialism which does not comprehend sensuousness as practical activity, is contemplation of single individuals and of civil society.
"Theses On Feuerbach"
Marx/Engels Selected Works, Volume One, p. 13 – 15.


Prior to reading some of The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov this week, my exposure to the author consisted of reading volume two of Boyd's biography and scanning at age 15 every page of a paperback of Lolita I found packed away among my mother's college notebooks. (I didn't say read, but scanned; after hours of frustration, I gave up and moved on to The Olympia Reader.)

(N.B.  Lolita is one of the great U.S. novels of horrific obsession, echoing all the way back to that other heartbroken poet of kingdoms by the sea, Edgar A. Poe, and published four years before Robert Bloch's Psycho.)

Nabokov has the reputation for being something of a monster to his readers and characters. He certainly has no truck with moralizing. Nabokov's people do not "learn better." They just keep doing what humans do. Which is very uncomfortable for a reader.

For instance, by the end of "The Dashing Fellow," my fondest desire was that the fellow, dashing away from a woman he has seduced without telling her her father is minutes from dying, would get crushed by a train. No such luck. He feels happy he escaped a messy scene. Nabokov folds the story closed, and the reader is left very practically seething.

Similarly, I felt the French instructor in "The Vane Sisters" and Pilgram in "The Aurelian" needed smacked until they were instilled with a modicum of human solidarity. But solidarity is not an everyday sentiment in an epoch of imperialist decay. Nabokov clearly sneers at it; for him any sentiment is just another way the human animal kids itself.

The material sensuality of Nabokov's prose suggests whole centuries of backstory to each brief tale. The narrator of "The Visit to the Museum" finds himself in a building much larger inside than outside; so large an exit door leaves him stranded in another country.

"Scenes from the Life of a Double Monster" puts the entire bitter existence of conjoined twins into ten pages, and we feel nothing essential has been omitted.
"Signs and Symbols" has such a lifetime's poignancy it brought tears to my eyes.

The stories I read were perfectly crafted works of realism. But it would be very hard to take that level of realism, to live with it, at novel-length.

20 August 2017


A few excerpts I found striking:

The Dashing Fellow (early 1930s)

....The taxi pulled up in front of an old, coal-black house with green shutters. They climbed to the fourth landing and there she stopped and said, “And what if there’s somebody else there? How do you know that I’ll let you in? What’s that on your lip?”

“A cold sore,” said Kostya, “just a cold sore. Hurry up. Open. Let’s dismiss the whole world and its troubles. Quick. Open.”

They entered. A hallway with a large wardrobe, a kitchen, and a small bedroom.

“No, please wait. I’m hungry. We shall first have supper. Give me that fifty-mark note, I’ll take the occasion to change it for you.”

“All right, but for God’s sake, hurry,” said Kostya, rummaging in his wallet. “There’s no need to change anything. Here’s a nice tenner.”

“What would you like me to buy?”

“Oh, anything you want. I only beseech you to make haste.”

She left. She locked him in, using both keys. Taking no chances. But what loot could one have found here? None. In the middle of the kitchen floor a dead cockroach lay on its back, brown legs stretched out. The bedroom contained one chair and a lace-covered wooden bed. Above it, the photograph of a man with fat cheeks and waved hair was nailed to the spotty wall. Kostya sat down on the chair and in a twinkle substituted the morocco slippers for his mahogany-red street shoes. Then he shed his Norfolk jacket, unbuttoned his lilac braces, and took off his starched collar. There was no toilet, so he quickly used the kitchen sink, then washed his hands and examined his lip. The doorbell rang.

He tiptoed fast to the door, placed his eye to the peephole, but could see nothing. The person behind the door rang again, and the copper ring was heard to knock. No matter—we can’t let him in even if we wished to.

“Who’s that?” asked Kostya insinuatingly through the door.

A cracked voice inquired, “Please, is Frau Bergmann back?”

“Not yet,” replied Kostya. “Why?”

“Misfortune,” said the voice and paused. Kostya waited.

The voice continued, “You don’t know when she will be back in town? I was told she was expected to return today. You are Herr Seidler, I believe?”

“What’s happened? I’ll pass her the message.”

