Tuesday, September 22, 2015

'It' (1940) by Theodore Sturgeon

My review of Jeff VanderMeer's Annihilation is still cooking, but in the meantime I just wanted to drop a note about this story by Sturgeon.  I'm doing some research on 'muck-monsters' for a forthcoming essay.  This is the line of horror fiction creatures that tend to semi-spontaneously arise from environs naturally composed of slime, goop, mold, debris, mud, loam and the like and in a pseudo-humanoid form, usually based on the human corpse such environs have absorbed and grotesquely reanimated.  The transformation takes place by many means, from scientific to supernatural to inexplicable.  Some of the heirs of this sub-genre are the famous Swamp Thing from DC comics and the slightly lesser known Man-Thing from Marvel comics.  But it all started with the story 'It' by Theodore Sturgeon. His seminal muck-monster is of the inexplicable variety and very effectively evoked.

The main reason I wanted to stop here and mention the story is that it is excellent.  I read it over a decade ago in an anthology and it was instantly a favourite.  But sometimes favourite stories lose some of their shine on a re-read, especially if many years lay between.  Sturgeon's story only shined greater.  I was pleasantly surprised at just how lovely the prose was, a wonderful evocation of a region and of the atmosphere of a particular kind of dreadful, cruel horror, all the more effective for its bucolic setting and likable, rustic characters.  If, like me, you've been wondering if it's as good as you remember, it is.  I highly recommend revisiting it.  It's a genuine modern classic of horror, much-anthologised (apparently some 60 times) for good reason.

(Spoiler in what follows.)

'It' has interesting potential intersections with my ecomonstrous readings of Cormac McCarthy and R. A. Lafferty.  The monster in this tale possibly evinces a meaningless cosmic horror, seemingly irrepressible, reminiscent of some of McCarthy's major themes.  Yet it is a persistent, bubbling brook that laughs the monster into nothing at the end of the story, reminiscent of Lafferty's 'cosmic laughter' theme.  Still, the family struck by this monstrosity is marked terribly and do not seem to wake from the nightmare, making the tale very downbeat overall.  It's a pretty bleak iteration of the environment 'speaking' to us, forcing us to reassess the place of the human in the non-human.  But there's some potential light folded into it too.

The ongoing industry of muck-monsters that eventually grew out of this fecund little masterpiece could be seen as the working out of the cosmic-personal themes Sturgeon's imagination initiated. The essay I'm working on explores Lafferty's take on muck-monstrosity and his repeated symbology of swamps, which I was surprised to find recurs fairly regularly in his work.

At any rate, Theodore Sturgeon's 'It' would very likely make it into my personal Top 100 list of classic horror stories.

(From the Marvel comics 1970s adaptation of Sturgeon's 'It')

Friday, September 4, 2015

Revival (2014) by Stephen King

Rating: 2.5/5 stars

What to say about this novel?  It was fun to finally get a chance to read something really recent from King.  And don't be misled by my 2.5 rating.  This is not a bad book, just not necessarily a great one. It was not a waste of time, especially if you want to work your way through the entirety of King's fiction like I'm trying to do.  It has important thematic elements that you wouldn't want to miss if you're hoping to trace some of his major themes across his body of work.  Indeed, as regards King's recurring engagement - from his earliest works to his latest - with theological concerns, this novel is very important.  I'm not sure he says much here that he hasn't said elsewhere, but it's one more iteration, important for tracking the sheer quantity of theological content in King's work if nothing else.

I assume most readers will take this story as a damning portrayal of Christian theology, Christian ministers, and Christianity in general.  But King's being far more subtle than that.  First of all, there are a lot of very sympathetic Christian characters in here, such as the protagonist's own parents. Their faith is simple and sensible.  They are taken in by neither scepticism nor fanaticism.  They are devout but generous, and probably represent a bigger swathe of American culture than is generally guessed.

