Cold Hand in Mine

November 28, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

handCold Hand in Mine by Robert Aickman

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This isn’t my first attempt at reading this collection. I tried it back in March of this year, read the first story, and then decided it wasn’t for me. A few months ago, I started my Valancourt Books reading project (while also working on my Dark Tower reading project and my Star Wars reading project), and saw that one of Aickman’s books was on their publication list, so I thought I’d try this one again with a fresh perspective.

The results are mixed. Some of the stories are good, others elude me, and one of them was surprisingly good. Aickman has a knack for atmosphere, which I would ascribe to the lengthy establishing scenes in his stories. Each of the stories started out with one, which helped in the long run, but was a bit of a struggle at the start, since I couldn’t quite get a sense of where the starting point of the story actually was. This is somewhat fitting, as the stories also lacked conclusive endings.

The collection opens with “The Swords”, an eerie erotic story about a man losing his virginity to a prostitute. Maybe. He definitely loses his virginity, but whether or not he loses it to a prostitute is in question. It was strangely disconcerting, not just due to the horror element, but also due to it being about sex, but reading like it was written in the 19th Century.

“The Real Road to the Church” follows, and I honestly don’t understand the point of it. My  best guess is that the soul walks a path with those who come before, but I could be wrong. I had difficulty following this one, but I see it’s a story that other readers didn’t quite get.

The next story is “Niemandswasser”, which is German for “No Man’s Water”, which is exactly what this story is about. There’s an unclaimed portion of water in the middle of a lake, where a suicidal prince has gone to grieve an ended love affair. He begins to obsess over it, especially after a friend is maimed by something in that section of the lake. There was on passage in the story that raised my eyebrows, though not for anything related to the story:

Women have no inner life that is so decisively apart. With women the inner life merges with the totality. That is why women seem to me either deceitful or elusive, or moralistic and uninteresting. Women have no problem comparable with the problem of merely being a man.

It’s a shockingly male perspective, blaming a woman for a man’s perception of her. It’s hard to tell if the passage is related to Elmo, the prince, or if this is some philosophy of Aickman’s that bleeds through. There’s a lengthy afterword written by a woman who knew Aickman, and she describes him as a jerk, even as she calls him a friend. Some people might call him “complicated”, but I’m inclined to say he was a bit of a misogynist. Luckily, this was the only passage out of the entire collection that was overtly so.

According to my research, “Pages from a Young Girl’s Journal” is the most well-regarded story from this collection, which is odd since it’s the most straightforward of all the stories, and least like the others in style and tone. It seems like the story is addressing class issues while being a vampire story, and there are nice touches here, like it opening with our narrator being bitten by bugs, and with the voice becoming more mature over the length of the story. It just doesn’t break new ground, either as a vampire story or as an Aickman story (limited though my experience may be).

“The Hospice” is probably my favorite from the book, and is easily a five-star slow burn of a story. A man’s car breaks down and he’s forced to find a place to stay the night. It’s easy to follow, maintains a quiet tension, and ends in an ambiguous manner. This story also shows off Aickman’s characterization skills the best.

The next story, “The Same Dog”, is almost two stories, each with its own way of spooking the reader. The first half is about our main character as a boy, and the second half is him after he’s grown up and returns to his home town. It’s a neat parallel in the story, and it also serves as a contrast to “The Hospice” in how Aickman develops character. The protagonist in “The Hospice” is relatable because he has something to lose, while the one in “The Same Dog” has already lost it. It’s interesting to see how I respond to them differently (more to “The Hospice” than “The Same Dog”), and I wonder if it’s due to those characterizations.

“Meeting Mr. Millar” follows, and is no easy story to read because the main character isn’t likeable. He’s stodgy and stuck in his ways, and after reading the afterword of this collection, I get the feeling this is the closest we get to autobiography in these stories. It has a lengthy build-up, which would be fine for an effective payout, but here it feels weak. It does have some eerie, atmospheric moments, but the story doesn’t support it as well as it could.

The closer of the book is “The Clock Watcher”, a story about a man from the US who takes a German wife after time spent abroad in World War II. It was a tough read, especially when I came across “There was a great deal to be said in favour of Nazis, of course, in many other ways.” It didn’t help that I read that line the Monday after the events in Charlottesville, and I almost quit the story all together, but I figured this could be a way to establish his narrator as unreliable, and persevered. It’s hard to tell, but it definitely doesn’t feel like it’s how Aickman feels about them. The story works in some ways (Aickman hints at the conflict to come in the same way Shirley Jackson does in We Have Always Lived in the Castle), but fails in others (I’m still not sure what happened at the end of the story). It’s decent, but nothing like “The Hospice”.

