lovecraft country

Lovecraft CountryLovecraft Country starts with a fascinating premise–what would it be like as an African-American to battle the forces of darkness while also battling the rampant racism of 1950s America? Matt Ruff gives the idea a good run in his episodic 2016 novel. The interconnected stories are well-paced and well-told, and open-ended enough to justify the anticipated television series based on the book. But there are some issues with what is actually delivered.

***

Lovecraft Country is fast-moving and full of action, but spends precious little time in Lovecraft country proper.

Atticus Turner, an African-American  Korean War veteran, travels from Florida to Chicago at his father’s request, only to find Montrose Turner is gone. With his Uncle George and his friend Letitia, Atticus follows his father’s trail to a haunted New England town. The trio rescue Montrose from the clutches of one wizard, only to have the wizard’s son continue to trouble them and their families long after they escape back to Chicago. As if that continuing menace weren’t enough, all this happens under the long shadow of Jim Crow.

The plot is loaded with mystery and threats, and each chapter focuses on a single character as part of the larger story. The individual experiences use familiar horror and science fiction tropes from Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, and leaven them with touches of sarcastic humor. The world is a strange place. Might as well laugh.

***

However, the characters are less well-drawn than I had hoped. Atticus is the brave hero, Letitia the spunky sidekick, Montrose the prickly, righteous father, and Braithwhite the slick, heartless wizard. Wives, children, and friends have similarly distinct attributes, without great depth. The only ones I felt had adequate development were Letitia’s sister, Ruby, and Atticus’s Uncle George. The others all move briskly through the action without making a huge emotional impact. As an ensemble, they work extremely well, and are believable in the bounds of the story. But they are not characters for the ages.

***

And, much to my disappointment, Lovecraft Country has only the barest hint of Lovecraft in it. Ruff dwells on the occult, rather than the weird, and the mystical goings-on do not tap into any especially cosmic sense of horror. At one point, Ruff touches on the inhumanity behind canonical Lovecraftian weirdness–

“…when you invoke the language of Adam, you’re addressing nature, and nature doesn’t care, it just does what it’s told. If you garble your instructions–transpose a letter, stress the wrong syllable–you’ll get what you ask for, but it might not be what you want.”

–but he fails to capture it. The supernatural pushes in through ghosts, potions, and spell-casting. With the exception of a couple of interludes in another dimension, the tentacled horrors and amoral other gods simply aren’t here. And if Lovecraft taught us anything, it’s that there is plenty of room for cosmic dread and racism in the world.

***

Lovecraft Country is as fun a read as a horror novel about grossly racist Natural Philosophers can be–which is, oddly enough, very. But perhaps it’s a reflection of Ruff being white while his characters are not that the closing scene of Lovecraft Country seems too pat, like the conclusion of a Very Special Episode of a sitcom. And for a novel with such ambitious ideas, the tidy wrap-up sells the whole grand, entertaining plan just a little short of where I wanted it to be.

harlan ellison

harlan ellisonHarlan Ellison died last week at the age of 84. He was a genuine legend in science fiction, by all accounts larger than life and twice as abrasive. I never met the man, but he has still been a part of my life for decades.

When I was around eleven years old I found a paperback copy of Again, Dangerous Visions stuck on the basement shelf where unwanted paperbacks ended up. It was the sequel to his transgressive 1967 anthology–and it was enough to suck me in and show me how sharp science fiction could be. Later, I read the man himself–the glorious I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, and Deathbird Stories.  I watched the supremely 70’s film version of A Boy and His Dog on VHS. I learned the empowering mantra “Pay the writer”.

Over the course of his long career Ellison published more than 1700 works, ranging from short stories to screenplays to essays, from comic books to literary criticisms. He was recognized with multiple Hugo, Nebula, and Edgar awards for works that changed the face of science fiction on page and on screen. He earned the World Fantasy Lifetime Achievement Award and the Horror Writers Association Lifetime Achievement Award, was named Grand Master by the Science Fiction Writers Association and by the World Horror Convention, and was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame.

But none of that matters if you don’t read him.

