What we're reading: June 2016

George

Nowhere People by Paulo Scott

Reading this put me through a similar process as Rawblood did (see Gary's thoughts below) in that it started with a fairly traditional scene – a young man stops to help a homeless girl from the native community of Brazil – only to pitch off in unexpected directions. It's a Scott's credit as well, as he quickly moves through the cascade of often unpleasant consequences rather than dwelling on minutiae or risking navel-gazing. It's also appropriate that the story shows a fickle adherence to protagonist, given how damaged and unpleasant some of the characters are. It's by no means a comfortable read, challenging sexual taboos and instead drawing you through with grim fascination about what they will do to each other next.

The Transmigration of Bodies by Yuri Herrera

Given how much I loved Signs Preceding the End of the World, I came to this nervously. There's a lot of promise in the setting – a Mexican city locked down in a quarantine, rival families at the brink of war and a mystery to solve – but it didn't hit the same heights. It may be in part my jaded relationship with Romeo and Juliet, which is referenced heavily. It may also be the time spent writing about sex (it seems to be a curiously literary fixation, writing so much about getting laid) which was longer than the time required to reflect on that particular transmigration.

Still though, Herrera off form is better than most and he has a gift for poetic phrasings. His grasp of noir is strong, and some of the cast, Neeyanderthal in particular, really draw you in. He understands the enchantment of reading, using mythic constructions of space and character to keep everything familiar, but strange and in need of investigation.

A Man Lies Dreaming by Lavie Tidhar

Where do you start with a book like this? What if I told you it's an alt-history noir story about Wolf (a defeated Hitler's new moniker) who lives amongst the whores of 1940s Soho, all of which is dreamed by a Jew in Auschwitz? It's somewhere between pulp and high historical rumination, the tasteless and profound, the funny and terrible – essentially, it seems, written to rile as many people as possible.

In some key respects it follows the same metafictional path as Osama, but tightens up the ideas there considerably. Where Osama was notably absent from his book, Wolf is front and centre and we see him in most intimate detail – too much detail at numerous points – which means all the possible tensions are aired. He's an awful man, as you'd expect, pathetic in failure and full of hate and bile, and Tidhar has no problem with making him suffer from the outset. But the evolution of the novel's idea from that point is superb stuff.

First of all, you can only beat on someone so much before some sympathy develops, and that's an odd thing to hold in you. You wonder why he's quite as kinky as he is (he's incredibly kinky, in case you're wondering). That wish fulfilment turns on you. Then there's the pressure of the real world, first shown by Shomer's suffering in the camp, but also slipping into Wolf's story in various ways. Half the Nazi's are failed novelists for one! There's a constant probing at the edge of the illusion, what we know to be true trying to force its way back in. Truman looking at his bathroom mirror with a fresh perspective.

You can pick a thread and start pulling but for me one of the central questions of it is about the value of literature around the inexpressible. Does the book provide insight to suffering, or vindication and vitriol to those who want to punish those already dead? Is it distraction from or assimilation of history? How do you feel about Wolf by the end of it?

It's been a long time since I've really found value in postmodernism. Whether it riles you, or you love it, it's fascinating.

Fuff #3 by Jeffrey Lewis

Lewis is a songwriter and comic book artist, who keeps a comic diary and shares it at gigs. This issue of his indie comic focuses on a trip across Eastern Europe and the history of the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Lewis writes with a simple honesty which is frequently rewarding and here is no exception. For one thing I had no idea that the CIA funded abstract art through the Congress for Cultural Freedom in the 1950s. The Cold War remains, as ever, a particularly odd stage of history to my mind.

Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury

I'll tread carefully here because I know this is a treasured classic for a lot of people. Maybe I read it too late? I couldn't work out what age reader it was aimed at with its story of two teenagers being pursued by a dark carnival, but openly lyrical and poetic writing. Whatever age the audience, however, it left me fairly cold. Lots of breathless running around town, lots of dialogue consisting of Will and Jim saying each other's names and imagery left to roam far and wide between capital and period. That said there are some wonderful moments tucked away in there, in particular Will's dad (the highlight of the book) awake at 3am wondering if he'll ever be able to match his love for his son to his wife's, to any woman's for their child. They are, however, all too brief.

SVK by Warren Ellis & D'Israeli

More of an idea than a full story, this comic is about a fixer called in to retrieve a prototype, which turns out to be AR contact lenses. Worse, the air has been seeded with transmitters which nest in your hair and broadcast your thoughts for wearers of the lenses to pick up. The twist here is that the thoughts are printed in UV-reactive ink and you get a little UV torch with it.

It's a neat trick, and I think this was intended as a showcase work for the printing, but the story is lacking. Despite the promise of the setting - imagine London shortly after V for Vendetta - there's no great revelation in the thoughts we read, no great revelation beyond people saying one thing and thinking the opposite. So Mr Ellis, if you're reading, I'd be up for the full redux of this one!