Secondly, if you're paying attention, this is a damning story of the dangers and pitfalls of unbelief as much as belief.  The antagonist is a man who loses his faith after all, and who becomes a very evil charlatan only after this loss of faith.  You could fairly say that he is an illustration of the notion that if you don't worship God, you'll worship something else, probably to your own and others' degradation and detriment. Also, the book's portrayal of crowd-credulity is really about a very general gullibility that affects most Americans when it comes to 'cures' for health issues.  This novel happens to focus on an intentionally deceiving faith-healer and his all-too-willing dupes.  But this phenomenon is not unique to that context, as multitudes every day practice a similarly credulous hyper-faith in regard to both corporate drugs and alternative medicines or health practices.  The wise reader will take the tale as a reflection and warning about this widespread issue manifested in a variety of ways, not just 'tent revivals'.

Finally, as to whether or not this novel is just a lambasting against Christian theology, practice, and persons, it must be noted that though King gives full roar to unbelief here - and indeed, to the Lovecraft-esque belief that we live in an outright horrific, bleak, and cruel universe - he does not give voice only to such unbelief and belief-in-horror.  He gives a tiny space for the possibility that the Lovecraftian view is not only false, but an outright lie.  In this story, the evidence is very strongly stacked against the disbeliever in the Lovecraftian universe, almost overwhelmingly.  Yet King is careful to leave a pinprick's opening for the possibility of hope.  That's not nothing.  It's really not.  At some moments in life, that's all anyone can see or hold onto.  But it might be enough.  At almost the very end of the novel, King's narrator writes:  ‘There is hope, therefore I live.’  (Page 370 in the edition I borrowed from my local library.)  After all, a pinprick is all it takes to burst a bubble.  And lots of worldviews are up for having their bubbles burst, not just religious ones.

This theological aspect of the novel I actually found quite good, and if it were the only consideration, I'd give it more like a 3.5 or 4.  But other elements, of course, factor into it.

The storytelling itself is really quite lovely for about the first third or so of the novel - King at his nostalgic-but-tragic best.  The 1960s rural Maine life is realised nicely and makes for quite a 'cosy' read really, something of a warm but darkening paean to childhood.  The second third of the novel still grips well enough as we catch up with the protagonist as an adult addict, but it starts to lose some of its depth, becoming more of a merely entertaining yarn than a semi-profound meditation on life. By the final third of the novel, when it is supposed to be ratcheting up to its horrific climax, it threatens to become sheer goofy pulp.  That's, of course, what King is here revisiting and paying tribute to:  early Weird Tales horror, and earlier melodramatic Victorian horror.  But he just doesn't pull it off in my opinion. The antagonist, who was already thinning in the second third, has become a cartoon villain by this last segment of the tale, even speaking in a faux-genteel diction that made me cringe.  The antagonist's development into this kind of character could even have been done with some power, making him effectively creepy and terrifying in his ridiculous self-importance and affectation.  But that was not achieved.  

Worse, the horrors themselves, when they are revealed in fullness at the end, are more ridiculous still. I admire the level King was trying to take things to here, but again, to me, it just didn't come off. King is a genius at what he does well, carving out his own territory in horror by combining 'regular' late 20th/early 21st century American life with supernatural violence and terror.  But here, when he strays into the territory of the likes of Lovecraft or Clark Ashton Smith or William Hope Hodgson or Frank Belknap Long - effective purveyors of otherworldly horrors who already have their own limitations - he just seems out of his depth.  He can occasionally dip into this sort of thing with mixed success, but still somewhat effectively - e.g. 'The Mist' and 'Mrs. Todd's Shortcut' in Skeleton Crew; and occasionally I think he really nails it - e.g. 'I Am the Doorway' and 'Gray Matter' in Night Shift. I'm sure there are other examples that I just haven't read yet.  But here, though I want to like [SPOILER, I guess] the central image of the claw made of faces coming out of the revivified corpse's mouth, it just seems to arrive more or less out of nowhere, with no real atmosphere for it built up, no rationale, no matter how otherworldly or metaphysically weird.  Even the preceding glimpse of the afterlife only strikes me as technically horrific - as in, yeah, that'd be just unspeakably terrible [SPOILER again, of sorts] to be slaves of some unspecified female sort of superbeing, driven by ant-men, but the scene didn't make me feel the horror.  It came closer to making me laugh, not at the horror of such a reality, but at its depiction here.  I again kept thinking of cartoons, and not good ones.  The reason I have trouble even thinking of the above as spoilers is because the horror-reveal came as no real surprise to me when I read it.  Its elements had either already been forecasted and were not substantially developed or deepened here or they were just out of left field, and not in a wow-ing sort of way, but rather in way that robbed them of impact.  

