‘Houses Under the Sea’ by Caitlin R. Kiernan

Posted in Book Review with tags , , , , , , , on March 4, 2013 by davehurwitz

UndescribableThis is another story from Two Worlds and in Between: The Best of Caitlin R. Kiernan, Volume One by way of Thrillers 2.  It’s also the last story I needed to read from Two Worlds.  After this, I promise to move on to something a little less obscure and a bit more cheerful.  Like our previous Kiernan story, ‘Houses Under the Sea’ became a point of inspiration for a more readily available novel.  This story, along with ‘The Road of Pins,’ forms the backbone of Kiernan’s The Drowning Girl.  If this review intrigues you, the novel covers similar territory in much the same style.

Like many classic horror stories, ‘Houses Under the Sea’ is framed as a found document.  The nameless, genderless, first person narrator is a reporter, ostensibly writing an insider’s account of his or her involvement with a cult calling itself The Open Door of Night and it’s leader, a disgraced academic named Jacova Angevine.  Public interest in the cult, and the obvious slipping of the narrator’s sanity, began with the mass suicide of the entire membership.  Jacova Angevine led them into the sea, out toward the deep-water canyons of Monterey Bay, to drown themselves.

The Novel by Caitlin Kiernan‘Houses Under the Sea’ consists of eight numbered sections, or scenes.  Within theses sections, the narrator is apt to bounce backward and forward from the past to the present in a way that suggests a disordered mind.  Despite that impression, this really a tightly crafted piece of writing, revealing just enough in any given scene to build both anticipation and unease.  My favorite bit is a scene in which the narrator watches a video cassette of raw footage from a camera mounted on an ROV piloted by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) along the bay floor.  The narrator has watched this footage a number of times, and is clearly terrified by it.  Eventually, the ROV is sideswiped by something unseen and knocked into a deep trench.  Miles beneath the sea, far below the depth of human survivability, the malfunctioning camera glimpses what can only be a symbol carved into a giant rock.  All of which may sound a bit silly in summary, but when combined with the narrator’s sweaty nail-biting, it comes across as quite sinister.

If you’re seeing shades of H.P. Lovecraft here, you’re not wrong.  Other aspects of the story make this connection even more apparent.  Kiernan’s genius lies in giving an HPL premise a more modern scientific backdrop and a contemporary seeming cult.  Keirnan herself was trained as a vertebrate paleontologist, and she knows how to give her fiction an academic veneer.  Other sections of the story discuss popular and scholarly books published about The Open Door of Night as well as hack novels written by Angevine’s father, complete with citation information, and all of them just as fictional as the story itself.

Like a Lovecraft story, ‘Houses Under the Sea’ suggests much more than it reveals.  If you prefer definitive endings, let me again suggest The Drowning Girl, which offers more in the way of traditional closure.  As for ‘Houses,’ even the fate of its narrator is left open to interpretation.  All of its carefully constructed scenes lead the reader toward an unsettling truth, but once that truth has been realized, both narrator and reader are left with nowhere to go.  We know too much, and we are out of options.  To me at least, this is the very essence of horror.

Dave Hurwitz

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‘Bagatelle’ by John Varley

Posted in Book Review with tags , , , , , , on February 23, 2013 by davehurwitz

A naked man & a naked woman. In space!For those of you familiar with his work, John Varley is a not-terribly-prolific writer of old-school science fiction novels and stories in the grand tradition of Heinlein, Asimov, and other post-war authors.  His career stretches back to the mid-seventies, and my acquaintance with his work goes back nearly that far.  I can remember begging my parents to buy me mass market editions of his work at Crown Books in UTC, back when I was still a young nipper and there was no such thing as Borders or Amazon.com.  I incurred the wrath of my junior high teachers by reading Varley’s Gaean Trilogy (Titan, Wizard, & Demon) during classes.  It did not help that, because of poor eyesight, I always sat in the front row.  Regardless, I’ve carted those three books around with me from place to place, from junior high through graduate school, from shared apartments to a home of my own, for the best part of thirty years.