Unfortunately, it often takes the passing of a major author to inspire people to discover, or rediscover, their work. So it is with Harlan Ellison. Even though he continued to write prolifically, his heyday was the sixties and seventies when he was at the forefront of New Wave science fiction with his dangerous anthologies and subversive short stories.

These are a few of his works that I consider essential:

dangerous visionsStories
“A Boy and His Dog”
“I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream”
“”Repent, Harlequin!” Said the Ticktockman”
“Shattered Like a Glass Goblin”
“The Whimper of Whipped Dogs”
“Soft Monkey”
“Jeffty Is Five”

Collections

I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream
The Beast that Shouted Love at the Heart of the World
Deathbird Stories
Shatterday
Angry Candy
The Essential Ellison: a 50-Year Retrospective Revised & Expanded

Nonfiction
The Glass Teat

Television episodes
The Outer Limits   “Soldier” and “Demon with a Glass Hand”
Star Trek   “The City on the Edge of Forever”
The Starlost “Voyage of Discovery”
Masters of Science Fiction “The Discarded”

As editor
Dangerous Visions
Again, Dangerous Visions

Graphic novels
Phoenix Without Ashes

There’s plenty to say of Harlan Ellison as a person, good and bad–and it’s all out there for the googling. But as I mentioned earlier, I never had the opportunity to meet him. I had only his vast body of work to judge him by. And by those lights, he was a star.

trade yer coffin

trade yer coffinTrade Yer Coffin for a Gun by Mer Whinery is one truly weird Western. It reads like a mash up of From Dusk Till Dawn, High Plains Drifter, and Zombie–this is a big, bold, B movie of a book that revels in its inspirations. Let’s face it: any tale that brings in references to Mario Bava and Lucio Fulci right from the start is going for a certain tone. And it achieves it.

A Wild and Witchy West

The story follows Jubilee “Sugar” Bava, her twin brother Cutter, and their elder brother Micah–mercenary gunslingers collectively known as The Haints. Orphaned and driven out of their home town of Coffin Mills by corrupt officials, the trio are lured back to battle a supernatural threat to the town’s children. Of course, the opportunity for bloody revenge has something to do with it, too.

Did I mention that Sugar Bava is also the Witch of Fulci Holler? And that there are not one, but two monstrous horrors to defeat? And that another witch shows up to help?

Over the top is an understatement. Trade Yer Coffin for a Gun has vampires, witches, ghouls, zombies, prostitutes, gunslingers, necrophilia, black magic, white magic, Satanism, and a little Lovecraft thrown in for good measure. There is so much packed into Trade Yer Coffin for a Gun that a lot of potentially interesting details get pushed to the side from sheer lack of space. Micah’s tragic marriage, one monster’s connection to another, Sugar’s need to drink blood–all are dropped into the story without context. They left me wondering, and wishing for an explanation.

Riders of the Purple Prose

Whinery does a solid job of evoking the bleak, haunted North Texas where Trade Yer Coffin For A Gun is set, describing scenes in cinematic detail. All his characters speak in a thick television Western dialect, where guns are irons and the sheriff is the law, adding nicely to the atmosphere. Everywhere, his use of language is enthusiastic, and his prose incredibly, abundantly purple. For example: “It ventured a step further toward Sugar, reaching out an emaciated, sore-riddled arm, a root-like latticework of black veins squirming beneath the cemetery of its skin.” Or,  “Its corrugated surface glistened with an oozing pink slime and was lit from within by a sinister orange fairy fire, phantoms and forms fluttering clumsily inside the nimbus of the illumination.”

Despite the overall overstatement, there are some quieter, finely tuned descriptions among all the gore: “The sort of quiet that came before carefully chosen words”, and “The town of Coffin Mills went bad that day, and never knew the Grace of God again.”

However, the sloppy editing throughout the book interferes with the raucous action and undermines the atmosphere-building. For example, the first chapter heading promises a cold October night, but twice in the following pages we are told it is spring. Sugar Bava rides a pure white mare that several pages later has a chestnut mane. And littered throughout are overlooked typos that make the characters’ dialect harder to read than it should be.

