Names are SO Important. Seriously. Cannot stress it enough.

Before I delve boldly into my review of Gothic!, a lovely little package of creepies and tinglies edited by Deborah Noyes, and featuring such luminaries as Neil Gaimen and Joan Aiken, I would be most obliged if you would indulge me in a small rant. ahem. The category of “Young Adult” is a needless barrier between readers and books. So many wonderful books are published and, often due to the simple fact that they contain a young protagonist, are slapped with the “YA” label and therefore cut off from legions of adult readers (at least those who maintain a sense of shame: I proudly lug whole stacks of library books back to the Ossuary with bright yellow “YA” stamps on their spines). I wonder if it has a similar effect on teen-agers, making them think that what they enjoy is somehow “lesser” than an “adult” book… It’s a complex issue, deserving of its own Tomb Gnome Rant (patent pending), and so I will leave it at the above. Gothic! mentions in its introduction that it is geared specifically for teens, which, however it may affect teen readers, set my teeth on edge and did not put me in a receptive mood.

However, the book itself was a wonderful thing. Following a bit of an old chesnut for short-story reviews, I will give a brief one-line summary of my feelings on each story, instead of trying to review the disparate parts as a whole. And so the reviewing continues:

 “The Lungewater” by Joan Aiken: a nice little gothic tale, with an ending that I found both tragic and utterly reasonable, marred by only one flaw which I shall deal with independantly at the conclusion of this review.

“Morgan Roehmar’s Boys” by Vivian Vande Velde was more of a traditional “horror” story than any of the others, but was also the only story to actually creep me out quite a bit, which is saying something.

“Watch and Wake” by M.T. Anderson uses subtle hints at first, and then more prominent ones, to let us know that his story’s real world and ours are only tangentially related, a technique I admire. This one had a “bang” ending, as did its predecessor, and probably comes in second on the scale of sheer spookiness (though its closing image is going to stick with you for a long time…)

“Forbidden Brides of the Faceless Slaves in the Nameless House of the Night of Dread Desire” by Neil Gaimen: oh, what can one say in the face of Neil Gaimen other than “please, please, please keep writing books, or we may have to use the pokers again.” This spoof, essentially a screwball parody of Gothic literature, is the jewel of the book, proving once again that dying is easy, and comedey is hard.

“The Dead and The Moonstruck” by Caitlin R. Kiernan left me as flat as an unattended egg cream. It was readable, and not terrible, but had nothing in particular to recommend it. A coming-of-age tale with a gothic twist.

“Have No Fear, Crumpot is Here!” by Barry Yourgrau was an amusing foray into horror/parody, but suffers from the fact that it is in the same book as Gaimen’s parody. That isn’t a fair way to judge a short story, but in terms of the book, it was definitely a weak entry.

“Stone Tower” by Janni Lee Simner skillfully combined certain elements of faery stories and Lovecraft to create an extremely tense and disturbing little story, with fascinating (and equally disturbing) psycho-sexual overtones. A lovely thing.

“The Prank” by Gregory Maguire: Though the first-person narrator’s “teen” voice was occassionally a bit forced, it was an interesting story in general, with only two real characters,  both of whom are sufferring from deep guilt: one for a recent act, one for a much older one. How they deal with their problems is more realistic than satisfying, but that only serves to make the story as a whole more resonant.

“Writing on the Wall” by Celia Rees. A haunted house story. Uses one nice effect, alluded to in the title. Other than that, fairly run-of-the-mill.

“Endings” by Garth Nix. Short, poetic, and pleasant, and a suitable closer, if a bit heavy-handed.

In all, this was a wonderful book, a nice collection to foist on any person you know who could use a few moments of creepy dread, accompanied by intermittent chuckling.

On The Imporatnce Of Names: a bonus mini-review. In “The Lungewater,” Joan Aiken (she of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase) has a villain. He is a count from an Eastern European country. Most probably Russia. His name is most likely taken from a mid-twentieth century author of books on Russian pronunciation and grammar; it is not a “created” name. However, in a book, particularly one geared towards teens, it might have been wise not to name a character Boyanus. Say it out loud. Let it roll around in your mind. Boyanus. There are two words there. They shouldn’t be there, but they are, and it detracted a bit from the story. What would have been wrong with Borzakov?

Published in: on September 8, 2007 at 8:37 am  Comments (9)  

The Primal White Jelly. On Toast.

It seems faintly ridiculous to “review” such a well-loved piece of fantastic literature (in both senses) as “At The Mountains of Madness,” so I will restrict myself to a few random reflections on it, as well as a comment on the particular edition I chose to read: the Modern Library’s “Definitive” edition.

As to the edition, it has two optional extras installed; one, an introduction by China Mieville (of Perdido Street Station fame, which you should read if you haven’t), and two, HPL’s essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature.” Both contribute to the value of the book significantly, and Mieville manages to cram quite a bit of interesting and thought-provoking criticism into a few short pages (and excoriating, and to my mind rightly so, those who would attempt to forgive or ignore HPL’s “foul racist drivel”). The essay, of course, is superb, in which HPL outlines, in a sense, his philosophy of what he does, and did better than anyone.