In the Suicide Mountains by John Gardner

I only heard about Gardner (author of the excellent Grendel) relatively recently. This is a reimagining of fairy tales which perhaps suffers from being published two years before Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber. Much more traditional in scope, Gardner instead looks back fondly on childhood stories, and puts strange moral twists in the mix. Think less psychodrama and repressed violence and more morality and self-discovery. Leave your cynicism at the door, and you might enjoy it.

Gary

Rawblood by Catriona Ward

Beginning as a well-written but – or so the reader thinks – fairly traditional gothic novel in the manner of The Woman in Black, Catriona Ward’s debut veers off to places far darker than I anticipated and into uncharted territory. An ingenious spin on the ‘cursed family’ trope in fiction, an examination of the traumatic aftermath of the First World War, a powerful feminist work and a horror novel that fully delivers on its promise. I haven’t felt as disturbed, sad, angry and frightened by a novel’s final revelation in a long time (which of course as a reader I, perversely, enjoy). A brilliant debut. 

Uprooted: On the Trail of the Green Man by Nina Lyon

In the increasingly crowded field of creative non-fiction (especially books dealing with place, landscape and our attitude to nature) Uprooted has provided a welcome change of pace and attitude. Ostensibly about the Green Man and his manifestations in religious architecture, folklore revivals, and most importantly our modern culture, the book quickly expands beyond that focus into a serious look at humanity’s conflicted relationship with the natural world – where it all went wrong, ways of rebuilding that relationship, and other possible ways of being and engaging with the world other than the failing methods we currently employ.

Looking at such unfashionable topics as magick, neo-paganism, animism and panpsychism seriously, but, crucially, with a sense of level-headed humour, is what made this book for me. Rejecting the life-sapping and anti-spiritual approach of modern materialism, but deftly avoiding the (to use Lyon’s phrase) woo woo that mars a lot of well-meaning but ill-thought-out New Age-ism, this book advocates embracing a certain messiness and non-doctrinaire approach to our engagement with the world – no one knows exactly what the Green Man meant, and no one can agree on what it means now. Perhaps it’s enough that it means something, and should be used as method of engagement rather than just another replacement deity to be worshipped unthinkingly. The Green Man, Lyon suggests at one point, is 'the entry point to Faerie' – if you’re comfortable with metaphor and symbolism, and allow the Green Man to represent an entry point into a different way of thinking rather than any depressingly literal interpretation, then I seriously recommend this book. 


Whitstable by Stephen Volk

'Horror isn't everywhere,' Cushing said. 'But horror is somewhere, every day.' 

I grew up in the town of Whitstable on the Thames estuary. Coincidentally this was also the home of Hammer Horror legend Peter Cushing. I am (just) old enough to remember Peter Cushing cycling around the town in the early 1990s, before his death in 1994. 

This novella by Stephen Volk was written especially for Cushing’s centenary in 2013, taking on the tricky task of creating a convincing and engaging piece of fiction about a well-known (and well loved) public figure who is emblematic, alongside Christopher Lee, with a very English brand of horror. I’m pleased to say that Volk completely pulls it off.

Set in the immediate aftermath of Cushing’s wife’s death in 1971, and his subsequent descent into grief-stricken depression, the novella charts Cushing’s encounter with with an all-too-human monster, on the cold and bleak Kent coast in the dead of winter. Whitstable is an effective study of grief, a chilly and unsettling horror story, and a reminder that life has a tendency to drag us back into the messy human world even when we feel we can’t continue.

There’s a Beckett quote running throughout the story that Cushing keeps returning to: You must go on. I can't go on. I'll go on. This becomes a powerful mantra (especially armed with the knowledge he did admit later in life that he had considered suicide following his wife’s death).

An oddly uplifting book, and a great example of what you can do with the novella format.

Midnight Sun by Ramsey Campbell

I’m currently about two thirds through Midnight Sun, Campbell’s first novel of the 1990s. By his own admission, it was his attempt to write a novel that captures the feeling of natural awe found in the better works of Algernon Blackwood, Arthur Machen, and the cosmic awe of Lovecraft. It’s interesting that he attempts to do this across 300+ plus pages, as all three of those aforementioned writers’ best work were at short story and novella length (which I personally find to be the ideal length for weird fiction of this sort). 

I know that Campbell views this novel of something of a noble failure, yet many fans name it as one of their favourites – these split opinions are really what drew me to the book.

There certainly is something compelling about Midnight Sun that keeps the pages turning, with hints of the unknowable awesome presence (in this case, some kind of trapped spirit of the ice age, I think) building up in steadily mounting increments that is impressively slow-burning and restrained. Balancing that with the quotidian realities of the character’s lives is a tough thing to do, but I greatly admire the attempt of mixing the awesome and everyday (something that Campbell did very well in the later novel this reminds me of, The Darkest Part of the Woods). I’ll report back when I’ve finished it.