Thursday 28 April 2011

The Whole Wide World (1996)

Robert E Howard was long my least favourite of the Big Three weird writers, as a person. While Lovecraft shared his racism, he was also a reclusive, cat-loving, atheistic ice-cream eater, all qualities I can relate to. Clark Ashton Smith always seemed the most fully-rounded personality of the three and the one with the most liberal, sensible views on life. Howard came across as a racist social misfit who wrote the stories he did as a sort of wish-fulfillment for the life of machismo that he longed for but was born too late to have. I've actually read a bit about his life, including extensive excerpts from Novalyne Price's memoirs, but this movie finally put it all in perspective for me. It doesn't soft-pedal anything except the racism, which is completely side-stepped. Howard is shown as a dreamer, someone whose stories were as much the product of a powerful imagination as they were of a deeply unfulfilled personality. His relationship with his mother is there in all its obsessive dimension, as is his penchant for ungainly macho posturing. Despite all this, we see a sensitive, intelligent man who was driven driven: both by personal demons, demons that eventually triumphed, and by something that conforms more to the classical concept of the genius; a sort of tutelary spirit whispering wondrous yarns into his inner ear. The movie also bypasses the question of poverty - the Howards' finances were a major concern for REH and his depression over delayed payments for his stories contributed in large measure to his depression. Still, this was a wonderful experience and a take on REH that feels right in the context of what I can conclude about the man from his fiction.You don't need to like the authors you read, but I think I have a better, more sympathetic sense of Howard the man today.

Friday 22 April 2011

Presenting a rough cut of a song by my new side-project, Djinn & Miskatonic: Flight Of Sand. The final version will include distortion on the bass (my battery died just before this recording) and vocals! And fewer mistakes!!

Thursday 21 April 2011

Maigret's Pickpocket by Georges Simenon

A reviewer on described this book as comfort food, and noted the civilized way in which Maigret goes about solving his mystery. That makes it seem as if this is something on the lines of an Agatha Christie novel, which strikes me as a very misleading notion. However, it also illuminates a difference between Simenon's Franco-Belgian noir and the American version: there's far less violence in Simenon's Maigret novels. Maigret doesn't go around getting into brawls, ambushes and gunfights the way Marlow or the Continental Op do.

You could almost describe the set-up as a police procedural; except that Maigret's procedure is anything but. He generally approaches a case obliquely, famously drawing no conclusions and forming no theories, almost sleepwalking through routine interrogations and noting each new piece of data from the experts with an almost distracted air. He takes time out for snacks, glasses of beer or wine, little domestic interludes with his wife. His deductions only come in at the very end, once he has completely immersed himself in the mystery to the point of outward stasis. He is informed by a deep, not un-compassionate sense of human frailty and a professional policeman's knowledge of all the twisted, brutal and pathetic forms that frailty can take; it's a sensitive clinician's approach, a description which can be applied to Simenon's own in these novels as well as his non-Maigret works. In the process we are brought face-to-face with some of the darkest currents of human nature, with acts of betrayal and desperation that are more shocking for being uncovered in such a seemingly matter-of-fact way. It isn't a superior approach to that of Chandler/Hammett , but an equally effective one, and one that has more in common with their work than that of those whom I'd generally describe as writers of cozy mysteries.

This novel is no exception; it is superbly constructed, with Maigret's wallet being pick-pocketed on a bus - only to be returned intact with a note requesting him to meet the pickpocket. The fellow turns out to be a young aspiring scriptwriter who lives alone with his wife in a flat. His wife has been dead for a few days, shot in the head. The man insists he is innocent and turns to Maigret for help. What follows is a descent into a specific microcosm - the world of somewhat shifty financiers, wannabe stars and creative hacks of various kinds who exist at the peripheries of the film world, looking out for their big break. Outwardly, Maigret is having a pleasant time of it, sitting and eavesdropping on his suspects in a cozy restaurant with superb food, sharing fine beer with one suspect and so on.

But I am convinced that any reader with a little discernment will notice the darker currents running beneath this calm surface, the little side-lights into the various characters' own individual hells, the tiny acts of betrayal and desperation, calculation and surmise that make up their daily lives, and finally the revelation of the crime itself, domestic certainly, but not cozy by any means. Even more significant than Maigret's identification of the culprit is his insight in the last page - asked if the culprit should face the courts or be treated as a psychiatric case, Maigret suggests the courts - not because he is convinced of the murderer's mental soundness so much as because he knows that that is where the person in question will be able to play out the sort of role they would be most comfortable with. That's a subtle point, one that neither justifies nor condemns but merely displays the stark insight that sets the Maigret novels apart.