One of my favorite Varley characters is Anna-Louise Bach, a police officer on Luna, the heavily colonized moon of the future.  (I told you I liked weird police procedurals.)  Bach featured in a series of stories that took her from rookie beat cop all the way to chief of police.  Two of the best were ‘The Barbie Murders,’ which involved a homicide within a cult with genderless, virtually identical members, and ‘Bagatelle.’  Though I haven’t read either of these stories in years, I was pleased to see the complete text of ‘Bagatelle’ pop up on the Subterranean Press website as a teaser for their upcoming Varley collection Goodbye Robinson Caruso and Other Stories.  You can read it there for free.

Creepy idential folks in in grey jammies.In the opening scene of ‘Bagatelle,’ a mobile, talking nuclear bomb rolls down a crowded shopping tunnel of New Dresden, Luna, saying things like “I will explode in four hours, five minutes, and seventeen seconds” and “I am rated at fifty kilotons.”  Chief Bach commandeers the services of Roger Birkson, a Terran expert in disarming nuclear I.E.D.s, interrupting his round of golf at a nearby resort.  It transpires that the talking bomb contains the brain of an actual human being who, for obscure philosophical reasons, has allowed himself to be engineered into this weapon of mass destruction.

If all of this suggests a bleak sort of comedy to you, you’re not far off.  Certain scenes in which Bach–half naked in clothing-optional Luna–and the golf-togged Birkson interrogate the bomb have a Monty Python edge of weird hilarity.  But Varley doesn’t let the reader forget the terror of the situation for long.  We feel Bach’s stress as Birkson’s behavior becomes more and more bizarre.  We see the reactions of her junior offers–one of whom is pregnant–as they throw up or pass out from unendurable tension.  Although New Desden is saved, the way the story ends leaves a hollow pit of horror in the stomach.

‘Bagatelle’ was originally published in 1974, during the Cold War, when nuclear immolation seemed both inevitable and imminent.  It’s a fear I remember well and can’t say that I miss, the poisonous background radiation of my childhood and adolescence.  The nuclear terrorism Varley envisions here has not yet come to pass.  So far as the general public knows, no sub-national cadre of ideological nut-jobs has succeeded in assembling a nuclear bomb.  But no one would deny that it could happen.  Like the Cold War itself, it’s just something that we live with.

For those of you not up on your French, in addition to being a rather ridiculous pub game, a bagatelle is a task of little importance or one that is easily accomplished.  Indeed, Varley makes it look easy here, with a story that is readable, entertaining, and still relevant twenty-nine years down the road.  John Varley is a writer who all fans of science fiction should get to know, and I can think of no better place to start.

Dave Hurwitz

‘The Daughter of the Four of Pentacles’ by Caitlin R. Kiernan

Posted in Book Review with tags , , , , , , on February 16, 2013 by davehurwitz
A big dude in robes and a crown holds a big coin.

Four of Pentacles:
Radiant Rider Waite Deck

This is another story from Two Worlds and In Between: The Best of Caitlin R. Kiernan, Volume One from Subterranean Press.  It was originally published in Thrillers 2, an anthology title from Cemetery Dance Publications.  Unfortunately, both of these fine books are now out of print.  Given their limited printings and high production values, both are liable to be a bit pricey on the secondary market.  While I’m trying not to review things that will be hard for you–the reader–to get at, I also really want to finish up this Kiernan collection.  If this review intrigues you, I suggest that you roll on ever to your favorite bookseller and purchase the mass market paperback of Daughter of Hounds, a Kiernan novel that has it’s roots in this particular story, and one of my personal favorites as well.  Beyond that, apologies, and I’ll try not to do it again.

As long as I’m in a conciliatory mood, I may as well mention something else.  Attentive readers will have noticed that I have not quite delivered on my new year’s resolution to review one short story per week, having allowed myself to get sidetracked by a novel and–more recently–a film.  Since variety is supposed to be the spice of life, I am hereby revising my resolution.  For all of 2013, I promise to review something each week.  On any given week, that something will probably be a short story, but may be something else.  Who knows?  Maybe I’ll even throw in a post that isn’t a review every now and then.  But you will hear from me every week.  That much I promise.  Now that that’s settled, on with the show.

