Words In: The Orphan Palace by Joseph S. Pulver Sr.

The Orphan Palace smacks the reader in the face from the first page just to resolve any question about who’s in charge. Pulver’s approach here is to make the story not just something the main character experiences, but a series of thoughts and perceptions. It takes place “in here” rather than “out there.” The stream-of-consciousness style took me a while to settle into due to the hyper-saturated poetic style. This may be the most uncompromising narrative I’ve read in years, but it’s worth settling into the groove of this energetic and strongly poetic tale. 

The story’s protagonist Cardigan is profoundly damaged, and burns and kills his way across the country in search of redemption or revenge for events long past. That the reader ends up identifying with and caring about such a reckless and even murderous character testifies to the way Pulver’s narrative technique takes the reader inside Cardigan’s head. The story’s events seem like something you’re living through, not simply reading. Like the most daring works of art, no summary can do justice to what’s happening here. The blurb on the back cover does almost nothing to convey what this book is like. The story is dreamlike, told in language ranging from vivid poetics to a hard-bitten shorthand to incantatory near-ravings. Frequent use of repetition gives a sense of the shattered reality Cardigan inhabits. The effect is cumulative, so that repeated elements and phrases take on a different meaning and carry more weight as the story advances. 


An energetic mix of noir/crime and surrealistic dark fantasy verging on horror, The Orphan Palace feels more like “cinema of the mind” than narrative fiction, and it may be for that reason that I find myself thinking more about filmmakers when I try to find something to compare it to. Pulver’s surreal dreamscapes seem to have some precedence in David Lynch (especially Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive, and Inland Empire), Alejandro Jodorowky (El Topo and Holy Mountain) and Lars Von Trier (especially Antichrist). I was even reminded of Guillermo Del Toro in some of the novel’s more fantastic sections, especially the “night library” scene, which left me wanting more. 

Any narrative so inwardly-directed and uncompromising is bound to leave the reader scratching their head in a few places, but that is more than compensated-for by the vivid effects which simply would not be possible with a more straightforward storytelling style. The Orphan Palace feels like being led by the hand (scratch that — led by the brain is more like it) through a dark and surreal nightmare, an experience both powerful and disturbing. I can’t wait to see what Pulver does next. Highly recommended, at least for readers open to a more experimental storytelling approach.

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Check Out Weird Fiction Review’s New Ligotti Interview

Another day, another interview link. Well, this is more than that — also a heads-up about a great new and interesting web site created by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer: Weird Fiction Review. It’s great to see this sub-genre given such a clean and professional presentation. The site seems to have been created as a launching point for the VanderMeers’ massive upcoming anthology, The Weird, yet most of the content is only indirectly related to that volume.

There’s a lot to see here, but what inspires me to point people in that direction today is a fascinating new

In and Out of Genre

Following on from minutes-ago post about going from Stephen King’s Dreamcatcher to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road

A reasonable first reaction would be to say that these two are about as far apart as two writers could be. The sun-bleached lines of McCarthy, which manage to be terse even when they are poetic, stand in dramatic contrast to the casual, slang-filled conversational style of King. One is less, one is more-more-more.

On the other hand, both are quirky with punctuation, and both frequently construct sentences to feel like internal stream-of-consciousness.

Beyond that, there’s another similarity I would like to discuss. Both have written genre fiction (McCarthy dabbling in SF or apocalyptic horror this once, King obviously working in horror most of the time) that appeals widely to readers outside those genres. This ability is rare enough — and make no mistake, most genre writers very much want their work to appeal to readers outside the genre ghetto — to bear consideration. Why is Stephen King’s work so popular among readers who never read horror except King’s work, and more often read mainstream books or thrillers? Why do critics treat The Road with the same respect they give All the Pretty Horses or Blood Meridian, rather than saying “I’ll pass on this one — he’s just writing end-of-the-world shit?”

Despite the stylistic gap between these two writers, I think the explanation for trans-genre appeal is the same in both cases, and also explains writers like Vonnegut, Palahniuk, Atwood, and even Tolkien reaching way beyond the usual genre boundaries (in some cases to the point they are no longer considered genre writers even when what they’re doing plainly uses all the tropes). That is, the placement of the characters’ emotional drama at the forefront of the story in such a way that we are tangled in their experience. We experience their fears and hopes, and directly project ourselves into their place.