Aickman belongs in the Weird camp, even though he doesn’t write about cosmic, nameless horrors, but he also has a room in the Quiet Horror house. He’s a bit hard to place, but he has his own style. Fans of other stylistic horror authors (Thomas Ligotti and David Nickel come to mind) would probably like his stuff the best. I wanted to like this collection, but it turned out to be an OK read, at best.

Unfortunate Musical Connection: “No Son of Mine” by Genesis.

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The Fisherman

November 22, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

fishermanThe Fisherman by John Langan

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You know my quest for “good horror”? Here it is. Otherworldly, strange, unsettling, and disquieting: this novel has it all. That it also has a bit of a literary bend to it (there are multiple allusions to Moby Dick here) is just gravy, because this is the kind of story that can induce nightmares.

The story is about Abe (“Don’t call me Abraham”), a man who has lost his young wife to cancer. As part of his grieving process, he takes up fishing. The solitude and challenge of it appeals to him, and when a co-worker of his, Dan, loses his wife and two children to a car accident, Abe discovers Dan used to fish, and invites him along.

It doesn’t sound like much, but like any fisherman, there are some stories involved. The key story of The Fisherman is told to them by Howard, who runs a diner the two fishermen frequent on the way to their fishing spots. Howard begins, “Understand, I can’t vouch for any of this”, and from there we hear the real story.

The odd thing about the book is that Howard’s story doesn’t begin until we’re twenty percent of the way into the story. That’s my biggest complaint of the book. Over half of it is Howard’s story, it’s dropped into the very middle of the story, and it’s all backdrop for the story of Abe and Dan. It’s important, yes, (without it, Abe’s and Dan’s stories are less resonant), but it’s stuck into the story like a splinter in flesh. Plus, it’s written as Abe’s recollection of Howard’s story, told in Howard’s voice, so it’s an odd mishmash of events, told in the present tense even though it’s a flashback. Plus, Howard seems to know a lot about what other people were thinking, which is unusual. The structure of the story is clunky, and the characters in Howard’s story aren’t drawn as well as those outside of it. As a result, I found myself bored with Howard’s story, and I struggled to make it through so I could get back to Abe and Dan.

Furthermore, Langan writes clunky sentences, like “The tree stump Jacob’s fifty feet away from meeting bursts”, or “What I’d been too concerned with bringing the thing in to realize was”, or “I was sorry I’d pushed off as much of caring for the boys onto her as I had.” These are just a few; I noticed many, but as I saw them recurring so often, I started to jot down some examples. They stopped me cold, and though part of me wondered if this were another way Langan was keeping me off my guard, to make reading the story as unsettling as the imagery, I couldn’t help but feel like he was creating barriers for understanding.

Despite all those concerns, I still rate this four stars, because how it all comes together works so damned well. Langan touches on Lovecraftian horrors of the cosmic unknown, but makes them personal, as well. His imagery is disturbing without being graphic, and his characterization (at least in the outer story) is spot-on. It’s weird horror at its finest, which is good or bad, depending on your tastes. As one of the characters in Howard’s story says multiple times, “This is bad business”, but for fans of horror, that’s a wonderful thing.

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Agents of Dreamland

August 14, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , , , )

agentsAgents of Dreamland by Caitlín R. Kiernan

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Agents of Dreamland is my first exposure to Caitlín Kiernan. I’ve known of her for a long time (I even had a copy of Silk for a long time), but she never pinged my radar enough for me to read her work. Later, I found a quote of hers where she discarded the use of plot in creative writing, and I, being a function-over-form reader, figured she wasn’t for me. I kept hearing good things about this novella, though, and I figured it was time to try her out.

I’m glad I did, because what I found is a story that has some plot (just enough, really), but excels for its use of language, atmosphere, and mood. It’s a piece that draws on The X-Files as much as Lovecraft, and it paints a picture of a moment that presents a terrible future. It flows through time, and introduces us to a couple of characters who appear to be on the same side, but are only marginally so. We don’t get caught up in their relationship, nor are we presented with the characters in such a way that we find ourselves immediately relating to and caring for them, but that’s not the point of the story, so it’s hard to complain about it.

