What We're Reading: October 2016

GEORGE

The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri

My plan of catching up on missed classics brought me to Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy. As with Paradise Lost, I actually listened to this instead of reading it which has proven a great way do it. Reading time may be at a premium in London, but walking time comes in spades.

I can’t claim to have scratched the surface on a first pass, so it’s not a work that I’m done with by any means. For those inclined to try though, first of all let me tell you that the best stuff isn’t just in Inferno. Sure, that’s got the most lurid imagery, but it’s the necessary prologue for the rest.

I found the most interesting parts were in Purgatorio,where Dante strives to have carvings indicating the cardinal sins removed from his forehead. It is here that things get truly weird, with Dante falling into dreams of sirens and beginning to interact with what he finds. As ever, it’s the liminal spaces that prove compelling. Sure, the numerology of Paradiso and Inferno is interesting, as is the taxonomy of vice and virtue and the catalogue of punishments and paragons. But it’s only in Purgatorio that Dante has some skin in the game. That, and the questions of free will discussed, proved fascinating.

This is one that I’ll have to revisit.

The Relic Guild by Edward Cox

Ed Cox read at Unsung Live #3 (the audio for which is here) so I had the curious experience when reading this one of having the author’s voice in my head the entire time. His story from Live also in no way prepared me for his book.

You see The Relic Guild could comfortably fit on the fantasy, SF and horror shelves. It’s not the New Weird take on merging genres, but something truer to older forms perhaps. The fantasy is high magic heroism; the horror is flesh-melting and monstrous; the SF is planet-spanning and powerful. In many respects it reminded me of Zelazny’s Amber in fact, especially with the Labyrinth being the central point for travel to other realms.

Whilst it was a tease of an ending (all hail the Great God, Trilogy), it’s an interesting mash of influences and I can’t help but admire the broad-spectrum approach to genre ideas at work. Why should we stick to just one at a time, after all?

Interzone 262-266

My annual Interzone catch-up happened this month so I read four back issues. As well as the usual excellence from Nina Allan’s 'Time Pieces' and Jonathan McCalmont’s 'Future Interrupted', there were also stories by Aliya Whiteley, Malcolm Devlin and Tade Thompson, who read at our October Live event.

Other highlights were:

  • #262 – Phillip A. Suggars, ‘Dependent Assemblies’. A haunted South American couple work to bring a homunculus to life, whilst haunted by their past.
  • #263 – Michelle Ann King, ‘Not Recommended for Guests of a Philosophically Uncertain Disposition.’ Deadpan weird SF about a tourist attraction built on a rift in space-time. Michelle also wrote last week’s Short, ‘Fast as Lightning, Still as Stone.’
  • #265 – Ken Hinkley, ‘On the Techno-erotic Potential of Donal Trump Under Conditions of Partially Induced Psychosis’. A bizarre Ballardian nightmare for anyone who’s seen any of the news for the last 18 months.

The Course of the Heart by M John Harrison

Finally, after many, many people telling me I had to, I read The Course of the Heart. I’ve already raved about Harrison and the aficionados claim this is the best. And as with Dante, I suspect I’m going to have to read this one again at some point.

Ostensibly, it's about a group of people who conducted an unspecified ritual together whilst at university. Our narrator is Alex, who is trying to glean more information from Yaxley, who lead the ritual, to help his friends Pam and Lucas recover from the aftermath. Because none of them can remember what happened, and ever since they've been haunted by their experiences in the Pleroma. And what's the Pleroma? A mystical place only accessible via the Heart, itself unknown and lost.

If you’re after a book about the nitty gritty of occult rituals, this isn’t for you – Alex flees the one we encounter, and it’s a great relief as reader that he does. Instead this book is about the search for its own heart; the same way the characters are searching for the Heart that will let them back into the Pleroma, we pursue the unknowable. Shock and trauma do weird things to our memories, even changes who we are, so perhaps the Heart here is the truth of what happens in those moments? Or more honestly a manifold thing prone to breaking the way we describe it.