This seems a simple matter — all writers know they’re supposed to engage the reader on an emotional level — yet very rarely does that engagement occur in such an intimate way as with these writers. It’s about putting the “people stuff” ahead of the “trans-warp tachyon drive” or “vampire/zombie plague” or “Venusian cloud colony” bullshit. Most genre writers think they’re doing this, but they’re not. That’s because most genre writers get their start out of a love for the tropes and McGuffins, and not out of pure storytelling. They may try to figure out how to write relationships and emotions, but it’s not what drives them.

I haven’t read enough about McCarthy to know if this is true, but from reading him I’d say he’s strongly influenced by Hemingway and Faulkner (which probably says a lot about why I’m so smitten with him, because those are two of my favorites). Obviously King has more roots within horror than without, but I think it’s telling that his favorite writer is Elmore Leonard, and not Lovecraft or Machen or Blackwood or Shirley Jackson. Leonard is another writer whose primary focus is individual fears and desires. It’s incidental that his characters are murderers and thieves, con artists and detectives.

Sometimes a genre writer wants to break out, give themselves a shot at appealing to a broader readership, outside their own genre. Sometimes they try a different style to which they’re not really suited , such as Greg Bear writing an awful supernatural thriller with minimal SF content, Dead Lines. I think a better idea would be to focus on writing stuff with a more human appeal.

Lots of people love Friday Night Lights who don’t care about high school football. Normally I don’t like Westerns, yet I loved Deadwood crazy-much, because the characters and conflicts were so compelling. To my mind, the foremost goal of any writer should be to make their work appeal to people who normally dislike the subject matter or genre.

Words In: Horns by Joe Hill

Just finishing up Horns by Joe Hill, in audiobook format. Hill’s first novel Heart Shaped Box was one of my favorite new discoveries of last year, a somewhat dark, edgy book of clever, compact nastiness. If you didn’t already know this, Joe Hill is Stephen King’s son, and decided to try writing under a pseudonym to see if he could have a career of his own without his dad’s influence. Eventually his cover was blown, but he continues to use the name. His real-life name is Joe Hillstrom King so the pen name is really just the first half of his full, proper name anyway. Hey, maybe I should try to get published as “Michael Jay?”

The earlier book followed a somewhat washed-up rock-and-roller whose life is turned upside down when he purchases an old man’s suit that turns out to be cursed. Hill’s follow-up, Horns, likewise observes the intrusion into a character’s life of a dark influence. In this case, a year after Ig Parrish’s girlfriend is raped and murdered (a crime for which he was the main suspect, though no case is ever brought against Ig or any other culprit) Ig Parrish finds himself with a pair of devil-like horns sprouting from his forehead. And not just horns, but a strange influence over everyone he comes across, a certain power over their will, and insight into things they’ve done before that they wouldn’t want anyone else to know.

His life has already been essentially ruined as the book begins, as his girlfriend is gone, and everyone who knows them, including Ig’s own family, thinks Ig killed her and got away with it. Having hit bottom, Ig follows the power and influence of the horns, and though they bring him a lot of trouble they also help him to discover some facts about troubling events in his life, including his girlfriend’s murder.

Hill’s short story collection Twentieth Century Ghosts, followed by the top-notch debut novel Heart Shaped Box and now his sophomore novel effort Horns, are enough to establish him as one of the strongest talents working in the field of suspense and horror fiction. His writing has a lot of similarities to his own father’s early work, in particular such high points as The Shining, Dead Zone, and Carrie.

Overall I’d judge Horns to be slightly below the standard of the first novel, though still worth reading and still indicative of the likelihood of strong future work coming from this writer.

Peter Straub asks: What about genre?

A quick outside link to an article by Peter Straub, bestselling author of Ghost Story and a couple of collaborations with Stephen King, discussing the matter of genre. If there’s one category of writer even more touchy about genre than science fiction people, it’s probably horror writers.

Straub says…

Just for beginners, let’s admit that literary fiction is a genre, too, shall we? Expectations guide its readers, that of respect for consensus reality and the poignancy of seemingly ordinary lives, of sensitive character-drawing and vivid scene-painting, of the reversals and conflicts characteristic of the several sub-genres of literary fiction.

Link to the full article.

