Since the end of November last year, I’ve done three things relevant to my reading:
- … struggled to get over a bad cold.
- … cut back on using social network sites (and especially cut back on wading into arguments with idiots).
- … made an effort to spend more time reading books instead of internet glop.
The first was both involuntary and unpleasant, but has definitely helped with the latter two endeavours, which in contrast were a concerted effort (and were, obviously, quite linked to one another).
On the other hand, I also traveled, which usually takes a bite out of my reading time: not that one cannot read while traveling, but I tend to try make the most of time in a different place, and spend less time sitting with a book.
Even so, the fruit of these efforts is, in part, that I have a few more books to discuss than usual. It’s worth noting, though, that some of the books I’ve read in the past few months aren’t in this post: I mentioned some already in a post about Icelandic books I’d read, and I’ve got maybe two dozen RPG book review posts sitting in the drafts folder, just waiting to be published, as well as a couple of posts about verse (one by troubadours, the other by moderns) waiting to be filled enough to bother making public, and a post about Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Moon series that I only just put up online a little while ago.
So anyway, this post, though, is a mix of general fiction and nonfiction that didn’t line up with anything else thematically, or whatever.
Waking Up Naked in Strange Places by Julie McGalliard
Waking Up Naked in Strange Places is a novel about a teenaged werewolf. I almost wrote “is a novel about a female teenaged werewolf” because most of the examples that come to mind in media are all male teen werewolves—from An American Werewolf in London through Teen Wolf and ending in the male werewolf love interests of Underworld, Twilight, and MTV’s Teen Wolf remake (which, I should note, I haven’t seen). The only exception to this pattern seems to be the Canadian Ginger Snaps series of YA-ish films about a female werewolf—which I also haven’t seen or read—and that seems to be the exception that proves the rule.
McGalliard disproves it here, and handles the supernatural side of things so that the character’s slow process of self-discovery as a teenager and as a teen wolf overlap, while also dovetailing with her struggle to come to terms with her upbringing as a prisoner of a cult after she escapes from a southern backwoods compound that is the stuff of absolute nightmares. The supporting characters are all interesting and screwed up in their way, and McGalliard’s version of Seattle in the novel is one that feels very familiar to me as the place where I got to know her.
I’m biased, as she’s a friend, but I enjoyed the book and found the ending sufficiently tantalizing to wonder whether she’s considered writing (or has perhaps already written?) a second installment… though it’s possible to read the ending as the author bucking that very same expectation, so who knows?
Fugue for a Darkening Island by Christopher Priest
This is a darkly unsettling book that I discussed in a post of its own a while ago. It left me feeling somewhat disturbed, in part because it’s a disturbing book on its own, but also because it feels weirdly prescient—not of the ongoing refugee crisis we’re facing worldwide today, or even of the way we can expect it to worsen as global warming turns Earth into what I suppose Donald Trump would call a “shithole planet” if he were still around to see it. (Perhaps we should start electing leaders who will have to live with the consequences of their decisions? Perhaps that should be part of the job description?)
No, what I think it’s prescient about is the horrific, idiotic fever-dream that has captured the imagination of so many millions of people in the first world. This book charts the anti-immigration, anti-refugee fervor and the dehumanization that it actually achieves in the minds of those who fall prey to it.
Not just the dehumanization of refugees and immigrants, mind you: the dehumanization of the people who fear and hate them, too. And while that may well be unwitting, Priest also definitely paints a portrait of a middle-class nobody who, by allowing himself to be buffeted by the winds of those fears while maintaining a firm, selfish handle on nothing but the boundaries of his own personal life, manages to become both a victim and a monster.
Which is not to say there aren’t serious issues with the book… something I take it even the author implicitly acknowledged when he revised the novel for reprinting sometime in the past few years. I don’t think it’s a Great Novel, but it’s unsettlingly timely, at least.
