Friday, January 19, 2018

Mrs. Midnight and Other Stories

Mrs. Midnight: And Other StoriesMrs. Midnight: And Other Stories by Reggie Oliver
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Reggie Oliver might be the greatest living writer of the weird and eerie story, at least the more subtle flavor of the subgenre. There is an auctorial control that I don't see in many other writers (much less myself). This infernal mixing of weird, eerie, and subtle results in a rarefied creepiness and sometimes outright frisson in the reader's mind. But most of Oliver's tales (that I've read so far) also have heart - a sense of quirkiness and even humor that make one feel the promise warmth in the distance, not enough to drive the chill away, far from it, but enough that the hope for warmth might make the frosty pain even more acute.

I had high expectations going into this. I bought two volumes of Oliver's work based largely on the strength of his collection The Complete Symphonies of Adolf Hitler and Other Stories, and this was one of them. My expectations were absolutely met and, in the case of a couple of stories, exceeded. I am so glad that I have another book of Oliver's on hand to read beyond this one. I really can't get enough.

I was impressed right away by the titular story: What I thought was a mistaken switching between tenses is very intentional, and gives voice to the narrator's lack of education. The dissonance actually makes sense when one hears it over the longer haul. The humor herein is sly and wry: "Since I stopped working for the tabloids I've tried to avoid cliches like the plague". And this story of zoophagy is creepy beyond creepy. The layering of horrific themes in this story is stunning, with Oliver threading together at least three of them in the end. A dark literary hat-trick. Five stars, absolutely.

"Countess Otho," a ghost story or a story about madness (or, perhaps, both) completely subverted my ideas of how the story would end. This is a fairly complex short story, though so skillfully told that it doesn't get into its own way, like some stories do. It is not too clever for its own good, but it is clever. Very clever.

And in this tale we learn that sometimes, succumbing to madness is the best move. Or that hauntings don't necessarily have to be bad experiences. Five stars.

"Meeting with Mike" is an innocuous title for a devastatingly brutal story of brainwashing, conspiracy, and cult machinations. The portrayal of the Institute for Psychic Health (I.P.H.) is sinister and chill-inducing. The weird comes to take front-stage by the end of the story, but I won't spoil it. Suffice it to say that the ending is rather bizarre and very, very unsettling. Five stars for this excellent story.

Sometimes I love Reggie Oliver's sidelong humor, as in this line from "The Dancer in the Dark":

What first hinted to me that something very strange was going on? Is it only retrospect that makes me think it was the toupee?

"The Dancer in the Dark" isn't as weird as most of Oliver's stories, but the characters are well-fleshed-out and believable. This is a classic ghost story done to perfection. The catty characters devolve into rife immaturity like only a cast full of professional actors can. Oliver knows drama, both how to produce it and amongst his characters. You can tell he has acted professionally . . . or professionally acted! Another five star tale.

And then RIGHT back to the weird. "Mr. Pigsney" is as weird as they come. This story of gangsters, ming vases, garden slugs, and the afterlife is shot through with strong occult elements, which make it an engulfing story for the reader. The thought that maybe just plain old cessation-of-existence is preferable to living forever makes it intellectually satisfying, as well. Here, as in other stories in the collection, Oliver portrays something of a clash of classes, or at least a clash of social circles. He's done this in a few stories, and this dynamic always seems to add a certain tension that would otherwise be absent. Five stars for this tight, astounding tale.

"The Brighton Redemption" is high on the creepy factor. An imprisoned child murderer (both in terms of her victims and her own age at the time of the crime) practices bilocation, a miracle reserved for saints. But she is no saint! Four stars.

"You Have Nothing to Fear" - oh, Reggie Oliver, you clever dog. I see what you did there. Pun intended, eh? Still, a highly entertaining story only slightly cheapened by the pun. Still would have liked to have seen a little more depth of character. They are memorable, but uncharacteristically (pardon my own pun) unsubtle. Still very good, though. Four stars.

"The Philosophy of the Damned" portrays a more-or-less dying theater venue during the Russian revolution and the way in which it is, er, invigorated, by a new act in town. I really enjoyed this surreal story, which is thick on the weirdness, but not bombastic. A nicely balanced tale with a touch of horror, just a pinch, suit to taste. Five stars.

"The Mortlake Manuscript" is everything about Reggie Oliver's writing I love. An academic researches an obscure occultist, a scion, magically-speaking, of John Dee. Through this, he is led (wittingly and unwittingly, at the same time) to the so-called Mortlake Manuscript, wherein he learns the truths about life eternal and final death. This story is a masterpiece and is the best one in the volume. In fact, I think this is my favorite Reggie Oliver story period. That may change as I read future collections (and I will . . . I will), but for now this story gets the five most enthusiastic stars I've given in a long time. Hyperbole seems trite in this matter. You must read this story!

At first, I was prepared to award "The Look" four stars, as an excellent, but not outstanding tale of murder-mystery and revenge with a slight supernatural element, right up till near the very end. And I mean the very end. Then . . . that last sentence. That last sentence! O'Henry, the end!!! Five stars well-played yet again, Reggie Oliver, well-played!

