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

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

Sunday, May 26, 2019

But there is none: Shadow Show: All New Stories in Celebration of Ray Bradbury Editors: Mort Castle, Sam Weller (2012).

Shadow Show: All New Stories in Celebration of Ray Bradbury
Editors: Mort Castle, Sam Weller (2012).

I'm not sold on Bradbury tribute stories, but Shadow Show has a few of my go-to authors, so I spent the day dipping in and out of it.

Notes and excerpts:

The Companions by David Morrell

....About a third of the audience was leaving through the front gate. But coming from the opposite direction, from the parking lot, Alexander and Brother Richard emerged from the darkness, making their way through the courtyard. What puzzled Frank wasn't that they had left and were coming back. Rather it was that a spotlight seemed to be following them, outlining them, drawing Frank's attention to their progress through the crowd. They almost glowed.

I've been reading Morrell's thrillers for a quarter century. They never disappoint. Most start with new characters, something bestselling writers don't often do. Perhaps that is why Morrell has a reputation as a writer's writer and not a crowd-pleaser.
    His short stories of the uncanny are typically very strange, but perhaps not traditionally supernatural. They are finely crafted, disturbing, and linger to tease the mind long after finishing.
    "The Companions" is an outstanding example, filled with coincidence and spiritual disruption. And it is supernatural, but in a Machenesque sense, not a contemporary horror sense.

The Page by Ramsey Campbell

The sight of a fully clothed man on a beach desperately chasing a piece of paper strikes the unsettling note of M.R. James suggestiveness at the beginning of "The Page." As with Thirteen Days by Sunset Beach, Campbell's protagonists (Ewan and Joyce) are retired and on a family vacation with kids and grandkids in Greece. Ewan seeks out the page.
    ....Ewan picked his way to it as the wind set it beckoning. More than once his sandals missed a foothold on the slippery rocks, so that he was afraid of twisting an ankle or worse. His bare legs were stinging with sand and salt spray by the time he grabbed the piece of paper. It was the last page of a book called Sending Them to God.
    Other than the title it contained just four words: "but there is none." Why had the man been so desperate to retrieve it? How reassured would he have felt if he had? The words had no such effect on Ewan, who was inclined to give the page back to the wind. He might encounter the man, and he slipped it into his shirt pocket. He was peering at some odd marks in the crevice—they looked as if fingers had been groping ineffectually for the page, though they must have been made by the wind on the sand that was plastered to the cliff face—when the phone in his hip pocket emitted a clank. The message was from Joyce. where, it said....

Ewan and Joyce discover that the book's author, Jethro Dartmouth, retired to the very village where they are vacationing. Ewan takes the page to the author's house. The page seems to have other plans:

....As he made all the speed he could uphill the page fluttered in his hand. He might have imagined someone was trying to snatch it, and he slipped it into his breast pocket, where it struggled to unfold before lying still.

Jethro Dartmouth is dead, but Ewan interviews his adult daughter about the weird life of Sending Them to God. She declines to take back the page.

As Ewan leaves Dartmouth's house:

....She waved as the gates met behind him, and he was hurrying past the railings when he seemed to glimpse a man among the trees. In a moment the figure was gone, as if it had needed only to turn sideways to vanish. Ewan looked for it as the villas gave way to apartments, but there was no further sign of it. The page from the book lay quiet against his heart.

A perfect Campbell paragraph. But the page's work isn't done yet.

Who Knocks? By Dave Eggers

I've never read anything by Eggers. But "Who Knocks?" shows him to be a very confident and capable writer, giving the reader the chance to want more.

....She had just closed her eyes when she heard another knock. This time it was louder, a crisp clok clok clok. Like the sound of someone knocking hard on a wooden door. Except this knocking was coming from the bottom of the boat.

26 May 2019

Saturday, May 25, 2019

Review: A Night in the Cemetery and Other Tales of Crime and Suspense by Anton Chekhov

.....Freddie experienced the sort of abysmal soul-sadness which afflicts one of Tolstoy's Russian peasants when, after putting in a heavy day's work strangling his father, beating his wife, and dropping the baby into the city's reservoir, he turns to the cupboards, only to find the vodka bottle empty.
-The Best of Wodehouse: An Anthology

....The best critical observation on Chekhov that I have encountered is a remark that Gorky made about the man rather than the stories and plays: "It seems to me that in the presence of Anton Pavlovich, everyone felt an unconscious desire to be simpler, more truthful, more himself." That is the effect upon me of rereading "The Student" or "The Lady with Dog," or of attending a performance of Three Sisters or The Cherry Orchard. That hardly means we will be made any better by Chekhov, but on some level we will wish we could be better. That desire, however repressed, seems to me an aesthetic rather than a moral phenomenon. Chekhov, with his artist's wisdom, teaches us implicitly that literature is a form of desire and wonder and not a form of the good.
--Harold Bloom, Bloom's Modern Critical Views: Anton Chekhov—New Edition (2009).

