Words In: Available Dark by Elizabeth Hand

Available Dark follows Cassandra Neary, a damaged, self-destructive and somewhat washed-up art photographer, who first appeared in Hand’s 2007 novel, Generation Loss. A novel with Neary as a protagonist is bound to be a wild ride. She’s prone to sudden changes in direction, abruptly taking off for an isolated island off of Maine (in Generation Loss), or to meet a shady Finnish collector of death-obsessed photographs, or chase a long-lost friend/lover who might be in Iceland. Along the way she encounters murder and threat, and often manages to multiply her own troubles by the following her own badly damaged sense of direction. Complicating all this is Cass’s painful personal history, which lingers in her present despite the passage of years. Some people deal with adversity by bucking up and getting on with things, while others self-medicate using a cocktail of antisocial behavior, emotional avoidance, and a constant flow of mood-altering substances. Cass fits in the latter, and for this reason her problems aren’t so much solved as left to accumulate, trailing in her wake.

Such a compelling central character does much of the work in engaging the reader. On top of this we have unusual settings (Reykjavik and Iceland’s outlying areas are especially exotic, well drawn here) and such intriguing milieu as the worlds of photography concerned with death and folklore, the Scandinavian Black Metal scene, and obscure underground cult-like groups dedicated to resurrecting ancient Norse worship. The book is packed with vivid details, bizarre characters, and fascinating and varied artistic and cultural obsessions.

Most of Hand’s earlier writing was constrained to Fantasy and related genres, but here she steps away from the impossible. Available Dark concerns itself with real world situations, characters and conflicts, yet these convey all the bizarre extremity of the strangest alt-world fantasy. It’s possible some of her devoted readers may be disappointed by what is essentially a mainstream thriller, but I don’t feel Available Dark suffers in the least from the lack of overt “impossible” elements. Normally if one of my favorite genre writers took a detour into the mainstream, I might say, “That’s nice, now get back to what you do best.” In this case, I find the character and settings so compelling I’d happily follow a Cass Neary series.

Hand seems to me a writer’s writer, less concerned with superficial effects or pursuit of the latest publishing industry fad, more interested in crafting artful, expressive prose and shining light upon genuine and true “real life” moments. With Available Dark, Elizabeth Hand walks the tightrope between more accessible mainstream entertainments on one hand, and on the other maintaining a high artistic standing in the unflinching exploration of the dark and exotic. Available Dark constitutes yet another proof of Hand’s status as one of the very best writers working today, in any genre. I can’t wait for more Cassandra Neary.

Words In: Nightingale Songs by Simon Strantzas

Nightingale Songs is the third story collection from Canadian writer Simon Strantzas, following Beneath the Surface and Cold to the Touch. While these earlier collections might be characterized by more of a Ligotti or Lovecraft vibe, Nightingale Songs takes the reader into quieter, more restrained territory. The influences underlying these stories are acknowledged up-front, in John Langan’s introduction, which mentions Ramsay Campbell and Robert Aickman. I perceive more of an Aickman feel here. Robert Aickman is a favorite of many readers of horror fiction, but some consider his work too vague or low-key. The same quality is true of Strantzas’s work. His work is so accomplished, so cleanly polished, that he’s quickly acquired a devoted following. At the same time, the style and the mood of these stories may not satisfy those readers seeking a more visceral or dynamic experience. This collection is most suited to those who enjoy a subtle, introspective read in which the reader’s imagination is called upon to enrich and enliven the experience.

One word that comes to mind, as an overall descriptor for these stories as a group, is restrained. The emotions at play here aren’t terror, rage or mania. The characters in Nightingale Songs worry. They suffer anxiety or hesitation. In some cases they doubt, or wonder if they saw what they think they saw, if they can trust their memory. When they obsess, their focus is directed inward. When they act, they do so quietly.

The writing is transparent in style. The simplicity and clarity of the prose is its strength, though some readers will consider this its weakness. Sentences are stripped-down and polished, and convey the sense that a lot more craft and care goes into this almost Zen-like level of straightforwardness than is immediately apparent to the reader. Much writing in the horror community is concerned with splashy set pieces and gotcha moments, so a writer who cares so much about subtler, slower effects stands out from the crowd.

At the same time, I’d argue most of the stories could benefit from a bit more sensory detail. Descriptive passages seem intentionally vague. I’d like to see how a Strantzas story worked, with all the same tension and disquiet, but with greater fleshing-out of the sensory world of the story. The inner world of the character is described with subtlety and nuance, and I think these stories could be improved by giving the reader a more vivid sense (mostly visual) of the characters and their surroundings. This may be completely my own bias, and doesn’t indicate Strantzas has failed to achieve his aim with these stories. My impression is that the author has rendered characters and settings in an intentionally elliptical way, leaving many details blank, to be filled-in by the reader’s imagination.

There is much to respect here in terms of writerly craft and care. These stories all have a distinctive clarity, a sort of crystalline straightforwardness. I enjoyed this collection and will definitely keep an eye on Strantzas in the future.