My Work is Not Yet Done: Three Tales of Corporate Horror by Thomas Ligotti
Well, now I can understand that fuss: My Work is Not Yet Done is a great book. In an interview somewhere, Ligotti commented about how he was working at an office when it was published, and how it made his coworkers worry about his mental state (and whether he posed any danger to others or, we presumably, himself), and I can definitely understand that response! The title novella channels so much incandescent rage and disgust that pretty much anyone who’s worked in an office is bound to understand and relate to the narrator: haven’t we all idly dreamed of wreaking havoc of some sort on the lives of our more toxic coworkers at some point? And haven’t we all had deeply, deeply toxic coworkers—the kind of people who get your name wrong on purpose, or who steal things from your desk just to annoy you or make you look bad?
The portraits of the narrator’s antagonistic, awful, stomach-churning colleague-enemies are mostly brief but quickly paint a picture of a cast of cretins, schemers, and assholes who’re still somehow ambiguously horrible: one dislikes them instinctively, while also feeling a niggling doubt about whether their awfulness might not be partly something subjective, colored by the frustration and depression and anger and even the paranoia of the narrator. This, too, is designed to be relatable: if one has hated coworkers, one has also, at some point, exaggerated the justifications for that hatred. Human beings are rarely content to settle for, “I think this person dislikes me and might be working against me”: inevitably, that observation metastasizes into something much worse, something more overstated and more virulent. We can identify with this, if we’re honest with ourselves, as much as we can with the experience of having a terrible coworker.
That identification is Ligotti’s secret weapon: if everyone has a coworkers they’ve hated, and everyone has fantasized about getting even, then everyone can identify with the “poor narrator” who, “pushed to his limits,” finally does seek revenge. Of course, a lesser writer would have followed this to its obvious conclusion, and Ligotti teases us with the idea he will, too. Then, at the last minute, he instead does something very much non-obvious: he throws the “going postal” storyline under a fast-moving bus and takes off in another, more grisly and horrifying direction—which I’ll say no more about except that it’s weird and creepy and disturbing and funny all at once.
There are two short stories included to round out the book: “I Have a Special Plan for This World” and “The Nightmare Network.” They actually packed an even bigger punch, probably because they’re distilled into purer form. These two stories take one of the minor themes of “My Work is Not Yet Done”—that the horrific nature of modern business provides a perfect niche for a certain kind of monstrous parasite to prey upon human beings, the business itself, and the world as a whole—and explore it more deeply. This is a corporatized world filled with crumbling cities and a dying environment, where people fare no better than slaves, and often even worse than slaves would. Both demand attentive reading, and both reward it with a creepy, bewildering tale of just how badly things could go wrong in the right conditions.
So, now, when it comes to the fuss over Ligotti’s work, I think maybe I do understand the cause for it. I’ll have to read more of the man’s work, once I can get my hands back on it. (I had a copy of Teatro Grottesco for a while, but it’s gone now, who knows where.)
Redshirts by John Scalzi
Another national library find. Redshirts was… better than I expected, actually.
I went in expecting some lessons in a certain branch of parodic comedy writing, and Scalzi surely did do that with Star Trek here. He did some things anyone could predict, therefore, like a very “meta” trope-by-trope critique of the broken logic in a typical Star Trek space battle scene, but he also actually managed to surprise me in a couple of points, taking the book a bit beyond mere parody of a popular franchise and into other light-SF territory. (Particularly unexpected was the genuinely heartfelt business in the last two of the novel’s multiple “codas.”)
It’s definitely a “light” novel in more than one sense: the prose is crafted to be very, very easily gulped down—which isn’t my thing, usually—but it was an enjoyable diversion for couple of hours.
The Green Child by Herbert Read
This book is a sort of dreamlike (and apparently, according to Read in a letter to Jung, dream-inspired) retelling of the bizarre tale of the Green Children of Woolpit (or listen to this great Stuff You Missed in History Class episode about them). It’s set in the modern day, and has a whole weird background where the main character is an Englishman who emigrated to Latin America and became a major political leader before organizing a faked assassination—of himself. The story begins on the night of his return, and runs from there, wandering the woods of the area as he follows a stream that is—as far as his memories can be trusted—running backwards. (Ah, how things change while one lives abroad, huh?)