‘The Daughter of the Four of Pentacles’ takes place in the attic of a large yellow house on Benefit Street in Providence, Rhode Island.  The yellow house–a recurring location in a number of Kiernan books and stories–is a real building in Providence that also inspired H.P. Lovecraft’s weird tale ‘The Shunned House.’  In the Kiernan version, the upper floors of the residence are occupied by sliver-eyed vampires, while the basement and associated caverns are the home of the ghul, a race of corpse-eating, wolf-like bipeds that may be werewolves, or possibly aliens.  Both are served by the Children of the Cuckoo, infants stolen from unwary parents and raised by the monsters.

Is that a violin or a tentacle?Pearl is a prisoner in the attic of the house on Benefit Street.  Pearl is still a child, though she has been kept in the attic for seventy-five years.  Time stops, you see, whenever the trap door leading into the attic from the main house is closed, which is most of the time.  We meet Pearl on one of the rare occasions when that door is opened, this time by a boy named Airdrie, a know-it-all Child of the Cuckoo.  Airdrie has been sent to deliver food and toys, but unwisely sets out to explore the attic.

The growing conflict between Pearl and Airdrie is punctuated by several seemingly unrelated vignettes.  One features a Confederate deserter dying of his wounds in the wilderness of Knox County, Tennessee.  Another deals with a man whose shabby apartment is surrounded by an impenetrable fog.  Another is a rather nice science fiction chase scene.  Many of these micro-narratives end in death.  All contain suffering of one kind or another.  All of them hint that these events have occurred before and will occur again.

The meaning of these narratives–and the reason behind Pearl’s imprisonment–becomes clear when Airdrie discovers the prized possessions of Pearl’s father, who is referred to only as The Alchemist.  A circle of curio cabinets deep within the attic holds what looks to be an enormous collection of snow-globes.  Upon closer examination, they turn out to contain the stolen moments described above.  In each of the thousands of spheres trapped people sufferer an endless repetition of the worst hours of their lives–hours of pain and fear that should have ceased–unfolding forever.

This is a very accomplished story, one that can be read and appreciated without any previous experience of either Kiernan or Lovecraft.  As with many of Kiernan’s better tales, ‘The Daughter of the Four of Pentacles’ leaves a melancholy aftertaste, one that can linger for several days.  To me, the story’s most ingenious detail is the fact that creatures we would consider evil have taken it upon themselves to punish The Alchemist by imprisoning Pearl.  It’s a shocking suggestion, the notion that there are some crimes that even monsters won’t countenance, and that they are committed by human beings.

Dave Hurwitz

Film Review: Cosmopolis by David Cronenberg

Posted in Cinema with tags , , , , , , on February 9, 2013 by davehurwitz

Sarah Gadon, prettier than Pattionson?  I say yes.

I approached Cosmopolis with trepidation.  Festival reviews were either ecstatic or scathing, with nothing in the middle.  Though I’ve been a regular Cronenberg viewer since his eerie adaptation of Stephen King’s Dead Zone, the man does have the occasional misfire.  Though 2011’s A Dangerous Method contained some marvelous performances, the film never seemed to gel thematically.  And I’d happily erase Dead Ringers (1988) permanently from my memory.  Given the polarized critical reception and my lack of familiarity with the source novel by Don DeLillo, I honestly didn’t know what to expect.

The Twilight Saga’s Robert Pattinson plays Eric Packer, an aging wunderkind commodities trader, who, at twenty-eight, has already outlived his own legend.  Most of the film’s scenes take place inside a white stretch limousine as Packer travels across Manhattan against heavy traffic, bent on getting a haircut in his old neighborhood.  While NYC street life scrolls past the windows with the remoteness of images beamed from the Mars rover, Packer’s multi-billion dollar empire implodes due to his inability to predict the behavior of the Chinese Yuan.

As the day progresses, Packer engages in a series of increasingly bizarre existentialist dialogs with various people whose roles in his life or business are not always readily apparent.  Is the Juliette Binoche character his mistress, his art dealer, or both?  Is the mop-haired college grad his business partner?  Computer guru?  Understudy?  It’s unclear.  Continuously pushed off course by vague threats relayed via his head of security (Kevin Durand), Packer slowly makes his way through a New York–and an existence–he does not really inhabit.

Too terrible for words!

Would you be this man’s personal assistant?

