Recent Readings: Fiction

Here are some of the books I’ve read recently. (That is, the fiction: nonfiction books got their own post, and  RPG books will getting their own too; I’ve read a lot of those, but I don’t want to mix them all together.) For those who’re wondering what this post includes, have a look at the tags: the authors and book titles are listed among them. 

Beyond that, I’ll note two things:

First, some of these books were loaners from my buddy Justin Howe, who sent me a box of great books to check out. I’m still working my way through them, and more will be showing up in the next post of readings, to be sure. I’m noting that here so that I don’t need to keep mentioning him throughout this post. A couple of others were from the local library (the Sejong National Library in South Korea), which is pretty surprising: I was amazed there was a collection of English books at all, let alone English books I’d want to read. 

Second, I’ve been on an Edgar Rice Burroughs kick, but I gave the three books I recently read from his Pellucidar series their own post, since I’m thinking about organizing the Burroughs readings into a kind of series here on the blog.

Third, this post contains pretty much everything else I’ve read all the way through (outside RPG  books) in 2018 since my last update, early in the year. If it seems like a short list, well… I also finished drafting two books (and a somewhat involved freelance RPG-writing project) on top of a full time job and having a kid to take care of. Time’s been kind of short this year, in other words, but I am reading somewhat more than I did last year!

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

Like probably almost North American my age, “The Lottery” was among the stories in my high school curriculum—and I really liked it—so I’m not sure why I never got around to the copy of The Haunting of Hill House that I owned for a few years after 2006. That means that We Have Always Lived in the Castle is the first Shirley Jackson novel I’ve read. I found it in the English fiction stacks at the Sejong National Library, to my amazement, and signed it out right away, but it took a “renewal” or two before I got around to reading it.1  

If you come to the book expecting something other than what it is—which is a darkly funny, eerily haunting story told by someone who’s full of lies and madness—you’ll probably find yourself spinning your wheels, and puzzled at first. But it’d be hard not to catch on soon, and be swept along by the darkly haunting, but also brutally funny, narrator Merricat. It’s hard not to be fascinated by her voice, even when you realize her role in the horrors and misfortunes that have befallen her family. 

Like many people writing at the time she was, Shirley Jackson seems to have been really concerned with the question of human evil: I suspect that when it was first published, what now feels a little exaggerated and overdone—the meanness of the villagers—felt more like an exposé of the truth about humanity. That said, there’s something a little more complex going on here: Jackson has room for contrasting types of evil, and that which arises from the frenzied mob isn’t necessarily the most frightening of all. Nor, necessarily, is the evil that arises from insanity… it may be the most fearsome of evils arises from misplaced sympathy, which means, yes, you, reader. (In that sense, this book feels like a strange, inverted cousin to Nabokov’s Lolita.) I’ll be on the lookout for more of Jackson’s work, though it’ll probably require an interbranch loan at work, which will probably have to wait until the fall at the soonest. 

Dear Cyborgs: A Novel by Eugene Lim

Dear Cyborgs started out interesting, and got me thinking about how nerdhood and race intersect—which parts of the narrator’s story I could relate to and which parts were outside of my general experience—but the book’s “experimental” style often left me a little puzzled: at times I felt like Lim really wanted to write a mini-essay about some subject, taking in multiple perspectives and trying to synthesize them and grind them together to see what came out of the process… and then he did write them, but inserted them as dialog between characters at cafes, karaoke bars, and so on.

I would have preferred to read them in essay form, because I think the characters stood a good chance of being genuinely interesting and engaging. (The pulpy alternate-world plot thing—which I think is supposed to be a riff on something the protagonist and his buddy would have written as a comic if they’d come back comics as adults and decided to write something politically-engaged but light. By the end, I was just wondering how we would make it all come together. 

(He didn’t, not really. I found that disappointing, even if it was intentional… but it’s a short book, and I won’t hold it against him. ) 

The Voyage of the Short Serpent by Bernard Du Boucheron, translated by Hester Velmans

The Voyage of the Short Serpent is a wonderfully mean book full of lies, cruelty, hypocrisy, bigotry, clerical wickedness, fanaticism, and horrible weather. Which is to say, it’s a smart and brutal satire of the Catholic Church’s history (and laughable claim on moral authority), on the horrors of missionary work, on the corruption that can be acquired through faith (which is perhaps even more corrupting than actual power), and the almost inevitable tendency for self-serving falsehood to creep into any official report one is asked to write.

