Saturday 26 December 2009

Having previously read the Clark Ashton Smith volume in the Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks series, Emperor Of Dreams, I've finally started collecting the 5-volume edition of his complete fantasy tales from Night Shade. Volume One, The End Of The Story, arrived the day before Christmas, in a rather rare display of brilliant timing by postal and courier services of various nations.

What a treat this book is. From the gorgeous, wonderfully appropriate cover art, which incorporates a portrait of the author in a weird setting to the story notes, which include pertinent excerpts from Smith's letters, at least one memorable fan letter and Lovecraft's always sympathetic and sometimes downright gushing letters regarding many of these tales to the stories themselves - presented apparently in painstakingly restored texts that undo the various excisions made in earlier publications, this is a remarkable tribute to the man who, word for word, was the finest stylist in his field, matched only by Jack Vance and (at times) Fritz Leiber, in my opinion. Even the introduction by Ramsey Campbell is perceptive and even useful in picking out the high points in the development of Smith's craft, rather than being a mere encomium as sometimes happens in such cases.

It's interesting seeing the progression of his works from pure dream-visions and nightmare-fables to attempts at more conventional fare (such as 'The Phantoms Of The Fire', which reminded me of Bierce) and the gradual maturing of his vision into a mode that could deliver a more sustained narrative while keeping imagery and language at the delirium-inducing fever pitch that defines Smith's prose at its finest. It's also interesting to see certain recurring themes emerge, as happens in any single-author short story collection. In this case, a theme of lost love seems to find its way into more than one story, complementing the subtle but effective dark eroticism that Smith was perhaps unique for among the Weird Tales writers.

I am already more than halfway through this volume and my book-buying priority for the next few months is going to be the acquisition of the remaining volumes in this set.

Friday 11 December 2009

The Beast With Five Fingers is a rather indiscriminate collection for a 'Mystery & Supernatural' imprint, with only a third of the tales qualifying as horror (several of which are psychological rather than supernatural) and only one real mystery tale. The remainder consists of droll little vignettes of human nature, quasi-moralistic slices of life and so forth. These are not without interest, but they are generally very slight.

Of the horror tales (or rather, the tales of unease - horror is generally too equivocal a term to use here) the title tale is something of an anomaly, being both the most famous and the most atypical tale by WF Harvey. It's an unsubtle sort of affair, in its key concept, and subtly chilling concepts are a keynote of Harvey's more effective tales. These include the superb The Dabblers, a tale which contains its own critique in the form of a cynical listener dismissing the narrator's tale, and then overcomes the critique with a chilling little coda. August Heat is another very effective and uncanny tale. These are both frequently anthologised stories, as is the title story. A few stories that barely offer more than the cliched ghost story of the Victorian/Edwardian era have been included, as have several variations on recurring themes, where everyone concerned would have been better served by only including only the very best example of the type.

There are nevertheless several good tales here, and one wishes the editor has seen fit instead to assemble a slimmer but more effective volume of about 12 to 15 short stories.

Wednesday 2 December 2009

stray thoughts while re-reading The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen: 1

A forum I post at is having a sort of Alan Moore Book Club discussion, starting with LOEG. Here are my comments about the first few pages of this fine graphic narrative:

'The British Empire has always had difficulty distinguishing its monsters and its heroes,' says Campion Bond right at the outset of this series (or words very like), and Moore proceeds to explore the heroic ideals of an era (of several eras once you come to the appendices to Volume 2 or the timeframe of Volume 3) and humanise the heroes and monsters of English imaginative literature of the last few centuries.

The opening chapters of Volume 1 are very interesting in the way they introduce different members of the League. The very first member we meet is Mina, whom we do not at once identify as Mina Murray from Dracula. She simply seems like a young woman, a rather slight young woman and an odd choice for this role, despite a certain icy strength to her demeanor. A woman who has no powers of her own (unlike the vampiric femme fatale of the film version), it seems Mina has been chosen for a role of power unusual for a woman in her times because she may be the only somewhat biddable person at hand who has past experience in dealing with monsters - whether they truly be heroes or not. As we shall see, the Empire and in particular Bond and M (names that should be ringing bells by now) have vastly underestimated how biddable this woman can be.

The attention to detail in this series is incredible and seen right from the first page, from Bond's cigarette case with its harlequin motif and the incomplete construction they are standing on with its dedication plaque.

Next, we encounter the archetypal British adventure-story hero but in a deeply untypical context - he is a broken man, an opium addict who forswears all allegiance to the Crown. Yet, he is drawn in by the heat of the moment as Mina is imperilled and he rises to her defense. She claims she could handle herself, but the fact is that no true adventure hero can resist a damsel-in-distress. It is interesting to note that Moore's portrayal of Quatermain is no mere postmodern subversion - the character of this other Alan is given a depth and maturity over the course of the series that both re-affirms many of the English values of valour and fortitude the character stood for, along with the self-sufficient stoicism Haggard gave him while enlarging the character beyond stereotypes that may have attached to him in the eyes of those whose main knowledge of the character was a high-school reading of King Solomon's Mines. Moore treats his original respectfully, I think, enlarging the tradition rather than simply upending it or appropriating it for his own use. This is a key factor in producing successful pastiche that goes beyond mere pastiche to become a vital addition to the narrative it draws from.

The next member recruited runs counter to the typical 'British adventure-story hero' stereotype of the day, being an Asiatic submariner from a French novel. Nemo's role and character in the first two volumes of this series is of a great complexity and significance, allowing Moore to work in some comment on the British Empire from an outside perspective - but I shall stop short on this point for fear of being accused, as elsewhere in these fora, of indulging in anti-Imperialist diatribes.

Monday 30 November 2009

It's incredible how much variety the contemporary horror genre contains. Here are recent single-author collections I've been reading, all as different from each other as can be:

Twentieth-Century Ghosts by Joe Hill: Matheson/Bradbury style tales of unease, boyhood and sentiment, with one notable exception. The sort of horror that is humanist, psychologically-driven rather than alienated and driven by visions of darkness and fits well into a subset of a largely mainstream literary diet.

Mr. Gaunt and other uneasy encounters by John Langan: Strong character studies, a collection that ranges from nods to antiquarian and pulp horror to strongly contemporary and original ideas.

The Imago Sequence
by Laird Barron: Dense, sometimes overwhelming prose achieves strategic vagueness through a rich patina of detail. Visions of cosmic horror overwhelming quotidian reality and residing within it at the same time; tough, capable protagonists who wind up falling prey.

Sesqua Valley and other haunts by WH Pugmire: Lovecraftian fiction written from the inside; as from the perspective of those weird Whateleys or the fishy folk at Innsmouth or rather their equivalents in Pugmire's own creation, Sesqua Valley. Poetic, sensual, somewhat decadent, stresses the aesthetics of the weird.

It's an intriguing study in variety, and while I'm more drawn to the Barron and Pugmire collections, they all have their points of merit.

Of course the horror shelves in Indian bookstores are still dominated by Stephen King and Dean Koontz, which may go some way to explaining why there isn't much of a home-grown English-language horror genre.

notes from a hack

I've revised the prison/spider story and the Bangalore ghost story and am rather happy with the new versions. My friend Ravi says that the new version of the latter may be the most effective thing I've done yet and I'm inclined to agree.

The interesting thing I find is that most of the excisions tend to be in the opening passages of a story; much of what is removed seem to be notes to myself about character, setting and theme; well-written enough that I tend to want to keep them in, but damaging to the story in many ways. I'm coming to terms with the notion of being something of a minimalist to be a better storyteller; keeping my cards close to my chest and not divulging all I know to the reader.

I've further revised the zombie story, and most of the things I removed were encapsulated exposition and worldbuilding. That story, my poor red-headed stepchild, the one with the cleft palate and the clubfoot and the incredible talent that no one has recognised yet...I still haven't found the key to making it what it should be. It's all there, the lines that don't quite converge, the thing that waits, humming, on the other side of shadow. But there's some magical ingredient that I haven't found yet.

The problem I'm having with another story I'm working on is that the protagonist, as I have portrayed him so far, fails to come into focus. He has his sorrows, but by making him the narrator, I've had to downplay all this - he's not the sort to expound on his feelings. Either I find a way to make this work, or I rewrite from third person so that his alienation is clearer.

Monday 23 November 2009

I read Jealousy by Alain Robbe-Grillet yesterday. R-G, like several people in the previous century, decided that a particular art form had reached a dead-end of endless refinement of a limited pool of techniques, and attempted to find a new approach.

The art form in this case was the novel. A sort of anti-Zola, R-G's approach seems to have been to eschew all pretense at psychological verisimilitude, focusing instead on the surface of things. In the case of the novel at hand, it results in a narrative that is largely given over to the obsessive detailing of appearances - famously counting the number of banana trees in each row in a plantation, several times over. Great importance is given to appearances, and the same set of incidents are returned to time and again, without the transitions being clearly marked. There are only two significant on-stage characters, although various hints make it clear that there is a third person participating in most of these scenes, a character who is carefully elided from the narrative.

The elision is a way of drawing our attention to that character - it increasingly seems as if the narrative may be his own train of thought, obsessively running over the events of a few days and the evidence they may hold that the elided character's wife is having an affair. The constant enumeration of minute details of the surroundings might be an obsessed man's way of proving to himself that he is still capable of objective thought, or a nervous tic to prevent himself from dwelling on his wild surmises.