A Night in the Cemetery and Other Tales of Crime and Suspense by Anton Chekhov is packed tight with stories by turns gelastic, sober, angry, and compassionate. There is no bathos, and elements of melodrama are winked-away or happily demolished. Each criminal thinks himself (or herself) unique; but as readers know, every crime is exhaustingly the same. Chekhov's precocious craft finds strength in the ironies of each all-to-human fool's activity.

Not every story is a murder mystery. There are embezzlers, horse thieves, and hapless security guards at every turn.

Peter Sekirin's translation is masterful, catching the informality and drollery of Chekhov's assured and perfect style.

Notes and excerpts:

....My story begins, as do most traditional well-written Russian stories, with the phrase "I was drunk that day."

A jocular litany of the elements of genre fiction.

A detective and a doctor prove through clues and ratiocination that they are fools.

....How had this very expensive coffin, designed for a rich young lady, come to be in the tiny apartment of a poor office worker like me?

A postman is murdered, but the murder is observed.

A embezzler in Siberian exile realizes he did not embezzle enough to be really comfortable.

....We've had nine accountants in the last five years, and now, during the holiday season, we get postcards from all of them, from Krasnoiarsk, Siberia. All of them went to prison.

An owner tries to unload an unworthy dog on his friend.

....My wife also came closer to the mirror and looked at it, and then something terrible happened. She blanched, trembled all over, and screamed. The candlestick fell from her hands and rolled onto the floor, and the candle was snuffed out. We were in total darkness. I heard some heavy object fall onto the floor. It was my wife, who had fainted.

...."Just look into his eyes," the defense lawyer continued. His chin trembled; his voice trembled also, and his suffering was clear in his eyes. "Do you think those tender, humble eyes could look upon a crime in cold blood, without any feelings? No, those eyes can cry; they can shed tears. A very sensitive disposition is hidden underneath that rough, rugged, square-jawed face. A tender heart, not a criminal's, but a human being's, beats beneath that rough, crippled chest. And you would dare call him guilty?"

...."Sister, do you wish to destroy both of you, Michael as well? He has started drinking! Sister, all you ever want is money and jewelry. All you ever do is calculate how to make a profit from your marriage. But this is appalling. How can you marry an illiterate?"

....["This is where the editor found the story too long, and crossed out 73 lines, thus cutting down on the author's royalties."—Chekhov's comment.]

....The driver falls from the carriage and vanishes into the darkness. The second horse stumbles at the cliff, and the engineer feels the carriage is falling
somewhere into the abyss.

....The waiting was terrible! Waiting for a drink is one of the worst things. It is better to wait for a train for five hours outside in the snow than it is to wait for a drink for five minutes. Diadechkin looked angrily at the clock, took a few steps across the room, and moved the big hand five minutes ahead.

A superbly organized story with a real kernel of shock resting right at the center of its web.

....I am a tender and spoiled man, your honor. I was spoiled by my parents. They did not think I would end up being a groom. They treated me with such tenderness, God bless them. They put me as a baby next to the warm oven in our country house, and I slept there until I was ten. I stayed there eating pies like a stupid pig. I was their beloved son. They dressed me in the best clothes, taught me how to read and to write for my future happy life. When I wanted to run barefoot, they warned me: 'You will get a cold, boy,' as if I were not a peasant but a landlord or man of prominence....

...."We are heading to the autopsy. A dead body has been found at the crime scene. But we cannot seem to get there. It appears we are in a magic circle, and we cannot get out...."

....On July seventh of this year, you were observed by the railway security guard, Mr. Ivan Akintov, while walking along the seventy-sixth kilometer of the railway to be unscrewing the nuts that fix the rails to the railway ties. Here is his deposition. He caught you while you were holding this iron nut in your hands. Is this true?"

....Many stories have that phrase, "but suddenly." Authors are right: life is filled with unexpected turns of events.

...."I remember him very well," said the red-haired man. "I remember him. He spent somebody else's money at a restaurant to show off in front of his girlfriend, and he wound up crying on her shoulder, although he wasn't crying before he did it...."