In some sense, it’s kind of a medieval Heart of Darkness… and yet it’s hard to escape the feeling that Du Boucheron isn’t mocking us and all our own continued willingness to carefully restrain criticism of anyone willing to publicly wave around a cross or a picture of baby Jesus, no matter how obscene or inhuman the agenda they push, or the hatred they spread. But I think, on a deeper level, Du Boucheron isn’t just being anti-clerical: I feel like his critisism is actually of human idealism, maybe. After all, while the dominant ideology of the middle ages was Christianity, are we any better at living up to our own ideals today? We may be less brutal—may—but I think our own fantasies about our capacity for good may sometimes just be cover for the enduring human tendency to be horrible to one another. 

That said, maybe this says something about me, but I found the novel laugh-out-loud funny, mostly in the parts where the protagonist/narrator’s lying, hypocrisy, and outright evil eclipses anything that was bad among the Greenland colonists at the moment when he arrived. Oh, how I longed for him to hang, or burn, but of course he didn’t. 

(For RPGers out there, I think this novel should probably be required reading for anyone running or playing Lamentations of the Flame Princess. I can absolutely see someone using the setting, almost as written, but with a few monsters thrown in, as a horrible adventure locale.) 

How You Were Born by Kate Cayley

I don’t know who does the English book purchasing for the National Library of Korea—specifically, the Sejong City branch, assuming that’s done by someone different from other branches—but they seem to bring in a pretty interesting range of books, including Kate Cayley’s How You Were BornShe’s a Canadian writer, I realized before I even looked at her bio: I looked at the first story or two first, and noticed the Canadian place names. That always jumps out at me when I’m reading a book over here in Korea. 

Cayley seems to work in a region of fiction that borders on the fantastical, but doesn’t quite cross over into it—not even magical realism, so much as magic-adjacent or magic-flirtative, I guess? The jacket copy promises such stuff:

Ghosts, tear gas, doppelgängers, child spies, a dragon tattoo, midgets, weddings, mothers and acrobats…

… but in general the supernatural here occupies space in potential, rather than in actual events and objects. This isn’t a complaint: she does this quite effectively. (And I suspect it helps with the Canada Council for the Arts grants, too: I’m not sniping, so much as observing something about an anxiousness for respectability in the Canadian arts in general, though that may be a dated observation.)

Either way, this collection’s story “Young Hennerly” is one of the creepiest things I’ve read in ages. It’s a short piece about a young American man exempted from military service and traveling the United States during the Vietnam War, who stops by an old lady’s cabin in the woods and talks to her. She tells him a few folk stories he’s heard before, and then talks about her own son, who died in World War II. When she shows him a picture of the son, he looks at it and somehow she seems angry as she takes it out of the room, and the malice that’s already been latent in the story starts to bubble up to the surface:

Her voice sounded from the bedroom, a low-pitched rumble followed by higher notes, a breathy wheezing. She was singing, slowly attempting to remember a song, softly as she could. It sounded like an incantation, though he could not make out any words. He thought, with drunken lucidity, that she was a witch. Or more than that, worse than that, that she was the wood, an inhuman voice from the trees. These people believed in the horror of the wild—that something watched among the leaves, crafty, waiting. Malice. He didn’t want to believe this himself, but only to preserve the belief. He had been taught that if one behaved well, one would be rewarded, and in this case, what he had been taught was true. He had behaved well and been excused, and the worst things, the unthinkable things, had passed him by. The men hiding in trees, in cellars, under floors. The black sand.

He should leave. It was dark on the road. He did not want to look at her face anymore. He gathered up his notebook, his bag. As he buttoned up his jacket, he knocked the biscuit plate onto the floor. It did not break, and as he bent to pick it up, he heard her voice close to his ear. 

“I will sing you Young Hennerly, and then you will go.” 