Words In: The New Gothic, anthology edited by Bradford Morrow and Patrick McGrath

I’ve been reading an awful lot of story anthologies lately, and the word “uneven” seems to occur to me just about every time. No exception here, I’m afraid. Despite the roster of respected names on display here, from experimentalists to literary mainstays, writers with horror/fantasy credentials and those who work in other genres such as mysteries, many seemed not to know what to do with the theme.

Complicating matters further is the editors’ use of novel excerpts, rather than stories specifically crafted to fit here. The Anne Rice and Peter Straub excerpts, at least, were some of the better writing on display, and somewhat suited to the theme.

I most enjoyed the short stories of Jeanette Winterson, Jamaica Kincaid, Joyce Carol Oates and Angela Carter, all of them inventive, colorfully told and evocative. Otherwise, the most interesting stories were by writers I previously knew by name only, like Ruth Rendell and Scott Bradfield, or hadn’t heard of before, as in the case of Jamaica Kincaid and Emma Tennant.

Conversely, some of the more established names whose work I looked forward to here — Martin Amis, John Hawkes, Robert Coover, Kathy Acker and William T. Vollman — disappointed. At least Acker and Vollman displayed a knack for stringing together a nicely-formed sentence. Amis, Hawkes and Coover all three lost me early on. Their stories seemed less about engaging the reader and more about amusing the writers themselves with puns, crudity and pointless wackiness.

I know some readers frown upon fiction writers, who are also editors, including work in their own edited anthologies. It’s interesting that two of the better stories here are by the editors of The New Gothic, Bradford Morrow and Patrick McGrath. Morrow’s “The Road to Nadeja” drew me in as much as anything in the book. A compellingly drawn narrative. McGrath’s “The Smell” was strongly narratived, a great imitation of the old-fashioned Gothic in terms of both voice and tone.

In the end, I was left thinking this “New Gothic” movement, if there ever was such a thing (this was released in 1992), lacked the vitality and momentum to deserve a title, let alone to support a themed anthology of this kind.

Words In: 11/22/63 by Stephen King

I finished this book soon after it came out, and have been meaning to write an in-depth review ever since. Spending a lot of time into writing a Stephen King review seems unnecessary, for a couple of reasons.

First, he’s Stephen King, one of the most popular fiction writers of our time. Thousands of reviews of this book exist already. Every major critic has it covered. If you want to get a sense whether this is for you, if it’s one of King’s better books (it is), or if it’s one of his scary ones (it isn’t), there are lots of opinions out there.

The second reason, more important, is that most readers have already made up their minds about King. Many love him, and read everything he writes, so they don’t care what I have to say. Others say his fiction lacks complexity, it’s low-brow, non-literary. These wouldn’t give the latest from King a try no matter what the critics say, let alone me.

Rather than an actual review, though, I do have a few things I want to say about this book. It’s a great story, worth a read for those with even the slightest interest in King’s storytelling, or those interested in American history, particularly JFK’s era. That’s this story’s hook: a chance to go back and change the events of Kennedy’s assassination. The trick is, 11/22/63 turns out to be about memory, about second chances, and more than anything else, love.

The critics who say King’s fiction lacks complexity are right to a certain degree, but they’re also missing the point. The great thing he does is tell a story that feels genuine, like real experience. His characters are engaging, natural, easily likable. Most of his books, no matter where they’re set or what kind of characters inhabit them, feel like a similar experiences. This aspect is mentioned by pretty much everyone who reads King’s work, so if you’ve read him, you probably know what I mean. Stephen King books, pretty much all of them, feel like a place you want to go visit.

If you’ve read Stephen King and enjoy him at all, the only thing you need to know about 11/22/63 is that it stands among his best books, and certainly among the top few of the past twenty years.

If you don’t like King much, or have somehow not bothered to read anything of his before, this is the one book I’d suggest might be worth checking out. Real King haters probably won’t be won over, but there’s a remarkable sensitivity to his writing about a romantic relationship which might convince readers who were on the fence. Those who might have wanted to give King a try but never wanted to go for the straight horror stuff, this is your chance. 11/22/63 is alternate history, it’s fantasy in the style of Twilight Zone, and it feels authentic despite these aspects. A few harsh events occur, but they’re presented realistically, not horror-style.

I do wish he could be persuaded to let someone edit him more closely. While the sentence-level writing is just fine, at times the story bogs down and nothing seems to happen for dozens of pages. As with his last two major books, trimming a quarter of the length would have made for a better novel.

Much has been made of King striving for critical recognition, for acknowledgment of the stylistic improvement of his prose and the increasing sensitivity and naturalism of his writing. I’d say he should be commended for trying something much harder than the easy cash-in. Many (most?) authors would have taken the easy path. Instead King is taking chances and achieving things many considered beyond him. I’m impressed, and quite enjoyed this book.