Kiernan has an hallucinatory style to her narrative that’s a perfect fit for a story like this. Lovecraft’s nameless horrors have always resembled something from a bad acid trip, and here we have a writer who embraces that style with her writing. She also peppers the story with some named horrors lifted right out of our reality, giving the book a sense of reality, and reminding us that we don’t have to look far to find something to fear. The novella is an unsettling piece of work.

Suffice it to say, I’m impressed. I’m not sure if her style would sustain me over the length of an entire novel, but I’m more willing to give her a shot now than I was before. Agents of Dreamland strikes me as a perfect starting point for Kiernan. I can see that she wouldn’t be a writer for just anyone (heck, the jury’s still out on whether she’s one for me), but readers who like the dark and questionable and enjoy stories that aren’t traditionally told should give her a chance.

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Harrison Squared

August 2, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

harrisonHarrison Squared by Daryl Gregory

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This is an odd book. It’s a prequel to Gregory’s We Are All Completely Fine, in that it tells the story of one of the characters in that book, Harrison Harrison, whose life inspired a series of children’s books. The thing is, Harrison Squared is that children’s book (well, YA at best), which makes it not just a prequel but also a meta story related to the original work.

Harrison travels with his mom, a marine biologist, to a town in Massachusetts called Dunnsmouth, where she hopes to capture footage of an underwater beast. Harrison thinks she’s after giant squids and the like, but Dunnsmouth is hiding something far more interesting than the usual deep-sea creatures. In fact, the creature she’s hoping to discover relates back to when Harrison’s father was killed, and when Harrison himself lost his left leg.

This is a wildly compelling book, which surprises me, since WAACF didn’t grip me the same way. Gregory captures his characters well, doing that thing good writers do where you try to pinpoint where, exactly, you started to relate to the characters so well, but it happens so slowly over the course of the narrative that you can’t do it. They grow organically, building relationships in the same way real people do, over time and (sometimes) reluctantly, and they do it so well that it’s impossible not to root for them.

The plot is a little simplified, but the story doesn’t suffer for it. Key characteristics of the characters will obviously play into plot resolutions near the end, but Gregory handles his characters so well that it’s hard to complain about it. The story itself doesn’t answer all the questions it asks, which isn’t always a bad thing, but here it feels more like a cliffhanger ending than an ambiguity that’s intended to make the reader think. I read an interview that suggests Gregory hopes to make a trilogy out of this, but that he hasn’t written anything else in the series yet. I feel a little cheated by it, but hopefully the book does well enough to justify getting the rest of these books written. You know, as soon as possible.

Harrison Squared wasn’t a book I was itching to read, but it surprised me. WAACF wasn’t one of those books that made me want to go out and read everything Gregory wrote, but Harrison Squared is. I see a lot of his books have won acclaim and awards, so I’ve added another book of his to my to-read list (current count: 600+). I’m eager to see how Pandemonium shakes out.

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Dread Island

July 11, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

dreadDread Island by Joe R. Lansdale

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Dread Island is a story Joe Lansdale wrote for an anthology called Classics Mutilated. In it, the authors take classic stories and mash them together with other genres to see what comes out at the other end. In Dread Island, Lansdale mashes up Huck Finn, Uncle Remus, and the Cthulhu Mythos (along with a dash of Peter Pan) to create what can only be described as some super-mojo storytelling, as one would expect from Lansdale.

Lansdale captures the voice of Mark Twain well, which is no surprise since his East Texas style lends itself to that voice. The themes of his fiction are also parallelled with Twain’s, since they both look at racial injustice in the South. Of all the writers to write like Mark Twain, Lansdale is the best choice; of all the writers to mix in Uncle Remus and Cthulhu into Mark Twain’s style, Lansdale is probably the only choice.

Like a lot of Lansdale’s short stories and novellas, Dread Island is intended for Lansdale’s most hardcore fans. Fans of his Hap and Leonard stories, or his East Texas mysteries like Sunset and Sawdust or A Fine Dark Line, might not be prepared for this much of an oddity, especially if they haven’t read, say, “Bob the Dinosaur Goes to Disneyland” or “Dog, Cat, and Baby”. Lansdale’s delving into his weird oeuvre here, which is much weirder than his standard fiction.

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The Ballad of Black Tom

April 4, 2017 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

balladThe Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle

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Last year, I read The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, which was a feminist response to H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath”. These responses seem to be a new trend, since The Ballad of Black Tom is written as a response to “The Horror at Red Hook”. Initially, I was going to wait to write my review of LaValle’s book until I read Lovecraft’s story, but after reading the first few chapters, I realized something: I just don’t like Lovecraft.