She does sing it, and it’s creepy as hell, the whole song and her mannerisms and his half-drunken fears of her. Then she lets him go, and he seems to have escaped a horrible fate. There’s a half-sting in the tail of the story: has he escaped it, or has it just appeared before us? We’re not supposed to know for sure, and the story is disturbingly effective. 

(The two things that came to mind for me are Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, where the ambiguity about whether something supernatural has just happened is almost complete and definitely is kept ambiguous on purpose, and Fritz Leiber’s Conjure Wife, which is way more overt, but is kind of about the same thing, with the added twist that the conjure woman the protagonist meets is his own wife.)

There are other weirdnesses threaded throughout the book: “The Fetch” is less about an actual doppelgänger and more about the narratives we tell one another about death; “Blind Poet” is about a blind woman’s falling in love with… is it a human woman? or some creature that’s emerged from a liminal space between worlds? What Cayley does that works so well here is she uses the horror technique of not-showing-the-monster on what are a bit more like fantasy tropes. She’s far from the first to do that, but she does do it well. She also manages to infuse the aura of the strange into the lives of a range of very different characters: different backgrounds, different ages and genders, different registers of social experience. Somehow, though most short story collections are things I pick up and put down over a matter of weeks, I found myself plowing right through this one in a single sitting. If you know me, and how slow I tend to be as a reader, you know that’s saying something. 

Ortog by Kurt Steiner, “adapted” by Brian Stableford

Ortog actually collects two short novels (or novellas?): Aux Armes d’Ortog (1960) and Ortog et Les Ténébres (1969). It’s older French pulp, written by a doctor, and you can kind of tell, in a fun way. The cover claims that the novels are “adapted” by Brian Stableford, whatever that means: I’m guessing it’s probably something of a disclaimer about looseness of translation or something, an issue I don’t really worry about too much, but I am curious why he chooses to term the task “adaptation” as opposed to “translation.”  

The first book is… well, if I were to sum it up for you, I guess I’d say it’s sort of like Logan’s Run, except people’s lifespans are limited by their genetic code and instead of “running,” the hero of the book (one Dal Ortog) goes off on interplanetary adventure to try challenge the system. It’s really a space-fantasy with gladiatorial combat and lots of “manly” honor talk and so on. The second novel in the book (Ortog and the Darkness) is even weirder: Dal Ortog and a stalwart of his travel by “necroship” into the world of the dead… and have a weird, trippy adventure while seeking out lost love. 

If you dig pulp and can get your hands on it, and can handle lackluster copyediting (which you can, if you can handle my blog), then it’s a quick read and entertaining.

The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson

I was reluctant to read this, since it feels a bit close to my own Dreamlands stories—with which I honestly am not sure if I’ve finished writing, and I wouldn’t want to muddle things too much creatively for myself—but ultimately my curiosity got the better of me.

I’ve no idea if Johnson ever read my own story, “Of Melei, of Ulthar” (though it did appear in Clarkesworld, alongside her own award-winning “Spar,” so I wouldn’t be surprised if she did) but regardless, I couldn’t help but read the novel in juxtaposition with my own tale: my character Melei is young and idealistic, and leaves for the Waking Lands pretty much like the minor character whose departure sets in motion Johnson’s tale. That said, Johnson’s protagonist is a much older (more experienced, and more world-weary) woman, and she travels to the Waking Lands not out of wanderlust, but with a mission to pursue: to retrieve the runaway student and save her University. Both characters set out from an Ulthar set in a Dreamlands somewhat changed by the passage of time… in neither book is it quite the Ulthar of the Dreamlands through which Randolph Carter travels in Lovecraft’s The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. They both venture in the opposite direction—from the Dreamlands into the Waking World. They both make what ultimately is an irrevocable journey. 

But really, they’re wholly different tales: where my story is about the kind of longing for elsewhere (and romantic fervor of that urge) that I think of as the expatriate impetus—and how I see that in Lovecraft’s Dreamlands stories—The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe seems more about a longing for a saner, fairer bedrock for our literature, and one more honest about how women have been treated within its books and its social world alike. Johnson’s novel argues that there should be room for women in the Dreamlands (and in our speculative dreams), but also affirms the importance and beauty of our world as it now is.