Trade Yer Coffin for a Copy

After all is said and done, Trade Yer Coffin For A Gun is an entertaining page-turner for those with a taste for horror and gleefully excessive  gore. I don’t know how well it would stand up to a second reading, but the first time through was good, old-fashioned, gross-out fun.

figures unseen

figures UnseenFigures Unseen: Selected Stories, the latest collection by Steve Rasnic Tem, is a master-class in weird fiction. The circumstances in these thirty five stories are disturbingly familiar, the settings uncomfortably domestic. Tem’s flawed and damaged characters struggle to hold on to some semblance of normalcy as their lives come apart. They become monsters, but they do not mean to. They misunderstand. They make poor choices. They fail each other the way we all do, at some point. It’s no surprise that reading Tem’s work in Figures Unseen is in many ways like coming home.

***

Steve Rasnic Tem knows his craft. He has published seven novels and more than four hundred short stories over his decades-long career. With his late wife, Melanie Tem, he wrote Yours to Tell: Dialogues on the Art & Practice of Writing.

His language is beautiful, tactile and vivid, shot through with descriptions like ”She bought Julie a doll on her way to the airport, a floppy thing with huge, aimless eyes” and “rising with the orderly progress of the flames, set free into air and light, and they all, all of them stopped their lives that day to watch”.

Yet there is so much ugliness happening inside the beautiful descriptions. Human weaknesses and failings. Selfishness. Greed. Fear. Tem can twist a strange occurrence into a catastrophe with a single well-turned phrase, to peel back the skin of normal conduct and reveal the worms beneath it: “He felt sorry for her, but he also felt scared for himself. The woman he had loved had been gone for years, and now he was left with this. He wasn’t a good enough person to handle something he hadn’t signed up for.”

***

I personally find his shorter works sharper and more visceral than his longer ones. These selections in particular stand out for me:

“City Fishing”, is a bizarre coming-of-age tale reminiscent of both Dante’s Inferno and classic zombie fare.

“Houses Creaking in the Wind” provides a grim, brief summary of a man who has lost his wife and children, and may be dead himself.

“An Ending” is a particularly nasty piece about a helpless, bedridden couple dependent on their daughter for their care.

“Little Cruelties” chronicles the disintegration of a man whose attempts to control his wife and son are demonstrated through the rationalized, titular cruelties.

***
Steve Rasnic Tem
Steve Rasnic Tem

Tem also explores some of the more traditional monsters. But in his hands, what is monstrous is the responses to them, the attempts to normalize them, the desire to make them fit into a rational world or to bend the world to fit them.

Two stories here can be identified as vampire tales: “The Men and Women of Rivendale”, and “Vintage Domestic”. Neither fits easily among the common tropes. “Rivendale” offers vampirism as both an inherited disease and a cure for boredom, while “Vintage” phrases it as a desperately private family matter.

“Miri” and “Preparations for the Game” can be called ghost stories, but their hauntings are as much conscience as spirit. The protagonist in “Miri” left part of himself behind when he left his troubled girlfriend, while the main character of “Preparations” is trapped in a constant replay of his own sins.

His werewolf story, “Grandfather Wolf”, places the predator within the context of family resemblances, responsibilities, and love, without ever dipping into sentimentality.

Tem also includes a single Lovecraftian piece, “Between the Pilings”, sad and skewed and effective. In it, Innsmouth becomes a crumbling seaside resort town where the narrator is driven to recapture a lost part of  his youth.

***

The unifying theme of Steve Rasnic Tem’s Figures Unseen is, ultimately, the binding power of the family. These stories are driven by the pain of what fathers, mothers, siblings, and friends do to each other, and for each other. It makes Figures Unseen intimate, disturbing, and hard to forget–because when we strip away the weird and supernatural trappings, we are still left with ourselves.

 

Hammer Films
Hammer Films

Hammer Films: An Exhaustive Filmography by Tom Johnson and Deborah Del Vecchio delivers what it promises. First published in 1996, this compendium details every film put out by Hammer studios–165 full length films over forty three years, as well as shorts and television shows. While there are a slew of related titles out there, Hammer Films: An Exhaustive Filmography stands out. The writing is workmanlike and occasionally repetitive as the authors strive to provide a thorough description of each film. But this is a labor of love, honest and earnest and more fun for it.