As to the text itself, it is of course magnificent, but suffers a bit (to me) from the fact that I know the tales and the cosmology of Lovecraft Country so well that I lose the sense of shock and cosmic horror that HPL was going for in his work. I feel, instead, almost a sense of comfort, as if Innsmouth or Arkham were hometowns from my beloved childhood, and I often reflect fondly on the fish-faced, hooded, chanting inhabitants. It caused me to reflect that a reader coming to “At The Mountains of madness” for the first time would be well served to if they could read it without context: without title and without author, so that the slow warping from clinical, scientific description to other-worldly horror with the shuddering shock that Lovecraft intended. “Lovecraft” has become a name to conjure with, making it near-impossible for we in these benighted times to read his work with one-tenth the suspense they initially contained.

“At The Mountains of Madness” is particularly notable for its slow build, from scientific certainty to the shatterring of all of our petty human certainties. It is the masterwork of using science to ground what is, in essence, a fantasy, and I couldn’t help but think of the modern cinematic masterwork of the technique (and the best Lovecraftian movie in the last thirty years, setting aside the HPL Historical Society’s brilliant silent movie “The Call of Cthulhu”): Ghostbusters. In one of his director commentaries, Ivan Reitman pointed out that since he knew going in that the movie ended with a ten-story marshmallow man rampaging through New York, he had to establish reality very quickly and with certainty, so that the world would be utterrly believable before he began twisting it to his own supernatural ends. So: scientists, a library, a university, a brush with the other side. Nothing more, but it prepares the viewer for what is to come. He could have been following the blueprint of “At The Mountains of Madness.”

Published in: on September 7, 2007 at 8:49 am  Comments (3)  

The One Whose Soul Has No Price

In an effort to take a quick break from tiny, tiny text that has lead this particular tomb gnome to summon from the depths of the Abyss many a dessicated optician, I decided to strike off into the world of sequential art, and, in keeping with the theme of R.I.P., I thought how far wrong can I go when the very title of the story is “Gothic?”

Batman: Gothic, written by Grant Morrison and illustrated by Klaus Janson, was an incredibly entertaining read. It is a fast read, as comic are intended to be, but it managed to pack in a variety of references to both traditional Gothic fiction, early noir (particularly the unsettling Fritz Lang film “M”), and the very “personal” mythology of Batman, with, as an added extra, a very brief description  of the purposes of Gothic architecture.

This comic, beautifully, if traditionally, illustrated by Janson, isn’t quite a work of art, but it is certainly a highly skilled work of craft, with the dominant theme of arches, darkness, and spirituality brought out in the sharp, angular lines and occassionally surprising coloration.

As for the story, it is a laundry list of Gothic particulars. Debauched monks! Deals with the Devil! Black magic! Elaborate traps! Ghostly apparitions! Soaring cathedrals!  Prophetic dreams! Supernatural horror! It’s a phantasmagoria, with a certain emphasis on the “gore” near the end in a memorable discovery at the cathedral. It is still a brooding, violent Batman tale, with some incidental crime-fighting and a cast that includes a rogue’s gallery of interchangeable central casting mobsters, but the elements beyond that truly put this into a category worth reading: it is a true fusion as the title promises, wholly Gothic and wholly Gotham simultaneously.

A refreshing quote, to close my review, from the lips of a charming young woman we meet over the course of our sequential journey: “God’s not at home. He’s left and he’ll never come back here. The cathedral is God’s rotting refuse. People dig and burrow like maggots…”

With dialogue like that, who can resist?

Published in: on September 6, 2007 at 5:39 pm  Comments (2)  

Shelf 14: Lost Souls, Null Psychics, and Dull Satanists

The Inferno Collection, by Jacqueline Seewald, promised a great deal: set in an unnamed university, where the main character is both a reference librarian and a latent psychic (aren’t all reference librarians psychic, I ask myself?), who struggles to solve the murder of her friend with the assistance of not one but two romantic interests, and is opposed by a rogue’s gallery of academics, Satanists, and both. How could a book with this premise fail to entice, excite, and fascinate?

Quite easily, as it turns out.

I don’t particularly enjoy giving overly negative reviews (if a book is so bad that it need kicking down the stairs, I don’t finish it), so I am going to try to convey exactly how I feel about this book. It was not good, it was not bad, it was not engrossing but it was entertaining, and it held my interest for the full day it took me to read it, even though I closed the book with a wet thump of resounding disappointment. But those are generalities: I will move on to specifics, starting with the negatives.

