Every time I try to write Lucius, my fingers turn it into lucious. It seems apt for his writing which, when on form, was lucious and strange. I was shocked to hear of his death as I’ve been reading The Dragon Griaule (Gollancz, 2013).
Simon Ings’ Wolves is an unsettling read: playing with form and expectation. It is an almost sociopathic novel that perhaps affirms the motion of life. It echoes the Harrisonian hatred of the ennui of life yet does not quite go as far as imploding to see what will happen. Instead we are caught up in the characters’ own version of imploding with equal disregard for each other or themselves.
Out of the blue, Conrad is contacted by Michel, his childhood friend and invited out to see him. Initially believing that it is just a way of being shown Michel’s new partner, Conrad goes and finds a forward momentum that has eluded him. He leaves his partner and begins working for an augmented reality start up.
In between these gaps, memories of childhood sneak through and begin to work their way out as a noir crime narrative. Conrad found his mother dead in the back of his father’s car in the midst of one of her trips to a nearby protest camp where it sounds like she is also being mistreated. Conrad fixates on the albino whom his father, a maker of prosthetic vision equipment, has helped.
As part of the start up, echoing his father’s footsteps, he comes into contact with the man, Bryon Vaux, again as an investor in the company. Mis-understanding the capacity for cruelty and humiliation, Conrad confronts him and finds that he was wrong and that he is also not as self-destructive. Michel, meanwhile, continues his apparently successful life ignoring the hollowness within and falls into his own madness and visions. Aware that Conrad is the father of his child, a short lived liaison after a party that featured destruction, he gives into his own obsessions as if he is enacting Vathek’s pursuit of selfish hedonistic destruction.
So what are the wolves? The nipping of history on their shared and very separate histories? Conrad, eventually faces himself, his destiny and begins seeing the world. Whilst his companions work on altering the surface of the world, he questions its narrative. It does remind me not only of M John Harrison but also William Gibson’s close questioning of the world. The technology here is superficial but it raises the questions of vision.
Through the novel, vision is impeded and altered. Conrad’s father uses echo location to help give a semblance of vision to blinded personnel and he becomes a sales person for augmented reality company. Selling dreams to be made into a version of reality, the product that he sells overlays a personalised version of the world into contact lenses, looking at ways of fooling the head further. It is a less extreme version of the obsession that Michel falls into: an all consuming love for the Fall in its many forms. Hedonistically falling for his own lie, Michel finally falls headlong into the collapse that comes after a life of pride, an echo of the other light bringer. He never seems to have come to terms with himself or how own mistakes in the same way that Conrad must do.
So perhaps the novel is somehow able to move through its own psychopathology and misdirections and find motion. It does not offer a quick and happy truth. Instead it works to question how we think we view the world and how to question the story it wants to tell us and that we wish to overlay onto it. Some while ago in a review of Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, the critic Gary Wolfe asked if such a beast as realistic Sf exists. He argued that it did with that particular novel and Wolves certainly joins and proves that this beast does exist. There is no future gazing or extrapolation yet asks fierce questions about versions of the world, and demands answers.
Wolves is a book that plays with our expectations of genre and merrily destroys them in a thoroughly pissed off manner. Like a judgement on the genre, he finds it lacking the critical gaze that it needs and looks at different ways of telling his story. Abstract, horrific, and passionate, this is not a novel to be missed.
The Cemetery Girl: The Pretenders (Jo Fletcher Books) is a collaboration between Christopher Golden and Charlaine Harris, with illustrations by Don Kramer. A mix of crime and the supernatural, this is the first volume in a new series. Whilst it does appear to plough a furrowed field, there are some nice touches to the book with its characterisation and cast list.
After being thrown unceremoniously thrown into a cemetery, a woman must begin to build her identity from the little she knows. Deciding to play dead, she begins to fashion an identity for herself through borrowing items, from coats to names. Calling herself Calexa, she fashions a makeshift place to stay in a mausoleum and forays into the non cemetery world. Her ‘accident’ has left her with the ability to commune with the dead, giving her a foot on both worlds. A Charon of justice.