So there you have it, my take:  Revival is theologically interesting, good storytelling in its first third, weakened in characterisation and plot in the last two-thirds, and kind of terrible in its horror-reveal finale.  Still glad I read it.  But more looking forward to catching up on King's 80s output.

Up next:  Jeff VanderMeer's Annihilation (2014).

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

My Forthcoming Ecomonstrous PhD

Hey folks, I want to step out from behind the blog for a moment today to let you know about the PhD that I start researching this October at the University of Glasgow.  Ecology, Monsters, Literature, Philosophy, and Theology.  What's not to love?  The main authors I'm looking at are Cormac McCarthy and R. A. Lafferty, and I'll also take a look at George Mackay Brown and Amos Tutuola. But H. P. Lovecraft and Stephen Graham Jones and Jeff VanderMeer and other practitioners of weird fiction old and new will inevitably come into it.

Please check out the video below and also visit the Indiegogo site to see the great perks we have on offer:  www.indiegogo.com/projects/ecomonstrous-phd.

You can also follow the PhD on Twitter and Facebook.  Thanks for taking a look!


Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The Doll Who Ate His Mother (1976) by Ramsey Campbell

All right, back to the book reviews, finally!

I was on a 70s horror novel kick for a while there. It just kind of happened, but I’m glad. I’m really interested in this era from a number of angles. It does seem to be the birth of modern horror and Campbell is one of the granddaddies of that movement, albeit slightly lesser known outside horror fan circles than bestsellers like Stephen King and James Herbert.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from a book with this title (and with the lurid campy cover of the paperback copy I picked up second-hand).
I was hoping it would at least be some pulpy fun, if not especially well written. Well, you know what they say about books and their covers. This debut novel is gorgeously written. I’d have to say the prose is downright literary. Campbell’s style evokes his English ‘realist’ forebears such as, say, Graham Greene, but with a tendency more toward the visionary-tinged realism of someone like William Golding. Indeed, Campbell’s hyper-poetic evocation of the novels’s Liverpool setting harkens back to the Edwardian ‘dream-punk’ (as distinct from Victorian steam-punk) of G. K. Chesterton. Chesterton was a strong proponent of nightmare and his wild evocations of early 20th century London often tended toward the monstrous. Campbell fuses that kind of darkly weird poetic vision with a dirtier 70s vibe to yield a seedy fever dream of urban gothic and grotesque (updating Arthur Machen’s early urban horror while he’s at it).

The cityscape quite literally swims by the readerly eye for the entirety of the novel in the oft-recurring orange sodium-light glow of street lamps. (It's a quality of light I have personally experienced many times living here in Britain, and it is indeed eerie and unearthly).
Clare drove by, into the flood of light. 
The light covered everything, thick as paint. It sank oppressively into the car, filling it with shadows that moved like submarine vegetation as the lamps sailed repetitively by. Clare resisted an urge to drive faster, to be free of the light, but she felt it clinging stickily to her. She squirmed. She shouldn’t have driven without sleep, after all. 
The light soaked the three-storey Georgian houses behind their stone walls and bulging orange hedges. Pools of it lay on the roofs of the line of cars which barred Clare from the kerbside lane. Ahead, along the edge of the central reservation, trees and tree-coloured lamp standards bunched, pulling lingeringly apart as they approached. Around the high lamps, papery orange leaves were tangled in bright branches like orange web. Soon be there now, Clare told herself. She might ask to sleep on the couch at Rob and Dorothy’s. At the ends of pedestrian crossings, globes on poles pulsed:  orange, orange, orange. (p. 16) 
There’s something cinematic about this, and in a very fresh way it seems to me. It’s no wonder the novel contains a quiet, nostalgic side-theme about the transition from an older era of movies (and local independent cinemas) to the contemporary one.