...."I knew this man. He loved his wife, had medals of honor, and never read anything in his life. His stomach was working properly. He died from an accident. Truly, but if not for that accident he would have kept on living. He died as a victim of his own observations. One day, he was eavesdropping behind a door, which swung to hit him so hard he was given a severe concussion from the blow, dying shortly after. Now, look at this monument. This man hated poetry all his life, see his headstone there? Do you see the irony? His entire tombstone is completely covered with poetry; what an ironic twist of fate!...."

"I am a gossiper as well. And I whisper in other people's ears. Right now, I am reporting to the overseer on other people. Do you think that George Korney was fired without my help, hmm? Hmm? And what do you think—who was it, if not me, who stole the two thousand from the charity money and then blamed it all on Mr. Staples? Was it not me? Yes, I am a hypocrite, a Judas, a liar, a yes-man, an extortionist, and usurper. I really am a nasty, bad man."

"Truthfully, those two friends of mine—Smirnov and Drummer—are terrible actors. They have no talent. They are complete buffoons. They would waste this money on nothing important, but me, I would bring some happiness to our country and become famous. I know what I will do—I will poison the vodka. Unfortunately, they will die, but there will be a theater in the town of Kostroma, a huge and magnificent theater the likes of which this country has never seen. I seem to recall the British prime minister, McMahon, saying that any actions can be justified if they serve the proper purpose. And he was a great person."

"You are a strange man, Sam! Others would laugh, tell stories, but you—well, you just sit here staring at the fire, like a scarecrow, with your eyes wide open. You cannot even say a word properly. You speak as if you are afraid of something. You've already passed fifty, and you have less intelligence than a child. Are you disappointed that you are a half-wit?"

....At the thought of sitting here in this dark cold forest for the whole night, listening to the wild animals and the echoes of his voice, the land surveyor felt shivers run down his spine, as if someone had poured a glass of ice water down his collar.

"....There is no path of good—it does not exist anymore among humans, and so there is nothing to seduce people away from. Besides, people have now become smarter than we are. How can you possibly seduce a person who graduated from college and has seen so much in this world? How can I teach someone how to steal a penny if he, without my help, has already stolen thousands, or even millions?"

....Mr. Nianin, the older man, is suspicious of everything; ever frightened and distrustful, he stops eating and becomes even more pale. George also stops eating. The father and the son are both cowards, alike in their fear of everything. They are filled with some undefined, inexplicable fear; it comes to them irregularly from nowhere, from beyond measurable time and space.

Charming story: journalist Pavel Sergeevich tries to draft a "a scary Halloween story" for his editor. He does this at home. In the next room his wife and her friends play the piano (badly), sing (badly) and then pester him for a ride in the country.

....The landlady and the servants alike feel inner cold—the kind of cold where the hands, the head, and the voice start to tremble. The fear is great, but their impatience is even greater. They want to get to a higher elevation to see the fire, its smoke, and the people better. Their desire to experience this emotional situation and its stress becomes stronger than their compassion for the misfortunes of others.

"They sent him to prison for no reason. He was drunk, your lordship, he didn't remember anything, and he even stroked father on the ear, he cut his own cheek through on a branch, and two of our villagers—see, they wanted some Turkish tobacco—told him to break into the Armenian man's shop at night to get tobacco. And drunk as he was, he agreed, the fool. They broke the lock, you know, got in, and made a complete mess. Everything upside down, windows broken, flour all over the floor. They were drunk, in short!...."

....The subject is highly disagreeable and delicate. Sasha Uskov sold a false promissory note to a bank, and three days ago the note becamfor payment. At present, his two uncles on his father's side, and Ivan Markovich, his uncle on his mother's side, are considering whether they should pay the note and save the family honor, or wash their hands of it and let the case go to court…..

"....When I was still a boy of eighteen or so, my mamma had an accidental oversight. She dropped some arsenic into the master's glass instead of soda and acid. There were all sorts of boxes in the storeroom, lots of them; it was very easy to have made a mistake over them."

"Listen, boys, we have to deal with that little girl somehow. We've got to get rid of her. If we leave her here, she'll be the first one to turn us in."

Has anyone ever approached you and asked that you listen to their five-act play? Crime is the only justifiable response.

A drunk is saved from a river but dies of ministrations of village first-responders.

Security guards come in for a lot of abuse in these stories.Chekhov delights in scaring his night watchmen.

Another of Chekhov's stories about swindling bank employees and the bank directors whom they dupe.

"I must recommend to you, my dear sir, this wonderful handgun made by the company Smith and Wesson. This is the finest achievement of the handgun industry. It has three different switches, an extractor for the next cartridge; it can hit any target from six hundred paces, and it is very easy to aim. I would like to draw your attention, my dear sir, to the beautiful and very clean finish of this particular piece. This is the most fashionable handgun nowadays. Every day, we sell at least ten of them to robbers, wolves, and lovers. It has a very powerful and precise performance, and uncompromising quality. With one shot you can kill both your wife and her lover, and for suicides, I do not know of a better system."