It's an interesting technique, one with fascinating possibilities, but put to the service of a rather prosaic plot, one that would not have been out of place in a Zola novel. Philip K. Dick did similar things while weaving together plots that had something genuinely new and interesting in them. In the end 'Jealousy' simply posits a different, somewhat indirect and diffused way of portraying the psyche of characters in a fictional narrative. However, this novel is not convincing proof that such a brute-force technique, amassing surface detail on the basis that some of these details will tell their own story, can convey the complexities of a genuinely engaging plot.

Also completed over the weekend:

The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club: Dorothy L. Sayers. Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries are a rare treat - a sort of mix of the wit of Wodehouse and the crafty plotting of Christie.

The Real Life Of Sebastian Knight: Vladimir Nabokov. This was Nabokov's first major work in English; his facility with the language is astounding. He was achieving feats of verbal virtuosity only ever equaled by Anthony Burgess, right from the get-go. The story is brilliant and complex, a sort of oblique paean to an exile's sense of loss as a man tries to piece together a definitive biography of his late half-brother, the novelist Sebastian Knight. Yes, it prefigures Pale Fire, but it's a brilliant novel in its own right.

Sunday 15 November 2009


Joyce Carol Oates is the Lon Chaney of literature - the writer of a 1,000 voices. She chilled me with the sociopathic journalising of ZOMBIE, delighted with the purposely pompous, sometimes Gothic narrative of THE MYSTERIES OF WINTERTHUN and in Maddie Wirtz, professional stargazer and former girl-gang member, she has again created a unique voice to tell a powerful and hard-hitting tale. The girls of FOXFIRE are teenagers from the wrong side of the tracks who band together to try and be self-reliant, strong, independent of male support and attention - ambitions that are particularly out of step in the 50s blue-collar community they are trying to escape. Their leader, the idealistic, fierce, uncompromising 'Legs' Sadovsky is an unforgettable character, a naive, knowing, charismatic person trying to set things right and be herself in world that has no patience for either righting or true selves. In the end though, it's Maddie's voice that carries the story, brilliantly captured sideways eloquence of someone who is intelligent, has lived through things that have marked her with a certain wisdom but also with a certain otherness, who has lost the love of her life but lived to tell the tale, is not a practiced writer, but has something to say, which is as important. A remarkable writerly feat, this immersion in a voice so un-writerly, and a remarkable story.

They made it into a movie starring Angelina Jolie. One glance at the film posters burned my eyes out.

Friday 13 November 2009

Let me get one thing out of the way quickly: yes, I am uncomfortable with the casual racism of Sax Rohmer's original Fu Manchu novels. The constant reference to barbaric peoples, savage hoards and so forth do annoy me every time I take pause from breathlessly following a marvelously convoluted plot thread to reflect that he uses these epithets to refer to folks like me. But I'm not able to take it very seriously.

Even so, I'm glad that William Patrick Maynard's addition to the series, THE TERROR OF FU MANCHU, addresses this issue head-on. Maynard does not concede to post-facto sanitisation by winnowing out terms such as 'Chinaman', which the protagonists would naturally have used to describe their Chinese adversaries. However, he does offer a nuanced picture of the 'yellow peril' represented by the Si-Fan and their most dreaded operative, Fu Manchu, showing it as a larger clash between cultures, one in which the West was certainly not an innocent, virtuous victim. Fair enough. A modern-day addition to a franchise that is rightly or wrongly associated with some of the most derogatory depictions of Asians needs to take a stance in these matters, and Maynard strikes an ideal balance.

His book is also much more sexually frank - not explicit - than Rohmer's ever were. This, again, is a change for the better. There was something a little disturbing in the barely-repressed fascinated revulsion with which Rohmer hinted at the lascivious charms of various Asiatic temptresses. Maynard's frank treatment of the sexual angle is a breath of fresh air. It adds depth to the plot at times, and gives him the chance to weave in some rather kinky moments, which can only be to the good in putting together a pulp fiction adventure.

It's also a more philosophical book than I'm aware of the originals being - there's a certain dialogue between reason and faith (or spirituality) running through the book, and this is the aspect that I'm not completely comfortable with for reasons that I'll get to presently.

Now to the plot - it's a suitably labyrinthine creation, as not just the Si-Fan but also an esoteric order called the Brotherhood of the Magi scheme and counter-scheme to get hold of a precious magical artifact. Our old friends, Petrie and Smith deal with multiple murders, an ever-growing list of enemies and a complex mystery that takes them through the seamier side of London, a detour through Paris (where Gaston Max, another Rohmer creation, is encountered) and back. There's a brief nod to the Cthulhu mythos and all sorts of nice little touches (amongst other things, I think Maynard is hinting that Petrie's father is the noted real-world Egyptologist Flinders Petrie, a concept with immense potential for future Fu Manchu adventures). There's a series of cliffhangers, each more deadly than the previous one, and a positive excess of fiendish villains to grapple with. It's complex, convoluted and gripping.

What I'm less pleased with is the resolution, where Maynard seems to be hinting that the hand of god, to put it bluntly, rescues our heroes. Divine intervention is not a concept I want to debate philosophically; to each their own; but it is a somewhat disappointing way to resolve such an exciting plot. In fact, several things are left unresolved here - a fact acknowledged in the coda - which is fair enough in a sense. This is presented as a suppressed memoir of Petrie's, no doubt because of the various loose ends and secrets discussed within. Still, this resolution is of a piece with the philosophical thread that is occasionally alluded to in the novel and while a diabolical manifestation followed by miraculous deliverance is indeed a rather unequivocal way to resolve 'the churchman's dilemma', I'm not sure it's the best fictional device. In this sense, I always appreciated that, while GK Chesterton's Father Brown stories were, on some level, Catholic polemic (as everything that estimable gentleman ever wrote was), they achieve their ends by stripping away mysteries and the superstitious fears surrounding evil to present a rational solution to each mystery and thereby, no doubt, an assertion of the divinely ordered world of daylight and reason.

This caveat aside, I found this to be a most gripping and thrilling novel. Maynard is a plot-spinner in the grand pulp tradition and I look forward to reading further installments of fervid action and adventure from him.

Tuesday 10 November 2009

Complaints continue to reach us from all parts of the country to the effect that Mr. W. HOPE HODGSON's "Carnacki" stories are producing a widespread epidemic of Nervous Prostration! So far from being able to reassure or calm our nervous readers, we are compelled to warn them that "The Whistling Room", which we publish this month, is worse than ever. Our advertising manager had to go to bed for two days after reading the advance sheets; a proof reader has sent in his resignation; and, worst of all, our smartest office boy --- But this is no place to bewail or seek for sympathy. Yet another of those stories will appear in April!

It's hard for us, accustomed as we are to the far more visceral scares of cinematic horror, to relate to the plight of the nervous readers mentioned by the editor of The Idler in this notice included with that magazine's March 1910 issue.

Reading the story in question, however, might make their complaints easier to commiserate with. A premise that seems far from menacing at first - a room that whistles - is turned into a vector for some very weird and horrific images and one of the more gruesome backstories in these stories.

Other highlights of the series are THE SEARCHER OF THE END HOUSE, a story inspired by Hodgson's own stay, with his mother, in a supposedly haunted house, THE HAUNTED JARVEE, a most chilling tale of horror at sea, and the mini-epic of porcine terror, THE HOG.

Carnacki is a mix of detective and industrial-age shaman, cracking quite a few cases of fake hauntings - sometimes alongside very real hauntings as in THE HORSE OF THE INVISIBLE - and at least one case with no supernatural elements, THE FIND, is given a very clever solution, one that Holmes or Dupin would have been proud of. In most of the other stories, he draws on the ancient lore contained in the 'Sigsand manuscript' to construct such cyberpunkish devices to fight supernatural forces as the electric pentacle and a strange device that uses coloured lights to both draw and repel spirits. His devices, and the fiendishness of the horrors he faces were growing from story to story. Had Hodgson's career not been untimely curtailed (he died in the first world war) one senses that this series that would have grown to greater strengths.

Which is not to say they're easy stories to read; Hodgson's prose is passable at best, frequently dense and hard to follow, marred with intrusive conversational turns of phrase (Carnacki is narrating these stories to a group of friends, a framing device that counts for little purpose, it seems, other than to give Carnacki anudiene to whom he can expound a bit on his supernatural theories in the last few stories). His esoteric nomenclature is risible at times ('Saaitii', for instance) and the cod-archaic quotations from the Sigsand manuscript can grate as well.