I’ve touched on this subject several times already in a blog that hasn’t yet seen two dozen posts, and that’s because I’ve gone through three periods of writing in my life, each time in a different style. As a teen I wrote horror/supernatural stories influenced by Twilight Zone (both the TV show and the magazine), somewhere halfway between the short fiction of Harlan Ellison and Stephen King. In my twenties I wrote more straightforward stuff meant to be “literary” but couldn’t stop myself from adding strange flourishes that might have been postmodernist or magical realist, or might now be called slipstream or “new weird.” Now I’m writing science fiction, but with a great emphasis on people, relationships, internal thoughts or feelings, as compared to “spaceships, aliens and planets” kind of science fiction.

Having come out the other side of these transformations myself, I realize: The same kinds of ideas and surprises have always interested me, and in a sense I’ve always written about the same things. The settings and the clothing are different, and that’s the biggest thing “genre” really is. How is everything dressed up?

I suspect most writers wish the boundaries of any given genre were more flexible.

Red Dragon and the Queen of Angels

I’ve seen the movie Silence of the Lambs many times, and the movie Manhunter once, but haven’t previously read any work by Thomas Harris. Manhunter is based on Harris’s third novel Red Dragon which was more recently re-made into a film of the same name starring Ed Norton.

I’m now listening to the audiobook of Red Dragon and I’m pretty impressed with it. Harris’s style is simple, kind of terse and unornamented, more of a gritty detective story than a horror story in terms of feel, but there are these incredibly hard-hitting and awful scenes of horror interspersed throughout. The horror feels real, though, not supernatural or make-believe. I haven’t enjoyed a new fiction author discovery as much since Robert Charles Wilson a few years ago, and I look forward to reading Harris’s later books, though I’ve heard Hannibal is not quite as good and Hannibal Rising is fairly questionable. OK, let’s just say I’m looking forward to finishing this one up, and then reading Silence of the Lambs.

Just recently finished Queen of Angels by Greg Bear and found it a challenging, thought-provoking piece of science fiction, quite different in style from the other Greg Bear works I’ve read. Though definitely a science fiction story, this one feels more literary and sort of poetic than his other stuff, though maybe closest to Blood Music. An interesting story focusing on distortions of the mind, and questions of consciousness and soul, both human and artificial. I’ll probably want to pick this up again in a year or two and go through it once more, as it’s fairly thick with ideas.

Another Ridley Scott Alien

Wow, great news! Ridley Scott has signed on to do an Alien prequel!

More info here

Alien poster
Alien poster

Scott directed only the original 1979 Alien film, and each of the 4 in the series have been made by different directors, but Ridley Scott is definitely the one of the four directors (Scott, James Cameron, David Fincher, and Jean-Pierre Jeunet) I’d most like to see try another Alien installment.

From what I’ve read, though, apparently no Sigourney Weaver as Ripley this time. Of course, she’s about to turn 60 and so running around in your panties no longer works quite like it did 30 years ago.

ripley

I’m almost as excited about this upcoming movie fun as about the two Hobbit movies coming up.

We want our artists to be crazy

Last week I read an interview with Thomas Ligotti (who, in case you don’t know, if a very interesting, uncompromising and very strange writer of psychological horror fiction. I’d read about Ligotti before, but in the course of reading this interview I realized a very high percentage of the creative people I’ve admired are somewhere between “troubled” and “completely nuts.”

Just look at who else I’ve written about in this short-lived blog… Hemingway (suicidal alcoholic), Fitzgerald (depressive alcoholic), Philip K. Dick (who, let’s just say, has a five paragraph section under the heading “mental health” in his Wikipedia entry), and now Ligotti. For a catalog of Ligotti’s psychological troubles I’ll leave you to read the above-linked article, if you’re interested.

Add to that list some of my other favorite creative inspirations, for example painters –Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Salvador Dali, Andy Warhol, Frida Kahlo — and a pattern begins to emerge. One begins to wonder, do individuals of the sensitive nature who might excel at creation just naturally have a hard time in life due to that sensitivity? Or is it that unbalanced, obsessive people have more time or energy to focus upon their creative work, and are thus more likely to be productive and to succeed? Or is there something in the inward searching all creative artists must undertake that is somehow troubling or corrosive to one’s happiness in the long term?

I really don’t know the answer to this. It does seem, though, that a quick rundown of my list of favorite poets, artists, composers and so on, yields a rate of incidence of psychological problems greater than what’s seen in the general population.