It's funny: the ending of "The Giacometti Crucifixion," while trying to be clever, came up a little flat for me, unlike the ending of "The Look," which really worked for me. Still, the body of the story is tremendous, which makes the end a bit of a disappointment. Still a solid four-star story, though. I quite enjoyed it most of the way, most especially in the middle.

"A Piece of Elsewhere" is, by far, the creepiest story in this volume. And weird, to boot. You'll never look at comedians the same way. Humor and horror make strange bedfellows or, in this instance, they make bedfellows strange. Stranger than you want to know. This story strings a frisson of terror into what feels like a nightmare too long for such a short story. It packs a punch. Or, perhaps, Punch? Five sardonic laughing stars.

Almost every boy has or had an adult they feared, loathed, and hated. "Minos or Rhadamanthus" is their story. Not a story of cold vengeance, but of eternal fates and the scales of justice. A touch sad, but right as rain, as they say. A story that "fulfills the measure of its creation," to put it in biblical terms. An outstanding tale, well told. Five stars.

All told, I couldn't think of a better book to curl up with next to the fire on a winter's night. If you have any inclination to gothic romanticism at all, you need to read this book while enjoying a hot chocolate while it snows in the dark beyond your window. If I were holed up in a castle or a dark Victorian study and wanted to read the perfect book to match the mood, This. Would. Be. It!

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Monday, January 1, 2018

On Trails: An Exploration

On Trails: An ExplorationOn Trails: An Exploration by Robert Moor
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Man is built to walk. Actually, man is built to jog, slowly, speaking from a physiological point of view. However you ambulate, our bones and muscles are constructed to move and keep moving. Sedentary life is no life at all (he says while sitting in a chair, typing up this review). I love to walk. If you have been reading my reviews or blog for long enough, you'll know that. This is part of the reason I was so worried when I blew my back out in late 2014 and was so relieved when my surgery in 2015 was largely successful. The thought of not being able to walk, for me, makes me almost stop breathing.

But Moor is not so concerned with the act of walking itself. He is concerned with what it is we walk on, paths and trails, and how they are formed and, sometimes, conceived and maintained. He starts with the first trails, "traces," really, to be technically correct (trails are, by definition, a place where more than one organism has trodden the same path or where one has traveled repeatedly), made by strange part-plant, part-animal organisms during the Ediacaran period, a time that I did not even know existed when I began the book. These bizarre, almost alien life forms (surely they would seem alien in the current geological age - the descriptions given to these creatures made me think that H.P. Lovecraft might have been revealing more in his fiction than we could have known before the discovery of these weird critters) left traces in mud that petrified some 500 million years ago. Their efforts were spastic, halting, and meandering, but they're the oldest traces we can find of self-propelled mobility.

From this beginning, you might think that this book then goes through subsequent eras of trail-building and use, finally reaching to the modern age.

You'd be wrong.

This book meanders. And it meanders wildly. Personally, I liked that aspect of it, but if you're looking for a concise history of trails from Point A to Point B, this is not that book. If you're looking for a more leisurely wandering through not only the history of trails, but across disciplines such as history, environmental science, technology, and anthropology, then Moor's On Trails is for you. Like any trail, it's not perfect, and the author acknowledges that (giving his personal E-mail address near the end in order to receive readers' feedback, which I think is awesome). Nor is it completely comprehensive. But like any good trail that you might walk, there is really too much to gather in over the course of one journey. I'll be revisiting this one from time to time and am curious to see how future revisions differ from this initial printing.

That stated, there were a few highlights that I found intriguing, sometimes compelling. Please excuse my meandering as I point them out, in no particular order:

Believe it or not, Moor is unafraid to dive into the depths of the philosophy of science. Though this is more of a side-trail of the work, rather than a full-on excursion, he points out some interesting thoughts, particularly those coming from a scientist acquaintance of his. Moor had asked him about the intentional falsification of data by some scientists, some of whom extend bold conjectures in order to claim scientific territory. Apparently it is not out of the ordinary for scientists to extrapolate, from their limited data, views that "reach" for the truth. Moor, in speaking with his friend, called this practice into question. The response is intriguing:

Karl Popper would have said that astrophysics and paleontology are not real science because you can't go out and sample it . . . I think absolutely the opposite. I think this is actually where science is. It's trying to guess what lies over the hill and map terra incognita. When people come in and colonize, that's just technology.

For behaviorists, chapter 2 is a must-read about individual agency vis-a-vis the group hive mind, feedback loops, and amplification mechanisms in the formation of trails. It is a great analysis of group and individual behavior!

Kudos must be given to Moor for not only collating so much theoretical information, but for living his research. For a short time, he worked as a shepherd with a Navajo couple (who spoke no English) for a number of weeks, learning about herding and trails (or, more properly, trying to keep his flock on the trails, mostly unsuccessfully). This section was cringe-inducing in its awkward hilarity. I felt sorry for Moor, who admits he didn't have a clue what he was doing. Luckily for him, none of his flock became casualties as a direct result of his ignorance - a miracle, given the mis-steps he made!