I recognize and appreciate his place in horror, but his prose style is so dense, his themes potentially so offensive, that I don’t have a lot of patience for it. I have a ton of stuff I want to read, so why put myself through reading something I don’t like? I feel like reading summaries of the stories is enough for me to grasp his intents, which leaves me more time to read something that’s written much better, like The Ballad of Black Tom.

“The Horror at Red Hook” is considered to be the most racist thing he ever wrote, so it’s interesting to see LaValle’s take on it. Here, we see the same story, told from the perspective of Tommy Tester, a blues musician and con man who lives in Harlem and is hired by Robert Suydam to play at a party. Tester discovers that Suydam has greater intentions than just a party — and that’s where Lovecraft’s influence comes into play — but instead of turning away from it in horror, he embraces it.

Part of what makes Tommy comfortable with the cosmic horrors at play is that they’re almost nothing compared to what he has to deal with as a black man living in white America. LaValle shows how powerless he is against the police, society, or even the average white man. When faced with the real threat of racism, what’s a little Great Old One? At the very least, it gives Tommy the power to walk through the streets without fear. So begins the conversion from Tommy Tester to Black Tom.

Readers who are already familiar with “The Horror at Red Hook” will likely get the most out of this novella, but the story succeeds by itself, too. Regardless, this new trend of retelling Lovecraft’s tales with a modern perspective helps bring new life to older stories, while also addressing the problems of his fiction. Additionally, it helps me discover new writers like LaValle and Kij Johnson, which might be the best thing of all about the trend.

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H.P. Lovecraft’s The Call of Cthulhu for beginning readers

March 3, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

cthulhuH.P. Lovecraft’s The Call of Cthulhu for beginning readers by R.J. Ivankovic

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I first heard about this project a few years back when the artist showed off a few pages on Deviant Art. A few blogs picked it up, and I (along with a slew of other people) responded with “Shut up and take my money!”, so a few years later, we finally have this book in our hands. And it’s fantastic.

To prep for reading the book, I went back and read through the original story, just to have the details fresh in my mind. I wanted to see how well the author adapted the story into Seuss’ anapestic tetrameter, and the answer is “Extraordinarily well”. He hits all the high points of the story, from the first book where the narrator finds his uncle’s research, to Legrasse’s recounting of the cult in New Orleans, to the doomed expedition to R’lyeh in the third book. He combines the text with the whimsical illustrations reminiscent of Seuss, though he doesn’t hesitate to hint at child sacrifice and men eaten alive by Cthulhu.

It’s safe to say that this book is aimed toward the hardcore Lovecraft fan, but I think anyone familiar with the mythos and is a fan of whimsy will find a lot to like about the book. I’d recommend reading it aloud to get the full effect of the verse and how well Ivankovic captures it.

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The Great God Pan

January 10, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

panThe Great God Pan by Arthur Machen

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Whenever I read these older works of fiction, I feel the need to do more of an analysis of them than I do on modern fiction. It’s a holdover from my English classes, I think; these are works less to be enjoyed, and more to be analyzed. I felt the same about The Monk and Edgar Huntley, but I’m not sure what to say about The Great God Pan, other than the fact that it’s a precursor to the weird horror that Lovecraft popularized.

The story is about a young woman who undergoes a procedure to allow her to see the great god Pan; unfortunately, as soon as she sees him, she goes insane. From that point, the story follows an observer to the procedure, who, years later, is trying to convince the public of the existence of the devil after hearing lurid stories of a young girl who spends her days in the woods with strange creatures. At the end of the story, we learn that this young girl, who grows up to be a woman whose associations with men drive them to suicide, is the first woman’s daughter, and it’s suggested that she is the daughter of Pan.

Stephen King has written that this story is one of the finest horror stories ever written, and I’m not sure if I would agree. It’s certainly effective in its suggestion of horror over any overt scenes of horror, but the conclusion seems obvious once the story gets going, so it’s easy to see where it’s going and what everything means. It was controversial during its time for its suggestion of sexual activity, but it’s tame compared even to The Monk, which was written previous to this story. What sets it apart is how Machen wrote about unnameable horrors as opposed to devils and demons, and I suppose its place within the timeline of the horror genre is what makes it significant. It ushered in the wave of weird horror that Algernon Blackwood and H.P. Lovecraft wrote so well.