Though there are two sex scenes in the film, both of which feature a passive Pattinson beneath a female partner, neither carries the erotic charge of what is–for me at least–the film’s weirdest moment.  Summoned from a jog in Central Park on her day off, personal assistant Jane Melman (Emily Hampshire) enters the limo to find Packer in the middle of his daily medical exam.  Dripping sweat and oozing frustration, Melman looks on as Packer doffs his shirt for an EKG, and the rest of his clothes for a prostate exam, complete with rubber glove and lube.  As the scene approaches its climax, Pattinson looms naked over the seated Hampshire, his face displaying an intensity of expression that has been absent up to now, while finch-inducing Foley effects squelch off camera.  As Melman hunches her shoulders and wrings the neck of a water bottle wedged between her thighs, Packer calls her “sloppy, smelly, and wet,” mocks her “puritanical jogging” and suggests that she was “made to be tied to a bed.”  When Melman finally looks up, it’s to ask “why haven’t we talked like this before?”  Horribly, this is as close to real passion as anyone in the film gets.

In another scene, Packer discovers that the funeral procession he has been dodging all day is for the rap star Brutha Fez (voiced and played by the surprisingly mellow K’Naan), a friend and inspiration whose music Packer has piped into his personal elevator.  This unwelcome news arrives, not over Packer’s numerous screens, but in the person of Kosmo Thomas (Grouchy Boy), an enormous, tubby black dude in an oversize team jersey who could not look less like the skinny, suited Pattinson.  Sparks fly when Packer assumes that Brutha Fez was shot, when in fact he died of heart failure.  But the two are soon getting weepy over news footage of the street-side mourners.  The scene ends with world’s most mismatched man-hug.

All this weirdness is compounded by the provocations of the Ratmen–a cadre of anti-capitalists whose protests feel more like performance art–and punctuated by restaurant meals with Elsie Shifrin (the luminous Sarah Gadon), Packer’s aloof, old money wife.  What emerges, finally, is a portrait of a man who has willed himself out of existence. (Pattinson, incidentally, is perfect for this roll, in that he has reached a level of fame such that he is now more of a signifier than a human being.)  In a world where money is made, not by producing goods or providing services, but via a tenuous grasp of obscure branches of psychology and mathematics, not only has wealth become an abstraction, but the wealthy themselves have become something insubstantial, something less than present, specters–as Marx would have it–haunting the world.

While viewing Cosmopolis, and immediately afterword, my primary response was a sort of amused bafflement.  But over the next few days, the film stuck with me, and I began to make connections and unpick themes as certain scenes replayed in my head.  I sympathize with the film’s detractors, especially DeLillo fans, who are in a better position to judge it’s success as an adaptation.  (I remember my own disappointment with 1996’s Crash.)  But I have to judge Cosmopolis a success.  Like a difficult book, Cronenberg’s latest made me work toward understanding, rather than simply entertaining me.  If modern existence is as difficult to navigate as the film suggests, that’s all to the good.

Dave Hurwitz

‘Spinach’ by E.F. Benson

Posted in Book Review with tags , , , , , , on February 2, 2013 by davehurwitz

An man in obvious vascular distress claps his hands to his head. Ow!Despite the image to the right, I’m reading the Carroll & Graff edition of The Collected Ghost Stories of E.F. Benson, which I have called forth from long term storage in the basement of SDPL’s central library downtown.  First published in 1992, this edition is presently out of print.  Clearly E.F. Benson is not a wildly popular reading choice.  Regardless, I’m enjoying Benson’s work a great deal, and anyone who is interested in doing the same is directed to Night Terrors: The Ghost Stories of E.F. Benson, published by Wordsworth Editions in June of last year and still very much available.  If you’re not yet familiar with Wordsworth, they are certainly the best friends any aficionado of gaslight horror ever had.  They publish vintage horror in very affordable trade editions.  For example, at a massive 720 pages containing more than fifty stories, Night Terrors will set you back a mere ten dollars.  I already own their editions of The Casebook of Carnacki the Ghost Finder and The Collected Ghost Stories of M.R. James.  Once my renewals expire, I’ll be throwing down my saw-buck for Night Terrors as well.