Despite all this, Hodgson's imagination is truly original and macabre, and if you take the time to read these stories - as I did after an initial discomfort with Hodgson's prose - they have many dark delights to offer the horror fan. Here as a sample is some very effective imagery from THE SEARCHER OF THE END HOUSE:

"From then, until two o'clock, nothing happened; but a little after two, as I found by holding my watch near to the faint glow of the closed lanterns, I had a time of quite extraordinary nervousness; and I bent towards the landlord, and whispered to him that I had a queer feeling that something was about to happen, and to be ready with his lantern; at the same time I reached out towards mine. In the very instant I made this movement, the darkness which filled the passage seemed to become suddenly of a dull violet colour; not, as if a light had been shone; but as if the natural blackness of the night had changed colour. And then, coming through this violet night, through this violet-coloured gloom, came a little naked Child, running. In an extraordinary way, the Child seemed not to be distinct from the surrounding gloom; but almost as if it were a concentration of that extraordinary atmosphere; as if that gloomy colour which had changed the night, came from the child. It seems impossible to make clear to you; but try to understand it.
"The Child went past me, running, with the natural movement of the legs of a chubby human child, but in an absolute and inconceivable silence. It was a very small Child, and must have passed under the table; but I saw the Child through the table, as if it had been only a slightly darker shadow than the coloured gloom. In the same instant, I saw that a fluctuating shimmer of violet light outlined the metal of the gun-barrels and the blade of the sword-bayonet, making them seem like faint shapes of glimmering light, floating unsupported where the table-top should have shown solid.

This site contains the texts of the stories, with the illustrations that accompanied them in the pages of The Idler.

Friday 6 November 2009


This is John Langan's first short story collection (by now he also has a debut novel out). It contains 4 short stories of varying lengths and one previously unpublished novella.

Langan has an excellent prose style and a great grasp of atmosphere and character. However, he often stumbles when it comes to introducing the element of the horrific into his stories. The most effective story here, 'On Skua Island' nods to Henry James' 'The Turn Of The Screw' in its structure, and for the most part Langan's tale, strong on atmosphere, pacing and character, is worthy of its model. The horrific element is presented in a manner reminiscent of that other James, Montague Rhodes, with a wealth of archaeological detail. It's the actual eruption of the numinous into the story that broke with all this subtlety and restraint. Stepping swiftly into Robert E. Howard mode (an association that was immediately suggested to me while reading this story and confirmed in the author's Story Notes), the end of the story plays itself out in a rush of mad action, an uncomfortable shift of gears that still holds up because of the strong narrative voice and sense of place.

The next story, 'Mr. Gaunt', manages that shift a lot less smoothly. Henry James is alluded to more explicitly as the point of view character's dead father, a James scholar, narrates a message from beyond the grave, via a tape recording made shortly before his demise. Again, tone of voice, characterisation and atmosphere are rich and satisfying. Mr. Gaunt was the dead father's brother's butler - a very creepy man who apparently did something very terrible. The dead man has framed this family secret in a sort of fable that he used to tell his son as a cautionary tale. Fragments of this tale are told to us through the story, helping to build a wonderful sense of suspense. This time though, I felt incredulous when all this subtly sustained suspense culminates in a scene from a pulp horror tale, almost laughable in its hokey trappings. The author avers that the real climax of the story is a little further along,and there is a scene of subtle, effective unease a page or two later, but the damage has been done. Langan has failed to learn one of the most important lessons a horror writer can learn from the ghostly tales of both Jameses: a little suggestion and a lot of atmosphere can go a longer way than explicit descriptions, especially since your phobia might be someone else's laughable cliche.

The collection goes further downhill with the next tale, the execrable 'Tutorial', which attempts to parlay a fledgling horror writer's frustration at having his choice of genre mocked and his stylistic choices greeted with an injunction to study Strunk & White. It's nothing more than a temper tantrum at not being loved by everyone, and the typical rapid descent from intriguing suggestion to disappointing explicitness doesn't help this tale any.

By now, I was predisposed to dislike 'Episode Seven', a cliched post-apocalyptic chase sequence with its only notable feature seeming to be an interesting if ultimately pointless formal experiment. However, this story did redeem itself by eventually finding the ultimate source of it's horror not in the ravening, wolflike pack that has somehow taken over the world, or the large purple flowers that are sprouting everywhere (I told you Langan had a fatal fondness for hokey plot elements) but in the focus character's companion, who seems to be becoming something other than human in order to survive. What exactly he is becoming, and whether it is something real, symbolic or just imagined by his traumatised companion is never made clear. I think that ambiguity is why this tale succeeds in the end.

The concluding novella, 'Laocoon, or the singularity' is a somewhat brilliant character study of a man who has failed to fulfill his artistic potential and is watching his family and his life spin out of his control. It is overlaid with a bizarre element that serves to focus and bring out his disintegration, but the end is rather predictable. Langan's incorporation of modern pop cultural elements like comic books and science fiction stories in the last couple of stories make an interesting contrast to the antiquarian tendencies of the first two, but I am not particularly impressed by the manner in which they are handled. They seem to reduce the tales to the sort of referential characterisation you get in web comics or tv shows targeted at hipsters.

In conclusion, a collection that shows more promise than brilliance. The quality of Langan's literary style and his grasp of character and atmosphere make me expect more from him than these tawdry horror-theme-park trappings.

Thursday 5 November 2009

I've been reading the Robert E Howard collection THE HAUNTER OF THE RING AND OTHER TALES, and it's an interesting experience. This is the first time I've read a bunch of his horror stories collected in one place. It is arranged chronologically and I find myself most drawn to the early stories, where REH is toying about with his reincarnation theme and trying on horror archetypes like the vampire tale (transplanted very nicely to America), the werewolf tale, and the purely psychological tale of terror. When he attempts to write a Lovecraftian tale, he is obviously out of his element; he does a game job of it, but REH's mode of plot advancement is very different from HPL's. Some of his best stuff is what people call the Haunted Midwest material, and there are some excellent later stories shorn of Mythos influences, but I feel the damage had been done and the raw energy and wonder (horror is just a darker version of wonder, after all) of the earliest tales is never regained. This collection includes a selection of REH's Steve Harrison tales, which feel out of place being action-mystery stories without supernatural elements. Some of these pile on the violence to an extent that should not be surprising to me, but still feel more like a shortcut to writing a story in a genre REH was not comfortable with than the glorious celebration of barbarianism in the Conan stories (not that I share REH's penchant for primal brutality; but when he wrote in that vein in a Conan or Kull tale it seems of a piece with the character and setting).

Friday 30 October 2009

There's the cool, hip way to do cross-genre - steampunk, sleuths-and-spooks, noir-and-sorcery, elves and F-words. Then there's something like Fred Chappell's slim, harrowing 1968 novel 'Dagon'. It's like a dagger suspended in a void, gleaming in readiness for the longest time before dropping - but where?

It all begins when Peter Leland, a Protestant minister, and his wife Sheila travel to his grandparent's old house in the country, a house Leland has just inherited. In the opening pages of the book, Leland has an oddly disquieting time exploring the house. It conjures up vivid pictures of his Puritan roots:
He could see his male ancestry as grainy and rough as if they had all been hacked from stone. They didn't drink, didn't smoke; they didn't read, and all other books than the great black one were efficient instruments of Sathanas. The only fun they had was what he was living evidence of. -And very probably not. -He could imagine them, his whiskery forefathers, stalking wifeward to beget, stolid, unmoved as men readying themselves to slaughter hogs.

Leland has moved here to spend a holiday pursuing his researches on the cult of the maimed , fishlike fertility god Dagon. In a remarkable sermon that bores his congregation and bemuses his sharp, clever wife (a much-needed foil to his own gloomy passivity) he has unfolded his own picture of the history of this cult, from Biblical times to the early Puritan settlements in America. He claims that the cult of Dagon, the crippled, unreasoning god of dumb unreasoning impulse still lurks in modern America with its sexual freedom and consumerist excess. A reasonable stance for a Puritan preacher take as a metaphor - but it seems that Leland somehow takes his thesis literally.

At his grandparents' estate, Leland meets the Morgans, a family of tenant farmers; a brutish, ugly backwoods clan whose daughter, Mina, nevertheless exerts a strange fascination over him.
It was impossible. That body so stubby and that face so flatly ugly - something undeniably fishlike about it - and still, still it exercised upon him immediately an attraction, the fascination he might have in watching a snake uncoil itself lazily and curl along the ground.

Leland slips into a passive, haunted daze, as if the weight of his family's past has become a crippling burden in this, his first home. He has completely left aside his Dagon research, prying through the old things in this house whose very angles somehow seem wrong, yet compelling. He finds old letters in which strange words in unknown languages - names like Cthulhu and Yogg Sothoth - alternate with what at first seem like the prosaic exchanges of parsimonious Puritans with their crabbed faith. Leland has a traumatic experience in the attic, where he finds chains and manacles, which he manages to trap himself in. As he waits for his wife to find and free him, he has visions - repressed childhood memories? - of seeing his father die, shackled and chained in this very room. He sees visions of Mina:
She had no nose, Mina, any more than a fish. She deeped in oceans of semen.

When his wife finally finds him and helps him free himself, she explodes in rage and tells him that his behaviour is bothering her. This obsession of his with the house is unhealthy - he seems to actively dislike something about the place, yet he can't pull himself away. Leland and Sheila become increasingly alienated, as Leland subsides further into his strange fascinations and Sheila watches, horrified. Finally, Leland resolves to kill her, to sever this link with the life that he has built for himself away from his native place with its weight of dark secrets and strange, obscure obsessions.

What follows is a harrowing descent into squalor, depravity and torture as Leland gives himself totally over into the hands of Mina, the squat, fish-smelling temptress. She leads him into a nightmare world of pain and humiliation, drags him across the countryside to be the sacrificial goat in a bizarre, macabre dance of degradation. Again, Leland sees traces of the hidden American cult of Dagon.
They passed drive-in movies, and the great flat faces of strangers fluttered away in the darkness; they were quickly oppressive, these visions of bright love and violence, a tipsy staggered glimpse of the secret heart of the land.