The House that Hammer Films Built

Following a foreword by the late, great Peter Cushing, and a brief overview of the studio’s history, the authors delve into the real story of Hammer Films. Hammer began turning out movies in 1935, and, except for a pause for World War II, did not stop until the studio folded in 1978. Over the decades they made comedies, dramas, war dramas, and thrillers. But in the fifties and sixties Hammer decided to focus its energies on monsters, space creatures, and supernatural threats to the point where, to this day, Hammer is synonymous with horror.

Hammer is probably best known for reviving the Universal monsters–Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy, and the Wolfman–and turning Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing into international stars. These films cemented the studio’s reputation for solid, well-made horror–which, unfortunately, Hammer took too far. Hammer also churned out an interminable number of questionable sequels to their blockbuster monster movies, losing quality and audience interest.

Along with its horror mainstays, Hammer produced a number of iconic entries in the science fiction field. The Quartermass Xperiment, X–The Unknown, and Five Million Years to Earth all stand as classics of fifties alien-invasion movies. Hammer also branched out with a few monsters of their own invention, like The Gorgon, and  Doctor Jekyll and Sister Hyde. They dabbled in the occult with chillers like The Devil Rides Out, and To the Devil…a Daughter. And they went for jungle adventure and stop motion dinosaurs with She, and One Million Years BC (which is legendary for Raquel Welch’s fur bikini, not the special effects).

The Devil is in the Details

The authors present the films in chronological order, and include any posters, stills, or promotional shots they could get. Each entry contains the release date, length, filming location, producer, director, screenplay author, editor, photography director, and U.K. certificate rating, cast list, any other titles the film may have been released under, and a complete synopsis of the plot. Additional details and anecdotes are sprinkled in, such as the career arc of an actor, quirks with sets or props, or what the country’s mood was when a film was released. The authors also note how well a film was received, and where it fit in Hammer’s general business plan. Although the entries are formulaic, taken as a whole they provide a fascinating glimpse into both the personal and business workings of Hammer studios.

The good, the bad, the groundbreaking, and the ill-conceived are all here, researched with a fan’s affection. There are far slicker, more polished books on Hammer out there, but Hammer Films: An Exhaustive Filmography has so much affection for its subject it should be a staple of any collection. I understand the fondness; Hammer films are what I think of when I hear “old-school horror”, and I’m not alone in that.

So keep your Freddy, Chucky, and Jason. I’ll take The Horror of Dracula any time.

nightbird

Nightbird by David Busboom is an entertaining, richly written debut novella that I wish were a full-length novel. The language is evocative, the premise interesting, and the plot straightforward without being predictable. Isaac, the first-person narrator, describes his deflowering by a mysterious woman, and what becomes of his life because of her. There are no shocking twists, here, just a steady journey into darkness.

nightbird
Lilith

Nightbird shares its predatory feeding and psychic enslavement with traditional vampire fiction. But Nightbird’s titular monster is not truly a vampire. She is Lilith, the sexual demon of Biblical legend, now a red-haired predator hunting in modern day Illinois. Busboom incorporates a trove of Lilith lore into his tale, from the early Babylonian legends to modern artistic interpretations of her attributes. He also includes an impressive amount of cultural references–Theda Bara, H. Rider Haggard, H.P. Lovecraft, Fritz Lang and Tod Browning, among others–that hint at Nightbird’s background mythology.

The novella is full of wonderful imagery, as when Busboom reveals one of the supernatural beings that plague Isaac: “He wore a mask of uncanny whiteness, gleaming like an oval of ice”.