One thing that comes up again and again in this book is the fact that members of western society have a number of misconceptions about cultures and history. I was disabused of a few notions: the idea that America was truly "wild" when Europeans invaded (Native Americans actually carefully-groomed and managed their lands, particularly hunting lands within the forests of the Eastern seaboard, using strategic burning in particular to clear areas of underbrush and mosquitoes), the mistaken idea that Native American trails would, of course, take the path of least resistance (they did not - "A trail might go to great lengths to avoid enemy territory or detour to visit kinfolk; it might gravitate to sacred sites, or bend around haunted ones"), and the "fact" that modern hunting and fishing regulations were primarily an organic outgrowth of conservation efforts (actually, most of them come from medieval English laws meant to protect the local noble's hunting grounds from pesky peasants).

Even the very idea that "Wilderness" is something that pre-exists at all is a judgement error, or at least an error in perspective, according to Moor:

It may sound strange (even sacrilegious) to some, but in a very real way, wilderness is a human creation. We create it in the same sense that we create trails; we do not crate the soil or the plants, the geology or the topology (although we can, and do, shift these things). Instead, we delineate the place, by defining its boundaries, its meaning, and its use.

The author actually does an excellent job of presenting and validating this argument through numerous examples, many associated with the attempted expansion of the Appalachian Trail to the International Appalachian Trail (extending across Greenland to Scotland to Spain and even to Morocco). Far from being a "natural" phenomenon, trails are technology that define and delineate wilderness, rather than cutting "through" it.

Moor gets even further off the path of expected subject matter for this book when he delves into the ways that technology shapes the land around us and forces us to walk on trails that are dictated by the advance of technology. He does not pass a value judgement on this progression, necessarily:

In large part, the continued interest in hiking seems to stem from a desire to cut through the techscape to get to some natural substratum: to borrow MacKaye's phrase, to see the "primeval influence" beneath the "machine influence." But ironically, the act of hiking is also dependent on technology. Many of the earliest hikers relied on trains and automobiles to reach the mountains. Today, some forms of technology (like cell phones or ATVs) are considered obnoxious, while others (like water purifiers, camp stoves, and GPS locators) are excused. In either case, technology inexorably trickles into the wild, allowing hikers to reach new lands, travel in new ways, think in new terms, and optimize to new values.

This melding of technology and the wild is, well, natural. There is no natural barrier between "civilization" and "wilderness". This exclusivity is created in our own minds. Yes, there are some areas left more "natural" than others, but much of the separation is a mental construct. Moor relates the following about Eberhart, a legendary hiker that he spent some time walking with along highways and through "wilderness" areas:

The problem, [Eberhart] said, was that hikers tended to divide their lives into compartments: wilderness over here, civilization over there. "The walls that exist between each of these compartments are not there naturally," he said. "We create them. The guy that has to stand there and look at Mount Olympus to find peace and quiet and solitude and meaning - life has escaped him totally! Because it's down there in Seattle, too,on a damn downtown street. I've tried to break those walls down and de-compartmentalize my life so that I can find just as much peace and joy in that damned homebound rush-hour traffic that we were walking through yesterday."

The irony of me, a walker, sitting here at a computer typing up a review about a physical book I read (I do so prefer physical books as artifacts to e-books, though I've read both) because of my love for being out in "nature" is not lost on me. The irony of you, reading this entry about a book on walking, from the comfort of your home or library or Starbucks or wherever you are (I'm guessing you are not outside walking at the moment, but I could be wrong) shouldn't be lost on you, either!


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Monday, December 25, 2017

2017 on Goodreads

2017 on Goodreads2017 on Goodreads by Various


I shattered my goal of reading 17 books in '17, but that's mostly because I did not read Proust's Swann's Way as I thought I would. I wanted to read one "large" or "monumental" work a year, and this year was going to be Proust's Opus. However, Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus took the largest chunk of my reading attention throughout the year. I took from February 24th through November 14th to read it. The thought of reading both this and Proust was just too much. Not that I didn't enjoy Mann's book. I did, a great deal, but there are books that are a delightful sprint and those that are more of a contemplative ambulation, and Doctor Faustus was the latter. I'm glad I made that journey.

I must admit to having discovered my "groove". I enjoy a great variety of books, but there is a certain subset that I love: quiet tales of strangeness, sometimes venturing into the realms of horror, always deep in the fields of weirdness and awestruck wonder. I think I've actually bought more books than in any previous year and spent a great deal more money on many of them than in the past (getting a raise at work helped). In fact, I'm finding that I have rather expensive taste in books. Thankfully, I was paid well for some of my own writing and editing, and used some of those funds towards my expensive book addiction.

The first of the expensive books I bought and read this year was A Twist in the Eye, an handsome volume of excellent short stories by Charles Wilkinson published by the wonderful Egaeus Press. It was a great way to start the reading year!

But not all the volumes I picked up were expensive. Reggie Oliver's The Complete Symphonies of Adolf Hitler was acquired in an affordable paperback edition from the notable Tartarus Press (notable partially because of their expensive, but oh-so-worth-it hardcover editions). I loved it and have now ordered several more volumes from Tartarus (including one of those expensive and incredibly lovely hardcover editions).

Some books I got for free - at the library! Heaven's people, given the current political climate, I urge you to go use your public library and give them your support. I think I might join our local Friends of the Library in 2018. I did so years ago, in another state, and greatly enjoyed it. I think, with the kids mostly moved out of the house now, I might have time to do that again. I might not have read Atlas Obscura, I Contain Multitudes, or The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up (which really did lead me to make some changes for the better) if it weren't for my local library. Librarians ROCK! Give them your support!

