Flaccid Squid Story

Well, at least as far as I’m concerned, China Mieville hasn’t changed his ways much. His editors must be afraid of him. By page 200 of Kraken I was bored, and found myself not caring about the characters. I soooo wanted this to be a good story. I felt like it had a lot of promise when I began. But it fell apart. Sure there were bright spots, like the villains Goss and Subby, who reminded me so much of the pair of school-children like villains called “The Prefects” from The Somnambulist. I enjoyed his exploration of cults and religion even as I understood he was poking no small amount of fun at the idea of religion and religious persons in general. I just don’t know – nothing since Perdido Street Station has been that great. Which is too bad really, cause each book seems like it has so much potential. Anyone out there (as if anyone reads this) feel differently? Which Mieville book besides Perdido stands out to you as being excellent?

So, and I’m getting much better at doing this the older I get, I put Kraken down. I used to think I owed it to the author to finish their work since they put so much time into writing it. But now I realize I don’t owe the author shit. I also thought I owed it to myself to finish the book if I paid good money for it, but alas, this was a library ebook checkout. Free from obligation, I moved on.

The good folks over at the H.P. Lovecraft Literary Podcast – you do know about and follow that podcast, right? Right?! – have been highlighting a new book of short, horror stories by a new author. I checked it out online and the ebook version was only $5 – great! I snatched it up and have begun reading J.R. Hamantaschen’s You Shall Never Know Security. The title comes from this quote by Edward Bellamy in his 1887 novel Looking Backward:

“Do your work never so well,” the spectre was whispering–“rise early and toil till late, rob cunningly or serve faithfully, you shall never know security. Rich you may be now and still come to poverty at last. Leave never so much wealth to your children, you cannot buy the assurance that your son may not be the servant of your servant, or that your daughter will not have to sell herself for bread.”

I have to say, it’s a brilliant title for a collection of unsettling horror tales. I’ve read the first two stories so far, “A Lower Power,” and “Wonder.” Both left me uncomfortable in pretty profound way. The writing is clear and concise, contemporary but very erudite – I had to look up a few words.

“A Lower Power” was quite the disturbing story to read in the dark, at night, in bed. At least the first few pages. It got stranger after that, but the truly disturbing line that had me cautiously glancing at my ceiling was in the first few pages. It’s a tale of desire and revenge, loss and a failure to understand. Good stuff.

“Wonder” was fun. Disturbing, but fun. Goes to show you that you never truly know who you are pissing off. Be careful.

I’m looking forward to the rest.

Stories 16 – 22

I fell behind in writing, not in reading, and so, just because I’m anal about such things, I’m going to catch up with my ratings, but not my summaries and comments.

Story 16: “The Dead Sexton” by J. Sheridan LeFanu

Writing: 6/10

Personal Fright: 4/10

General Horror/Oppressiveness: 6/10

Story 17: “The Transfer” by: Algernon Blackwood

Writing: 8/10

Personal Fright: 1/10

General Horror/Oppressiveness: 2/10

Story 18: “The Colour Out of Space” by H.P. Lovecraft

Writing: 9/10

Personal Fright: 6/10

General Horror/Oppressiveness: 10/10

Story 19: “The Jar” by Ray Bradbury

Writing:  6/10

Personal Fright:  3/10

General Horror/Oppressiveness: 6/10

Story 20: “The Tutor” by John Langan

Writing: 4/10

Personal Fright: 2/10

General Horror Oppressiveness: 2/10

Story 21: “Rest Stop” by Stephen King

Writing: 10/10

Personal Fright: 3/10

General Horror/Oppressiveness: 5/10

Story 22: “A Warning to the Curious” by M.R. James

Writing: 10/10

Personal Fright: 6/10

General Horror/Oppressiveness: 8/10

And that does it, wraps up my October short story reading marathon.  By the end I was getting more and more familiar with the tropes and styles or each author, which, while it contributed to my overall enjoyment, reduced the level of fear and terror.  It was a heck of a lot of fun though and I am thrilled I found authors the likes of M.R. James – who write about things that actually frighten me and aren’t afraid to invoke Christianity and its tenets in their writing.  That idea has fallen away in more modern times and what is it they say about that, “the greatest trick Satan ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”

Story 11: “Dreams in the Witch House” by H.P. Lovecraft

This was a story in two parts, I felt.  The first part was boring, but necessary to set up the far more fast paced and exciting second part.  It was a bit longer than some of the other ones I’ve read, but still I think it was the fact I couldn’t easily get into it that made it take so long for me to read.  But in the end, the master Lovecraft pulls it off.  It was a terrifying idea and I’m not sure I’ll be as comfortable the next time I wake up after a nightmare.