The Great God Pan isn’t a difficult read, nor is it a long one; it’s just not as interesting as I had hoped. A suggestion of horror is fine (I prefer it, in fact), but there needs to be some specific sort of horror to scare us with these kinds of stories. Machen went a little too subtle here, and the story suffers for it.

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The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe

November 29, 2016 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

dreamThe Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson

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I picked up this novella when it went on sale a few months back. I didn’t know much about it save that it was getting some good buzz, and good buzz + low price = I’m going to read it. What I didn’t know until I started reading it was that it was Lovecraftian, which was a bonus.

Vellitt Boe is a teacher at Ulthar Women’s College in the Dreamlands, and when a student goes missing, having eloped with a man from the real world, she goes on a trek to find her and bring her back. After all, the student is the daughter of one of the administrators of the college, and neither she nor any of the other teachers want the college to close due to a wayward student. The novella is about Vellitt’s journey across and out of the Dreamlands.

I know enough about, and have read enough of, Lovecraft’s works to know when someone is writing about his mythos. I’m not, however, so familiar with it that I recognize all the names and references that populate his works. Such is the case with The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, a novella written in homage and response to “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath”. Some of the references are obvious, and others I know are references, though I don’t know what they are.

Luckily, Johnson doesn’t limit her world-building by expecting readers to know the setting. She paints a vivid picture of the Dreamlands, above and below the surface, writing from a female perspective that, I understand, is lacking in Lovecraft’s work. She even makes Vellitt an old paramour of Randolph Carter, bringing in an aspect of the story that Lovecraft couldn’t.

Toward the end of the book, Johnson makes a particular scene a bit too coincidental to believe. Had she set it up a bit earlier, I would have accepted it more easily, but it was a case of “Oh, here’s how she got out of that situation, and here’s how that happened, since I didn’t talk about this earlier.” Beyond that, the story gets on track and concludes expectedly yet unexpectedly, ultimately satisfying.

Johnson’s prose is sharp, and her details vivid. It’s been a long time since I’ve read anything by Lovecraft, but I remember his prose to be dense, requiring a lot more effort than this novella did. I see Johnson’s story as a sort of revisionist history of Lovecraft’s work, making it a necessary read for anyone who is a fan of his mythos. There are fewer unnameable, eldritch horrors, but the perspective and theme make up for them.

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Hammers on Bone

November 1, 2016 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

boneHammers on Bone by Cassandra Khaw

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Right after I finished this novella, I rated it two stars: “It was ok”. That’s about how I felt, so it made sense. The next day, I sat down to write this review, and I started to wonder a bit more about what I’d read.

I don’t like noir that much. There are too many macho men who have too much disregard for women (sorry, “skirts”, maybe “dames”) for me to like them that much, and they’re usually the narrators of their stories. I knew going in to Hammers on Bone that it was a Lovecraftian noir story, but I also saw it was written by a woman, so I thought it might avoid those tropes, or at least use them in a new way. For the most part, the story reads like a standard private dick story, which put me off, but there was a moment toward the end that got me thinking further:

… the body strains to think of her as “the dame,” “the skirt,” or any of the other metaphors familiar to noir

The main character, John Persons, is a private investigator, sure, but he’s also a monster who lives inside a human body. So “the body” in that passage isn’t the character, though the character is trying to be someone he’s not (I mean, how did his name not tip me off to that at the start?), and I wonder if this line reflects the point of the story. Sure, it’s a standard noir story, but if the main character is struggling to pass for human, and his only point of reference is Sam Spade, how do we fault him for that?

I still have some issues with the story. The other characters aren’t defined well (though in true noir fashion, none of them are playing straight with Persons), the plot is a little predictable, and the story feels rushed. Interestingly, Khaw thanks an editor in her afterword for rejecting the story, feeling it “needed room to breathe”, but 11,000 words later, I feel the same way about it. I wanted to know more about the world and its characters than was included here, and saying this is the first in a series doesn’t excuse that lack.

Khaw does enough right with the story — her atmosphere, the creep level of how she incorporates the Cthulhu mythos, and her language (my favorite is “stubborn as capitalism”) — but the story itself feels insubstantial. If not for that one line to make me rethink Persons as a character, I’d rank this is just an okay story. I’ll elevate it to three stars (“liked it”) upon reflection, but Khaw is going to have to make a different kind of magic happen for me to bump up my rating on the next book.

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