Ludovic and Sylvia Byron–formerly Thomas and Caroline Carrot–are highly successful full trance mediums with a wealthy clientele.  At the promptings of Asteria, Ludovic’s spirit guide or ‘control,’ brother and sister agree to take a couple of weeks off from their daily seances.  A wealthy widow, Mrs. Sapson, offers them the use of her cottage near Rye, and the two proceed down to the remote costal village.  Ludovic brings along photographic equipment, eager to add spirit photography to the Byron repertoire.

The Byrons do not get much of a rest.  Almost immediately, they are contacted by the spirit of Thomas Spinach–Young Spinach, as the villagers called him–the recently departed soul of one of the cottage’s former occupants.  Young Spinach is desperate for the Byron’s assistance.  Before his own death, Spinach had murdered his uncle, a heavy drinker who had blackmailed his nephew into becoming his servant and laborer.  Having poisoned the old reprobate, Spinach had secreted the corpse in a temporary hiding place and gone out to dig a grave in the vegetable garden, only to be struck dead himself by lightening.  Thrust into the afterlife, Young Spinach found himself haunted by his uncle’s unburied corpse, the location of which he could not now recall.

As the names of the characters suggest, Benson plays this story for laughs.  The opening paragraphs, which describe the Byron’s spiritualist operation, are quite funny.  The humor comes from the combination of earnest belief and practical huxterism the siblings display, as if they simultaneously believe in their psychic abilities and suspect that it’s all bullshit.  The later half of the story settles this question, of course, but maintains the lightness of tone.

For me at least, this became a problem.  The situation Benson sets up–two mediums searching for a dead body in a remote beach house, goaded to the task by the increasingly agitated ghost of a dead murderer–suggests nerve-grinding tension.  The story as written offers none.  Indeed, the corpse is found soon after this situation is established, leaving no narrative space for nail biting.  While I enjoyed Benson’s prose style and his sly digs at Spiritualism, I could not help but mourn the unexploited possibilities for suspense in this story.  ‘Spinach’ is a fun read, but I’d like to see what happens when Benson decides to really turn the screws.

Dave Hurwitz

For more on the subject of Spiritualism, see Chris Kalidor’s post on Vaginal Ectoplasm and Teleplasmic Third Hands.

Osama by Lavie Tidhar

Posted in Book Review, Cinema with tags , , , , , , on January 26, 2013 by davehurwitz

OsamaI watched Zero Dark Thirty on the big screen about three weeks back, and I haven’t been inside a movie theater since.  While it is undoubtedly director Kathryn Bigelow’s finest work to date–superior even to the Oscar winning Hurt Locker–I found it an extremely uncomfortable and depressing experience.  Watching Maya (Jessica Chastain) slowly change from a reluctant observer of torture into a hardened interrogator is bad enough.  Learning that she–and the real world intelligence community–obtained so little useful information with these methods, that torture saved so few lives….  It’s practically unbearable.  Bigelow shows little mercy to the viewing public.  Squirm-inducing moments pile up like rubble.  The grin of dippy happiness on the face of Jessica (Jennifer Ehle), Maya’s friend and fellow Agency analyst, right before a car bomb rips her apart….  The rant by Maya’s boss (Kyle Chandler) where he states that the the hunt for UBL is a meaningless waste of resources….  By the end of the film, Maya has become a friendless recluse, existing only to persue her obsession, finding and killing Bin Laden.  And when the deed is done, when we, the audience, stare up UBL’s unbreathing nostrils, there is no feeling of victory, only a deadening lack of closure.

At roughly the same time, I began reading Osama, which had just won the World Fantasy Award.  I had just finished with Tidhar’s Bookman Histories, a three novel steampunk / alternate history series which frequently amazed and occasionally confounded me.  The SF&F community seemed to think highly of Osama, so I decided to give it a try.  Though aware that the novel had something to do with UBL, I did not really know what I was letting myself in for.

Osama is the story of Joe, a Chandleresque private detective in the sleepy South East Asain city of Vientaine.  Joe seems content to sit in his favorite marketplace café or chat with his neighbor, an aging bookseller, until a mysterious woman hires him to find Mike Longshott, the author of a controversial series of novels, at any cost.  For you see, Longshott’s books describe the exploits of the fictional ‘vigilante’ Osama Bin Laden.