Johnson’s story also does what very few do: she shows us what traveling into otherness can look like through the eyes of a middle-aged woman: loves flourish, bloom, and wither in her memories, sometimes so quickly one barely realizes it before it’s over, and life goes on. The men… well, men in Johnson’s story are pretty much self-obsessed jerks—and the gods feel a lot like men write large, especially the men who’ve created our literature, with its massive explosions and terrifying destructions and planet-wide genocides. But if you’re a man who feels offended by this, pause and think about the complete absence of women in Lovecraft’s Dreamlands, and so much else of science fiction, and ask yourself if you really, really are in a position to take offense, when the author is literally making that exact point.

The attitude is, however, also very justifiable psychologically. Vellitt Boe has good reason for distrusting men: in one suddenly disarming and surprising passage (surprising to me, at least, but probably not to most female readers) Boe’s mind briefly drifts to the fact that she has been both thrice robbed and once raped by men while traveling alone. I mean, of course there’s sexism and sexual violence in the Dreamlands, why wouldn’t there be? And of course by the age of fifty, a seasoned traveler like Vellitt Boe had at least had a brush with it: this shouldn’t surprise us, but the casualness of the mention drives home the degree to which the omission of women from a lot of our literature has also meant the omission of women’s experiences… in a way that serves the worst parts of our culture in general, and our literary subculture specifically.

In any case, I don’t mention my own Dreamlands story to claim any influence: Johnson makes it clear in an author’s note that she first read Lovecraft’s Dream-Quest when she was ten years old, and that her relationship with the book has gone through various changes—presumably disappointments and painful realizations, from what she says about not realizing at first what was wrong with the absence of women in the original novella. It’s just that writing Lovecraftian fiction feels, these days, a lot like joining a conversation, one that’s widening to a much broader range of participants, which is a great thing. However. there are so few people who’re exploring the Dreamlands portion of Lovecraft’s oeuvre that whether there is actual dialog intended here matters less than whether dialog is possible and potentially enlightening or meaningful.   

I found it to be both, but I enjoyed this novella first and foremost as a story in itself. Johnson does some great stuff with Lovecraft’s monsters—actually-creepy zoogs (which always struck me as kind of goofy when Lovecraft described them), stomach-turning ghouls, bizarre gugs and downright terrifying Shantak birds—and the ocean voyage, with the strange sight that those on the ship see along the way is powerfully evocative, as is Johnson’s (very Burroughsian) treatment of the elasticity of space and time in the Dreamlands. The ending feels ever so slightly compressed, though I think there’s she’s pretty self-consciously responding to Lovecraft’s book, which sags at some point along the journey, around where the ghouls show up, and I’m not sure I bought the part about the gug’s final metamorphosis—it felt just a little too comfortably Americana-ish for my taste… but overall, the book was formidable and impressive, enlightening, and also very enjoyable. 

Chess Story by Stefan Zweig, translated by Joel Rotenberg (with an introduction by Peter Gay)

Stefan Zweig is also an author who was new to me. Chess Story is an odd little novella (also loaned to me) that tells the stories of two individuals: one, a beetle-browed simpleton who turns out to be a chess genius, and the other, a businessman who, imprisoned by the Gestapo, becomes an effective chess master—but is also poisoned by chess and becomes chess-mad. 

I’ve read a bit about chess and thought about the difficulties of depicting it in fiction: I’m an ignoramus on the game, but there are interestingly parallel problems in how one writes about chess and how one writes about music, both being abstract and complex systems, and both often involving a kind of play only really accessible to a specialist, at least for the kinds of music I tend to want to talk and write about.

So having said that, I really liked how Zweig handled it in this story: it’s vague enough to be as much of a cipher as the characters, and rich enough to be potentially symbolic of all kinds of other things—being an abstract system, and one that is mechanical, systematic, and somewhat inhuman while also being the product of human beings, chess as an interesting canvas upon which to paint: the central metaphor of the game is war, but that’s true of so much else, isn’t it—sports, business, competition between suitors who desire the same mate?