As most of you know, when I'm not reading or writing, I'm usually filling my leisure time with tabletop roleplaying games. This year I went head first into the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game and bought and read, cover too cover, the Call of Cthulhu Keeper rulebook and the outstanding guide to gently borrowing and morphing ideas from Lovecraft, Stealing Cthulhu. And now, I am writing a Call of Cthulhu adventure. See how that happens? Read, write, repeat.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention my favorite read of the year, Jon Padgett's amazing short story collection The Secret of Ventriloquism. My thesaurus has run out of superlatives for this book. It is really something a step beyond your typical short story collection. I'll let my review speak for itself.

And you'll notice, of course, that star-heavy leaning of the books I've read this year. Lots of four and five-star reads. There's a reason for this: Last year, I vowed to cut my To Be Read list dramatically. I think at one point I had over 200 books on that list. I decided that rather than dreaming and about all the books I wasn't reading that I sort of wanted to and fretting about all the books that I think I ought to be reading, I was going to cut my list like a lumberjack on crystal meth. At first, I vowed to cut it to 100. This was difficult, but still left some books that were of some interest, but maybe not a burning interest, to me. I needed focus. So I cut it in half again.

This was a painful exercise. But, as I learned from The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, I didn't need the emotional clutter that came with all these unfulfilled desires, nor did I need to feel obligated to read certain books because that is what is expected of someone with my level of education (Master's degree in African History, if you must know) who reads as much as I do and hobnobs with lots of people who are very well read.

After that cut, which, again, hurt . . . I felt much better. Then I started focusing on acquiring and reading the books that were left on my list. Whenever I wanted to add a book, I had to take a look at my list and think "Okay, which one of these great books do I want to CUT from my list to keep it under fifty"? This forced me to really assess the books on my list and really question why, exactly, I wanted to read such-and-such a book. I read reviews, both on Goodreads and elsewhere, I asked myself "is it really worth spending my hard-earned money on this book", I did some self-exploration to discover what it is I REALLY love to read. Yes, there were some misses, some books that I read that didn't scratch the itch I thought they would. And I'm certain there are a hundred, maybe hundreds, of other books that I would just love that I missed. But for now, I have a method of focus and discipline that is really upping my enjoyment of reading. I feel that I've really been able to hone my ability to assess my probable reaction to a book from the outside, before I've bought it. It's not perfect, but it seems to be working pretty well, given how much I've enjoyed the books I've read this year. And maybe it's just a psychological trick. Maybe I just think I like these books better.

But if it is just a trick, so what?!? I'm really enjoying myself!

The list is currently at 41 books. I think I'll read it down to 40 and go from there. I actually have 26 of the 41 on my shelf right now, and that's about a year's worth of books or more as it is (especially considering that Proust is still hiding in that pile, waiting to pounce). So here's to a fun, fantastic year of reading in 2018, both with my chosen few and, I am certain, a few surprises around the corner.

Happy New Year!

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Tuesday, December 12, 2017

The Nightfarers

The NightfarersThe Nightfarers by Mark Valentine
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Mark Valentine's name and fiction is often associated with authors such as Reggie Oliver, Quentin S. Crisp, John Howard, Stephen J. Clark, and Mark Samuels, largely because of these authors' associations with a handful of publishers known for producing extremely high-quality books, in limited editions, that focus on the borderline between the classic ghost story and the modern strange tale (e.g., Tartarus Press, Ex Occidente, Egaeus, Zagava, etc). These contemporary authors can be seen as the inheritors of a line of literary descent that includes such authors as M.R. James, Lord Dunsany, Arthur Machen, and Robert Aickman, among others. And yet, to lump them all together does a disservice to the individual authors and to the unique approach of each author to writing stories of this ilk.

This is particularly true of Mark Valentine's work. Valentine's writing is not as "weird" as Oliver's or Crisp's, for example. Nor is it as horrific as Samuels' or Clark's work. It is more . . . "restrained," is probably the best word, though "stoic" might be used to describe his work, as well. There's a certain nobility to Valentine's work in subject matter, tone, and structure; a bit of the old "stiff upper lip", if you will. His characters (primary or secondary, depending on the story) are often aristocrats. The stories themselves, at times, are of a more formalist bent - not the straight academic track, mind you, but something more like an armchair philosopher or dabbler in history might find most attractive. Something you would expect to be written by a man wearing a smoking robe and using a cigarette holder routinely. This is not to say that Valentine's fiction is unapproachable. No, far from it. But there is a certain "air" about it that will sometimes make you wish you had worn your best clothes to read in.

This collection is a beautiful hardcover book put out by Ex Occidente, limited to 350 copies. The cover I have is a full wrap-around of a beautiful purple (literally) painting of a handsome figure, nude, staring at the painter with glowing, nay, glowering yellow eyes as it (he) rests his chin in his hand. Though the frontispiece in the book is done by John Coulthart (and is clearly, distinctively, one of his pieces of art), I don't know who did the actual cover painting. But it is beautiful and sinister and entirely appropriate to the mood of the book. So, on to the contents:

"The 1909 Proserpine Prize" is a wonder. A story about the judgement of a literary prize for dark literature in which one of the books itself has a say. Include mystic languages and auctorial subterfuge on a cold winter night locked away in a storied building and, well, you get the picture. But not until the very end! This is one of several books wherein Valentine shows, through his fiction, his love of book collecting. Five stars and this collection starts off with a bang!