Removing someone’s name and memory is a fairly regular concept. However Golden and Harris seems to use it as a way of introducing Calexa, taken from a grave, to the reader and to play with our conceptions of the character whilst also seeing what she can get away with rather than to destroy her. Using the elderly and the caretakers, the authors move her from being morally dubious to part of a community where the needs are bartered to some extent. She, and her growing community, are social ghosts, seen but forgotten to society, seemingly held to a place by a sense of unknown purpose.
In contrast the teenagers’ clique who do not seem to understand themselves, perhaps the jocks of this world, seem unable to grasp their own moral or ethical roots. Using magic as an outlet to their social madness, their lives seem driven by media representations of the world rather than an actual understanding of their actions or that there are consequences to them. What does appear is the need for trust for the community to work, rather than using the desperate for an unknown goal. The authors briefly muse on the empty ritual actions with the apparent absence of faith in an afterlife, as if the cosmos is one large façade.
Calexa appears to begin building trust in herself and the new found society. From this she begins on her own journey to renewal and rebirth. I am sure that more clues will appear in future books but for now Lucinda will need to keep scanning the papers. Harris and Golden leave the reader curious, with some fragments to go on, and a way forward with the right visual tone set up by the artists.
Exciting disgust, offensive; odious
Its derivation could be seen as ‘a human, signifying “inhuman”’, from the Latin ab plus human. It seems appropriate for a book that approaches the notion of Weird from a very human angle.
Dan Simmons’ The Abominable explores how the search for the uncanny, the push towards the extreme, might make us either human or monsters. This novel moves from between being metaphysical to entirely physical wrapped in unreliable frame story, presented in another unreliable frame story. Using a reported diary from one of the participants, the novel becomes limited to the report of one participant of the climb. It might position this book in the same way that Henry James does with the unreliability of the narrator in the Turn of the Screw: using the technique to put the book in the cusp of traditions whilst also making the reader uncertain of anything being true.
It moves from a nineteenth century style of terror, one that uses landscape as an integral technique; is in awe of the sense of place, to a twentieth century terror that is more afraid of the human. The influence of Romanticism, the heightened emotions created by the landscape around the actors, gives way to the heightened emotions caused by the human. Using the early twentieth century Western exploration of Everest as the backdrop, Simmons moves from physical extremes to geographical ones. Everest was the final conquests and there were questions whether it had been climbed by Mallory. Richard Deacon finds funds from the Bromley family to discover the fate of their son, or retrieve his body. Having already chosen his climbing companions, the Deacon, travels around the UK and Europe to discover the variations on the tale.
At the same time, he uses the rise of Fascism and the claim that Hitler took gay, sometimes under age, lovers to create very human tale of horror. Using the insinuations, the Great Game is brought to the Himalaya, the political safety valve is brought to the literary one. The climb becomes a pre-cursor of the conflict to come. The idealists become the monsters whereas it is only those on the edge of the system who are able to subvert it.
Underneath all is the conspiracy. The Great Game was, in part, an expression of a cold war in to which unwitting participants are drawn. Our narrator is deeply unimpressed about being caught up in the spy business. In this respect, I found myself reminded of Tim Power’s Declare, where Ararat becomes the locus of the action and the Cold War is made real. The Abominable declares the intelligence war but then does not deliver on it. It does something similar with the question of Orientalism and the fizzing resentment of the colonial rule but it is not really resolved. We are asked to understand the resentment and view the way that some colonists involved themselves in the culture to be part of it but not to conquer it, as an escape from their own lives and cultures, but the issue is a little sidetracked.
Although he draws in the mysteries of the mountain, the Yeti and the questions regarding Mallory’s success and location of his body, Simmons wisely tries not to answer them. Although he hints at an alternative history, Simmons seems more interested in the journey, the climbing towards the unknown or the uncanny. Those who force the answer are doomed to fail. Although he moves into the twentieth century tale of terror and explores the variations, he seems to come back to the idea that terror is a shifting target, ever changing and somehow unclimbed. Touching the idea of the abominable, he seems content with the concept that whatever excites disgust or is offensive is an ever shifting target. In this case, The Abominable is akin to the location of Mallory’s body: we can see it but are never sure whether it reached the summit or not.
Christmas comes but once a year and it seems like a good time to send a shiver down one’s spine. The Guardian and its Sunday sister paper, the Observer, have joined in with the BBC in giving us some ghost stories.
The pieces have a way of making the reader very uneasy in a strange sense, even if they are not overtly horrific. The unease is probably a personal thing, everyone will find something slightly different for each reading.