Busboom also has a knack for visceral description that is vividly. beautifully gross:

“A pale, warty body sparsely covered in gray-blue hair…Thick, webbed fingers clenched and unclenched with a slow, trancelike rhythm. The horrible round eyes were open, but vacant. From its slackened mouth snaked a long, forked tongue, the prongs of which were embedded deep in the right side of my chest. The creature pressed and bulged against me…”

These living, breathing descriptions are the strong points of the novella. Even something as simple as a roast beef sandwich is compelling.

nightbird
An older Lilith

Which is why I wish for a longer version where the many mystical elements had been expanded on with more description. The motives behind some of Isaac’s actions would have come across more effectively, for me, if certain background details had been fleshed out to give a better sense of the mythic structure beneath the story. In particular, occasional specifics of Isaac’s quest for knowledge would have gone far in establishing the ancient threat. The details we are given seem like a gloss:

“In my final year of high school…I’d been in communication with college professors and visited the campus library. A close survey of Gilgamesh, the Babylonian Talmud, and the Arslan Tash amulets had supplied terrible clues to her nature, methods, and desires, but talks with several students of archaic lore in town—and correspondence with many others elsewhere—had made it difficult to determine what was true, what was legend, and what was outright conjecture or manipulation.”

Isaac may have understood what was going on, but I didn’t feel the character shared enough of his knowledge with the reader. Not that blunt exposition is needed, but a sprinkling of well-placed hints would have given additional depth to the narrative and additional urgency to the plot.

So what is the take-away for Nightbird?

Get it. Read it. It’s worth it. My criticisms come from wanting more. Nightbird is a strong story, full of dark ideas, dramatic imagery, and fantastic use of language. David Busboom’s skill as an author is clear, and I look forward to seeing him hone it further.

The Man in the High Castle
The Man in the High Castle

A year ago I reviewed the first season of the Amazon series The Man in the High Castle. Now, with the premiere of season two, I’d like to look at the source material. While I enjoyed Amazon’s version of Philip K. Dick’s Hugo-winning alternative history, the novel The Man in the High Castle is contemplative and tentative in ways that few TV series are equipped to handle. The two versions are complimentary, but not truly comparable.

***

Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle was both published and set in 1962, and supposes a diametrically different outcome to World War II than we know.  In this world the United States fell in 1947, and was carved up between imperial Japan and Nazi Germany. The Reich is a grasping power, and its relationship with Japan is strained and distrustful. Europe and Africa are ravaged by huge environmental and humanitarian deprivations. There is space travel, and nuclear weapons. There is also a haunting sense of instability. The world order is unsustainable.

***

Unlike its television interpretation, the novel The Man in the High Castle does not need bold action to move it along. Although many things do happen, they are small more often than dramatic. The novel relies largely on character development for its propulsion. Dick’s characters are more circumspect versions of their series alter-egos, and to varying degrees uncertain of their paths.

What is to me most striking about The Man In The High Castle is the finely-tuned tension running through it because of the characters’ uncertainties. The entire novel takes place in the through between sweeping political events, and is told from the points of view of people who are not aware that they can have any influence on the course of history–yet. That possible future influence fills the novel with potential energy as characters come to terms with the circumstances of their lives, and finally make the decisions to steer them rather than merely drift.

A map of PKD's alternate world
A map of PKD’s alternate world

***

Also altered in translation are the importance of two books that form the thematic backbone of Dick’s original work.

The first book is a novel within a novel, titled The Grasshopper Lies Heavy—an alternate history to the alternate history it exists in. While Germany has reason to dislike the future envisioned in the subversive book, their banning of it does nothing to stop its popularity, or its influence on German citizens and subjects: “What upset him was this. This death of Adolf Hitler, the defeat and destruction of Hitler, the Partei, and Germany itself, as depicted in Abendsen’s book…it was all somehow grander, more in the old spirit than the actual world. The world of German hegemony” (133).

The second book is the philosophical guide The I Ching, which most of the characters use to decide the potential outcomes of their actions. It is an exercise in ambiguity and delicate moral complexity, of what may be and what might have been. Everything is open to interpretation, each throw of the sticks leads to a subtly different reading of the associated lines. Nothing is certain until action is taken, nothing is clear until it is in hindsight.

Under the influence of either or both of the two books, the characters decide their paths and reinvent both their places in this world and their ability to change them. Few of those changes are on a grand scale. Like so much else, they are incremental until the balance tips.