"Carden in Capaea" is an ephemeral tale, or is it an ethereal tale of . . .? I forget. The words escape me. I felt that I had them, long ago, but their meanings have blanched from my memory, fading into . . . what I don't exactly recall. But whatever they were, they were beautiful, if indescribable. Five stars is all I know, was all I ever knew.

"White Pages" is a beautifully written ghost of a story that could, itself, have served as the beginning of a ghost story. The ending-as-beginning was intriguing, but could have been further built into something far more terrifying. Still, it provides its own sort of satisfaction by letting things play out in the reader's theater-of-the-imagination. Four stars.

"The Inner Sentinel" is a brooding story caught somewhere between the oast houses of Kent and a fantastical, dreamland weald. The sense of dread is palpable and the prospect of betrayal by infiltrators is unnerving. A moody story, not terrifying, yet disturbing in the same way that one might feel after waking from a nightmare and almost forgetting the specifics of the fright behind you. I loved this story for the way it caused my emotions to ebb and sway as I read it. Five stars.

"The Dawn at Tzern" is pretty, but unspectacular. It carries the mood of the stories before it, but does little to deepen it. It's not boring; neither is it particularly exciting. Three stars.

"The White Sea Company" is a ghost story without being a ghost story wherein the "ghosts" are spoken of, but never seen, their presence so thin as to be almost imperceptible. They are presented in a manner of storytelling that can only be called "ethereal". Thin MR James meets Dunsany, but with some unique, unexpected "twists" on the canonical oeuvre. Five stars you can barely see in the mists.

Well, the five star stories can't go on forever, can they? "Undergrowth" is erudite, but less than compelling. "Underwhelming" is, I think, the right word. Three stars.

Joyce's Ulysses, Richard Francis Burton, a masked ball, a bizarre octopus-god that might merely be a preserved carcass, yet-unwritten secret books, and rituals involving white-clad virgin boys invoking writing by candlelight. What's not to like about "The Seer of Trieste"? I loved this literary occult tale. Five stars!

Though I appreciate the dark mystical message and tone of "Their Dark and Starry Mirrors," I think this story suffers just a touch from a lack of engaging plot points. Normally, I don't mind this at all - I love atmosphere over plot - but in this instance, it just feels like a blank space in an otherwise excellent piece of prose. Four stars.

At first, I felt that the ending to "The Bookshop in Novy Svet" was abrupt; non-sequitur. But as I re-examine the plot lines, I see that it was inevitable. And when I recognize the titular reference to Prague, it is clearly evident: This strange story of actuarians, artists, booksellers, and poets ended right where it must. It is a story I will read again, several times, and savor, a masterpiece. This is the kind of story where any writer of strange fiction will say "I wish I had written this". Or at least this writer did. Five stars.

"The English Leopard: An Heraldic Dialogue" is intriguing in its subject matter and stylistically exploratory, but not compelling. I have to be honest here and only give three stars to this one. This is the one story where I felt that Valentine was waxing a bit too academic. I wanted to like this story more than I actually did, which is a shame.

"The Box of Idols" is more or less a mystery story, albeit a short, curt mystery story. Still, the story fills the measure of its creation and is a satisfying tale involving idols, the ancient Assyrian language, and the process of printing itself. It's a great dalliance for book lovers with a slightly dark bent. Four stars.

"The Axholme Toll" is a clever metafictional slight-of-hand about a mysterious series of islands and books associated with these islands. I enjoyed it, but I couldn't shrug the feeling that this is what an author does when he knows the story he really wants to tell but really doesn't know how to tell it. So I appreciate the careful artifice, but felt that there was too much left unexplored or left unexplored in the right manner. Still a four star story.

"The Seven Treasures of Bucharest" is a beautiful story to end this excellent collection. A spiritual, sort of Arthurian quest, but a quest carried out by the intellect, shrewdness, and diplomacy, rather than the sword. And rather than ranging across England, this quest is confined to a quarter of Bucharest. But the "adventure" here is no less than that of the Knights of the Round Table. The sense of mystical wonder that permeates this story is palpable. Five stars.

Up to this point, this is the most I've spent on one book. Ex Occidente titles are notoriously expensive, and this one is no exception. But was it worth it? Totally! The incredibly high quality of the book, from presentation to construction to contents, bumps this one well into the five star range. I think I have here yet another example of what I call my "chained books". I will lock this one up and take it out to savor from time to time, re-reading and smelling its pages, which reek of ancient magic, though produced not so very long ago.

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Friday, December 8, 2017

H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society

So here I am in California. Both of my parents were, until yesterday, in ICU, at two separate hospitals 35 miles apart. I flew from Madison when I heard that my Mom was on life support and I knew Dad was going in to have a tumor removed, which also involved the removal of one of his eyes and an operation to cover up the ensuing gap. Needless to say, the last week and a half have been rather stressful. Both parents are now on the upswing, but they have a loooong road of recovery ahead.