Chappell chronicles Leland's increasing absorption into a strange mental trap with original and vivid imagery, expressed in subtle, precise language. Here is a dream Leland has:
...he was a spider; no, a daddy longlegs. He scoured in jagged lines over the fields, searching out water with an unerring hunger. His size was proetan; grew monstrously; diminished. On the skin of the great water, when he found it, he would drift in coolness, the big overhanging leaves of the weeping willow would keep away the sunlight. The soft fields were singing softly. In the harsh embittering dream was a peaceful dream, of waters shot with healthy shadows, of the rounded spaces under trees enclosing as with cool arms.But in the heated fields his six-legged body was painful, crazy...

In Indian mysticism, the Aghora initiates follow a paradoxical path to enlightenment. They strip away the chains of maya by revelling in excess, in the fleshy matter of this transient mundane life. Necrophilia to them is not a perversion but a way of learning, in the gut and in the cells, that we are all born to die, and to cleave unto one another is to chain yourself to a corpse when salvation lies elsewhere. It is called the left hand path to god.

Sensing a deep corruption in the American fabric, Leland thinks he has discovered traces of a cult that worships corrupt, old gods. We always profess to hate what we most fear to find in ourselves; the Puritan stance always concealed as much sin and filth as the Victorian veneer. There is a strain of this same striving after mindless, brute impulse in Leland's heritage, expressed in secret visions, perversions and practices. Why would someone have man-sized chains in their attic? In Chappell's narrative, Leland literally and figuratively thrusts himself into these chains, becoming a passive spectator of his own downfall, watching as all the tempations of the flesh - sex, alcohol, even simple animal comfort and warmth - are stripped away from him and his life becomes a routine of suffering. It is as if, like an Aghora, he is seeking to be transfigured through excess. But Chappell seems to suggest that Leland's final goal is not to refute human nature, but to grasp it by rising above it, for a better vantage point. In the final pages of the book, Leland confronts Dagon, the crippled, hideous fertility god - and finds that he can withstand him because Dagon has instinct, but no brain. With his appetites sliced away, Leland's intellect can weather this confrontation, and rise from the sacrifice that follows into a new plane of existence.
He understood suffering now and the purpose of suffering. In an almost totally insentient cosmos only human feeling is interesting or relevant to what the soul searches for...suffering is the most expensive of human emotions, but it is the most intense and precious of them, because suffering most efficiently humanizes the unfeeling universe.

This is a far cry from the hipster frippery of Cthulhu-meets- that clogs the category of things we call Lovecraftian. Indeed, there has been debate about where this is a Lovecraftian novel at all, whether the Mythos elements are merely an extraneous layer that have nothing to do with the heart of this novel. I think this stance mistakes the real content of Lovecraft's stories; he wrote an intensely personal sort of narrative, filled with his own fears and prejudices. Sometimes they are literally expressed, as in The Horror Of Red Hook, which expresses his xenophobia and hatred of New York City. But even the tentacled horrors of the Cthulhu mythos are symbolic of Lovecraft's own deep unease with human nature and his lurking sense of cosmic apathy and menace. Chappell goes to the heart of this technique of figuring personal fear in mythical guise, giving us a narrative that refers to Southern Gothic and to pulp horror, finding the unifying phobias that run through both and playing out a twisted, dark and yet archetypal story. It's a brilliant achievement, a dark compelling novel that shows how genre elements can be appropriated for uses beyond entertaining shallow yet over-informed hipsters.

Thursday 15 October 2009

recently read

THE TANGLED SKEIN by David Stuart Davies. A Holmes meets Dracula novel. Moderately entertaining, but not half as good as it could have been. It helps to play it in your head as a Hammer film with Peter Cushing (in a double role as Holmes and Van Helsing) and Christopher Lee.

THE BIG SLEEP by Raymond Chandler. Very convoluted, very stylish. I was told noir fans tend to be split between Chandler and Hammett. I think I prefer Hammett's terseness, even while I enjoy Chandler's elaborate similes, catchy dialogue and endlessly quotable near-aphorisms. I shall have to wait a while before coming to a definite conclusion about Chandler, however: I've read three novels by Hammett and only one by Chandler.

TWO SERIOUS LADIES by Jane Bowles. Witty, delicately observed, bizarre and more than a little sad. A tale of people driven to live outside the set of possible lives made available to them by their times. Very readable and with a lot of tenderness and humanity beneath its stylish surface, but not quite as sublime as her brilliant, haunting short stories.

MRS. HENDERSON AND OTHER STORIES by Francis Wyndham. A set of short stories, unified by a common narrator, that take us from a British boarding school in the 30s all the way to the post-war era. The tone varies from light reminiscence, tender portraiture, all the way to outright surreal whimsy. Wyndham's language is very precise and not at all given to simile, but with a tendency instead to unique, sideways insights.

Friday 9 October 2009

JOHN SILENCE by Algernon Blackwood

Tales about John Silence, 'physician extraordinary'. Silence is a doctor who has become very wealthy through unspecified means and now only takes up cases of a very special kind. He has spent years learning about the supernatural and developing spiritual powers. He assists people who face some sort of supernatural crisis - the humour writer who loses his sense of humour after a cannabis trip awakens a slumbering spirit in his house, a businessman who returns to the monastic school of his youth to find that the pious brothers harboured a very dark secret, island campers who are plagued by a lycanthrope and so forth.

These stories are very much influenced by the spiritualism of the late Victorian era and as such offer a strange mix of rationalised explanations of the supernatural and a great deal of credulous fascination with hermetic esoterica.

Blackwood's tales are very well structured, building up a vivid, nightmarish vision of horror through his evocative, vivid language. There is always something original and distinctive in the way the horror in his stories is deployed or combated. A wide variety of settings and characters are vividly brought to life and a number of highly effective supernatural premises explored in gripping, satisfying tales. My favourites are ANCIENT SORCERIES, where Silence is only a peripheral figure, and THE NEMESIS OF FIRE, a particularly effective tale that ends with ancient Egyptian evil being confronted in a mouldy underground cavern in the south of England. But they're all worth reading; just be prepared for a tone and pace of reading that belongs to an era that is almost a century past now.
Even if you like someone, a stupid death is still a stupid death, right?

Tuesday 29 September 2009

The Select Book Fair at the Alliance Francaise was quite fantastic. I picked up a lot of good things, genuinely interesting, hard-to-find and not particularly new books, including an obscure yet hilarious novel by RL Stevenson, typically brilliantly-written and ideologically disagreeable essays by GK Chesterton, a nice old complete Lamb, an illustrated shorter Pepys and an illustrated Pantagruel. I've always looked for old collections of ghost stories in Select and never found them. Turns out Mr. Murthy sends them all to Ruskin Bond.

Wednesday 23 September 2009

I make music.
This Sunday, Yasmine and I, along with pal Luke, went for a piano recital by Gilles Vonsattel at the Alliance Francaise. This wasn't one of those shows where you nod off a bit in between the most interesting passages. Vonsattel started strong with 3 Contrapunti by Bach - always an arresting composer to listen to, and followed through with the more lightweight but lively and engaging Bagatelles by Beethoven. Next came the piece I'd been waiting for ever since I read the programme about a week ago: Op. 110, Beethoven's 31st piano sonata, the second of his astounding final trilogy of piano sonatas. An ambitious choice, and Vonsattel betrayed just the slightest bit of apprehension, rushing offstage to fetch a cloth to wipe the keys with before commencing the piece. He needn't have worried; it was a superb performance. As far as I'm concerned I could have gone home then and there and had my money's worth - except of course that the show was free.

The second half of the programme was more impressionistic, beginning with Liszt's Les Jeux d'Eau à la Villa d'Este, a sort of impressonist precursor, evoking the sounds of a rippling fountain. It's the sort of piece that works best as a performance, rather than a recording, and I could see large sections of the audience hanging on each note. The show ended with Gaspard de la nuit by Ravel, another immense technical challenge. Again, I think a piece like this is meant to be experienced live rather than mulled over via recordings, and Vonsattel's performance had the right mix of precision and passion. Here's a video of him playing the Scarbo movement, one of the most devilishly difficult piano pieces around. I don't warm to impressionist music easily; I yawn through recordings of Ravel and Debussy. Vonsattel's performance had me engrossed, weaving pictures in my mind.

As important as his choice of music and his playing ability, Vonsattel is an engaging presenter, setting up each piece with an introduction that is inviting and informative without being either pretentious or condescending. We wound up at Spiga having dinner with Vonsattel and several other people after the show, and he seems like a pleasant, level-headed person. He is interested in modern music, admires the Kronos Quartet and Radiohead. I'd like to see him coming back to India some time with a more contemporary programme. But I'd also like to hear him take a crack at Op. 111.