A throat was cleared and the voice said as if over the telephone, “Franz Loschmidt speaking. She does not know me, but tell her please—”

Another pause and an uncertain query: “Perhaps you can let me come in?”

“Never mind, never mind,” said Kostya impatiently, “I’ll tell her everything.”

“Her father is dying, he won’t live through the night: he has had a stroke in the shop. Tell her to come over at once. When do you think she’ll be back?”

“Soon,” answered Kostya, “soon. I’ll tell her. Good-bye”

After a series of receding creaks the stairs became silent. Kostya made for the window. A gangling youth, death’s apprentice, rain-cloaked, hatless, with a small close-cropped smoke-blue head, crossed the street and vanished around the corner. A few moments later from another direction appeared the lady with a well-filled net bag.

The door’s upper lock clicked, then its lower one.

“Phew!” she said, entering. “What a load of things I bought!”

“Later, later,” cried Kostya, “we’ll sup later. Quick to the bedroom. Forget those parcels, I beseech you.”

“I want to eat,” she replied in a long-drawn-out voice.

She smacked his hand away, and went into the kitchen. Kostya followed her.

“Roast beef,” she said. “White bread. Butter. Our celebrated cheese. Coffee. A pint of cognac. Goodness me, can’t you wait a little? Let me go, it’s indecent.”

Kostya, however, pressed her against the table, she started to giggle helplessly, his fingernails kept catching in the knit silk of her green undies, and everything happened very ineffectually, uncomfortably, and prematurely.

“Pfui!” she uttered, smiling....

The Aurelian (1930)

....the stroke which had almost killed him some time ago (like a mountain falling upon him from behind just as he had bent toward his shoestrings)....

Spring in Fialta (1936)

....We wandered by a café where the tables were now almost dry but still empty; the waiter was examining (I hope he adopted it later) a horrible foundling, the absurd inkstand affair, stowed by Ferdinand on the banisters in passing. At the next corner we were attracted by an old stone stairway, and we climbed up, and I kept looking at the sharp angle of Nina’s step as she ascended, raising her skirt, its narrowness requiring the same gesture as formerly length had done; she diffused a familiar warmth, and going up beside her, I recalled the last time we had come together. It had been in a Paris house, with many people around, and my dear friend Jules Darboux, wishing to do me a refined aesthetic favor, had touched my sleeve and said, “I want you to meet—” and led me to Nina, who sat in the corner of a couch, her body folded Z-wise, with an ashtray at her heel, and she took a long turquoise cigarette holder from her lips and joyfully, slowly exclaimed, “Well, of all people—” and then all evening my heart felt like breaking, as I passed from group to group with a sticky glass in my fist, now and then looking at her from a distance (she did not look …), and listened to scraps of conversation, and overheard one man saying to another, “Funny, how they all smell alike, burnt leaf through whatever perfume they use, those angular dark-haired girls,” and as it often happens, a trivial remark related to some unknown topic coiled and clung to one’s own intimate recollection, a parasite of its sadness.

The Visit to the Museum (1939)

....The very notion of seeing sights, whether they be museums or ancient buildings, is loathsome to me; besides, the good freak’s commission seemed absolute nonsense. It so happened, however, that, while wandering about Montisert’s empty streets in search of a stationery store, and cursing the spire of a long-necked cathedral, always the same one, that kept popping up at the end of every street, I was caught in a violent downpour which immediately went about accelerating the fall of the maple leaves, for the fair weather of a southern October was holding on by a mere thread. I dashed for cover and found myself on the steps of the museum.

"That in Aleppo Once..." (1943)

....During several preceding weeks, my dear V., every time she had visited by herself the three or four families we both knew, my ghostly wife had filled the eager ears of all those kind people with an extraordinary story. To wit: that she had madly fallen in love with a young Frenchman who could give her a turreted home and a crested name; that she had implored me for a divorce and I had refused; that in fact I had said I would rather shoot her and myself than sail to New York alone; that she had said her father in a similar case had acted like a gentleman; that I had answered I did not give a hoot for her cocu de père.