I've discovered, in these times of stress, that caretakers need to take care of themselves, even if it's for an hour or two a day, outside of getting enough sleep, of course.

So I fulfilled one of my bucket-list items between visiting Mom and Dad at their respective hospitals. I went to the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society brick-and-mortar store.

I've bought something from them before, some time ago: their excellent silent-movie version of the iconic Lovecraft story, The Call of Cthulhu, which, for the life of me, I can't figure out how I have not yet reviewed. Anyway, I heard about the store almost simultaneously on two of my favorite podcasts: The Good Friends of Jackson Elias and The Miskatonic University Podcast. Not that they mentioned them at the same time, it's just that I get my podcast listening done in spurts and these two coincided on my player. When I heard about it, a few months ago, I thought "I'll have to check that out someday".

"Someday" came last week, when I was in a bit of a daze trying to gather information regarding my parents' condition and visit them. I did, but Mom was completely out, and Dad was delirious after his surgery (which, I understand, isn't uncommon among the elderly). Glendale is a couple hours from where my parents live, and only an hour from where my Dad was hospitalized. I was halfway there already, so what the heck? Might as well kill some time and do something I want to do, decompress, get my mind of "things" for a little while.

I'm so glad I went.

Andrew Leman and Sean Branney are awesome. I talked briefly with Andrew, who was pretty busy working in the back, but spent a significant amount of time talking to Sean (thanks, Sean). It might seem strange, but it did me a world of good and really, REALLY helped me to de-stress a bit from everything I'd been dealing with. Horror is cathartic, they say, and this was catharsis with a great deal of good conversation, good humor, and compassion. I am emotionally indebted to Sean and Andrew for taking the time to show me their little place and talk all things Lovecraft.

Of course, you'll ask "how was the shop"? Compact and amazing!

The outside is fairly non-descript storefront, except for the sign showing Lovecraft's cameo silhouette seated above the words "Store", "Laboratorium", "Studio". And it is all those things!

Inside, you will find a cozy, wood-floor interior, not large, but large enough for their needs. The first thing you'll see, as you enter the door, is their reception desk:


That print on the wall, which I should have photographed directly (sorry, I was in a state of mind . . .), is a large map of Dunwich. But it was the ephemera and paraphernalia on the table that really caught my attention, for obvious reasons. This simple desk set the tone for the shop, which is somewhere between mercantile and museum. "Shop", "Laboratorium", and "Studio", indeed!

When I entered, though, my attention was instantly ripped from the desk (I came back to it, obviously). My head whipped right, in spite of myself, and I spotted this:


Yes, ladies and gentlemen, there he is, on the red carpet, Cthulhu himself, the actual model used in the silent film adaption! The detail on this model is incredible. He stands maybe two feet tall (?), and the level of detail on it is a testament to the sort of work that HPLHS is known for. I think of the tedium that must have attended the shooting of the stop motion in the movie, the delicacy of the movements and the materials (I didn't touch it - I dare not!), and I surmise that it must have been a very slow, painstaking process. Bravo, HPLHS!

After staring in awe at the maestro for a while, I scanned the bookshelf:


Well, bookshelves. It's a library, actually. Full of not only books of Lovecraft's fiction and scholarly works on the man (did you know he sent a letter into Scientific American regarding his theories about the canals on Mars? Me either.), but on an eclectic mix of . . . all sorts of stuff. From occult texts to almanacs to literary criticism to dream analysis, there was a little bit of everything, trust me. I even found a copy of Brian May's book (yes, that Brian May), Diableries, which I also own and treasure. I also learned about a possible upcoming project for HPLS, which I don't think I should divulge, because I never asked permission if this dark, sacred knowledge should be revealed to the rest of the world. I don't think the rest of the world would be ready for it . . . yet. Suffice it to say that HPLS has some very exciting potential projects up their eldritch sleeves!!! I'll be dropping money on them.

And speaking of dropping money, I patronized. I saw a t-shirt on their little display, which I recalled lusting after months ago, but had forgotten where I had seen it. Well, it was on their website. So I bought it. And it's awesome. Then, in a fit of impulsiveness, I bought an LP of Lovecraft's poems, "Fungi from Yuggoth," read by HPLS's own Andre Leman, pressed and produced by Cadabra Records, and had it sent back home to Wisconsin. Can't wait to drop the needle on that one! I don't see it on the HPLS site right now, but I could just be missing it. In any case, the link to Cadabra's website is above. And I'd recommend any of their recordings. I'm really looking forward to their release of Jon Padgett's amazing The Secret of Ventriloquism which is, incidentally, the best book of cosmic horror I've read this year (LP hasn't been release yet, but is, I am assured, forthcoming).

I wandered around a bit and saw, on opposite corners of the room, this:



 And this:


I was tempted to put two-and-two together, but something whispered that I really shouldn't. It's probably for the better.

Next, I took a long, slow look through the library. I really wanted to see everything they had in there. I was rather pleased to see the extensive collection they had of books and boxed sets for the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game (one of my favorites). Here's a snapshot:



And not only the official Chaosium books, but others were present, as well. Oh, and a great selection of Modiphius Entertainment's Achtung Cthulhu, which I also love.