This morning’s Observer has a short story by Penelope Lively called “Stairs“. Currently in the news not only for her new book, Ammonites and Leaping Fish: A Life in Time, but also Hermione Lee’s acclaimed biography of her, Lively’s story has a domesticity that revolves on something quite empty.
Yesterday they published short stories by Ned Beaumont, Jeanette Winterson and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The one that really got me was Winterson’s story, a more traditional one of an old house and forgotten crime that came back to haunt the present. Beaumont’s story, centring on a piece of art that haunted its creators, was technically very good but it felt cold; as if it is an exercise. I felt the same about his novel, The Teleportation Accident as well. Looking back on it, the Adiche story didn’t really leave much impression on me but that is probably more my taste or experience than her writing.
The page is blank. The colour and lines have leached away like a printer running out of ink, despite the black frames. Characters wander across it, conversing, whilst aware of the fact. Curiously this is not the end or the beginning but the middle.
The world no longer exists, merged and un-merged. In the beginning the page is full as the writers and artists plotted and created.
Fables 134 is the culmination of the Little Blue Boy arc and the renewal of the Bigby Wolf one. It is a coda that interacts with the Unwritten issue 54, the dark cross over narrative between the universes.
Bigby’s voice narrates the first part of the comics, stating “I’m in Heaven. The forest is vast, endless, and incandescent with life”. Chasing a variety of strange objects, he muses on him regarding the need to be tested and to test himself but cannot face the larger mythical beasts. At the beginning of the Fables run, the Wolf ruled with an iron thumb but has gradually become domesticated and sidelined until Fables: Wolves of the Heartland, where he began to get his mojo and purpose back. Even his moral purpose. Meanwhile, he has been largely absent from the storyline where Dare and his daughter went to the land of the lost and broken toys.
Time for a Reckoning.
Boy Blue comments “I thought I’d find you here” and confirms that he is “very much dead”. Just like Bigby, who was killed in a fight.
The forest, or wood between the worlds if we follow William Morris or CS Lewis’s example, is a place of waiting. We stand in limbo and are made aware of this fact with the conversation moving on between creation and un-creation, life and death, and heaven and hell. It is a rare space of real conversation, where assumptions cannot be applied. Blue’s role is to remind Bigby of what he is as well as where he is. The wolf is able to change the rules as a god and also an agent of change.
Blue’s conversation about the cult of Boy Blue that has started is clearly a comment on the return of the King myth. Rather than seeing the potential return of the king in battle, like Arthur or Charlemagne, who will return in the hour of need, Blue decides that no-one can get, or perhaps even deserves, a problem free life. The refusal of the king is an echo of Arthur’s acknowledgement of Will in Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising as he floats past on the barge. The hope for a saviour, or the resurrection to come, is denied time and belief.
This is made more concrete in The Unwritten issue 54, itself the culmination of the coming together of the Fables and Unwritten worlds. Boy Blue appears with the Witching cloak and sword, apparently undefeatable, though only because he is held together by his “master’s will… The ash is only to fill out space between his thoughts” (The Unwritten 54, DC Comics, Vertigo, December 2013). The fake Boy Blue is aware of his nature and is invulnerable to attack until both Tommy Taylor and Bigby appear in the universe. This issue of the Unwritten appears to be the singularity point of both universes: that they are powered by the nature of story. Bill Willingham has perhaps been here with the Literals but this gets to the heart of the current Vertigo universe; that it is about story. Matt Sturges’s run on House of Mystery explored the same world but not in the same depth as Willingham and Mike Carey/Peter Milligan.
Whilst he and Blue talk, he suddenly realises that the world has disappeared around him, apart from the boxes around them. Blue has moved them to a place where he can move on and Bigby will get his second visitor; his son, Dare. Echoing the cat’s comments in Neil Gaiman’s Coraline about the edge of the house being the boundary of the other mother’s imagination or the notion of ghost’s not being trapped in a limited world, Willingham seems to try to use it to go beyond. The whiteness is not a gap but a chance for a rewrite. Perhaps it is a more honest way of rebooting a universe ad imagining its end.