It’s hard to resist seeing it, here, as also being symbolic of the writing life: one spends so much time alone in a room, wrapped up with imaginary things, that they take on a kind of reality that perhaps can turn poisonous, as chess turns out to be poisonous for the former prisoner in the novel. And yet, even with all the drama and complexity, the game doesn’t quite feel overburdened as a symbol of anything in particular, even when you know Zweig’s biography a little and see the places where it could serve as one. As Peter Gay notes in his foreword, Zweig manages to establish a little distance from the characters and the subject, instead of hitting us over the head with his point. The result is a a dark, odd little fable of obsession, madness, and human frailty being the flip side of the same coin that is the human instinct to survive. 

Every House is Haunted by Ian Rogers

After finding this in the stacks, I really want to know who does the English-language book selection for the Korean National Library. Chizine books! In rural South Korea! 

In any case, Every House is Haunted is an excellent collection of weird, creepy short stories. Rogers hits the ground running with “Aces” (which feels a bit like an almost surreal take on the whole “troubled psychic girl” story which most of us first ran across in its Stephen King form (Carrie, Firestarter). But Rogers seems, often, to be aiming at something subtler than the apparent aim in those stories: he doesn’t want to scare you so much as to unsettle you. “Autumnology” is an anecdote about an impossible place someone visited once, where it’s always autumn: that isn’t scary, but it is weird and creepy and unsettling. “Cabin D,” though it is about a haunted cabin at a motel, doesn’t capitalize on the haunting or the deaths that fill the place’s history: what’s unsettling is the calm with which the narrator approaches the (quite unbelievable) task she takes upon herself in dealing with it. “The Dark and the Young” flirts with Lovecraft and pokes fun at the trope of the off-brand Necronomicon tome in a story, but instead of just rehashing the original concept, he does something that actually feels new, interesting, and original (and uses a scholar to good effect in the process) with it, somehow bringing us to an ending that is simultaneously very unsettling, but unsettlingly funny and mundane. “The Currents,” meanwhile (like “Autumnology”), feels like a more literate version of a creepypasta anecdote (or a Youtube anecdote like this one) about a terrifying brush with the fae or something. 

I could go on—all these stories are from the first third of the book, and I’m sitting with the book open to the table of contents as I write this: every title brings something interesting to mind. But I’ll just say that Rogers doesn’t relent at all through the collection’s 296 pages: I genuinely liked every single story in the collection, and recommend it. Oh, and it’s nice to see stories set in, say, the basement of the Toronto University Library or in Cape Breton, instead of just in someplace in Britain or America. If you’re a regular reader of things published by Chizine, you’ll have come to expect that, but as someone living in Asia, I don’t get to see enough Canadian writers on the shelves here, and it’s very refreshing for me. 

If that sounds appealing, this book is available on the cheap as part of the Chizine Halloween Horrors Bundle (collecting a bunch of work published by the same excellent publisher) over at Storybundle for another two weeks from the date I’m publishing this.

Invisible by Paul Auster

My wife is a fan of Paul Auster’s work: she’s read many of his novels, and when she happens to have one in English, she passes it on to me to put onto my pile. This is one of those. It concerns…

Well, it concerns a man… or a text… or the relationship between a text and a man… or, really, the relationship between a man and another man and a specific series of women. There characters are brash, and one of them—a French professor (and probably secret agent) feels almost like a satirical doppelganger of another contemporary writer, Michel Houellebecq.

(Perhaps I feel this because, like the character in the book, I am simultaneously revulsed by Houellebecq and fascinated by the form that awfulness took in the one book of his that I bothered to read all the way through, Platform. Reading that, I felt I’d had enough of Houellebecq to last a lifetime, with the possible exception of his book on Lovecraft, whose pessimism feels like less like insistent posturing and more like an anxious mental condition.)   

In any case, I’ve read somewhere that of all the postmodern novelists working today, Paul Auster is the most approachable, because he’s the least serious about the postmodernist project; that he treats it like a schtick, and bundles it into what feel more like thrillers, amateur detective stories or the like. It’s a funny criticism, an oddly anti-ludic one, given the importance (among most postmodernist philosophers) of linguistic play. I usually get a kick out of Auster’s work because of this sense that he’s working a chessboard, and occasionally slipping in plastic dinosaurs and lego figurines, just long enough to breach the wall barring access to his opponent’s back line… and then spinning the board to declare, “That’s not a chess piece!” even as he flips a checker piece on his thumb and slams it down onto the board, setting it shaking and causing all the other pieces to shift their positions. 

