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

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

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Real monsters? The Monstrous edited by Ellen Datlow (2015).

The Monstrous edited by Ellen Datlow (2015).

Notes on a few of the stories:

"A Natural History of Autumn" by Jeffrey Ford is a superb tale of supernatural horror set in modern day Japan. It beautifully combines local legend with everyday life.

"Ashputtle" by Peter Straub
There's plenty of fancy creative-writing-class literary sweat on display in this story. The reader is plunged into the funhouse world of first-person mental illness. Is Straub boring? Taking the easy way? Am I too cynical over the works of an artist? Or is Straub a slumming tourist?

"Giants in the Earth" by Dale Bailey
A pretentious and exhausted literary conceit: that man is the real monster.

"Grindstone" Stephen Graham Jones
A powerful, imaginative, macabre story.
At first we think the moral is that man is the real monster. But how wrong we are.

"How I Met the Ghoul" by Sofia Samatar
A droll story worthy of Saki. Funny, modest, unpretentious.


24 April 2019

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Even madness has its reasons: Nightmares: A New Decade of Modern Horror. Edited by Ellen Datlow (2016)

Nightmares: A New Decade of Modern Horror

Edited by Ellen Datlow (2016)

Notes on only a few of the stories in this generous collection:

"Strappado" by Laird Barron
Another story populated by privileged misfits who've slipped a gear and become misaligned with normality. Much like the middle class aristos of "Mysterium Tremendum," hunting sensation and running up against hard facts of a cosmos whose motto is: You can't win.

"The Shallows" by John Langan
Has all weird fiction become a series of shards arbitrarily nested together and called stories? I only ask because "The Shallows" is frustrating in such an obvious way, goading the reader to insights never confirmed in a narrative punishing in its arrogant dismissal of the necessity of sense. A cataclysm, an abused dog, a dying wife, and a missing son are tangled together in a narrative built upon the hero's capacity for self-pity.

"Our Turn Too Will One Day Come" by Brian Hodge is a brilliant folk horror tale about the impact of generations of family secrets. It begins with great poignancy, but grows menacing and suspenseful as layers of rationalizations are peeled away.

"Is there something that makes you more family than I am?"

"So what if there is? That doesn't have to mean it's a good thing."

"Mr. Pigsny" Reggie Oliver
Reggie Oliver leaves his fellow-anthologized authors in the shade. "Mr. Pigsny" is a masterful story, compressed and sharpened by a master. Compared to it, stories above by Barron and Langan seem suffocating, trapped in the charm of their own aloof inconclusiveness.

"The Clay Party" Steve Duffy
A masterpiece on the matter of the "American nightmare." Duffy's ambition gives us a rich vein of a story not to be forgotten.

23 April 2019

Monday, April 22, 2019

The Croning Laird Barron (2012)

What lies beneath

The Croning Laird Barron (2012).

Donald Miller is unstuck in time. At the whim of memories from different periods in his life, he struggles to assemble a big picture: that he is only the latest in his lineage whose fate is in the crosshairs of cosmic horror.

Glimpses are provided to Don, but initial insights quickly fade.

As an old man, taking the dog for a walk near a rural tree farm:

....Today, he spotted a couple of the younger men near the road, and instantly knew something was different, wrong somehow. Thick and broad, their coveralls caked in dust and sap. Flat, sallow faces already alight with sweat, they muttered and hacked at dead limbs, dropped them into wheelbarrows like tangled stacks of deformed arms and legs. Yes, there was a difference in their movements, a queer, vaguely inimical aura radiating from them and their half smiles that resembled sneers. He glanced down and noted that Thule's fur was ridged and ruffled as when he was pointing toward a threat such as a hostile dog or an unknown critter in the bushes.

The pair gradually became aware of Don's presence and ceased their labors to study

him and converse furtively. One called out in a shrill, fluting voice to his brethren hidden among the deep rows and the eerie cry was immediately returned from several, widely scattered locations.

His mouth, my God! Don gasped and averted his gaze from the man uttering the strange bird cry; the fellow's mouth shuttered like an iris, a toothless hole as big as a fist. The other man licked his lips and slid his machete against his pants leg in the manner of a barber stropping a razor.