Zero Dark Thirty PosterAs quickly becomes obvious, Osama takes place in an alternate world, a planet Earth that has never known international terrorism.  But it is also a world without computers, or any of the gadgetry or social changes that followed their invention.  It’s a world with no Red China, possibly no Cold War, and a very different World War Two.  However, the true extent of the differences is never made entirely clear, at least not until late in the story, when Joe reluctantly attends OsamaCon, a small gathering of Longshott enthusiasts in a fleabag hotel.  This particular sequence in the book made me more than a little queasy.  Having been to similar conventions myself, I felt disconcerted to read about obsessives like me pontificating–not about Doctor Who or Richard Stark’s Parker–but about 9/11 or the July 7 bombings in London.

It is this presentation of acts of mass murder as fiction that gives Osama its power.  Excerpts from the works of Mike Longshott appear throughout the novel, short chapters that contain spare descriptions of real world death and mayhem.  As one of the organizers of OsamaCon puts it, “…to read about these horrible things and know they never happened, and when you’re finished you can put the book down and take a deep breath and get on with your life.”  Of course, the reader is not grated this luxury.  For us, that sense of safety is the fiction.

In his search for Longshott, Joe encounters the ‘refugees,’ victims of terror attacks and subsequent retaliatory wars who have been thrust sideways into this brave new world.  In the world of Osama–the ‘Osamaverse’ as the conventioneers put it–these people resemble ghosts, apt to fade away if reminded to forcefully of who they once were.  Once again, I am forced to contemplate a notion I first encountered in Iain Banks’ The Crow Road, that life after death is more terrible to contemplate than simple oblivion.

While Osama has light moments–an American government suit interrogating a refugee expresses concern about ‘Asian Fusion’–it is a heartrending read.  Later pages give us intimate descriptions of real terror attacks from the point of view their deceased victims.  Even the ‘better’ world which Joe occupies is grimy and impoverished.  While I recommend Osama and admire Tidhar’s achievement, it is a book that–like recent history itself–leaves scars on the soul.

Dave Hurwitz

“Mr. Animation and the Wu Zhiang Zombies” by Liz Williams

Posted in Book Review with tags , , , , , on January 18, 2013 by davehurwitz

No glass, but plenty of shadow.  And a cat!As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I like a good supernatural police procedural.  Although I’ve read Liz Williams’ autobiographical Diary of a Witchcraft Shop (co-written with Trevor Jones), I know her work almost exclusively through her Detective Inspector Chen series.  The D.I. Chen books take place in Singapore Three, a fantastical port city where business and high technology exist along side magic and ancient religion.  The walls between worlds are thin in Singapore Three, and Hell–the Chinese version of if–is only a slip away.  While “Mr. Animation and the Wu Zhiang Zombies” takes place in the Chen universe, it features neither Chen himself nor his demonic partner Zhu Irzh.  Indeed, none of the characters from the series are present, unless the nameless narrator is a younger, more reckless version of Exorcist Lao, though I’m probably reaching here.

The Wu Zhiang Zombies are a band specializing in something called Anarchy Hardcore, which I gather from the story is rather like Death Metal.  To promote their new release, “Chainsaw Killa,” the band’s leader, the titular Mr. Animation, decides to conduct a seance between sets at the release party.  All goes according to plan until Mr. Animation is snatched into Hell and the band’s label sues for lost royalties.  Wackiness, as they say, ensues.  “Mr. Animation and the Wu Zhiang Zombies” is told from the point of view of the drummer’s elder, geekier brother, who is more than a little responsible for the unfortunate turn the seance takes.  Though I found this tale amusing, it did not satisfy as much as other Singapore Three stories I have read.  The full glory of the Chinese afterlife and its intricate mythology, one of the main pleasures of the D.I. Chen series, isn’t really on display here.  Still, I look forward to reading the other, largely non-Chen, stories in this collection.

This story appears in the collection Glass of Shadow from NewCon Press, which can be purchased (along with Diary of a Witchcraft Shop, mentioned above) as a very reasonably priced ebook from Smashwords.

Dave Hurwitz