Tuesday 12 April 2011

What appeals to me most are not stories of horror but stories of awe -- even if that awe emanates from the dark. Horror writing allows me to explore that dark ineffableness, and try to then convey it to the rational world.
 - Simon Strantzas

my recent forays into the world of trash horror

Spawn by Shaun Hutson

Over the last few years, I have been reading some of the finest horror literature in the world, delving deep into the British ghost story masters James and Le Fanu, the spritualist-horror masterpieces of Machen and Blackwood, the darker American visions of Bierce, Chambers and that dark prince of the macabre, Poe, the early 20th-century efflorescence helmed by talents like Lovecraft, Smith and Howard and of course the current masters of the form such as Ligotti and Campbell as well as emerging giants like Barron and Pugmire.

And now I've read Shaun Hutson.

This isn't the worst thing ever - writers like Richard Laymon and the authors of a hundred disposable splatter paperbacks from the 80s boom were as bad and often worse - but it's not good by any means. The writing is amateurish and in need of editing, the plot is a mish-mash of cliches and poor taste, the characters are cardboard cut-outs and there's no real moment of dark epiphany, just a series of rather lowbrow gross-outs that culminate in the usual predictable twist ending.

For all that, I'm giving this a two-star rating simply because of its honesty - Hutson clearly set out to write exactly the kind of novel that he wound up writing. It's trash, but at least it's honest trash and nothing - the title, the blurb, the cover art or what you can glean by scanning the first few pages in a bookstore - pretends otherwise.

The House Of Doors by Brian Lumley

Lovecraftian robes, MacLeanian heart.

I'd vaguely heard of Lumley and his never-ending Necroscope series as well as his Lovecraftian fiction. What I'd heard of the former didn't exactly have me rushing to check out the latter, but I decided to finally sample something by him and this novel seemed like a good place to start as I wanted something outside of the Necroscope series to start with.

The novel is billed as horror, but really, it's closer to science fiction, and even closer to a plan and simple action thriller. Lumley certainly has a powerful if raw imagination; much of the rest is simply undercooked or half-baked. The appearance of a weird castle in a small Scottish town is certainly a promising set-up, and when we finally enter this strange place some of the imagery Lumley spins is suitably awesome, if couched in somewhat less than deathless prose. But the story begins to bog down with its characters; the hero is somewhat interesting in that he possesses an unusual ability to enter into a sort of empathetic rapport that lets him fathom how anything mechanical works; he is also dying of a fatal disease. Beyond that, however, he remains as much of a cipher as the remaining stock characters; a heavy-handed, arrogant politician, a tough secret agent with bodily and mental scars, a claustrophobic Frenchman, a fanatical occult investigator, a cheap hoodlum, an abusive drunkard and a woman. The woman's role is of course defined by her gender and driven by sexuality; to do otherwise would apparently defeat Lumley's understanding of storytelling.

The protagonist, the somewhat awkwardly named Sith of Thone, quickly turns out not be a truly cosmic threat but the sort of flawed, easily-understood and ultimately defeatable bogeyman of a million alien-invasion scenarios. The strange realms that the humans enter into via the many nestled Houses Of Doors turn out to have more in common with the old game show, The Crystal Maze than with, say, the dream realms of Lovecraft or Clark Ashton Smith's many magical worlds.

Ultimately, this novel doesn't hinge on a sense of horror or on its somewhat stock science fictional tropes; it's a thriller, an adventure yarn of victory against all odds, one that has more in common with the potboilers of Alistair MacLean than anything else. Although leaps of imagination sometimes caught at the edges of the awe mechanism in this reader's mind, the plodding prose, and leaden plot machinations drain those few moments of wonder of their charm and strangeness. It's not a bad entertainment, but it isn't something that needed to have been called a horror novel at all, at heart.

Baal by Robert R. MacCammon

Works well enough on its own terms; jettison expectations of originality and depth and settle for a fast-moving evil-messiah tale with many gore set pieces and a suitably vile villain and you'll be fine. Somewhat superficial research ensured that I caught all the resonances and hints quite early on, as well as a few factual errors here and there. The prose is functional but occasionally aspires to more; sometimes it gets there. Not at all bad for a first novel. But it's more gross and sickening than awe-inspiring; McCammon fails to exploit the full potential of this tale with his emphasis on viscera and profanity.

Can you tell that I'm starting to get tired of this stuff? That last review was really perfunctory.