It’s a deeply weird novel, and I found the middle section (the Latin American revolutionary portion) a bit of a slog, probably in part because it embodies some of Read’s politics in ways that don’t much interest me… but it was still kind of necessary and even worth it for how it both sets up and brings us to that third and final portion, which depicts life in the underworld from which the Green Child (Sally/Siloen) came, and the remainder of the protagonist’s life, spent in the fashion of the natives of that world.
Lovecraft Country: A Novel by Matt Ruff
Matt Ruff, a novelist a few of my friends have praised over the years (I’ve especially heard good things about Sewer, Gas & Electric: The Public Works Trilogy), is an odd bird: some of the other books I’ve heard about were a little more off-the-rails than Lovecraft Country is, or so it seems. If I were to sum this book up, I’d say it’s a clever inversion of a lot of the tropes and literary assumptions of Lovecraftian fiction and SF from the era in which it’s set, the 1950s, written from a more socially conscious—albeit self-consciously white—perspective on the racism of America in that era.
Specifically, the heroes of the book are an assorted group of black Chicagoans from two loosely connected families, while the weirdly exotic bad guys are mostly white “Masonic lodge” members—where “Masonic Lodge” is basically “bizarre evil magical ethnic cult”—and where the most unsettling of horrors is the horror of mid-1950s America’s casual, prevalent, and wholly unapologetic racism… There’s even a “magical white man” figure, who’s literally some sort of mage and who acts as the inversion of the Magical Negro figure (though he’s more self-interested than your typical Magical Negro character). The whole thing is tied together, very loosely, by a network of family and friend relationships and a little book titled the Safe Negro Travel Guide, which is Ruff’s version of the Negro Motorist Green Book—yes, the same one featured in the movie The Green Book, which for me was a strange seredipity: I was about a third of the way through this novel when I saw the film.
Pam Noles’ essay “Shame,” about the the struggles of growing up as an African-American SF fan, came to mind as I read Lovecraft Country, since this novel has more African-American science fiction/science nerds than I’ve ever seen in any single book anywhere, but also because in one scene a father-figure challenges a younger black man about his love for science-fiction novels that are so obviously racist in their assumptions about the world. (So did John Coltrane, who, like the character Atticus Turner, was a big fan of pulp SF novels and comics when he was young.)
Therefore, I wasn’t surprised when Ruff mentioned Noles’ essay in his afterword as one of the inspirations for the book, though it did make me curious about how many people must have said something or other about how Ruff ought to have “stayed in his own lane” when the book was published. The problem, of course, is that one of the few ways one can really engage with Lovecraft’s legacy—racism and all—is by interrogating directly… and of all the ways to do that, the most sensible and meaningful one is doing that is through polyphony, allowing voices that contradict it and characters who, by their own existence repudiate it, to speak louder in one’s text. Since the oppression, maltreatment, and hatred of black people is central to American racism in practice and in public discourse, it’s hard to imagine seriously addressing it as an American writer without giving voice to black characters who outsmart, defy, or (since this is in part Lovecraft pastiche) simply manage to survive their brush with the horrific intact. But the book is, all told, only partly Lovecraft pastiche: it’s also noir, and pulp, and a magical mystery, and, centrally, a book about the peculiar, insane form of racism that ruled—and in places, is still attempting to rule—America.
And because of that, and perhaps because Ruff is a white writing addressing this topic, setting aside the politics or optics or whatever we might call it, there’s something about Lovecraft Country that does sort of feel like it’s being written anxiously: the characters feel as if they’ve been shaped by someone who’s nervous that in making them too “complex,” the political point he wants to make will end up being diluted or obscured. So it is that the black characters seem to be cartoonishly good and relatable and nice, just as most of the novel’s white characters are cartoonishly evil and mean.