Tuesday 8 September 2009


A whimsical, witty fable about Sita of the beautiful hips and her two husbands. Mann seems to have had a great deal of fun writing this one, and it shows. He is occasionally funny in THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN and ROYAL HIGHNESS and this novella gives free rein to his humour; a typically Mann-esque ponderous, ironic yet quite effective humour of course. Some of the scenes are truly exquisite, such as the aching adolescent lust evoked when the young men first spy on Sita bathing, the raw horror portrayed when Sridhaman enters the Kali temple, the elaborately satirical depiction of the ascetic in his 'unpeopled void' and more. I believe this was also adapted into an opera, and one can easily see how a book so full of colour, life and emotional drama could translate well to the stage. A minor masterpiece from a major writer.

Monday 7 September 2009


This was his second novel. It presents a microcosm as a symptomatic of larger currents, as in THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN. But the narrative seems less universally relevant and less well formed as a narrative in itself.

Sometime in the early 20th century, before world wars change the face of the world, a southern German principality lurches into moribundity as its finances totter and its decaying monarchy clings on to the ceremonial prerogatives and duties of hereditary rulers. Young Prince Klaus Heinrich takes the reins of power, and his life becomes a sterile, meaningless round of state visits and mugging for the crowds.

Then, Spoelman, an American millionaire of German origin buys one of his family's palaces and moves in. New wealth, and the power it commands are contrasted with Klaus' sovereignty, which has little of wealth or power left, but clings to pomp and ceremony for their own sake. Klaus is drawn to the liberal, enigmatic Imma, Spoelman's daughter. In embracing the new ideas and influences that she brings to his insular way, he may find a way to be reborn.

There are good points: an often sharply funny satire of decaying monarchy. An unforgettable portrait of a cold, loveless royal childhood. Interesting contrasts between old and new ways. Klaus' tutor Uberbein is especially interesting, as a type both for THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN's Naphtha and for the proto-Nazi tendencies explored further in DOKTOR FAUSTUS.

But the last third of the novel suffers from a near-fatal deflation. Klaus' family, his people, his family and even the object of his affection are all in accord with his romantic ambitions; all he has to do is read a few economics text books and show a genuine willingness to learn and care for his people and the deal is done with no loss and little anguish along the way. It just doesn't have dramatic resonance, and this also dulls the symbolic impact the story was meant to have.

Thursday 3 September 2009


An emigre from Sarajevo finds his life in the US a strange mix of promise and failure. He is married to a successful, attractive American woman; he gains a certain amount of fame because he writes a newspaper column about the immigrant life. But he is unemployed, and unable to find the hook that will help him turn his writing to better effect. He becomes fascinated with the story of Lazarus Averbuch, a young Jewish emigre who was shot dead in 1908 by the then-Chief of Police of Chicago, the same city where the narrator lives. Finally, an opportune grant gives the narrator and a photographer friend from Sarajevo the chance to wander about Eastern Europe, following the trail of Lazarus' flight from the Russian pogroms and incidentally finding his way back home to Sarajevo. It should be a voyage of discovery, an attempt to make his mark in literature and to find some sort of parallel to his own life in the story of this young man who fled death and prosecution only to find them waiting for him in the land of the brave.

Instead, the narrator and the narrative, almost perfectly poised at first, begin to run off the rails. We are treated to increasing bouts of ennui as the narrator unravels the story of his uneasy, increasingly doomed marriage and his sense of displacement and loss. At first the narrative in which Lazarus' story is recreated alternates with the present-day narrative in perfect balance. After a while, past and present start to bleed into each other. Eventually, the narrator finds some sort of redemption, but even that is visited with a bitter aftertaste. From being a simplistic analogue to the present-day terrorist scare in the US, the Lazarus narrative take on multiple shades of tragedy and ambiguity, as we see the different strategies immigrants employ to assimilate or at least be left to live in peace.

It's a virtuoso performance, this gradual stripping away of a too-tidy structure. There is no simple parallel between past and present, truth and fiction (this is especially important to bear in mind in light of the parallels between Hemon's life and his narrator's). And yet, they can illuminate in each other in ways that may not seem obvious at first. To confront your identity often results in finding it unravelling before your own eyes; our lives are often built on verities that we take for granted because to examine them would be to expose their frailty. If all this seems to have very little to do with the plight of immigrants or the continuing distrust of swarthy, Eastern-seeming foreigners in the USA, it's because Hemon has written a book that contains its overt themes, but also somehow pushes beyond them to grapple with universal human dilemmas. An impressive, if sometimes uneasy and partly flawed novel.

Wednesday 26 August 2009

they want less words
more meaning
but it should not actually mean anything
or at least not so much
and it needs to say something
and say it differently
they are not quite sure what
and they are not quite sure how
except that this isn't it
and this is not how they would say it
but they never do say
what it is
they must make me say

so i sit here with a head exploding
with things unsaid
It's tiring, being a word processor with a rudimentary artificial intelligence. A part of me begins to hate words themselves, the little brats, and language itself, the sneaky tart.

Friday 21 August 2009

This will sound angsty, but it is hard to work up the motivation to write when the stories I've already written still haven't been published. Specifically, two stories that I'm very pleased with. One is in limbo with a small press who seem interested but take their own time, to say nothing of the fact that I've just learned that the owner has suffered a personal tragedy that may delay all his projects even further. The other one...well I don't even know who to send it too. In India, that is. I can do the rounds of the western weirdness-oriented 'zines again, but arghh. Why is there still no home-grown market for home-grown weirdness? Economy the size of a festering wart on Meatloaf's backside, and we've still got no culture except the crap our ancestors made 70,000 years ago after blowing up Atlantis with an atom bomb.

In other news, I have had another children's story published.

Thursday 20 August 2009

Last evening, around 7, a friend called Yasmine to say he'd seen a dog hit by a car and lying on the road near Safina Plaza. He works as a driver, and could not stop as he had a passenger to drop. Yasmine and I rushed to the spot, where we found that another passer-by had moved the dog to the side of the road, outside the new Krishnaiah Chetty showroom on Main Guard Road (which thousands of people who drive through it everyday seem to know only as 'that road the one between Infantry Road and OPH'). For some reason a BMP van had also pulled over, and there were a couple of traffic cops on the spot as well. They were trying to arrange an ambulance for the dog. The police were talking to someone - perhaps CUPA itself - who would only agree to send an ambulance if someone would give them their address. Not the spot where the dog was, but their own home address. Odd rule, that.

Anyway, Yasmine called CUPA and arranged for their ambulance to come and pick up the dog. It was at Ramamaurthy Nagar (a little beyond Jai Bharath Nagar, a little before Banaswadi, if you're driving down from the former ITC Factory), so we knew we had a long wait ahead of us. The good samaritan who had earlier carried the dog to the side of the road asked if he was needed for anything else. Since there was nothing further he could do, he carried on. It isn't easy to decide stop your car and to pick up a strange dog from the road and carry it to safety in the midst of rush hour traffic. I wish I'd found out who he was, because he was the real hero of the evening.

I brought some water for the dog, a young female with vaguely german shephard-derived markings. Nervous, she tried snapping at my fingers. The BMP guys took over and tried pouring the water on her, which of course freaked her out and made her run away. She was too exhausted and wounded to get far though, and collapsed just around the corner, at the beginning of Bowring Hospital Road. We managed to get the BMP guys to get into their van and scoot. One of the traffic cops stayed with us for a while, pointing out various dogs in the area who were regular police buddies, and telling us about Kariya, a black dog at the Commercial Street traffic police station. Kariya is the pride and joy of that station. This is the second time a policeman from that station has told us proudly of the time he chased a criminal, grabbed him by the seat of his pants and apprehended. Each policeman makes himself Kariya's intrepid human companion in their version of this story. After a while, the policeman left on his rounds.

Time passed. Around 7.45, a teenage boy whose mother and sister were sary or jewellery shopping on Commercial street while he waited in the car with the driver came over to us. He said he'd been watching us looking after the dog for a while and wanted to know what was wrong with the dog. He was quite worried and suggested we call his vet. We told him we'd already organised an ambulance and chatted with him for a while.

The ambulance finally turned up at 8.45, around an hour and a half after we'd sent for it - not a bad response time considering they had to negotiate through the extremely congested Old Madras Road. The attenders, as usual, were needlessly brutal in picking up the dog, and then when it understandably reacted angrily, they started saying it must have rabies. I wanted to hit them with the stupid rod they were using the intimidate the dog with, but Yasmine was able to calm the situation down and they drove off with the dog. We still need to follow up with the vets at CUPA and find out how the dog, but I'm confident she is out of danger now.

And that was how we spent the evening of Yasmine's birthday.

Thursday 6 August 2009

A DEAD MAN IN DEPTFORD by Anthony Burgess

This was, I think, Burgess' last published novel, and a fine one it is, too. Years after his Shakespeare novel, NOTHING LIKE THE SUN, he goes back to the same era to tackle Christopher Marlowe, the wild, wayward brawler and Master of Arts who went one step further than Thomas Kyd in expanding the scope of English drama with his rollercoaster tales of doomed overreachers and his sonorous lines, like bells tolling in a tottering cathedral to a god or gods unknown. Burgess' immersion in the tone, ethos and language of the times is immense; the picture that builds of Marlowe is garnished with portraits of contemporaries famous and obscure, but at no point is Marlowe himself sidelined.