***

The man behind The Man in the High Castle
The man behind The Man in the High Castle

I recall a shrine in Hiroshima wherein a shinbone of some medieval saint could be examined. However, this is an artifact and that was a relic. This is alive in the now, whereas that merely remained. (185)

Unlike its serial adaptation, Philip K. Dick’s The Man In The High Castle is a story of transitions both personal and cultural. It is the story of characters coming to an understanding of where their lives have taken them so far, and what possibilities are open to them now. It is not merely an alternative version of the history we know. It is also an examination of how history is made, of the tiny components and the commonplace characters that are as much a part of its making as the men in power.

Lest we forget.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

And as always, please share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section!

Roadside Picnic
Roadside Picnic

Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky is a strange and affective science fiction novel—classic, understated, and far deeper than it initially seems. First published in Russia in 1972, its most recent translation (by Olena Bormashenko) was put out in 2012 with a foreword by Ursula K. LeGuin. The story is often prosaic, its events inexplicable, its conclusion tantalizingly inconclusive. The prose is direct, with little decoration. Yet it works. Memorably. Roadside Picnic forces the reader to consider humanity’s self-defined place in the cosmos, and in its own quiet way taps into the primal well of weird fiction by making that place very small, and very insignificant. But in the midst of that brush with nothingness it also presents us with a glimpse into the inner workings of human faith.

***

Roadside Picnic happens in a world where undescribed aliens landed, stayed for a while, and left again–all without making actual contact with humanity. The event is known as The Visit, the areas where they touched down are known as Zones, and the remnants the aliens left behind are deadly.  “At night when you crawl by, you can see the glow inside, as if alcohol were burning in bluish tongues. That’s the hell slime radiating from the basement. But mostly it looks like an ordinary neighborhood, with ordinary houses, nothing special about it except that there are no people around” (21).

But men still go into the Zones, and most of them come back out intact. Whatever can be brought out is studied for possible use. The perverse wonder of the alien artifacts so many people die to acquire is that no one really has any idea what they are or how they work. There is speculation, much of it wrong, and occasional, accidentally found functionality. But no human understands this extraterrestrial stuff. It is all beyond them, as much as they want to believe that their scientific inquiry will lead them somewhere.

And still, the government studies it and the black market profits from it. Both sides believe, whether they realize it or not, that the aliens left these things behind for a reason—and if they just keep studying what they can drag out of the Zone, they will eventually discover something wonderful. Both sides of the law make plans of how to find their alien treasures, they develop strategies, they draw hopeful maps–but more than anything their survival and success in the Zone is only instinct and blind luck.

The Zone
The Zone

The Strugatsky brothers don’t try to disguise this perceptual fallacy lurking inside Roadside Picnic, and in fact explicitly state why the alien cast-offs remain inexplicable: “Xenology is an unnatural mixture of science fiction and formal logic. At its core is a flawed assumption—that an alien race would be psychologically human…biologists have already been burned attempting to apply human psychology to animals. Earth animals” (86). If we cannot ever hope to understand the aliens, we can never hope to understand what they create. It is as incomprehensible to us as an iphone is to an anteater.

***

In order to humanize the novel’s blunt philosophy, Roadside Picnic follows the life and career of one Redrick Schuhart. The plot is more of a slice of Red’s life than any traditional, hero’s journey-style narrative. When he is introduced at the age of 18, he works for the International Institute of Extraterrestrial Cultures by day, and as a stalker—a Zone scavenger–by night. His night work is illegal, and breathtakingly dangerous. He knows what’s at risk, but it still draws him in.

Redrick is an offbeat everyman. The character’s blend of cynicism and idealism, fatalism and vast hope, is realistic and attractive. Roadside Picnic follows him until he is 31, using his experiences as illustration. He may be a stalker, but he is an essentially decent person. He is a solid husband and father. He is a loyal friend. He is a disaffected employee, whichever side of the law he is working on. He has no grand plan. And yet, it is human nature to impose order on such planlessness—and where there is order, there is room for hope. And Red, believing in a stalkers’ legend and in his own personal goodness, still hopes for a higher meaning to come from what the aliens left behind.