"Listen, Merik," said Lyubka, as her voice turned tender. "I know you'll find mother's money, and will do away with both her and me, and will go to Kuban to love other girls. Whatever happens will happen. There's only one thing I ask of you, sweetheart: stay now!"

....Since coming to live in the prison together with men from all over Europe—Russians, Ukrainians, Tatars, Georgians, Chinese, Finns, Gypsies, Jews—he began to listen to their conversations and watched them suffering, his faith began to grow again, as he felt that finally he had learned the true faith, the very faith that his whole family had longed for and for which they had searched in vain. He knew now where God was, and how He was to be served. There was only one thing now that he did not understand: why did one person's destiny differ so much from another's? Why did this simple faith, that some got for free while living their lives, come at such a price, with his limbs trembling like a drunk's from all the horror and suffering that apparently would go on without end until his death.

"If she forgave so fast, it means that she intended on revenge. Young wives do not forgive very easily or so fast."

A brilliant novella to round out this collection, with strong flavors of such later crime fiction masters as Nabokov and Highsmith.
    "....Yet what caught our attention and what shocked us all were his hands: they were covered with blood. Both hands and shirt sleeves were thickly coated with blood, as if he had just washed them in a blood bath."


25 May 2019

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Review: Black Helicopters by Caitlín R. Kiernan (Tor, 2018)

Declaring war on story, on plot and characterization, and relying on an  underpowered rhetorical voice to carry the day, does not work in fiction. It's all well and good in poetry if you are Wallace Stevens or John Ashberry, but wilfull obscurantism posed as esoterica palls quickly, especially at novella or novel length.

Caitlín R. Kiernan's novella Black Helicopters, about which I have heard good things, is a case in point. At the start I thought we were in for spy versus spy with operatives either investigating or covering up (not sure which) some big cataclysm on Deer Isle, Maine. Then I thought it was about two other women who were incestuous genetically modified twins somehow trapped in the Deer Isle event ramifications.

We are given lots of stream of consciousness impressions and reflections for each character. And, let me add, it's all written in present tense. (And yes, present tense is used by strong writers like Ramsey Campbell. But here the reader gets the feeling it is used to gin up a sluggish mechanism.) There are also a host of chess, paleontology, and Alice in Wonderland allusions to keep insights from sharpening and pace from achieving fourth gear.

Black Helicopters cleary prides itself on uniqueness. But it strikes me as a pale and gratuitously eccentric reminder of a much brighter and more compelling novella, Richard A Lupoff's 1977 tour de force Discovery of the Ghooric Zone. We have the same multiple point of view chapter alternations, shifts in time, and pseudo-Lovecraft subject matter. Lupoff just knows how to make contrary elements aesthetically reinforce and illuminate each other.

I have not had the pleasure of reading  Caitlín R. Kiernan before. I've recently been on a winning streak trying new writers: Mark Samuels, Joe R. Lansdale, Laird Barron. I guess I was due a Kiernan.

Oh, well: sometimes you play the black and the red comes up...

22 May 2019

Monday, May 20, 2019

Some blood-streaked thing crawling into the light: The Visible Filth by Nathan Ballingrud (2015).

The Visible Filth is a beautifully constructed novella. It follows several tumultuous days in the life of Will, a New Orleans bartender who leaves a lot to be desired, as the current girlfriend eventually concludes:

"You don't have any idea what you want. You know what I think you want? Nothing. I think there's nothing there to satisfy. I think you're a mock person, you're some kind of walking shell."

Will knows it, but it's easier to bartend in a hole-in-the-wall joint among the lower depths than make a move that will translate his life into something else.

....Will had spent his life skimming over the surface of things, impatient with the requirements of engagement. He told himself that this was because he was open to experience in a way most people weren't, that you sapped the potential for spontaneity from life if you regimented your hours with obligation. This rationalization came upon him in college, shortly after he dropped out, converting all that money invested by his parents into so much tinder for the fire.

Most of the time he believed it....

But then one night at work mischance takes Will in hand. After a fight in the bar, he finds a cell phone. That night a couple of disturbing texts come through.  By morning there are images, too.

....He tapped his finger on the first one so it ballooned to fill the screen.

It looked like a close-up shot of a sleeping man's face. He was middle-aged, balding, with a large, flat nose; his face was soft and rounded, like the features of a stone carving which had been worn smooth by centuries of wind and rain. There was nothing sinister about this picture; it might be an intimate portrait taken by a lover, or a dear friend.