There were loads of other preposterous details of the kind—but they all hung together in such a remarkable fashion that no wonder the old lady made me swear I would not seek to pursue the lovers with a cocked pistol. They had gone, she said, to a château in Lozère. I inquired whether she had ever set eyes upon the man. No, but she had been shown his picture. As I was about to leave, Anna Vladimirovna, who had slightly relaxed and had even given me her five fingers to kiss, suddenly flared up again, struck the gravel with her cane, and said in her deep strong voice: “But one thing I shall never forgive you—her dog, that poor beast which you hanged with your own hands before leaving Paris.”

Signs and Symbols (1948)

....The system of his delusions had been the subject of an elaborate paper in a scientific monthly, but long before that she and her husband had puzzled it out for themselves. “Referential mania,” Herman Brink had called it.

In these very rare cases the patient imagines that everything happening around him is a veiled reference to his personality and existence. He excludes real people from the conspiracy—because he considers himself to be so much more intelligent than other men. Phenomenal nature shadows him wherever he goes. Clouds in the staring sky transmit to one another, by means of slow signs, incredibly detailed information regarding him. His inmost thoughts are discussed at nightfall, in manual alphabet, by darkly gesticulating trees. Pebbles or stains or sun flecks form patterns representing in some awful way messages which he must intercept. Everything is a cipher and of everything he is the theme. Some of the spies are detached observers, such as glass surfaces and still pools; others, such as coats in store windows, are prejudiced witnesses, lynchers at heart; others again (running water, storms) are hysterical to the point of insanity, have a distorted opinion of him, and grotesquely misinterpret his actions. He must be always on his guard and devote every minute and module of life to the decoding of the undulation of things. The very air he exhales is indexed and filed away. If only the interest he provokes were limited to his immediate surroundings—but alas it is not! With distance the torrents of wild scandal increase in volume and volubility. The silhouettes of his blood corpuscles, magnified a million times, flit over vast plains; and still farther, great mountains of unbearable solidity and height sum up in terms of granite and groaning firs the ultimate truth of his being.

Scenes from the Life of a Double Monster (1950)

....We emerged upon the highway, a few feet from the audible sea—and there, waiting for us under a cypress, was a carriage we knew, a cartlike affair on high wheels, with Uncle Novus in the act of getting down from the box. Crafty, dark, ambitious, unprincipled little man! A few minutes before, he had caught sight of us from one of the galleries of our grandfather’s house and had not been able to resist the temptation of taking advantage of an escapade which miraculously allowed him to seize us without any struggle or outcry. Swearing at the two timorous horses, he roughly helped us into the cart. He pushed our heads down and threatened to hurt us if we attempted to peep from under our cloak. Lloyd’s arm was still around my shoulder, but a jerk of the cart shook it off. Now the wheels were crunching and rolling. It was some time before we realized that our driver was not taking us home.

The Vane Sisters (1951)

....It was four or five months after her sister’s death that I began seeing Cynthia fairly often. By the time I had come to New York for some vacational research in the Public Library she had also moved to that city, where for some odd reason (in vague connection, I presume, with artistic motives) she had taken what people, immune to gooseflesh, term a “cold water” flat....

....What attracted me was neither her ways, which I thought repulsively vivacious, nor her looks, which other men thought striking. She had wide-spaced eyes very much like her sister’s, of a frank, frightened blue with dark points in a radial arrangement. The interval between her thick black eyebrows was always shiny, and shiny too were the fleshy volutes of her nostrils. The coarse texture of her epiderm looked almost masculine, and, in the stark lamplight of her studio, you could see the pores of her thirty-two-year-old face fairly gaping at you like something in an aquarium. She used cosmetics with as much zest as her little sister had, but with an additional slovenliness that would result in her big front teeth getting some of the rouge. She was handsomely dark, wore a not too tasteless mixture of fairly smart heterogeneous things, and had a so-called good figure; but all of her was curiously frowzy, after a way I obscurely associated with left-wing enthusiasms in politics and “advanced” banalities in art, although, actually, she cared for neither. Her coily hairdo, on a part-and-bun basis, might have looked feral and bizarre had it not been thoroughly domesticated by its own soft unkemptness at the vulnerable nape. Her fingernails were gaudily painted, but badly bitten and not clean.


The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov
(Vintage International)

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Fully connected: a review of Before Crazytown by Duane Pesice

Before Crazytown by Duane Pesice is a mirthful and delicately poised pamphlet-sized collection of anecdotes, slices of life, and short stories.