This is a historical novel that builds from the facts; we know that Marlowe was granted his MA only after intervention by the Privy Council. We don't know why exactly they intervened on his behalf. We know that he was on bail after being arrested for blasphemy and forgery at the end of his life; again we know little of the real circumstances leading to the accusation or his conditional release. That he spend a few days in Deptford allegedly carousing with three men, all of whom were connected with Walsingham's secret service is also a matter of public record. It's the hidden whys and wherefores behind these facts that Burgess invents.

And even if the speculation is debatable, the picture he plays of the foul-mouthed, boozing, buggering, tobacco-smoking Kit Marley, or Merlin or Marlowe is convincing. We come to know the author of Tamburlane and Doctor Faustus as a man whose clear-eyed quest for truth and knowledge were out of sync with sectarian politics of his time and whose penchant for free, profane speech and homosexuality didn't help either. A free spirit, in an age where wisdom lay in discretion. Not necessarily an over-reacher himself but one whose age perhaps was too constrained for his spirit.

An excellent novel, then, and a nuanced, satisfying portrait of its subject.

Wednesday 5 August 2009


This is an extremely cheeky political satire that purports to look at the events leading up the death of General Zia, the man who ruled Pakistan from 1977 to 1988, and a great target for satire in any case - he always struck me as what it would be like if Groucho Marx were to do a sketch about a military dictator. It alternates between an omniscient narrative that largely focuses on Zia and his premonitions of doom and various Zia insiders and associates, and the first-person narrative of Ali Shigri, a military cadet whose father, a general in the Intelligence Service, was assassinated, and who in turn seeks to assassinate Zia.

Hanif weaves together a complex chain of events, from the machinations of Shigri as well as members of Zia's cabinet, to the curse of a blind woman imprisoned on death row because she has been raped, the seasonal migrations of an ordinary black crow, crates of mangoes and more. In the process, he paints an irreverent and remarkably thorough picture of the complex Pakistani political landscape in the 80s, a landscape that continues to evolve on the same broad lines and is not lacking in interest to other inhabitants of the subcontinent, although possibly less so to people from other countries, irrespective of their governments' repeated and often misguided experiments in this region. There is a distinct difference in tone between the two threads, with Shigri's narrative being the more racy and cinematic, but at all points there is a deep vein of satire running through it all, and an irreverent spirit that makes me wonder at Hanif's failure to run afoul of fundamentalists. This may not be the Great Novel of modern Pakistan - perhaps it is both too arch and too informed by the thriller genre, and a little sloppily paced (lots of build-up, an over-quick resolution), but in my opinion it's a superb political satire, a witty and engrossing novel and certainly superior to several, more succesful, subcontinental offerings from the same year.

Tuesday 4 August 2009


Now this is more like it.

Peter Ackroyd makes Victor Frankenstein a student at Cambridge, which enables Victor to make the acquaintance of Percy Bysshe Shelley and his various associates, including a certain Mary Godwin, and also lets Ackroyd find a way to shift the bulk of the action to his own home turf, London. There's an interestingly Dickensian overtone at times. Ackroyd's narrative is substantial, but poised, without waste and enriched with excellent secondary characters, real and fictional. The horrors, once they start unfolding, are truly creepy - few things I've read lately are as chilling as the resurrection scene here. The climax or crux of the story is unexpected and satisfying. Certainly one of Ackroyd's better efforts in recent times - I'd even say that he's back in form now, after the post-Milton In America slump.

The Stoner's Library

The stoner, no doubt you've met him, comes in various shades, shapes and sizes, but we shall imagine him as lean, rather shorter than his lean-ness would suggest at first glance, large-eyed, large adam's-appled and given to standing about with a vacant look while clad in crumpled jeans, rockband t-shirt, vaguely militaristic jacket, outdoor boots that belie the fact that the most greenery he sees is just before he smokes it.

He was in a hostel, during college, anything from a year to seven years ago, and it has fried his brains to the extent that he has been unable to form long- or short-term memories since and winds up telling anyone who will listen about those kerrazzy hostel days. He used to listen to rock and metal then, these days it's mostly electro and trance and a smattering of world music. He has a variety of friends whom he greets with hugs and participates in a complex economy of sharing, swiping and cadging Stuff. His most constant companion is not much of a stoner - he's more of a whiskey man - but he hangs out with stoners because they are easy to manipulate. Unlike the stoner, he has no intellectual pretensions, but he likes to borrow books from the stoner's library because they look cool. He never returns them, which is okay because the stoner rarely remembers to read them.

This is the stoner's library:

The Doors Of Perception and Heaven And Hell by Aldous Huxley, because, like, Jim Morrison, y'know?
Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas by Hunter S Thompson, he loved the movie. Depp is so cool!
Naked Lunch by William S Burroughs. He's flipped through it, has vague memories of Venusians and manlove and freeform trippiness. That's so awesome.
Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts, because cheap foreign thugs who become wise are so, like, wise, man.
A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, because the movie was so trippy.
Mr. Nice by Ron Marks, coz dealers are so awesome man
The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test: Tom Wolfe, which he has never been able to read because the prose gives him headaches, but is so cool, it's all about the hippies and LSD and stuff, man
On The Road: Jack Kerouac, he's flipped through it, the bit about the brothel in Mexico kinda turned him on. He wants to hit the road too, one day.
The Lord Of The Rings: JRR Tolkien, which he has never read through, but is really trippy too, loved the movies
Food Of The Gods: Terrence McKenna, most of which he has actually read, and it's fascinating because it's, um, about how mushrooms, like, made us conscious, and that's so real man.
The Teachings Of Don Juan: Carlos Castaneda, which he mostly doesn't understand, but there's some trippy stuff there.
The Third Eye: T. Lobsang Rampa, which is again really trippy
The Occult: Colin Wilson, which is like, whoa, man. Really trippy and really awesome to flip through when stoned
PiHKAL: Shulgin & Shulgin, which he likes to daydream about
Chaos: James Gleick, he hasn't gotten beyond the fractal-art cover, but, man, chaos is so scientific, now where are my papers?
Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance: Robert M Pirsig, is um, bikes and ... zen. Very deep!
Helter Skelter: Vincent Bugliosi, about how some hippies were into some really bad shit, but man, what a dude, that Manson...
The Godfather: Mario Puzo, which is the only book in the lot he has read from cover to cover, one day on a train journey. It was easy to follow because he has seen the movie.

Monday 27 July 2009

Brian Aldiss has a mother complex.

There's no other way to explain his novel FRANKENSTEIN UNBOUND. In it, Joe Bodenland, a man from the 21st century slips back in time to the 19th century; specifically, to Switzerland, where he first meets Victor Frankenstein and his monster and then, after another displacement, Mary Shelley and her illustrious companions. He becomes obsessed with thwarting first Frankenstein, and then his monsters.

There's some good stuff along the way. Aldiss' portraits of Percy Shelley and Lord Byron are colourful and convincing. The narrator's various meditations on the scientific quest to learn more and improve on nature are occasionally though-provoking, raising interesting questions about, for instance, whether rationality has really done more for human dignity than religion, even when the points they make are debatable (did religion really protect the basic dignity of every human being more than reason-based capitalism? It seems unlikely). Aldiss' depiction of the monster and its mate (yes, Frankenstein Makes Woman in this pastiche) are pretty good, too.

But there's little sense to it all. The narrator is obsessed with destroying the monster and his mate, even though they seem to deserve it little enough. Bodenland himself becomes a bit of a monster in his murderous quest. There are one too many time-slips, and nothing is really explained or tied up.

Most egregious of all, the narrator sleeps with Mary Shelley, for little reason other than that he is there, and he makes her happy by telling her that he is a time traveller who can vouch for the eventual success of her novel. It seems highly out of character from what I've read of Mary Shelley, who was no libertine, and certainly the fact that the narrator is presented as an old man, a grandfather, at the end of his career, makes the liaison that much stranger. I think Aldiss just wanted to fantasise about making love to Mary Shelley, whom he has often described as the mother of his genre, and to hell with sense or plot coherence. Having written this bit of slash fic, he then built a fairly shoddy structure around it, and then, being of a thoughtful bent of mind, fleshed it out a bit with philosophical ramblings.

The end result is less than a novel, not quite an essay. An alogether vexatious and disappointing exercise. Aldiss is one of the more interesting and original literary SF writers, and one with a keen engagement with the genre's nature and history. I expected much more from his take on what he holds to be one of the first, if not the first, SF novel.
I am convinced in my self-sufficiency, and that of those around me. I read about different techniques of thought or systems of belief, introspection, change, and I encounter people who are fascinated by them, by new ideas and new syntheses, and it all strikes me as an elaborate way of deferring the inevitable. You can spend your life chasing transhumanism, the singularity, nirvana, moksha, righteousness, the rapture, some new exciting convergence of human, cyber and's a fun ploy, but all it does is take up time. We're already self-sufficient, and nothing really changes all that much. An intelligent individual from any period in history could be transferred to any other and, with a few years of training and re-orientation, fit right in. Or not - but so many people from our own time period fail miserably to fit right in. I think by this time, you mostly know what it is you need to know by the time you're an adult, and it's a question of applying it. But people are addicted to searching aren't they? Our myths and religions prime us for it, for looking at life as a quest, a struggle, a search. It can be, for specific new things - a continent over the horizon, a cure for cholera, a new way to paint the sunset, the right words for what you've decided to say. But searching for yourself, or disguising the search for yourself in some other search? It strikes me as silly. How can you search for something with the very thing you're searching for? No, we are already sufficient unto ourselves and it's just a question of realising that and working with it.
3 Days To Never: Tim Powers

I hope that the trade vagaries that resulted in his latest novel being reasonably well distributed in India (this is the first of his novels I have bought here first-hand and within a year of publication - that I then waited an additional two years to read it is another matter) continue to hold good for Tim Powers' future novels. They're just that good. While his earlier novels are more diverse, he's been focusing on fast-paced thrillers that take some chunk of recorded recent history, re-interpret it in the light of wild occult theories and Powers' own unique approach to practical magic and result in what people call 'secret histories'. All this would be so much dry arcana without Powers' knack for creating flawed, credible and appealing characters and his gift for vivid, relentless narrative and tight plotting.