***

And yet whether Redrick finds what he seeks remains open to multiple interpretations. In the end, Roadside Picnic is a disturbing and challenging novel. It’s observations about humanity’s ability to interact with the world, if accepted as true, are deeply uncomfortable to own. For the Strugatskys, the hope and faith they let their characters nurture is protection from a weirder truth–because when the Strugatskys look into the void at the heart of Roadside Picnic, nothing at all looks back.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

And as always, please share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section!

The Fisherman
The Fisherman

The Fisherman by John Langan is a quietly disturbing novel of loss, black sorcery, and regret. Unexpectedly, the story manages to be both intimate in its telling and sweeping in its possible implications. While not perfectly balanced between those points, The Fisherman is a well-written and emotionally engaging work.

Told in three parts, The Fisherman begins by introducing the languid, convincingly-realized Abe. He is the novel’s widowed narrator, recollecting why he began fishing and what eventually made him stop. Abe’s tale ventures from his personal history into local history, then local folklore, and then deep into the occult and supernatural. But Abe and his experiences are made to serve double-duty. While he is presented as the primary, first-person focus of The Fisherman, Abe’s life shortly becomes the frame for another tale that is a thinly disguised, massive exposition dump. However, that content does allow Abe’s narrative to be something more than an intriguing novella.

After Abe sets the scene, the second, longer part of the novel is a several-times secondhand recounting of  events that occur well before the frame story. While this second part is nearly stand-alone and full of rich images, it eats up the middle 150 pages of the 266 page novel without hitting the same emotional tone as the introduction. In particular, it lacks the distinctive voice Langan gives to Abe.

###

In addition to creating a great character, Langan also imbues The Fisherman with a great sense of place—the Catskill Mountains of upstate New York are a vital presence in the novel. He teases out the atmosphere of the forests, rivers, and streams, captures the fragrance of the woods and the qualities of light. He also very gently lets grief seep in before his characters declare it out loud.

The foreshadowing in The Fisherman is frequent and subtle. Langan keeps good control over its pace, even when he seems to be pointing right to it: “The canvas was such a mess of shades and shadows that I half-suspected it was some kind of giant Rorschach Test… there was something about it, this quality, that I don’t know if I have the words for. The picture fascinated me; I guess because it was so close to showing you what it was, so close to revealing its meaning” (41).

You don't want these fish
You don’t want these fish

The imagery is strong but not always connected. The many, many uses of water are beautifully done, vivid and tactile, but they do not always, well, flow. Occasionally it seems as if a water reference is used simply because it is watery. For example, in the third part of the novel Langan weaves a familiar urban legend into the mix and then submerges it, using it to reinforce the dolorous mood:

“It’s one of those tales I’ve noticed attaches to spots where water covers the site of human dwelling. There’s something haunting about the image of those houses, those shops, those churches, submerged in darkness, schools of fish darting amongst them, the light a distant glow overhead. It’s as if you’re seeing how time works, or some such” (199)

While it is evocative, it doesn’t fully connect with his other uses of watery imagery, particularly the pivotal Dutchman’s Creek and the often-referenced black ocean.

###

John Langan, The Fisherman himself
John Langan, The Fisherman himself

Speaking of liquid images, I wish the strange other world Langan attaches to our own had been more thoroughly dived into. He presents us with such grand visions as: “For a moment, Jacob’s mind insists that what arcs out of the water is an island, because there is no living creature that big in all of creation. Then it moves…the whole of its dull surface traversed by the ripples of what Jacob understands are great muscles flexing and releasing, and there’s no doubt this is alive” (145). This and descriptions like it evoke the sheer scope of the thing and its environment in a way that recalls Dune and the sandworms. Yet it still feels somewhat incomplete to me, like a set-piece rather than a fully organic experience. I would have welcomed a much longer novel that delved further into that sorcerous world.