Don nodded with a sickly smile, pretending obliviousness of this most palpable unwelcome and ambled onward as fast as dignity permitted. Their deadly obsidian eyes swiveled to track him until a curve of the road intervened. He spasmodically gripped the pepper spray in his pocket. His teeth chattered.

Too many joints in their necks. He hadn't noticed that during his previous encounters with the crew. Both of thesemen had possessed the same deformity, and a crazy, paranoid thought occurred to him—the pair were actors, doubles in a film who stand in for the name actor, always filmed from behind, or in soft focus. Put a uniform on someone and that person could pass as your best friend from a distance. Crazy and paranoid in spades. Who the hell would bother to impersonate migrant laborers on a country tree farm? Why did he have a sneaking suspicion he'd seen them before under different circumstances?

They watch. They watch you, Donald. They love you.

Barron's ability to present the reader with seemingly arbitrary menace in an everyday context is the great strength of The Croning. Don Miller realizes eventually,  when the collage of his life is assembled, that he is wed to one of the secret cadet royalty in a subterranean history of the world.

Familiarity with Barron's other work offers depth. At one point in the story Don Miller heads to Slango, an abandoned logging camp on Mystery Mountain, as part of his job as a geologist in private industry. Echoes reverb: a previous Slango story was the epic "The Men from Porlock." (The fire-gutted village and its leaning tower are featured in both "Porlock" and another epic multi-character into-the-woods story: "Mysterium Tremendum.")

The Black Guide also makes a nefarious cameo.

I hesitate to say more about The Croning. Its strength lies in corner-of-the-eye shocks to the reader as Don Miller comes to understand the mysteries which are the hidden narrative of his life.

22 April 2019

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Panic mode: The Stiles of Palemarsh by Richard Gavin

"The Stiles of Palemarsh" by Richard Gavin is a fine tale of Pan-ic and personal retribution. Welsh locations are beautifully realized.
From: Autumn Cthulhu edited by Mike Davis


….The sun practically blinded Ian as he trailed across the yard behind his aged host.

Precisely where the field merged with the forest stood a pair of lean stones. They were, by Ian's estimation, roughly six-feet in height and were set slightly askew, one planted just ahead of the other. This gave the impression not of a barrier, but rather a passage.

"You see that squeeze-stile there?" The man's pointing finger tapered toward an unpleasantly overgrown fingernail, scuffed and ragged and yellow.

"I see the stones. Is that you mean?"

"Aye, that's a squeeze-stile. They were used to mark the boundaries between one man's land and another's. You slip between those stones and you'll find yourself on the path. It's a fine walk. Eventually you'll come to a wooden step-stile at the far end of the trail. Climb that and you'll set down at the head of Wheat Sheaf Lane, right at the high street."

"Sounds straightforward. Thanks for everything."

"Remember," he advised, raising higher his finger with its unsightly nail, "you always want to keep the sun on your left shoulder when you're passing through that glen, lad."

Ian nodded, despite not caring to understand the wives' tale advice of rural folk.

He crossed the last of the field. Perspiration was already beginning to dampen his underarms and back. The tree-shaded glen would be a welcome relief.

The stones of the squeeze-stile seemed to radiate coolness, as though they were righted ice floes instead of granite slabs. Vein-like ribbons of moss suggested the stones' age as well as lending their appearance a strange texture, like a relief map of some remote land.

'Squeeze' was an apt name, for, as Ian soon discovered, the gap between the off-set rocks was claustrophobic, and their uneven faces were made almost hazardous by jutting keen ridges. When he was pressed between the two standing stones, desperation flushed hotly through Ian, followed instantly by a tarry sense of despair. Childishly, he shut his eyes and held his breath before pushing through to the other side of the stile.

The grove expanded all around him. The velvet leaves of the oaks pulsated and the insects offered up a subtle fanfare. While he knew that his passage through the squeeze-stile had not been anywhere near as dramatic or traumatic as he'd imagined, Ian was nonetheless grateful for the verdant expanse at his elbows, the soft trail under his soles. This new environ seemed to lessen the dull ache in his ankle. He was already fantasizing about lying on that King-size bed, his bad leg propped, the air conditioner blasting at full-power and the television playing loudly.