Now my "icing on the cake" might not seem like much to you, but man, it was an incredible piece of serendipity for me. I've been working for a couple of weeks now on a Call of Cthulhu adventure that I am hoping to hone, playtest, and publish. I've written some copy, but it still needs time and work. It's set in Chicago in the 1920's, and focuses on the Modern Abstract Art movement of the time (you know, Kandinsky, Klee, etc.). So, I'm looking at the library, and lo and behold, there is a set of almanacs for the city of Chicago in, you guessed it, the 1920's. So I took a couple photos (with permission) of the pages from the 1923 and 1926 almanacs showing information about the Art Institute of Chicago, which I had begun researching a few days before flying out:



Crazy, huh? I thought so, at least. 

So there you have it, an unofficial virtual tour of the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society. Yes, they've got an official virtual tour on their website, but now you have confirmation! It's not a conspiracy, it's a real thing, a real brick-and-mortar place that you can walk in and browse and touch (most) stuff. It's a fantastic place, and Sean and Andrew are gracious hosts. The only caveat: parking is limited, so leave time to find a space on the street. Or, just invoke the correct hypergeometries so you can put your vehicle in your pocket when you get there. Or just have your Byakhee drop you off! And be sure to support HPLHS by buying something, if you can. To not do so would be . . . terrifying.




Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Art & Existentialism

Art & ExistentialismArt & Existentialism by Arturo B. Fallico
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Equal parts frustrating and fascinating. I admit that I am not entirely up to the task of a comprehensive review of the book, and am left with impressions born of a partial understanding. If you want a careful reading of some of the deeper details, check out Glenn Russell's outstanding review.

Much of the book, to be honest, was a grind. The reputation that philosophy has of being just so much navel-gazing is reinforced here in abundance. That's not to say that Fallico's insights are wrong, just that they are very difficult to follow without an extremely slow, highly concentrated read, re-read, re-read, and another re-read. I don't think my brain has been taxed this hard to follow along in a text since I read Hofstadter. Perhaps some more grounding in philosophical literature overall would help. Fallico dearly wants to write this so that anyone can understand, but the very nature of the subject matter - the act of art creation, the art of reaction to art, and the relationship between both and the drive to exist as a being of freedom - mitigate against an easy common understanding.

For example, Fallico states early on:

Only in art do we find experience which endures, not by substitution and displacement, but by the kind of self-identical re-positing which keeps self-identity in being.

At first blush, the thought of art as experience is counter-intuitive. Art is stuff, right? But Fallico makes a careful distinction between the act of art and the art-thing. The artist, during the act of art, experiences being (or existing, hence "existential" experience). But the observer, because of their interaction with the art-thing (which results from the act of art) can have a moment or moments of being as they react to it. And every instance of this individual reaction is unique to the person experiencing it. Furthermore, art critics, who publicly respond to the art-thing, have their own "act of art" (my quotes) when they write or speak their critique. Then further observers down the chain must react to the critique, re-positing both the critique itself and the original object of critique, the art-thing itself.

The art-thing itself, in the existentialist critique, should not be thought of as a representation of anything, but as a presentation. The existent one (the viewer of the art-thing) should not, in Fallico's estimation, worry about what the art is meant to represent, but should only focus on the art-thing itself as an entity unto itself:

The peculiar composure and independence of the art-object come into clearer view when we see that it is in the order of a presentation, rather than a re-presentation. A representation, as the very word seems to say, presupposes another thing, somehow made to reappear under the guise of the art-object. A representation is un-original by definition. The essential characteristic of the art-object is precisely that it is an original - a first presentation of a possibility truly felt and imagined. It can remind us, really, only of itself, even if, in the process, we may remind ourselves of non-aesthetic things and events extraneous to it.

Here begins a sort of philosophical machismo that permeates throughout the work. One wonders if this attitude isn't at the heart of existentialism, but my personal feelings are that a person's realization of their vulnerability to the inevitability of death tends to engender more humility than hubris. Fallico seems to favor the view that a true existentialist faces existential angst with bravado, and that this attitude can be found in art itself:

. . . the order of the art-object is one in which everything is preserved in its being, everything achieves actual presence together with everything else, and everything relates and refers to an existent. Everything in the art-object stands fully realized, unchanging, and in full view. Nothing is inessential, everything is required. A single line, a dab of color, a sound - all are constitutive and uneliminable from the whole. Their relationship to other lines, colors, or sounds as well as to the whole is never one of mere adjacency, correlation, or probability.

This sense of bravado becomes more than a little tedious as one progresses through the book. By the end, the chest thumping gets a little ridiculous. I'll spare you the details, but not without warning you that Fallico's ideal existential man is an intellectual he-man proudly displaying his statuesque breast to the world, defying the cosmos to the bitter end.

One aspect of Art & Existentialism that really spoke to me, was Fallico's acknowledgement that:

. . . art has traditionally come to be associated with beauty. The beautiful, in turn, is associated with whatever pleases and suggests itself as ideal and perfection - and object of desire. Identification of art with the beautiful in this sense has ever been a pervasive error in aesthetics. And this is surprising, considering that so much of the great and respected art in every culture has to do, not with the pleasant and desirable, but with the ugly and the forbidding. Michelangelo's Pieta is not beautiful in the sense that it is pleasurable, nor are Picasso's Guernica or Guitarist. As such, pleasing, desirable, and attractive define the objects and objectives of action, not of aesthetic contemplation. This is not to say that the aesthetic necessarily concerns itself with the unpleasant and the unattractive, of course, but simply that it is utterly indifferent to such categories.