Readers of this blog over the last half year realize that I prize droll stories over the splattery and gloomily gratuitous.

Before Crazytown is the perfect booklet for a reader like me. 

The stories sometimes have the cold-blood mirth of Saki, at other times the humanism of Vonnegut. The majority speak in an arresting style cross-bred out of deadpan Burroughs and jabbery Lovecraft.

I will touch on only a few of the fourteen stories, ones that really connected with me.


....Mind you, a small shoggoth is an excellent pet. They're quiet, friendly if you don't mind the smell and the trails of sticky mucus they leave everywhere, and will eat anything. The problem is, they grow as they eat, and they don't stop. They are from the universe before this one and don't obey the same laws of physics as common terrestrial creatures. The conservation of mass and the ratio of mass to energy don't mean a thing to them.

I learned that very early, and stopped feeding him. I installed a small attic fan and did a little ductwork to allow the smell to escape into the outer air, through several thousand layers of charcoal furnace filters. That helped some, but he ate his own refuse and continued to grow.

Shoggoth poo is the best fertilizer in the universe. That's the sole saving grace of the whole enterprise. I found that out by paging through the Necronomicon, trying to find a solution to my dilemma, namely, how do you get rid of a pet shoggoth? It isn't like the ASPCA is gonna come and get it-it isn't even an animal, a vegetable, or a mineral. I dunno what exactly it is, but man, does it ever shit. And it shits in balls, like a rabbit.

As a reader I would love to read more of this narrator's adventures in the shoggoth manure business.  Can you imagine, after the get-rich-quick mania, having to deal with whatever crops thrived on such fertilizer?


One of my favorite plots is the "biter bit."

In this story, peeping tom and internet chatroom creep Dexter finds the tables turned when he tried his usual date-rape assault on a patchouli-scented Earth mother type.

Kalia had lost patience with this game. "You really don't get it. If you hadn't done that, you could have walked away..."

"Huh? What are you talking about? I'm gonna fuck the legs right off of you so you can't get away."

She backed away quickly, breaking his grip again, then came in and whacked him hard enough in the side of his head to make him see stars. She hit him again, harder, and he crumpled to his knees. She backed away as he got up again.

"To think that I actually sorta liked you for a while there," she said, shaking her head. "Your naivete was charming at first..."

"We're not having this conversation." He shook his head. "No sir. You hit good for a girl. Gonna fuck you up for that." He grinned wolfishly, and took a step forward, reaching for her, but couldn't complete the action. "What the fuck?" he cried.

The pounding in his head and in his groin was unbearable. He thought he could hear it echoed below him, but that was crazy. This place didn't have a basement. There was like a choir too, and pipes of some kind. And crazy laughter, like they were in another room but still in the room with them, too.

Two of the tendrils of the hanging plant had fastened around his legs. The limbs of the bonsai forgot they were dwarf and grasped him, held him tight. The pitcher plants opened in silent laughter.


"Parchment" is one of the major tales in Before Crazytown. It employs a light touch in dealing with precarious temp jobs that unfold in unexpected, seductive, and deadly ways. It was produced brilliantly for audio here.

The Last Bus 

Throughtout my twenties I took city buses everywhere I had to go. One spring night in 1989, I missed the last bus home from a telemarketing job, and had to walk from east-€side to campus across Columbus, Ohio to get home.

I can readily identify with the main character in "The Last Bus."

There was a bike in the rack on the front of the bus. Rodrigo noticed it as he boarded, and lusted after it. Shiny and new, silver spokes gleaming, blue pain, 15 or 18 speeds.

“Man, glad I made it,” he said to the driver. “No more buses tonight. It’d suck to be stranded.”

The driver nodded and pulled the bus away from the curb. Rodrigo moved on down the aisle.

He took a seat midway between the reeking drunk behind the driver's area and the rayon-clad working-women near the side door, and thought about how easy things would be with a bike.

"Yeah man," he said to himself under his breath. "That's 35 extra a month. I could eat lunch with that money. No more monthly bus pass."

The bus passed by a Whataburger and his stomach rumbled in recognition of the smell coing in the window. He hadn't eaten since the previous evening.

Two senior citizens got on at the next stop.

“I wonder who’s bike it is?” he thought, scanning the other passengers surreptitiously.