In what seemed to be no time at all, Ian spotted the wooden step-stile that marked the trail's end.

Age and the elements had smoothed the wood steps to such a degree that they felt ice-slick beneath him. Ian scaled and descended the inverted-V carefully, experiencing an unwarranted sense of achievement when his feet struck Wheat Sheaf Lane.

But this spike of exuberance became lost in a sudden blast of terror; a terror that was as inexplicable as it was unbearable. About him, the midday sun shone warmly through the screens of healthy leaves. Swallows trilled and a temperate breeze pressed the entire scene as rhythmically as the evening tide. There was nothing that should have upset him. Ian scanned his surroundings more closely, hoping yet at the same time not hoping that he might glimpse whatever obscured threat had aroused in him this pulsing dread. But there was no danger to be seen, not even the potential for danger. All was thoroughly pastoral. Ian could even see the rooftops of the high street; a reminder that civilization was but a few steps away.

But it was all still somehow unbearable. The openness of the lane, the visibility of the cloudless sky was too immense, too open. Rather than providing airiness and relief, the space aroused a reverse claustrophobic response in Ian, who began to view himself as exposed; a speck of tender prey standing unprotected and wholly visible.

This, Ian realized, was true panic….


21 April 2019

A note on "After the Fall" by Jeffrey Thomas

"After the Fall" by Jeffrey Thomas
From: Autumn Cthulhu edited by Mike Davis

"After the Fall" by Jeffrey Thomas is one of the best tales in Mike Davis' Autumn Cthulhu anthology.  It begins with a globe-spanning wind-from-nowhere. The wind blows away our old sky, and reveals a new and utterly alien one. 

"After the Fall" epitomizes cosmic horror: no comfort, no answers, only billions of individual questions as everyday life moves forward.


….Along the drive to Sherri's home in a neighboring town, Crystal repeatedly craned her neck to gaze up at the sky through her window with a mix of apprehension and curiosity. Meanwhile, in her lap she thumbed her phone's colorful screen, alternating between searching out stories about the phenomenon on the internet and exchanging dramatic text messages with her friends. "It's doomsday, bitches!" Crystal read out loud.

"Besides that observation," Wayne said, "are there any more ideas about this on the news?"

"Well," Crystal replied, "looks like regular airplane flights are still cancelled, but I guess helicopters and military planes have been going up for a better look. Sounds like the things look the same even if you go up there. Not any closer or clearer or anything."

"So the images aren't inside our atmosphere, but outside it?"

"Um, probably. They're like showing through our atmosphere. Yeah, so I guess…in space? I wonder if satellites can see them. Anyway, I'll bet the government knows more than they're telling. They always do."

They arrived at Sherri's home, parked their car behind others filling the driveway, and went around to her sizable back yard – its swimming pool covered till next summer, if next summer should in fact come – to find that the yard was decorated as if for an early Halloween party. Cleverly carved jack-o'-lanterns on the picnic table and elsewhere, candles in little paper bags stenciled with witches and black cats, black and orange crepe paper bunting, bowls of popcorn, dishes of candy corn, jugs of cider. 

From a CD player, Orson Welles reported on the invasion of Earth by Martians. All of this was Sherri's work; Wayne had often teased her about being a Martha Stewart wannabe. Mixed with these accoutrements, however, were other accoutrements left over from summer: coolers of beer, and aromatic smoke rising from the grill tended by Sherri's husband Dave. He had already filled several plates with burgers and hotdogs. The air had a bit of crispness to it today, but it was still comfortable. The sun shone. The sky was blue...and full of monsters. Sherri couldn't take credit for those.

Wayne realized he was grinning as he crossed the grass toward his sister, who had spotted him and came to meet him halfway. He explained to Crystal, walking beside him, "Keith always loved Halloween so much."

"Dad, we all do in our family."