The second was the same man from the same angle, but taken from a few feet further away. In this picture the man was clearly dead, felled by a violent strike to the head. The rounded dome of the man's skull, cropped out of the first picture, was here depicted in its shattered complexity: bone and brain and blood extruding from the crown like a psychedelic volcano caught in mid-expulsion. The man was lying on the sidewalk. The blood around his head reflected a disc of overhead light, a streetlamp or a flashlight. The picture had been taken at night. He noticed what appeared to be a wedding band on the man's left hand, which lay palm up, white and plump.

The third picture revealed a new setting. This one had been taken indoors, under a harsh light, probably a fluorescent. Seventies-style wood paneling covered the wall in the background. A utilitarian white drafting table occupied the foreground, and resting atop it was the same man's head, severed from its body. It sat planted straight on the table; someone must have taken the time to balance it, to arrange it just so. The wound in his head was not visible from this angle. No blood marred the scene, save the inevitable blackened ring around the neck. It seemed that some care had been taken to clean the blood from his head, primping him like a schoolboy for his yearbook photo. A slender red book lay on the table behind it, partially obscured, its spine facing the camera.

Will tried to slide on to the next one, but his fingers had gone numb and the phone clattered to the floor. He experienced a wild and irrational fear that someone had heard him and would see what he was looking at, and he felt an overwhelming shame – as though he'd been caught looking at the most outrageous pornography, or as though these ghastly photographs depicted his own work.

Putting the phone back on the table, he closed his eyes and forced himself to calm down. His breath was shaky, his nerves jumping. It occurred to him, abruptly, like some divine communication, that he did not have to look any further. He knew something awful had happened, that a murder of grotesque proportions had been committed and documented, and that any further examination was unnecessary. He should go to the police right now and wash his hands of it.

But stopping was unthinkable. He scrolled to the fourth photograph.

In this one, someone had gone to work on the head with an almost medical precision, and an artisan's hand. Using the killing wound as a starting point, the man's scalp had been sliced into a star pattern, and the skin pulled down from the head in bloody banana peels. The soft, generous features of his face, which had suggested to Will only moments ago the close proximity of someone beloved, which suggested both kindness and the passage of time, were obscured now by the bloody undersides of themselves. The skull had been scraped clean, or nearly so. The eye sockets had been scooped hollow. The table beneath the head was festooned with the gory splashes of the artisan's hard labor.

Only the video clip remained. Pressing the button was not like scrolling through the pictures; he could not pretend he was carried by momentum. This was a separate choice. It was his second chance to turn away.

He pressed play.

The video player took a moment to load, and then filled the screen with the shaky image of the head on the table. A blare of static shrieked from the phone as someone said something unintelligible. Will tapped the button to lower the volume, conscious of the sound intruding into the atmosphere of his apartment, like a species of ghost. He checked over his shoulder, the sense of proximity to another person prickling his nerves once more, and then held the phone close to his face to be sure he wouldn't miss anything. Shame, fear, and a weird thrill filled his body.

"Hold it steady. Jesus." A young man's voice.

The view stabilized, holding firm on the severed head, which was canting slightly to one side. The fourth picture had already been taken: careful ribbons of flesh suspended like wilted petals over the dead man's face. The top of the skull had been shaved down, leaving a red, raw hole just above the temple. A girl stepped into frame, her back to the camera. She had straight blond hair, an athletic body. She straightened the head again, held it a moment to make sure it stayed in place.

"Oh my god I can feel it," she said, and jerked her hands away.

"Get the fuck out of the picture!" Another girl's voice.

She retreated, and a calm settled over the image. A slight movement of the camera as a heart pounded hard in the chest. A stifled, nervous giggle. The head shifted slightly, as if it had heard something and had to turn a fraction to listen more closely. Then it moved again, and something seemed to shift in the darkness of its open skull.

"Oh shit." High pitched, genderless.

Four thick, pale fingers extended from inside the hole and hooked over the forehead. Someone screamed off camera and the image skewed wildly. The video ended.


"Fuck!" He flipped the phone over, turning to see Carrie standing beside him. He felt slow and disjointed, as though he'd dropped a tab of acid. "When did you get home?"

"Just now." She wasn't looking at him, though. "What are you looking at?"


The book with the red covers is called
The Second Translation of Wounds, and I hope we hear more about it, and Will, in future.

Ballingrud is a master of suggestion, confident the reader will do most of the work. He lets us process the accumulating clues until the puzzle is, suddenly and breathtakingly, complete.

20 May 2019