Huzzah! Someone finally said it! Art is not a beauty pageant! I've held to this for a long time. And while one can use the old soft argument that "beauty is in the eye (or ear) of the beholder," that argument is sometimes used as a way for those who have a certain, preconceived notion of what is "good" art to hand-wave the whole question about art that is not beautiful, but worthy of praise (and preservation). I readily admit that much of the music and art I love is considered ugly or awkward or just plain unpleasant by many. But does that mean that it has no worth? I'd argue that sometimes it has more worth because of it's ugliness. Take one of my favorite examples: Penderecki's Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima, a particularly noisome piece of music. The evocation of feeling as one listens to this piece can be incredibly strong. I remember being literally moved to tears in college while listening to this piece and seriously contemplating what it must have been like to be present for this horrific event: the sounds of the air raid sirens, the droning of a single bomber flying overhead, the concussive blast, the flesh-melting heat, the thousands of structures shattered into splinters and blown to the wind, the roaring fires and burning bodies, the cries and moans of the survivors. Not a pleasant thing. Not beautiful at all. But evocative and, dare I say, necessary? Here, Fallico allows us to embrace the necessity of such a piece.

The fact that Daumier's court scenes, or Goya's prints about the horrors of war are not direct incentives to action (great art never is) must not mislead us into thinking that they have not latent in them the power to remodel human purposing with respect to how humans feel about injustice, or about the obscenity which is war . . . there is not a single work of art, not a single first utterance, which does not, in its own way, present us with at least a possibility of novel outlook and global perspective. What counts here is that this - if it is truly aesthetic, and if we truly are able to enact it - is a concrete and actual possibility, one that is tasted, fused with one's very being in the enactment. No man who really encounters Cezanne's apples ever sees apples again in the same way, just as no man who really reads Sartre's The Wall or CamusThe Stranger can look upon death and our contemporary values as he did before the encounters. It is true that a great majority of gallery- and theater-goers, no less than readers of novels, seem to be little transformed by their experiences - but if they have any ind of aesthetic sensitivity, who can measure the degree of transformation they truly have undergone by such experiences?

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Friday, November 24, 2017

The Street of Crocodiles

The Street of CrocodilesThe Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Reading Schulz's work is like discovering my newest, best literary friend. Bruno, I wish you had lived longer, though your tragic end might have been merciful, given the later alternatives. It was a strange end to an author of strange work.

The Street of Crocodiles is a fever dream. It is the exposure of the bizarre from behind the curtain of what is "proper". The setting here is every bit as much of a character as the humans, dogs, and birds we come to know:

After we passed a few more houses, the street ceased to maintain any pretense of urbanity, like a man returning to his little village who, piece by piece, strips off his Sunday best, slowly changing back into a peasant as he gets closer to his home.

This abandonment of pretense is a running theme throughout these vignettes. Civility is continually stripped away to reveal the ugly, beautiful, rotting, shining underneath. Is it any wonder that the Brothers Quay did a cinematic version of The Street of Crocodiles?

Take, for example, the account of madness setting into a narrator's father:

Then again came days of quiet, concentrated work, interrupted by lonely monologues. While he sat there in the light of the lamp among the pillows of the large bed, and the room grew enormous as the shadows above the lampshade merged with the deep city night beyond the windows, he felt, without looking, how the pullulating jungle of wallpaper, filled with whispers, lisping and hissing, closed in around him. He heard, without looking a conspiracy of knowingly winking hidden eyes, of alert ears opening up among the flowers on the wall, of dark, smiling mouths.

He then pretended to become even more engrossed in his work, adding and calculating, trying not to betray the anger which rose in him and overcoming the temptation to throw himself blindly forward with a sudden shout to grab fistfuls of those curly arabesques, or of those sheaves of eyes and ears which swarmed out from the night and grew and multiplied, sprouting, with ever-new ghostlike shoots and branches, from the womb of darkness.


But Schulz is not only able to paint a wonderful visual picture again and again; he also has a keen gift for evocation by allusion, as when he describes one of his characters, Charles, meditating:

One of his eyes would then slightly squint to the outside, as if leaving for another dimension.

Brilliant. If I knew nothing else about this character, this one line speaks volumes about Charles' motivations and inner life, while causing me to be instantly suspicious, as well as fascinated, by this one strange tic.

At one step of abstraction further, we must note that Schulz not only provides mood, he describes mood in a way that draws the reader in, or, rather, infects the reader in the mind's eye:

In an atmosphere of excessive facility, every whim flies high, a passing excitement swells into an empty parasitic growth; a light gray vegetation of fluffy weeds, of colorless poppies sprouts forth, made from a weightless fabric of nightmares and hashish.

In a word, his work is incredible. Schulz will take you to the extremes of exhilaration and debilitating depression. His work fascinates and enthralls, like a dream from which one cannot awaken. Even in its darkest moments, I would not want to awaken from such an awe-inspiring literary dream. The "weightless fabric of nightmares and hashish," indeed!



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