Summary:  A student, gifted in mathematics, physics, and metaphysics, takes up residence in a dilapidated, large home with a cheap rent price for a room.  It’s cheap because it has a frightening, scary history, one involving a woman accused of being a witch.  While staying there, he begins to sleepwalk, have terrible dreams, and not be able to recall what happens at night.   His mind is filled with strange angles and mathematical equations.  He begins to dream of strange horizons, nightmarish landscapes, and horrible foreign worlds inhabited by terrible denizens.  Sometimes he wakes up with an object from his dreams resting on his bedside table.  The witch who used to inhabit the house, along with something that might be called her pet, begins to visit his dreams and calls upon him to do unspeakable acts.  In the end, it may have been better for him to splurge on a higher rent district.

Writing:  7/10

Personal Fright:  7/10

General Horror/Oppressiveness:  9/10

Story 3: “Beyond the Walls of Sleep” by H.P. Lovecraft

Lovecraft is the master.  I’ve written about him before on here, so I don’t want to repeat, but for me, he continually is the best writer, the most entertaining, the most consistently disturbing and frightening, and the greatest visionary of horror genre fiction.  All of that despite his racist and sexist tendencies.

Summary:  A psychiatrist working in a mental institution is given a new patient with a history of violent murder and raving, mad speeches.  He discovers that the cause of the man’s problems is from something in his dreams and later learns the man is being used as a vessel for a being from somewhere else. I am often given to disturbing dreams and so resonate with this story.

Writing: 8/10

Personal Fright:  7/10

General Horror/Oppressiveness:  7/10

A Temporary Solution

Unable to make a decision about what book I wanted to be reading when I leave for vacation on Thursday, I have found a temporary solution to delay deciding: the short story.  I know which books I am going to be taking, just not which one I want to read first.

But in the meantime, at least I have something to read.  A few weeks ago I was reading a post on sffworld.com about a collection of horror stories someone had found.  While that particular collection didn’t interest me much, one of the commentors talked about several authors of whom I had never heard.  Older horror authors, and when I looked them up, the giants of the genre upon whose shoulders folks like Stephen King now stand.  Men with names like:  M.R. James, J. Sheridan Le Fanu, Algernon Blackwood, Arthur Machen, and others.  I was fascinated by this discovery because I’ve always enjoyed a good ghost story and I’ve wondered forever how they got to be popular and did anyone of letters actually write any or were they all just campfire tales for kids.  I had no idea that in the early 20th century (Lovecraft’s time) there were others out there writing about the supernatural and paranormal.  So, I did some digging and found out some more about these authors and the kinds of stories they had written – stories that sounded exactly like what I have been wanting.  Half.com is my friend and for the low, low price of like $23 I ordered a whole bunch of these old books.  Several have arrived now, one by accident and as a bonus!

I ordered a collection by Le Fanu and when it arrived it turned out to be a collection by Blackwood that I had not ordered.  I alerted the seller who apologized, refunded my money, and told me to keep the book!  It was the first and only one that had arrived by the time I needed something to read, so last night I picked it up and read the first story in it, apparently a very famous one of which Lovecraft himself said that it might be the finest ghost story ever written in the English language.  It was called, “The Willows,” and may I just say, wow!  Very suspenseful, excellent command of English diction and syntax, great sense of awe and terror, and he doesn’t commit the sin of showing the “scary thing”!  I have read that he is known for his writing about nature and the outdoors, of which “The Willows” definitely was an example, but I look forward to some of the James’ stories that take place in libraries and giant houses and such places.  As well as I look forward to the others!  Plus, I remembered King came out with a new short story collection not too long ago, Just After Sunset, so I ordered it too in hardback on half.com for $0.75  Love that site!  So, these fellas outta hold me over til Thursday when I can begin my next novel on the plane.

Why Do I Like Horror Stories?

It’s been easy to see the trends in my own reading of late.  I finished The Terror and moved right to H.P. Lovecraft (which had more to do with my recent fascination with Arkham Horror: The Boardgame than anything else), but once I read a few Lovecraft stories – I find you can’t read too many in a row, so The Hound, The Unnamable, Dagon, and The Shadow Over Innsmouth did just fine for me – I immediately picked up Duma Key by Stephen King.  dumakeySometimes it is a hard decision to pick what I’ll read next but this was easy.  So, the obvious trend is horror stories.  The less immediately obvious connection between the Lovecraft and Duma Key is that they are both written in the first person.  I find that this perspective lends itself particularly well to horror stories – it lends a crucial air of credibility to the story; it is much easier to discount something from a third person perspective.