The novel is rife with material to interpret from the perspective of the ‘object-oriented ontology’ of the likes of Graham Harman and Timothy Morton. Every surface and object seems to be moving of its own will in the narration. ‘George’s spectacles blinked as a car went by on the park road’ (p. 74). ‘Cars squeezed past cars, vans hung open outside shops, buses muttered impatiently’ (120). Everything we take as either subservient or irrelevant to human life seems animated with its own oblique purpose in the novel: ‘the flaw in the window glass that pinched thin everything that passed before letting go with a jerk, the tobacco smoke trickling down the stairs… the folding doors, which parted with a gasp of relief’ (p. 36). Often the objects are coming toward the human characters rather than the characters approaching the objects. ‘The house rushed at him, twin windows peering over the downstairs bay, long eyes above a longer snout’ (pp. 151-152). Or the objects act upon the characters in unexpected ways: ‘The convex mirror overhead sucked up their heads from their dwindling bodies’ (p. 113). Indeed, it seems there aren’t really any ‘inanimate objects’ at all in the novel. Admittedly, some of the story's characters are not as three-dimensional as others, but this only enhances the emphasis on non-human objects (plus it kind of fits the novel’s pacing).

The horror elements are subtly done, not overwhelming, and in a manner that keeps you off balance the entire time, a very effective way to keep the reader trapped in the narrator’s nightmare. Like the aforementioned 70s authors, succinct but explicit sex and profanity pepper Campbell’s text but the violence is handled differently. Campbell’s horror feels the most authentically Lovecraftian in tone out of any of the 70s stuff I’ve read so far. He’s all about the very, very slow and elided reveal, with an increasingly creepy build-up and a quick scene change whenever the actual horror is finally unveiled in all its hideous grotesquery. And it is indeed hideous and grotesque (not to mention gross). Some of the most memorable horrors of the tale are given almost no description at all. He manages to put the whole gruesome and fearful thing right in your face with the barest suggestion, practically forcing you to fill in the details on your own, involving you in the evocation of the horror. Quite a trick! And tricked is just a little bit how you feel, conned into tainting yourself with someone else’s sick and twisted nightmare. You get your hands dirty.

Also like Lovecraft (and Arthur Machen before him), Campbell’s novel explores the theme of metaphysical mystery (specifically occultic in this instance) still being with us in urban modern times, though we try to suppress it. To my surprise, Doll is also very Christ-haunted (to borrow Flannery O'Connor’s term), and we are notified of this early on. Just after the orange-lit driving passage noted above, we witness:
A tree, a tree, a lamp standard, a gap in the reservation. She glanced at Rob’s orange face, staring solemnly at her. [...] He frowned at her, even more solemn. Behind his head, Christ leapt from the wall of a church, tattered arms clawing high, fleshless ribs blackened by the sodium light. She started and turned back to the road, still snorting. A lamp standard, a thick tree. A man stepping straight into the path of the car. (p. 17) 
And that statue of Christ never stops leaping at that street of the scene of the macabre crime throughout the narrative. In the last scene the protagonist sees a sign saying 'Come unto me all you who are heavy laden' and begins to cry. (Cryptic spoiler: I’m now wondering if the whole tale is perhaps a sort of anti-Eucharist. Wow. That really adds to the hideousness. You’ll know what I mean if you read it.)

This is pretty wonderful stuff and now an official pattern is set: I’ve been meaning to get round to reading Author So-and-So (King, Barker, Herbert, Bishop, etc.) and now that I’ve finally read something by them, it turns out they’re amazing and I need to read everything they’ve written. It’s a very nice surprise. I kind of thought I’d encountered nearly all the authors that were really going to wow me, but I’m now over that notion. I realise this jacked up world so chock full of cultural tripe is also replete with good artists (so many that I’ll never get properly acquainted with all of them in my lifetime). Shades of Pascal, people, shades of Pascal. All that to say, Ramsey Campbell has entered my personal pantheon of horror writers well worth pursuing. A guy who can so deliciously blend Chesterton and Lovecraft into modern urban horror is guaranteed a place.

 Up Next: Stephen King's Revival (2014).