21 April 2019

Friday, April 19, 2019

John Langan's story "Outside the House, Watching for the Crows"

I found the John Langan story "Outside the House, Watching for the Crows" in Paula Guran's anthology The Mammoth Book of Cthulhu (2016). It is by far the most professional story in the book, a tale behind which we sense with gratitude a real organizing aesthetic intelligence.

In it the narrator writes a letter to his son about his only supernatural experience. The narrator circles the subject, going back to adolescence.

Once upon a time, a kid named Jude handed him an audio cassette of music by a band called The Subterraneans. It's the kind of music that seems at first ephemeral; only later does he realize the album has snaked completely through his consciousness.

At which point he again meets Jude:

"Then you're fine," he said. "Holy shit. You know you're the first person I've met who actually saw something? Amazing."

"I don't understand," I said. "I'm sorry. I mean, I get that something important has happened – to me – but I don't know what it is."

"It's the music. It thins what's around you, lets you see beyond it."

I had read and watched enough science fiction to think I understood what Jude was talking about. "You mean to another dimension?"

"Sure," he said. "Dimension, plane, iteration, it's all just a way of saying someplace else. Someplace more essential than all of this." He waved his hand to take in the cars, the parking lot, the college, us.

"How— who are these guys? The Subterraneans? How did they do this?"

"I don't know. There are rumors, but they're pretty ridiculous. A lot of bands have messed around with occult material, usually as an occasion for some depraved sex. Fucking Jimmy Page and his sex magic. This is different. These guys are into some crazy mathematics, stuff that goes all the way back to Pythagoras and his followers. What they tried wasn't a complete success. Most of the people I've handed the tape to played it once and ignored it. A few became obsessed with it. Like I said, though, you're the first to see anything."

"Have you?" I said. "You have, haven't you?"

"Twice. Both times, I saw a city. It was huge, spread out along the shore of an ocean for as far as I could see. The buildings looked Greek, or Roman. A lot of them were in ruins, which made the place seem old, ancient. But there were people walking its streets, so I knew it wasn't abandoned. The ocean was immense. Its water was black. Its waves were half as tall as some of the buildings."

"Where is it?" I said. "Do you know what it's called?"

"No." He shook his head. "I spoke to a folklorist over at SUNY Huguenot. He'd heard of the city. He said it was called the Black City – also the Spindle. He thought it was another version of Hell. He was the one who told me about the Watch, the guys in the bird masks. Said you did not want to attract their attention."

"Why not?"

"He didn't spell it out. I'm guessing a fate worse than death."


"They're coming here, you know."

For a second, I thought Jude was referring to the Watch, then I understood he meant the band. "Here? Where?"

"They're playing a show at The Last Chance. Late June, I forget the exact date."

"Are you going to go?"

"Are you kidding? You have to come, too."


"Look at the effect a recording of their material had on you. Imagine what hearing it live could do."

"I don't know." To be honest, I was as worried by the prospect of what your grandparents would say as I was any further visions. Depending on their moods, they had a way of making a request to do something new sound as if it were a personal injury to them.

"You cannot be serious," Jude said. "You're standing on the verge of . . ." He threw up his hands.

"Of what?"

"Does it matter?" he said. "Really? Does it? Even if this place is a district in Hell, isn't that more than you're ever going to find, here?"


13 April 2019

A hint of the uncanny on the Appalachian trail: A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson (1999)

....We walked for a week and hardly saw a soul. One afternoon I met a man who had been section hiking for twenty-five years with a bicycle and a car. Each morning he would drop the bike at a finishing point ten miles or so down the trail, drive the car back to the start, hike between the two and cycle back to his car. He did this for two weeks every April and figured he had about another twenty years to go. Another day I followed an older man, lean and rangy, who looked to be well into his seventies. He had a small, old-fashioned day pack of tawny canvas and moved with extraordinary swiftness. Two or three times an hour I would sight him just ahead, fifty or sixty yards away, vanishing into the trees. Though he moved much faster than I did and never seemed to rest, he was always there. Wherever there was fifty or sixty yards of view, there he would be—just the back of him, just disappearing. It was like following a ghost. I tried to catch up and couldn't. He never looked at me that I could see, but I was sure he was aware of me behind him. You get a kind of sixth sense for the presence of others in the woods, and when you realize people are near, you always pause to let them catch up, just to exchange pleasantries and say hello and maybe find out if anyone has heard a weather forecast. But the man ahead never paused, never varied his pace, never looked back. In the late afternoon he vanished and I never saw him again.