'3 Days To Never' is based on the concept that the nuclear bomb was not Einstein's most horrific brainchild; that he had delved into kabbalic esoterica and developed a device or technique that could, at different levels of application, allow you to erase an individual from the world's history, to travel through time, and at the highest level, to be mentally aware of all time and space at once; to be like a god. Einstein hid these secrets well. Rival secret societies - an obscure branch of the Mossad and a group of European occultists - are on the lookout for them.

When Frank Marrity and his daughter travel to Frank's grandmother's house in response to a very strange phone call in which the grandmother claims to have burned down a ramshackle old outhouse, they discover a long-lost paving slab with Charlie Chaplin's hand and footprints on it, a box of letters written by Albert Einstein and catch a glimpse of gold buried beneath the floorboards of the shed, which is still intact. Grandmother, however, is not - she was mysteriously found dying quite far from home minutes after she must have made the call to Frank.

Frank and his daughter soon find themselves in the midst of a vastly complicated game of spy vs. spy, as each side tries to get information out of them. The plot is complex - really too complex to keep track of at times. But Powers' narration, always grounded in his main characters' experience and impressions is what kept me locked in for the duration. As did the cast of variously noble, cantankerous, tragic or downright twisted characters - Powers has a particularly good line in villains, as usual. As in any time travel novel, there is at least one time-travelling character present. I won't reveal the time-traveller's identity, but it has startling consequences for one of the main characters, and makes at least part of the novel about who we are, who we might become, and how the choices we make, along with an element of pure chance, could some day make us unrecognisable to ourselves.

There was much more I wanted to touch on about this novel - the use of quotations from 'The Tempest' that make the story sometimes seem to parallel Shakespeare's play and add so much resonance to it all, the business with Charlie Chaplin, the supremely creepy Baphomet head, several other characters, but that would result in one of those reviews that wind up being a needlessly detailed plot-summary with a few appreciative gurgles tacked on. Instead, I'll end by saying that concepts like 'slipstream' tend to be bandied - and practiced - as if they were esoteric, ultra-hip and difficult disciplines. It takes a master like Powers to use the idea of melding together disparate genres to create gripping entertainment with both head and heart.

Wednesday 22 July 2009

Tibor Fischer is clearly one of those virtuoso writers the UK produces every so often, like Martin Amis or Will Self, or at least that's the mode in which he writes his third novel, THE COLLECTOR COLLECTOR. The premise is fantastic, and brilliant, really - an ancient sentient pot that has been through the hands of all sorts of people over the milennia is the narrator. So, the mainline story - of the psychic antique assessor, Rosa, her troublesome houseguest, the corrupt Nikki, a freebooting sexual adventurer whose past keeps trying to catch up with her (a sort of nod to Amis' Nicola Six? Could be...) and her quest for True Love - is interspersed with tales from the pot's past. These are a collection of unfailingly fascinating, inventive fables - I'd have been best pleased had Fischer minimised the framing narrative and simply given us Tales Of A Pot, like Calvino's Invisible Cities. However, the Rosa narrative is told with the same verbal brio as the pot's potted fables, so everything's readable, even if the endless relationship-talk between Rosa, Nikki and occasionally Rosa's pal Lettuce occasionally reads like a Candace Bushnell outtake. After indulging in some cynical posturing along the way (the pot has never seen good vs. evil in its extensive knowledge of and cataloguing of human experience, but it has seen much of evil vs. evil, or evil vs. evil vs. evil and so on), there's a sudden burst of happy coincidence that leaves Rosa in the arms of her dream guy, an ending about which I can only comment that, well, the book had to end at some point, and an upper is as good as a downer, I guess. The best parts of the book are the potted tales, of course, with the present-day narrative working as a sort of Amis-lite pastiche, as edible as the real thing if not quite as nutritious.

Tuesday 7 July 2009

Unexpected fucking consequences will bite you in the ass every time.

Last year, we took in a stray pup. It was the rainy season and she seemed helpless and lost. As time went by, she became part of our household.

Earlier this year, we took in a neighbour's abandoned pup. Again, she seemed helpless and we told ourselves it was only until we found a new home for her.

Today, in the afternoon, we heard a cat screaming on the terrace.

I ran up to find that the two strays had pinned our grey tabby, Happy, down. The stray we took in last year had his neck in her jaws and was shaking him vigorously.

We chased the dogs away and tried to make Happy comfortable, but he died within the hour.

I'd been worried about the way the dogs were chasing our cats - in play, I suppose, but who gives a fuck about that, now - for a while. This was the final straw. I asked Yasmine to call the CUPA shelter and arrange for the dogs to be taken away. The van came for them an hour back.

Now we're boarding them there until we can find new homes for them. I suppose we owe them that much. But that's it. No more fucking dogs in the house. I don't give a shit how appealing or helpless they seem. This was my worst fucking birthday ever, and believe me, that's saying something. I'm not willing to deal with a repeat of it.

In the meantime, Happy, the fierce little cat who was first found in a dustbin, always ready to fight with cats twice his size, but always purry and loving with humans, could well have been left there in that dustbin to rot for all the good being rescued did him. He died cold, wet, frightened and in pain, brutalised by a pair of dogs and, worse yet, betrayed by the humans who were supposed to be keeping him safe.

I am sorry, Happy. I am so fucking sorry. I know your pain is over now, and that's the only thing that gives me any sense of relief in this fucked up situation.

Monday 6 July 2009

The City And The City by China Mieville

I really like China Mieville's New Crobuzon novels, but I'm well pleased with diverse bibliography he's building up - three secondary-world fantasies, a work of urban fantasy, a fantasy novel for teenagers, a collection of mostly horrific short stories, and now this.

THE CITY AND THE CITY (what a great name for a novel - I'd love to commission a whole gaggle of authors to write books with that name) is a detective novel, set in a city where reality is oddly skewed. It follows Detective Inspector Tyador Borlu's investigation into the death of an unknown female murder victim. Borlu lives in an East European city called Besz; a city that co-exists in mutual avoidance with another East European city, called Ul Qoma.

Parts of the cities are total - either completely Besz or Ul Qoma. Others are crosshatched. Still others are disputed. The inhabitants of the cities go to great lengths to unsee each other and each other's cities - if they cross over by any means other than the single official channel available, they are in breach, and will be dealt summary justice by a mysterious third-party organisation known simply as Breach.

At some point in the past the two cities either diverged or converged; no one is really sure, least of all the North American archaeologists who work the digs in Ul Qoma, fertile with odd, anachronistic artifacts, barren of explanations. The dead woman turns out to have been one of these, a brilliant but maverick scholar who at one point gave credence to a madcap theory that a third city, Orciny, somehow exists in the interstices of the two cities. The theory is discredited, even by the man who first came up with it, but soon he, and another young researcher who has been showing interest in Orciny, come under threat.

Along the way, we're treated to a fascinating exploration of the political and personal dynamics of living in this sundered city - a journey that in many ways is reminiscent of living in any city in a world riven with conflicts and self-imposed divides, but taken to the next degree.

Borlu's investigation lead him into murky areas, and the several layers of deception are stripped away to arrive at the solution. The resolution is much less fantastic than I'd hoped - quite sordid in fact, which says something about the fact that Mieville doesn't expect commerce, politics and morality to interact in any more salubrious a way than in our world, no matter what reality conditions prevail.

I personally expected a bit more than this self-contained, and as a mystery novel, complete narrative. We never really get to know more about why the city and the city co-exist in this strange way, whether the sundering is somehow real or only an elaborate cultural norm, an extreme stratification of the way in which people of different cultures or classes ignore each other in the streets of any city you'd care to sample. Certainly, outsiders, animals and young children seem to have considerable trouble keeping the two cities separate. I'm inclined to think that the whole thing is symbolic, it's in the mind, but why? Besz sounds vaguely Slavic; Ul Qoma has Turkish overtones - is this a multicultural city that has taken segregation to a metaphysical extreme? Or have two physical cities somehow, fantastically, come to overlap in the same time and place?

Perhaps it's better that Mieville didn't resolve these questions - a complete reveal can often be no more than a cheap pay-off when the author was more interested in raising questions and sparking unease than in answering questions and placating readers with a made-up resolution. That would certainly be consistent with Mieville's past mode of operation. It may well be that this novel will rise in my estimation with further consideration. As it stands, I would have to say that it is indeed very good, but somehow didn't quite satisfy me.