A couple of wannabe 'bangers in the back, headphones on, jamming to the clubfooted beats of hip-hop, the waitresses and clerks and cashiers, some bluehairs out too late.

Another banger got on, sat down with the others, exchanging mysterious gestures.

Rodrigo gazed at his reflection in the side window. Too much frown, hairline heading for the border, the face of a working stiff. Life hadn't been kind....

Ghoul Picnic

Audio here.

While "The Last Bus" really connects with me, I believe "Ghoul Picnic" is the strongest and most poignant story in Before Crazytown.

A delicate and somber amalgam of science fiction and  horror, it tells the story of an indigenous people whose traditions, culture, and folkways are destroyed in a single night when they are beset by foreign interlopers.

....The machine people departed also, and we four remained standing at the peak of the mountain.

Illivant could not understand what had occurred, other than the fact that the Night People could not enter the caverns that had been their home, and were to guard against intruders from within. Illivant's head hurt from the unfamiliar doings. Illivant wailed from the pain, and from the weight of the burden that had been placed upon him, to remain outside and guard the doorway of his former home. Graven and Skowl were locked in an embrace, weeping and gnashing their teeth. "The Folk are lost to us now," sobbed Graven. "The old ways are not our ways."

Ghost alone stood silent and thoughtful. "We should not tarry," he whispered, and led us down the mountain toward the Gateway of Mordiggian.

Arka and Illandra had unwrapped the leaves and were building a clumsy structure for the fire. The pups were bringing such wood as they could carry. Stoll nodded as we approached.

"We know," he said simply....

Pesice gives us no moralizing. Anyone reading the story will feel its historical associations with what happened to the first peoples of the Americas. Pesice uses tropes of the horror genre to perfectly arrest the reader's conscience.

I've only touched on a few of the treasures in Before Crazytown. I'll leave it to fellow readers to discover the rest.


19 August 2017

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Alan Dean Foster and John Carpenter's The Thing: celebtating 35 years of the 1982 novelization

In the period 1981-1983 I read more novels by Alan Dean Foster than any other writer.

I read:

Splinter of the Mind's Eye
Star Trek Log 1-?
The Black Hole
The Thing

I can still remember practically verbatim the first few paragraphs of his novelization of John Carpenter's The Thing (1982):

The worst desert on Earth never gets hot. It boasts no towering sand dunes like the Sahara, no miles and miles of barren gravel as does the Gobi. The winds that torment this empty land make those that sweep over the Rub al Khali seem like spring breezes.

There are no venomous snakes or lizards here because there is nothing for them to poison. A bachelor wolf couldn't make a living on the slopes of its Vinson Massif. Even the insects shun the place. The birds who eke out a precarious life along its shores prefer to swim rather than fly, seeking sustenance from the sea rather than a hostile land. Here live seals that feed on other seals, microscopic krill that support the world's largest mammals. Yet it takes acres to support a single bug.

A mountain named Erebus stands cloaked in permanent ice, but burns with the fires of hell. Elsewhere the land itself lies crushed beneath the solid ice up to three miles thick. In this frozen waste, this gutted skeleton of a continent unlike any other, only one creature stands a chance of surviving through the winters. His name is Man, and like the diving spider he's forced to carry his sustenance on his back.

Sometimes Man imports other things to Antarctica along with his heat and food and shelter that would not have an immediate impact on an impartial observer. Some are benign, such as the desire to study and learn, which drives him down to this empty wasteland in the first place. Others can be more personal and dangerous. Paranoia, fear of open places, extreme loneliness; all can hitch free and unwelcome rides in the minds of the most stable of scientists and technicians.

Usually these feelings stay hidden, locked away behind the need to concentrate on surviving hundred-mile-an-hour winds and eighty-below-zero temperatures.

It takes an extraordinary set of circumstances to transform paranoia into a necessary instrument for survival.

When the wind blows hard across the surface of Antarctica, the universe is reduced to simpler elements. Sky, land, horizon all cease to exist. Differences die as the world melts into blustery, homogeneous cream....

At which point a helicopter and a dog enter the narrative and we are off to the races.