Bill Bryson, A Walk in the Woods (1999).

Sunday, April 7, 2019

State of Fear by Michael Crichton

State of Fear
Michael Crichton

State of Fear has many typical Michael Crichton elements: Time restriction. Characters out of their depth. Conspiracy. High-level incompetence.

In it, Crichton presents us with NGO climate experts preparing terrorist attacks using high-technology to show that dangerous climate change is occurring today, not 100 years from now.

Motivation? Anxious for contributions from those crazed by such attacks, the baddies dream of donation plenty.

Crichton is particularly strong on bourgeois liberals attracted to environmental catastrophism:

....Ted Bradley looked out the window. "Isn't it beautiful?" he said. "Truly unspoiled paradise. This is what is vanishing in our world."

Seated opposite him, Kenner said nothing. He, too, was staring out the window.

"Don't you think the problem," Bradley said, "is that we have lost contact with nature?"

"No," Kenner said. "I think the problem is I don't see many roads."

"Don't you think," Bradley said, "that's because it's the white man, not the natives, who wants to conquer nature, to beat it into submission?"

"No, I don't think that."

"I do," Bradley said. "I find that people who live closer to the earth, in their villages, surrounded by nature, that those people have a natural ecological sense and a feeling for the fitness of it all."

"Spent a lot of time in villages, Ted?" Kenner said.

"As a matter of fact, yes. I shot a picture in Zimbabwe and another one in Botswana. I know what I am talking about."

"Uh-huh. You stayed in villages all that time?"

"No, I stayed in hotels. I had to, for insurance. But I had a lot of experiences in villages. There is no question that village life is best and ecologically soundest. Frankly, I think everyone in the world should live that way. And certainly, we should not be encouraging village people to industrialize. That's the problem."

"I see. So you want to stay in a hotel, but you want everybody else to stay in a village."

"No, you're not hearing—"

"Where do you live now, Ted?" Kenner said.

"Sherman Oaks."

"Is that a village?"

"No. Well, it's a sort of a village, I suppose you could say…But I have to be in LA for my work," Bradley said. "I don't have a choice."

"Ted, have you ever stayed in a Third-World village? Even for one night?"

Bradley shifted in his seat. "As I said before, I spent a lot of time in the villages while we were shooting. I know what I'm talking about."

"If village life is so great, why do you think people want to leave?"

"They shouldn't leave. That's my point."

"You know better than they do?" Kenner said.

Bradley paused, then blurted: "Well, frankly, if you must know, yes. I do know better. I have the benefit of education and broader experience. And I know firsthand the dangers of industrial society and how it is making the whole world sick. So, yes, I think I do know what is best for them. Certainly I know what is ecologically best for the planet."

"I have a problem," Kenner said, "with other people deciding what is in my best interest when they don't live where I do, when they don't know the local conditions or the local problems I face, when they don't even live in the same country as I do, but they still feel—in some far-off Western city, at a desk in some glass skyscraper in Brussels or Berlin or New York—they still feel that they know the solution to all my problems and how I should live my life. I have a problem with that."

"What's your problem?" Bradley said. "I mean, look: You don't seriously believe everybody on the planet should do whatever they want, do you? That would be terrible. These people need help and guidance."

"And you're the one to give it? To 'these people?'"

"Okay, so it's not politically correct to talk this way. But do you want all these people to have the same horrific, wasteful living standard that we do in America and, to a lesser extent, Europe?"

"I don't see you giving it up."

"No," Ted said, "but I conserve where I can. I recycle. I support a carbon-neutral lifestyle. The point is, if all these other people industrialize, it will add a terrible, terrible burden of global pollution to the planet. That should not happen."

"I got mine, but you can't have yours?"

"It's a question of facing realities," Bradley said.

"Your realities. Not theirs."


7April 2019