Friday 3 July 2009

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

A much better novel than Neverwhere, Anansi Boys or Stardust. Quite dark, fantastic and gripping, with a male protagonist who for once is not completely nondescript, although he still tends to be overshadowed by his supporting cast. A very tightly engineered plot too, although some of the credit goes to Kipling, whose Jungle Books this story is partly patterned after.

The dark stuff gets going with a brutal multiple murder in chapter one - awesome way to start a juvenile novel, Mr. Gaiman - and just gets better with a delicious visit to a funereal world where ghouls feast on what it is that ghouls feast on and night gaunts circle overhead. It put me in mind of scenes from Lovecraft's 'The Dream Quest Of Unknown Kadath'. There are lots of other great set-pieces, including a memorable danse macabre, dreamwalking and knock-out final confrontation with the villainous Jacks-Of-All-Trades. The villains, as usual, are exquisitely wicked and genuinely creepy and the roster of supporting characters parallels Kipling's while being memorable in its own right.

Definitely one of his most satisfying long-format works. May even be as good as Coraline.

Wednesday 1 July 2009

Unemployment is my long-term goal.
I should have a new short story for children out sometime soon.

I've almost completed another story I have been working on. I've been torn between two endings and have suddenly had the clever idea of putting them both in. Let's see...

The Time-Traveller's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

I only read this one because it was there, on a shelf at home, and my wife made carefully non-committal statements about it.

It was as bad as I'd feared it would be when I first heard about it.

Momentarily fascinating, fleetingly promising and then thuddingly, ploddingly tedious is this story of Henry, the impossibly cool and versatile librarian, punk rock enthusiast, son of a famous dead opera singing mother and alcoholic second violin father. In other words, one of those annoying hipster Hornby-eque protags, except that he is chronologically displaced, he has a genetic quirk that makes his suddenly leap back or forth in time at times of great stress, or just in general for no real reason. It's also the story of Clare, impossibly beautiful and talented paper-making artist who meets Henry at various points in her life from the ages of 8 and 18 as he keeps travelling back in time to convince her that they are to marry. Finally, they meet in their own shared time line and marry.

There are moments when it seems interesting - mostly when Henry is meeting his own younger selves and they talk about the meaning of it all, whither freewill & c. But once the love story takes over, it is like every terrible romantic movie ever made rolled into one. There's the awkward Xmas with the wealthy parents of the girl. I thought I was reading a novelisation of Meet The Parents when Clare's white bread family finds out Henry is half Jewish. There's the broken old father finding new hope in life thanks to his wonderful new daughter in law. The cool friends. They go to a Violent Femmes concert and dance and Clare confronts Henry's ex to jump-cuts of lyric scraps. Their struggle to have a child against all the odds. Clare's nightmares after losing her mother, after her miscarriages. Henry's nightmares of his penis falling off after he loses his feet in a terrible accident. Has Audrey Niffenegger never met a cliche she didn't love?

This is one of those books that is so absorbed in giving the main characters complex personas and biogs that it forgets to give them souls. I couldn't care for or relate to a man who is supposed to have lived before marriage in a flat that was mostly just a sofa, a bed and 4000 books, just like I used to. That's quite an achievement on the author's part and a mark of how little her characters came to life in a manner that made sense given all the attributes she attached to them. Her characters are so nondescript under all the minutiae that one can barely distinguish between Henry and Clare's first-person narratives, which keep alternating throughout the novel. Note to Niffenegger: If you can't pull off different narrative voices just write in in third-person omniscient next time, okay?

Most of all, the story becomes creepier the more you think about it. How do we even know that Henry and Clare would ever have married if Henry hadn't brainwashed her into loving him throughout her childhood and adolescence? He makes Humbert Humbert seem like Mother Teresa once you accept the possibility that he has simply obsessed over a woman he once met, time-travelled to her past and manipulated her into becoming his wife. Go back and re-read this book with this scenario in mind. It makes incredible amounts of sense. A supremely unsavoury narrative of predation and mind-rape hidden in what people including the author seem to imagine is a love story. Better yet, don't even bother reading it the first time.

To my extreme relief, my wife later told me that she didn't like the book at all, but wanted me to draw my own conclusions. She's probably considerably more of a sadist than I realised at first, but at least neither of us is a time-traveller.

To sum up: Borges once said there is no need to write 500-page novels whose core idea can be summed up in a few minutes. How one wishes Niffenegger had heard and heeded his words.

Sunday 28 June 2009

The Spider's Web: Joseph Roth
A dark, vivid little novel that follows the fortunes of an ambitious young man involving himself in right-wing maneuverings during the Weimar Republic. Not especially intelligent, but brutal enough to be effective in times when brutality was in the ascendant. He is, of course being manipulated by everyone, including a Jewish double- or more- agent who stands out as the most remarkable character in this book: sly, patient, cynical but with a hidden fervour.

Rings Of Saturn: WG Sebald
Sebald rambles along on a walking tour and riffles through history and literature to find patterns in the broken remnants of the past. His sympathies are with the dispossessed, the marginalised, the quixotic, his erudition is sweeping and by the end of the book I had a clearer picture of the complex ways in which culture and exploitation co-exist in an uncomfortable alliance most of us prefer to ignore.

The Moth Diaries: Rachel Klein
Disturbing if the supernatural elements were true; perhaps even more so if they weren't. Adolescence, the female variety - as told by a girl who is far more intelligent and disturbed than a dormitory full of Holdens. I loved the subtle commentary on the ways in which people engage with books that are interspersed through the book. It's worth re-reading some of the things referred to here to see how Klein cleverly draws on everything from J Sheridan Le Fanu and Robert Chambers to Proust and Nietzche to add resonance to her characters and her story. It should ideally be read by precocious teenagers who will want to read everything that is read by the characters in this book, especially the narrator.

The Invention Of Morel: Adolfo Bioy Casares
Somewhere on the intersection of Italo Calvino and Philip K Dick (as comparisons, not influences - I have no idea if Casares ever read either author). A fugitive thinks dark, Malthusian thoughts and hides out on a deserted island, which soon turns out to be all too crowded. Who are these strange people? Along the way, thoughts on sentience, artificial intelligence, machines as aids to memory and immortality, the possibility of editing in new elements into an old recording and more. Brilliant. I want more

Love: Angela Carter
As morbid and gothic as they come, this early novel (her first, I think) is about two somewhat damaged brothers and the very unstable woman who falls into their orbit. It's a full-blown tragedy and melodrama given a sheen of exoticism by Carter's eye for the bizarre and instinct for making unlikely characters seem somehow believable. I give it full points because it is a gripping read at a concise length, wonderfully written, sometimes to excess, and, without the afterword added in the 80s, incredibly dark and haunting.

The Book Of Lost Things: John Connolly

This book hooked me early with its concept of imaginary tales coming real, and kept trying to shake me off along the way with uneven writing and a Campbellian journey of self-discovery. I hate those damned Campbellian journeys of self-discovery. Sounds great on paper, then what do you get in practice? Star bloody Wars, that's what.

I especially dislike stories where a sojourn in a fantastic realm gives the protagonist 'life lessons' that help normalise them back into their lives in the mundane realm. Travellers returned from other worlds should be like Gulliver, sadder and wiser in some ways, outright eccentric in others, their perceptions changed and deranged from the norm in ways that seem reasonable to them and demented to the mundies. Otherwise, why posit a fantastic realm at all? May as well take a stroll down the street and learn about life's ways, like Gauthama and his Three Great Sights.

But a lot of Connolly's fairy tale twists and retellings are rather cool. There are some very grim doings, just a little humour (not quite enough, and all concentrated in just a couple of chapters in the first half) and sometimes, Connolly forgets that he is writing this book in this awkward style that is part fairy tale, part juvenile fantasy and part thriller, and churns out passages of absorbing action or haunting darkness. There are also a lot of extremely predictable outcomes, but again Connolly surprised me with the bittersweet ending, almost totally redeeming many of the book's drawbacks in the last few pages.

It's about as good as any of Neil Gaiman's novels about misfits discovering parallel worlds in which they are people of great significance. Phrase for phrase, Gaiman is the better wordsmith, but Connolly has put together a story that sparkles with just as much raw imagination and human insight.

After Nature by W.G. Sebald

The thing with blank verse is that you can mentally string it back into prose and it often reads equally well either way.

The thing with Sebald's prose is that it always seemed poetic to me, in a forlorn, elegiac way.

The thing here, in the three blank-verse poem/essays that constitute 'After Nature' is the music imposed by the line-breaks, the halting rhythms that emerge, the occasional breaks from the controlled if gloomy, peripatetic Sebaldian tone into something more abstract and fraught.

The first and second poems are closer to versified approximations of typical Sebald material - essays on Matthias Grunewald (which made me take a new look at Grunewald's works, not particular favourites of mine in the past apart from the cool monsters), botanist Georg Steller, they use biographical facts as a peg on which to hang reflections on our ongoing assault on nature and one another. The last, autobiographical, piece, delves into Sebald's own life and family history to reflect on the burden of history and ends with an inspired segue into a vision of Alexander the Great contemplating the continent of Africa - a prelude and overture to so much of the colonial history Sebald so often looks back on and deplores in his other works, and in that sense an effective prelude to themes and concerns that were later explored again in his prose.

Excellent stuff. A book I shall have to read again several times to fully grasp.