Carey and Milligan do this with the reference to Child Harold blowing his horn. The horn signals the current end of the story with the whiteness and references to the meta-narrative. A voice, whom we assume to be Taylor, comments “I can and will spit out this gospel. This unbearable truth. That we are such things as fables are made of , and live until our tale’s no longer told”. (The Unwritten, issue 54). It echoes Prospero’s speech in the Tempest where he continues musing on the way that artifice of the theatre and this speech muses on the artifice of the universe that Taylor and his crew are in.
Both issues make the reader uncomfortable in that they give themselves agency and awareness. Bigby becomes aware of his roles as father and monster, destroying the dark version of Snow White and his children by admitting his monstrous side on his explosive return to the Unwritten universe and perhaps the Fables one. Tommy Taylor needs to return to his own universe and continue the search for the meta-narrative. This moment appears to have been the realisation of their haeccity, their ‘thisness’. It takes a reckoning on both sides to see this and realise what they are so that they can continue.
The continuation text box in The Unwritten suggests that there is a break in the series whilst Fables 135 will come back to the Camelot storyline. It might be time to return to the Literals crossover story line and reflect on how these talk to each other.
Update: Comic Book Resources has the news about the relaunch of the Unwritten in January.
Eve Coffin is the daughter of an wealthy, established old family in New England. She is also the latest in a line of witches. After a catastrophic evening, leaving one friend insane and another missing, she leaves the family home and money and makes her own way in the world. Forced to return after being shot, she has to face the darkness in the forest.
There are elements, such as the punk look, the old family and so on that are hackneyed. Kittredge takes the elements and gives them a very human element. Eve looks like she is going to become an interesting character, torn between the needs of having her own life but also the responsibilities of what and who she is. As a teenager, the world is fissile given the possible choices.
It does, to be fair, have a touch of the Weird with the darkness in the woods but it apears to have the potential for echoing an early Poppy Brite (now Billy Martin) in starting as a pop culture lite but turning into something more substantial.
Inaki Miranda‘s art, last seen by me in the wonderful Lauren Beukes’ Fairest run (issues 8-13), completes the story and really accentuates the writing.
Worth watching out for or getting them as they come out.
She has posted the back story to creating Coffin Hill on her blog.
What would you do if you could swap identity? How would your past ever catch up with you? Christopher Ransom‘s new novel The Orphan muses on these whilst musing on the root of some horror being teen hubris and actions.
Darren is a successful entrepreneur, seemingly with everything: a happy family and a BMX collection to die for. When a box fresh Cinelli bike appears one evening, he assumes that it is a gift. His daughter starts getting strange texts about an orphan who is coming home. Just as Adam is getting concerned about her boyfriend. Meanwhile a series or ritualistic murders take place, leaving the town in some fear and disarray.
The strange kid, Adam, is coming back as are the stories of his family.
Darren begins reminiscing about his own teen life, the BMXing and Adam, the outsider with the wrong bike. He remembers that Adam had saved for a Cinelli, only for him never to get it. The Faustian pact that he takes is a slightly far fetched one but comes from an unlikely source with teen bravado not thinking about any form of consequence.
Ransom sets up a psychological narrative in which we see the childhood as a time of torment and horror. Clearly not a subscriber to the cult of childhood innocence, he takes and almost Jesuit line about the childhood shaping the person. Rumour and myth become the drivers of the horror, manifesting themselves as real in the reckoning in the school. The loss of identity is keenly felt by the men, particularly Adam, who is determined to retain his own version.
The author develops a sense of unease in the book as he thins his world and our expectations as readers. Drawing from the idea that hastily made choices inevitably have consequences that not every one could realise, he comes back to the notion of the individual responsibility and parental trust. He develops a sense of unease and choice for the true nature of the world, hidden from each actor and variously glimpsed.
The reader is introduced to the driver of the horror, the sister, but we never really find out much about her other than her destructive dive. Her sexuality almost condemns her and we never find out why she is as extreme as she is, disturbingly. The tone of her inner narrative suggests that she is kept in some sort of repressed childhood, an adolescence never quite contended with or accepted and has become unremittingly evil. Oddly I find this slightly more disturbing than her acts.
The Orphan is a solid novel centred on the Faustian pact of choice. Ransom develops the atmosphere whilst the stories come together and the world, temporarily, becomes while before being necessarily fractured in a new way. The world can only be glimpsed before it must change and hide itself away again, in that way horror demands.