Harrison constantly shifts the point of view, the time, the tense, so we are awash in Alex’s mind. We are certain what happens, but also feel the past overwhelm him, become destabilised by the slips into ‘would have’ thoughts and reported histories (both fabricated and genuine). It’s a patchwork of experience, anecdote and legend that accretes around the need to understand the traumas of life.

It’s as true to the experience of the thing than the representation of it, which is a commendable achievement.


GARY

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The Race by Nina Allan

The Race is one the most unusual and refreshing novels I have read in ages. It's a hard to define story of alternative realities, doubles and opposites, longing, and most importantly, family. It’s a science fiction novel, a post-apocalyptic novel, a literary novel set on the south coast of England. It is episodic but works as a unified whole. It feels fantastic, dreamlike and unreal yet rooted in a solid, often upsetting, human reality. Even the title of the novel is something of an enigma. I can’t really think of many books to compare The Race to, which is one of the best things a person can say about a novel.

Being familiar with some of the geographical locations of the book really added to my enjoyment; Allan’s vision of a wasted, polluted Romney Marsh and the town of Sapphire really grabbed me, as did the sections set in Hastings in the ‘real’ world (whatever that is). Both the Romney Marsh and Hastings have their own weird energy which lends itself to this kind of speculative fiction, putting The Race into a category done very well by British writers, a sort of ‘mundane weird’ where character driven narratives in sleepy coastal towns can sit alongside sections featuring impossibly huge Atlantic whales and genetically modified smartdogs. 

The Race is brilliant and you need to read it. 

 

The Devil in America by Kai Ashante Wilson

This novella from Kai Ashante Wilson is a tough and harrowing read, so you have been warned. It also does what, in my opinion, horror and fantastic fiction should do, and that is directly tackle the horrors of the real world. What is being addressed here is the legacy of slavery and the real, awful realities of American racism – which, if we're honest, should horrify you, right?

The Devil in America focuses on an African American family in the years after the Civil War, slowly losing the ‘Africa magic’ brought to America via an ancestor taken as a slave. The young girl of the family, Easter, is still sensitive to this magic, but ends up misusing it, resulting in the loss of the family’s crop. This leads to an an encounter with a white devil emblematic of Jim Crow America, a doomed bargain and a genuinely upsetting ending. 

A great example of how fantastic fiction can tackle real-world issues. Brace yourself.

 

The Icarus Girl by Helen Oyeyemi

‘In the old days in Nigeria, people were kind of scared of twins – some people still are. Traditionally, twins are supposed to live in, um, three worlds: this one, the spirit world, and the Bush, which is a sort of wilderness of the mind.’

I first encountered Oyeyemi’s work a few years ago, reading the intriguing Dover-set ghost story White is for Witching, and always meant to go and explore more of her work. Finally I have, and decided to start from the beginning with The Icarus Girl, written when the author was, almost unbelievably, studying for her A-levels. I say it’s almost unbelievable as this novel, though showing some of the signs of a first effort, is very assured and thematically complex for a book written by someone so young. 

The novel follows eight-year-old Jessamy Harrison, daughter of an English father and Nigerian mother, prone to strange bouts of illness, screaming fits and a nagging sense of not-belonging. After a family trip to Nigeria, she meets a girl her own age, Titiola (who she christens TillyTilly), invisible to all others, mischievous and at times malevolent. TillyTilly somehow follows her back to the family home in suburban London, where the story takes a darker and weirder turn than I was expecting.

This is what I enjoyed about this novel; the novel starts by looking as if it will be a fairly standard look at childhood alienation and the challenges of being caught between two cultures, but then morphs into a much more disturbing tale of lost twins, doubles and doppelgängers. It invokes aspects of Nigerian folklore – I found the concept of the ibeji statue fascinating and creepy – and contains some genuinely strange moments, straying into that wilderness of the mind and removing the novel from any strict realism, pushing it into the realm of the fantastic.