In any case, Invisible is essentially a fictional memoir of a fictional narrator (I mean that in multiple senses) in three parts, written in first, then second, and then third person, with crucial interstitial and framing material. It has murder, incest, larger-than-life characters, love and heartbreak, and mysteries galore… and as for what’s described in the memoir, it’s anyone’s guess just how much of it is true, as opposed to being sort-of true or merely the regretful, wistful fantasy of a dying man. It’s a book you’ll feel slightly embarrassed reading on the train, if you’re anything like me. But it’s also a book you’ll probably stay up late to finish, as I did on a night when I ill enough I might have been wiser to sleep. It doesn’t dislodge Auster’s “memoir”2 Hand to Mouth as a personal favorite, or Oracle Night as the novel of his that has most surprised and impressed me.   

Ex Libris Miskatonici: A Catalogue of Selected Items from the Special Collections in the Miskatonic University Library by Joan C. Stanley

The concept of Ex Libris Miskatonici is that it’s a catalogue of occult books in the holdings of Miskatonic University Library, of the sort that gets written up for libraries’ special collections everywhere in the world. It’s heavily researched, exhaustively annotated, and very detailed… and brilliant. 

Most of the texts are taken from Lovecraft’s own stories, though if I’m not mistaken a few are from works by other authors’ Lovecraftian tales. The catalogue recounts the history and provenance of these books—more information about them as texts, as well as hints as to how they came to be among the holdings of the library, as well as where other copies might be available.

(For this reason, the book is probably of particular interest to anyone playing a modern Cthulhu-related RPG: as an in-game reference book, it seems unlikely you could do better, except maybe if you picked up a copy of the similarly-conceived, though more recent, Starry Wisdom Library collection, which I plan to buy sometime in the coming year.)

I mentioned this in a recent post, but it’s worth mentioning again here: this is a wonderful chapbook published by the Necronomicon Press back in 1993, with a reprint in 1995. It’s been out of print since then, but when I recently contacted the publisher, I was delighted to discover they had a few copies left and were willing to sell me one for only $35 (or was it $37?) shipped in the U.S. (which is what I paid). Considering that the cheapest ones available via used book websites are in the neighborhood of $200 (a price that some poor people out there have actually paid, I have it on good authority), Necronomicon Press’s asking price is an absolute bargain. 

Joan C. Stanley’s fictive experiment is fascinating, and she manages to inject some fun real-world and literary history into the invented narratives surrounding these texts, such as including Alexandra David-Néel in the story of how some of The Seven Cryptical Books of Hsan got translated, or the how she gives Cultes des Goules a role in the “Affair of the Poisons,” an important (and black-magic-laced) event in French history. As both a female author and a person of color (and someone who studied abroad, as well: she studied abroad both in Japan and in France), it’s hardly surprising to see Stanley in places pushing back creatively against the overwhelmingly male, overwhelmingly Eurocentric biases of the Lovecraftian fiction world—in a way reminiscent of Kij Johnson’s book, which I discussed above—and I have to say I delighted in how funny, clever, and creative the way was that she went about it. Even without considering those biographical details, the book remains a truly great, fun, brilliant read, erudite and deeply imaginative at once. It’s absolutely worth every penny—at least, at the price I paid for my copy! 

Stanley passed away in 2016, unfortunately. I think it’s safe to say that at this point, a reprint is probably very unlikely. Never say never… but don’t hold your breath, either. If you are so inclined, I’d contact Necronomicon Press today and ask about a copy. 

  1. While it’s only possible to renew a book from the library once, you can sign it out on your significant other’s card, and vice versa, and effectively have the book in your hands as long as you like, since English-language books seem never to get reserved by anyone anyway. I wouldn’t do it back home, but around here, I figure it hurts nobody, and it’s only five books each anyway.

  2. With Auster, one must always wonder to what degree any claim on the relation of real life has fictive elements, after all.

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