This is not a “book” mystery. At no point does the collection of manuscripts (an alleged “Inferno” collection; which is a collection of books kept seperate from the main stacks of the library due to their salacious or heretical content: a Victorian concept, primarilly) figure prominently in the story, and when they are finally discovered I, for one, felt let down by their utter mundanity. This is also not a “psychic” mystery: although the protagonist is mentioned as having a “seventh sense,” she never manifests even the slightest psychic ability, and in fact seems to blunder about rather a bit more than a normal person operating only by common sense would. The “psychic” status of the protagonist (Kim Reynolds) seems more like a gimmick to explain her immediate attraction to a “hunk” of a police detective, who also happens to have “psychic” powers (and manifests them in much the same way; which is to say, not at all). And this is not an “occult” mystery: there are vague hints at Satanic practices and so forth, and even a suggestion that, at a certain moment, something actually outside of the realm of “normal” experience occurs, but it is given one line and never referred to again.

The positives of this book, however, are not to be discounted entirely. It is an interesting read, if only for the slow reveal of Kim Reynold’s history and the complex relationship she has with her mother, due to incidents in the past revealed throughout the book. The mystery of Kim’s friend Lorette’s murder is, frankly, slim stuff indeed compared to the depth of family secrets and pasts left untended. Seewald was both a reference librarian and a Creative Writing instructor at the collegiate level, and much of her book is given over to amusing but simplistic characters (caricatures?) through which she pokes quite a bit of fun at academe. (A lecherous professor from England who uses his accent to good effect with undergraduates rang particularly true for me…) Her workman-like prose bears up well: there are few phrases that will remain after the book is closed, but there are also few if any obvious gaffes. The mystery as mystery is also interesting in its way, and actually surprised me when the killer was revealed: a rather obvious set of connections (obvious in retrospect, as they should be in mysteries) failed to point me even vaguely in the right direction. The sting of this is somewhat lessened by the fact that it also failed to lead Kim Reynolds in the right direction, “psychic” powers and all. The mystery is not so much “solved” as “revealed,” and no character can really be called a detective in this story (except in the strict sense of “municipal employment as such”).

So, to sum up The Inferno Collection: is it worth reading? Yes, I think so, as light entertainment, particularly for those of us who have fond or unfond memories of our years up the Ivory Tower. But it is more a collection of missed opportunities than a solid mystery.

(For those of you interested in the kind of world that produces tomb gnomes, I thought it might be interesting to point out that my public library had an inferno collection when I was growing up: all books concerning sex, the occult, and certain other subjects were kept off of the stacks and could not be checked out by children [meaning anyone under 18] without parental consent, and had to be requested by adults. Since this was the 1980s, it gives you some idea of the backward clay that I have had to spin my life with…)

Published in: on September 6, 2007 at 8:48 am  Comments (4)  

The rattle of nails and artillery shells (Baltimore, by Mignola/Golden)

I just completed (indeed, this very morning before leaving the house) Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden’s latest effort, Baltimore, or the Steadfast Tin Soldier and the Vampire. I am a long-time fan of both of these creators, particularly Mignola, whose fantastic and oft-times hilarious (while simultaneously creepy) Hellboy has entertained me for many years. Golden has written quite a bit as well, though I am only familiar with him as the author of a couple of Hellboy novels, and the editor of a couple of short-story collections. It is my understanding that he is big in the Buffy-authoring community, but I never quite “got” the whole Buffynominon.

None of that has anything to do with this book, though. This is an illustrated volume, enhanced with art of Mignola’s spectacular and unsettling artwork. When rendered in black and white, his drawings achieve something of a wood-cut quality, which makes them even more impressive. They are throughout the book, both as text-enhancing decorations and the occassional full-page image, and they add signifigantly to the story’s effect.

 I say story, but in fact Baltimore is essentially a frame story, in which three strangers, related only by their acquaintance with Lord Baltimore, tell tales of supernatural horror. The frame is the story of Lord Baltimore himself, and his experiences during a slightly altered (from our own experience) Great War, and the plague that follows. Each story is in and of itself entertaining, and also serves to create an aura of mounting dread a’la Lovecraft, that all that we know and think we know about the world may very well be wrong. There are (obviously) vampires in the book, but the tales of the three companions seemed to me more unsettling, dealing as they did with less explicable horrors. This is not to say that the story of Lord Baltimore, that ties the book together and gives it its structure, is not both entertaining and creepy. Even Baltimore’s story is a significant divergence in many ways from the “traditional” vampire tale, which is a welcome thing.

Goden and Mignola both think in a highly visual way, and it is evident here: there are several moments, several visual vignettes of text, that will stay with me long after the remainder of the book has rotted away to a gray paste at the back of my brain. Really, if you are looking for a tale of supernatural suspense that leans more towards the unsettling than the gory (though don’t be mistaken: there is the occassional flash of crimson), you probably couldn’t do a lot better from modern authors than Baltimore, or the Steadfast Tin Soldier and the Vampire. (for those of you interested in such things, “The Steadfast Tin Soldier” is a rather depressing little tale by Hans Christian Andersen, that weaves its way throughout the book in interesting parallel paths) 

Published in: on September 5, 2007 at 8:50 am  Comments (5)