Or, often, cartooonishly stupid, and ridiculous, and ignorant. There’s a recurrent pattern in the book where a black person is asked a question, answers it honestly, but is ignored because the white person asking the question cannot fathom that answer being true when a black person speaks it. Oh, boy, can I relate to that—not that I’ve never needed a special travel guide to stay safe where I live, but the bullish stupidity engendered by ignorance is truly universal.
Still, for me somehow the problem is… well, it’s almost like the cartoonishness makes for better entertainment—or at least more digestible entertainment, indeed digestible enough for HBO to be now working on an adaptation of Lovecraft Country—but also makes the engagement feel somehow less… I don’t know, “honest” seems like too strong a word. Maybe it just makes the book feel a bit over-earnest in parts, as if anxiousness somehow stifled the whole thing ever so slightly. Then again, Lovecraft’s characters were often utterly cartoonish—that’s something that’s apparent, once you strip away whatever else you might want to say: none of them, not the bad guys and certainly not the heroes, were particularly deep or well-developed figures. So maybe it’s only natural there’d be a kind of cartoonishness here, but… I don’t know. I did enjoyed the book, despite this sense of vague reservation about the whole thing. It took me a long time to finish, though… but that’s true of a lot of books these days.
Collected Ghost Stories by M.R. James
These tales are certainly unsettling—”Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” is downright terrifying if you read it in the right frame of mind—but they’re also brilliant and even, sometimes, very funny. (James’ long Latin quotation at the beginning of the story “The Treasure of Abbot Thomas,” which is followed by a translation that commences with a mock-wearily winking, “Okay, okay, I guess I have to translate that for you…” made me laugh aloud at a point when I wasn’t supposed to, or maybe I was? Near the end of the collection, there’s a laugh-out-loud snarky tale about an idiot boy scout titled “Wailing Well” that… well, it’s funny as hell, till it turns plain hellish.
“The Ash-Tree” is downright creepy, too: I actually cribbed it into a fantasy-horror RPG adventure I was writing around the time I read it: yes, it’s that creepy. In fact, I think a fair number of James’ stories could be retooled to work in an FRPG setting, or at least elements that could be. For one thing, as a late Victorian/Edwardian, James was—just barely—writing in a world old enough that the stories transpose well back into older periods, in ways our own ghost stories don’t always. I think “Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You My Lad” would work as a great cursed magic item in an RPG—James is a master of the horridly cursed item—and many of his tales involve hidden treasures or creepy, monstrous encounters in strange places. (“A Warning to the Curious” is another such story, just as brilliant and even bloodier.) In fact, so much of James could be translated well to RPGs, and I found myself surprised reading this book that more hadn’t been done already in the way of that kind of translation. 1
Honestly, though, it feels a a bit pointless picking favorites here, because each new story is a revelation: the horror of necromancy and sorcerous rite hidden at the heart of a country house’s garden maze in “Mr. Humphreys and His Inheritance” is a triumph, and became a favorite as soon as I read it. “The Tractate Middoth” is an incredible tale of a haunted book, or rather, a haunted will hidden away in a book. “After Dark in the Playing Fields” is about the creepiest faerie story I’ve ever seen—and I think it’s singularly brilliant that James includes it among “ghost stories”—and “Wailing Well” is perhaps the story with the most stark leap from hilarious to chilling.
I can’t help but wonder what it was like to be among those who first read James’ stories, or first heard them read by the author on dark, cold, Christmas evenings by the crackling fireplace. That was a time long before the jumps-scares and torture-fests of modern horror films, and one must settle, mentally, into a certain kind of aesthetic innocence and patience to appreciate these tales… but it’s well worth the price of admission.