Like most King books, Duma Key is a fast paced story.  I began it only two days ago and am close to 200 pages into the story.  Part of the reason is in unburdened, uncomplicated language (by which I do not mean to suggest simple), part of it is in the gripping nature of the tales, and part of it is in the fact that he breaks up his narrative into manageable chunks: chapters divided into shorter sub-chapters.  And they all advance the plot line somehow.  That is something King is big on, and all good writers are big on.  It’s funny to me somehow, King is so marketable, so popular, and such a household name that it seems contradictory to say he is also a great writer.  Most authors that fit into the first several categories are decent writers and some are just bad.  But King is one of the most prolific Great Writers of our time.  The man really knows what he is doing.  When I was younger, I did not read King because he was forbidden for one reason or another, whether by my parents when I was really young or by my own snobbishness when I was older. (I used to say I never read books where the author’s name appears in a larger font on the cover than the title of the book, but I’ve relaxed on that – relaxed, not given up entirely!)

So, why the fascination with horror?  It’s interesting, a couple of years ago I decided to celebrate Halloween by watching a few classic horror films – TBS and TNT and SCI-FI all run marathons that time of year anyway and I DVR’d them and watched them at my leisure.  It was fun!  Now, I’ve made that a regular practice each year but find myself checking out other horror films throughout the course of the year much more regularly than I ever did before.  Last year I watched all the “originals” – the ones that I saw in the video stores as a kid and was never allowed to check out, the ones that became franchises.  I watched the original Halloween, Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, etc.  It was awesome!  Then I watched a documentary on those film’s directors and others like them called The American Nightmare and got into their thinking a little bit.  It was interesting to suddenly think of zombie flicks as social commentary (something most people probably picked up on their own) and slasher flicks as being reactions to the violence of the Vietnam War (something most people probably did not pick up on).  I tended not to stray into the realms of horror films that focused on sexual violence (The Last House on the Left) or more modern “torture-porn” (Hostel) because that is not entertaining to me.  I want to be entertained, surprised, scared, and thrilled.  Grossed out has it’s place in those films, but when grossing out becomes the motivating factor, I lose my interest, as I did after watching only three of the Masters of Horror series.  When it serves as a foil, I’m all ears (and eyes), as I was for Halloween, and The Ring.

For me, good horror touches those sensitive parts of my imagination where I do not regularly allow myself to go.  I like the suspense of it, the sense of being on the edge of something horrible.  It frees me to think about things I don’t normally think about and in a weird way, it reminds me of how fragile I am.  Part of it is probably a juvenile sense fo rebellion against my parents’ rules: thou shalt not watch horror films.  And part of it is some odd need to go beyond the normal pale of experience, and then to safely return all without having to leave my couch.  I’m sure that a neurologist could tell us all about those areas of our brains that get excited by this stuff and while that is interesting, it isn’t as important to me as knowing that I want/need to excite those areas, wherever they are.
To that end, I’m eating it up right now, spending time in Lovecraft, King, and others.  I found a website for horror short story podcasts, Pseudopod, that I’m enjoying during my morning constitutional right now.  Some are better than others, I’m sure, but to find the gems you sometimes have to sift through the trash.  And in horror writing, there is a lot of trash.  If I can smell it before I get to far in, I’ll avoid it and get to the good stuff.  But sometimes, there’s nothing better than a banal tale of horrible man-eating bugs that crawl beneath your skin, lay eggs, and burst out of filthy pustules.  It gets you going in the morning.  And, and, it provides me with that silly, inane, laughable, but altogether exciting extra sense of immediacy when next a mosquito or fly lands on my arm.

Because I know that if I want, there’s plenty of mind-warping Lovecraft, still the unequivocal King of the horror story.  Ia! Ia!