The Fisherman has been described as Lovecraftian—but everything is Lovecraftian, of late. This flirts with it, although it is in many ways too concrete and contained in its cosmic horror. But comparisons are only guideposts, and John Langan has a distinct style that stands on its own. I truly enjoyed The Fisherman. It has at its root a thoughtful literary sensibility wrapped around a solid supernatural horror story. That’s a hard combination to beat.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

And as always, please share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section!

The Weird
The Weird

The Weird is a far-ranging 2012 anthology compiled by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, both of whom have stellar weird credentials—Ann was an editor at the legendary Weird Tales magazine before it fell into limbo, and Jeff is an established novelist of the New Weird known for his Southern Reach trilogy. Together, they have identified many stellar, foundational, and surprising examples of the genre. For this volume, the VanderMeers assembled one hundred and ten stories that fill more than a thousand pages and that demonstrate a spectrum from the most traditional of weird tales to the post-modern new weird.

As Michael Moorcock observes in his “forweird”, “There are no rules for the weird tale, which is at least part of the attraction if the story an author wants to tell can’t readily be told in an established form,” at a stroke releasing the idea of weird fiction from the usual genre constraints. And, he adds, “the best writers write the best weird stories”.

In this ambitious a collection, with stories ranging in time from the early years of the twentieth century to present day, there are of course many familiar authors we are used to considering ‘the best’. The VanderMeers do give us Lovecraft, Ligotti, and Clark Ashton Smith. But there are even more unexpected additions to the ever-widening gyre of weird lit such as Kafka, King, and William Gibson—all of whom are also in here. Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, the author of Rashōmon, appears with the inflected and disturbing “The Hell Screen”, and the remarkable but often overlooked Daphne du Maurier is well represented by the grotesque “Don’t Look Now”. And there are so many more surprises. Among my favorites are:

“The Willows” (1907) by Algernon Blackwood, which is what I would describe as classically weird. It is a slow, repetitious, corrosively told tale that keeps its true horrors almost entirely hidden. Its length seems at first excessive, but the undefined dread feeds off it.

“The Man Who Sold Rope to the Gnoles” (1951) by Margaret St. Clair is a story I first encountered as a child in an old Alfred Hitchcock Presents anthology. It is a short example of capitalism and avarice gone horribly wrong, as inspired by Dunsany.

“It Only Comes Out at Night” (1976) by Dennis Etchison, a story I first encountered in The Year’s Best Horror Stories series, is bleak and creepy and inexplicable as the best of the weird always is. This one always comes to mind on long car trips, and makes it clear why Etchison is a legend in the horror community.

“Angels In Love” (1991) by Kathe Koja is almost poetic in its descent, tracing the last days of an unimaginative party girl who wants something she can’t even conceive of. There is an odd, punky, Southern Gothic quality to the story that makes the sudden brief weirdness of the conclusion its only natural outgrowth.

“The People on the Island” (2005) by T.M. Wright is an unsettling surrealist vignette in which none of the characters understands why their world is changing or how to deal with it. Wright’s familiar themes of loss, loneliness, and alienation are all here in one mournful package.

Tentacles are always weird
Tentacles are always weird

Since The Weird is arranged chronologically, it is easy to see the progressive development of the weird tale. I found in many of the earlier stories the weird quality is not fully realized, existing as a blurry suggestion rather than a fully integral component. Some of the stories included do not have the sense of cosmic nihilism I usually associate with weird fiction, falling more into the purely horror or surreal category for me. A few are trapped by their author’s prejudices, such as the remarkably dated “Unseen-Unfeared” by Francis Stevens, which I think perhaps the weakest addition to the collection.

However, the sheer number and international scope of the selections forces one to reconsider dismissing any of these strories or putting them into an easier category.  Taken as a whole, the stories make a reader look at what qualities would bring them into the weird fiction fold. They force the question, ‘What is Weird?’ —a question that is re-examined in China Mieville’s artful “afterweird”. In it he demonstrates his expression of the weird as well as summarizes the subject both richly and well: “This collection is not (just) an act of cannon. It does not, nor could it, enshrine one set of texts. Without motion—of the crawling and wriggling kind—there is no Weird”.

And it is hard to argue with that.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

And as always, please share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section!