I found this P.R. fluttering in my paperback. Old-fashioned and charming:

ALAN DEAN FOSTER, a Scorpio, was born in California where he completed his schooling. After serving a hitch in the U.S. Army, he worked as a copywriter in a public relations-advertising firm. Since then he has taught Motion Picture History and Writing at Los Angeles City College, as well as Literature at U.C.L.A.

A prolific writer, Foster has written very successful novelizations of Alien, Dark Star, The Black Hole, Outland and Clash of the Titans. He has also had ten novels published including the five Humanx Commonwealth volumes, Midworld, Cachalot, Icerigger, Mission to Moulokin and his most recent one, Spellsinger.

A red belt in Tang Soo Do (a form of Korean Karate), Foster's hobbies are backpacking, body surfing and basketball. He and his wife recently deserted the Pacific Coast to live in the Arizona desert.

Sounds like a pretty nice life.

Macready and Childs don't end up so nicely situated:

.... [Macready] leaned against the handmade bar and lit a cigar from the pub's undamaged stock. His hands were heavily wrapped. No gloves were lying conveniently about, but there'd been plenty of insulated tape in the ruins of the infirmary. What was left of his hands benefited from the bandaging anyway. He puffed on the cigar and poured a double, no soda please, into a glass that was only slightly chipped.

Something grabbed him by the shoulder and spun him around. He was too exhausted to scream.

A face stared back into his own: Childs. White-and-black blotches mottled the exposed skin and icicles decorated the mechanic's woolly beard.

"Did . . . did you kill it? I heard an explosion." Childs's mouth wasn't working too well. His lips were cracked and stained with dried blood. A weak gust of wind caused the powerful frame to stagger. Lack of food and exposure to the elements had severely depleted the mechanic's strength.

"I think so," Macready told him

"What do you mean, 'you think so'?" Childs stumbled backward a few steps.

They eyed each other suspiciously, the voices guarded. Macready was suddenly alert.

"Yeah, I got it." He gestured with a mummified finger at the mechanic's face. "Pretty mean frostbite."

Childs kept his distance and exhibited a puffy, pale hand.

"It'll turn again soon enough. Then I guess I'll be losing the whole thing." He kicked out first his right foot, then the left. The movements were feeble, shaky. "Think my toes are already gone."

Macready had salvaged one of the card tables and set it up nearby. Carrying bottle and glass he limped over and sat down in the single chair. The back was cracked but the legs were still intact.

A chess set rested on the table, its power wire hanging loosely over the side. By some miracle the box of pieces that had been buried beneath it had survived the cataclysm. Several piles of cards lay nearby. Macready was in the process of combining them to form a single, complete deck.

The two men continued to eye each other warily. "So you're the only one who made it," said Childs.

Macready was setting up the chessboard. Tiny magnets held each piece to the metal board despite the steady wind.

"Not the only one, it looks like."

Childs found a couple of blankets and gratefully wrapped them around his upper body. "The fire's got the temperature way up all over camp. Won't last long, though." He nodded toward the pub's missing wall.

"Neither will we."

"Maybe we should try and fix one of the radios. Try and get some help."

"Maybe we shouldn't."

"Then we'll never make it," the mechanic said calmly.

Macready puffed on the cigar until the tip glowed red, then reached down into the bundle of supplies he'd gathered. From the middle of the pile he pulled a small, cylindrical metal shape.

"Lookee what I found. This one works." He carefully put the blowtorch on the table next to him.

"Maybe we shouldn't make it," he added speculatively.

Childs eyed the blowtorch. "If you're worried about anything, let's take that blood test of yours."

"If we've got any surprises for each other," the pilot replied, "we wouldn't be in any condition to do anything about it. Any testing can wait." He paused, then ask cheerfully, "You don't play chess?"

Childs studied the pilot, then hunted through the wreckage outside the pub. He returned carrying a second chair in reasonably good condition and placed it across the table from Macready.

"I guess I'll be learning."

The pilot grinned and handed the mechanic the bottle. Childs leaned back and drained half of what was left. When he put the bottle down he was smiling.

Around them the persistent fires smoldered on, riding a sea of frozen water. Bright embers levitated by the wind rose lazily into the night sky The ghostly ribbon of the southern aurora pirouetted overhead, masking many of the stars that had come out in the wake of the storm.

Macready nudged a pawn two squares forward

And that's how Foster ends it. Magnificent.

13 August 2017