The Shadow over Innsmouth

From the Terror to the Horror

The TerrorI finally finished reading The Terror and the rumors are true: it bogs down a wee bit in the middle to the late-middle then ramps up for a surprising and rousing conclusion.  (Mr. Simmons, will you please teach Mr. Stephenson how to do that?)  Once I got the characters straight in my head, I really rather liked this book.  It wasn’t fantastic but it was very good.  I espcially enjoyed how the scary snow/ice demon wasn’t ever totally explained in a realistic way, leaving plenty to the imagination and the realms of folklore.  I also enjoyed how everything for the poor souls aboard Terror and Erebus would have been absolutely awful enough without the ice demon!  That’s what really threw it over the edge in terms of feelings of hopelessness.  I also really liked the description of the slow descent into insanity of the Hickey character and particularly the description of how he froze to death: it was so well done that Simmons never once out and out said, Hickey is freezing to death.  You just got it. After the ending, I feel like the book could have been improved by being about 100 pages (to be perfectly arbitrary) shorter.  There was a lot of character backstory that didn’t have to be told in as great of depth as it was (always my complaint with Patrick O’Brien) and could have better been accomplished with shorter anecdotes.  When reading those sections I found myself saying, “I don’t care. Can we get back to the ship part of the story please?”  Fans of horror may or may not enjoy this book, depending on what other genres they enjoy.  Fans of horror who are only fans of horror will probably find this book to be too long and not horrific enough.  Fans that enjoy reading adventure stories, historical novels, and/or horror as well will be right at home.  I look forward to reading Simmons’ latest, Drood, but will have to wait a while; it is large as well and I want to forget for a time that Simmons’ bogs down in the middle.

Victor, Griffin, and I have discovered and have been playing the board game Arkham Horror recently.

Arkham Horror - the Board Game
Arkham Horror – the Board Game

It’s a game based off the stories of Lovercraft and let me just say, it is amazing.  5 hours long sometimes, but amazing.

That has led me to pick up some Lovecraft and start reading again, some stories I’ve read before but mostly some ones I haven’t.  When I first read Lovecraft, I knew at some level that he was awesome, but didn’t fully understand him or appreciate his writing style.  Now that I am older, or at least some time has passed, I think I get Lovecraft on a whole new level.  And that is fun, cause he is incredible.  No other writer has the power to induce such terrifyingly vivid dreams as he does.  Think the Shoggoth pit is bad in the stories?  Wait til you dream about it and how your mind makes it up.  <Shudder>  Right now I’m on a great little tale called The Whisperer in Darkness: it follows the typical Lovecraftain formula of science minded fellow encountering a tale of horror that cannot possibly be true and then slowly discovering it is.  But it is fun to read how that happens each time.  And, when combined with the game, it is especially fun to see where the inspiration for the game pieces arise from.

Terror

I’m about 428 pages into Dan Simmons’ The Terror and I am enjoying it still.  Many folks who’ve commented on it have said that it bogs down somewhere in the middle and I don’t know if I’ve gotten there yet or not (the book is almost 800 pages) but so far I haven’t felt it get sluggish too much.  There have been some ten or fifteen page sections that were a little numbing, but nothing prolonged.

I really enjoy his descriptions of the ice and all the challenges associated with that.  Sometimes while reading it, I actually feel cold.  It’s incredible.  I like how the ice monster beast thing is also only one of their myriad potentially catastrophic problems.  It would have been easy as an author to focus on the monster alone and ignore the other potent challenges that are certainly present: disease, malnutrition, -100 degree weather, ice smashing the ships apart, mutiny, and the like.  But Simmons pays full attention to all of those things, in fact, he gives them precedence I think.  That makes it all the more awful when the beast shows up and kills two or three sailors.  It makes one despair and cry aloud, as if it already weren’t enough!

If anything, the story features too many characters; I felt this was a difficulty also with Patrick O’Brien’s stories.  When writing about a ship and its crew, it is hard to characterize well a few characters while still including all the other necessary people.  Simmons does a fair job at this, but I still find myself getting confused sometimes.  Who was that again?  Wait, was this the alcoholic captain or the other one?  Who’s the first mate?   I thought that was the bosun’s mate.  Hmmm? That sort of thing.  As far into it as I am now, I’m getting a feel for the principles but to me, that should have happened about 300 pages ago.

In the intervening time, I’ve found myself in a distinctly Lovecraftian mood.  Sometimes this happens and the only thing to do is feed the beast.  I grabbed one of my collections off the shelf and tore through “Azathoth,” and “The Thing on the Doorstep.”

“Azathoth” was like reading someone’s dream journal – a terrifying and head scrathching one, but a dream journal.  I actually read it out loud to myself and found that that worked great.  It’s short and the language has an even more powerful effect when heard.  “The Thing on the Doorstep” was incredible.  I had not read that one before and chose it because I wanted to read an Arkham story.  It was the tale of a man whose body was being stolen by his wife who through dark magic exchanged her soul and his into their respective bodies. This story had everything that makes Lovecraft the horror master: intrigue, mystery, terror, gross things, unnameable unspeakable horrors from somewhere Beyond, death, insanity, and passion.  I highly recommend it to anyone as a good place to start with Lovecraft if you haven’t delved into his mad pages before.