Paperbacks from Hell by Grady Hendrix
Back Saskatoon in the early ’90s, I spent hours and hours trawling through the paperbacks in a used bookstore called “Tramp’s.” There were a few locations, and the one downtown was where you went for second-hand RPG books, but it was the location on 8th street that was home to the biggest collection of pulp paperbacks in the city. I wanted to be a horror fiction fan, except I didn’t have much luck with the novels I bought there, or so I thought: not that I expected every book to be a five-star masterpiece, but after reading a few books that were not even one-star reads, I began to wonder if horror publishers had purposefully put out bad novels for some reason. Yes, yes, I obviously was picking the wrong ones, I’m sure. Sort of? I mean, even Hendrix points out that a lot of schlock was published during the genre’s heyday.
(But yeah, I was picking the wrong books, I’m sure. I recall seeing Peter Straub’s first supernatural novel, Julia (originally titled Full Circle in the UK), and not picking it up… I went back to look for it after Showcase aired The Haunting of Julia (the movie based on it) as its late-night movie one weeknight, and being annoyed that someone else had beat me to it. )
At some point, after reading a few Borealis/White Wolf collections (the Borderlands anthologies, edited by Thomas F. Monteleone, especially stuck with me) and some Lovecraft, I guess I decided that horror was a genre best explored in short stories. Since that was also was around the time that I started getting seriously into SF, I guess I never changed my mind about it.
For me, then, Paperbacks from Hell feels a little like a walk down memory lane—that is, a walk down the lane I ended up not walking down. I feel like if I had continued on with reading horror books, my recollections would probably add up to pretty much what I’ve gotten from this book: a vague welter of repeated, insane, over-the-top themes, some flashes of terrifying brilliance, and a sort of sardonic view of the field—which is not to say cynical. Hendrix obviously loves horror fiction, but he’s also willing to acknowledge its warts and uglinesses. He’s also, usefully, more than a little interested in engaging with questions about how horror developed, not just in literary terms (as in how he traces its ubiquitous tropes back to a few trail-blazing paperbacks in the early 70s) but also in terms of the publishing business. In pursuit of that understanding, he traces the way the horror boom of the 70s and 80s exploded, expanded, and then finally contracted almost completely, leaving most of its authors to either retire to grim silence or emigrate to other shores (that is, to popular fiction genres). I mean, sure, horror still exists, but not like it did in those days.
From the bananas-loony stuff Hendrix discusses, though, it’s much easier to see the “Bizarro” subgenre as a direct outgrowth of—or maybe even just a pulpy continuation of—a certain kind of cheesy über-transgressive 70s/80s horror novel.
I mentioned author emigration out of horror when the horror paperback boom collapsed. As I worked my way through the book, I found it fascinating how many of the authors mentioned are known to me not as horror writers, but as writers of something else. George R.R. Martin, for example, makes an appearance for his Fevre Dream, and Kathe Koja (whose only book I’ve read—I mentioned it in passing here—was much more recent, and sort of a surrealistic YA novella about sibling relationships and the pain of separation, as a retelling of a Greek myth). There’s also Michael Blumlein, who obviously was (is?) a horror author, but whose work I somehow always thought of instead as weird, dark medical SF, because of how science-fictony it always seemed to me. Other authors simply disappeared, the outstanding T.E.D. Klein being one among many who did this when the horror boom petered out.
The book is light, and only gives an overview, but I found it a fun, enlightening read with a lot of really striking imagery in the form of cover art from many of the books discussed. To be honest, I did feel a little inspired to pick up some more horror paperbacks—some mentioned within the main text, and maybe some from the second appendix’s recommended reading list by Will Errickson, author of the Too Much Horror Fiction blog—during my recent trip to the States, but I only managed to find one, which I’m sure will be featured in a post here eventually. (That book was The Searing, by John Coyne.)
That’s it for now, it looks like. I’ve got a few interesting-looking books queued up, though: The Stars are Legion by Kameron Hurley, N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season, Caitlin Kiernan’s Agents of Dreamland, Minsoo Kang’s translation of The Legend of Hong Gildong, as well as some more Icelandic Sagas and books by other friends.
Rumor has it Kenneth Hite may eventually pen an M.R. James-inspired game running off the Gumshoe system, so maybe that’s going to change sometime soon?↩