Words In: Saffron and Brimstone by Elizabeth Hand

I first read the lead-off story in this collection, “Cleopatra Brimstone,” in the anthology Poe’s Children (edited by Peter Straub). This story of a young entomologist who moves to London in the aftermath of rape was the best thing in Straub’s anthology and turns out to be the best thing in Saffron and Brimstone too. That’s not at all to say the rest of this collection is lacking.

The very best fictional narrative has the feel of true personal history, enough to inspire the reader to check the writer’s bio and figure out whether or not certain events from the story really happened. That’s how most of these stories felt to me, like places I have seen, and like true life events a storyteller has conveyed to me half-reluctantly and with some sadness. Every story overflows with lush imagery and vivid details. The stories may not be connected by character or events, but a kind of quiet melancholy hangs over them.

It’s always interesting to see a writer shift focus in terms of genre and subject matter. Here, as in her novel Generation Loss, Hand generally tones down the fantastical elements more common in her earlier work. The stories feel exotic, even when nothing impossible or otherworldly is happening. Perhaps her greatest strength is the ability to convey a lifelike sense of place, and of events which might have truly happened. Though in my own reading I tend to enjoy the otherworldly and fantastic, I’m hesitant to say I wish Elizabeth Hand would write more in that direction. Whatever the degree of fantasticality in these stories, Hand’s use of language is so elegant and her characters and situations so engaging, I’ll gladly read whatever she chooses to write regardless of genre considerations. Here, as in Generation Loss, she does something that feels very real.

Highly recommended for those readers who enjoy lush prose and human-focused stories with an otherworldly feel even if they take place in our own world. Readers with a preference for more overt genre elements, as well as those wishing for a greater focus on plot rather than character, may enjoy this less than I did. As for me, this book on top of Generation Loss are enough for me to elevate Elizabeth Hand to among the top handful of authors whose work I’ll explore with most eagerness. From here, it’s on to Waking the Moon or Winterlong.

What I really Meant to Say

I fired up ScribeFire and posted those two quick entries just to test it out, but I forgot I actually had something I meant to blog about.

I’m about halfway through Singularity Sky by Charles Stross, and though it started off fairly well, I’m finding it increasingly dull. None of the characters matter to me at all, and I feel I only barely know the two main characters. The rest are just a series of names, often without a single defining characteristic (aside from the senile old coot who thinks his legs have turned to glass for some reason). There are long stretches of political back-and-forth without apparent consequence. The scenes of military maneuvering and battle have a few nifty tech tidbits mixed in, but otherwise fairly flat, as if the outcome is always a foregone conclusion.

Am I nuts here? This fucking book was nominated for a Hugo award, but I don’t get it. Not a terrible book, but sort of a C-plus so far, as far as I can tell. Anybody out there who’s read Singularity Sky and can point out some angle I’m missing?

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.

Science Fiction Academy

I haven’t posted here in several months, nearly half a year. It’s not from a lack of interest in what I started writing about here (recent reading and writing for the most part), rather from a desire to focus more on actually doing those things, and worry less about blogging on the subjects, for now.

I’ve been reading a ton — fiction, nonfiction, magazines — and listening to a lot of audiobooks as usual (the old commute), and working very hard on writing fiction. As I blogged earlier, I’ve gone through earlier stretches of intense focus on fiction writing in my life, but since I got started working on electronic music and my Hypnos record label, that had been completely set aside until just over a year ago.

Partly this grew out of the joy of discovering some great new science fiction writers, and also rediscovering some of the books I loved earlier in my life. Partly also, it’s been a response to a nagging sense I’ve had for a long time that sooner or later, I would start writing fiction again. I didn’t want to get back to doing it the way I did in my twenties, with a focus on “straight” literary fiction with a slightly experimental or surreal angle. This, I realized later, was my way of trying to have my cake and eat it too — enable myself to write about “weird” concepts and yet occupy the same accepted and respected literary mainstream of my big heroes like Hemingway and Fitzgerald.

Coming back to things after a long break, I realized it was important to me to work on the kind of stuff I enjoy reading and watching. My favorite books and films, and the writers and filmmakers I most idolized, occupied a more “fantastic” corner of storytelling. This could include science fiction, fantasy, horror, and even surrealism or absurdism.

In practice I’ve mostly zeroed-in on science fiction stories, though I’ve dabbled with stuff that could be called urban fantasy or occult/supernatural horror. This feels right to me, and I’ve come up with some stories that I love and feel enthusiastic about in a way that never happened with my earlier writing efforts, toward which I felt a sort of detached aesthetic regard that might barely be called admiration.

Also I think the stuff I’m writing is pretty good. I feel better about my chances of getting published now than I did before. It doesn’t feel like buying a lottery ticket when I send out a story to a magazine, more like playing a round of solitaire. OK, I might be more likely to lose than to win at this point, but at least I feel like my chances are better than astronomical.

One thing I’m doing, aside from questioning all assumptions as a writers of words and builder of stories, is trying to shore up my fundamental base of understanding the genres I’m interested in, science fiction in particular. I’ve undertaken a sort of self-study course to reexamine some of the works I loved before, and more importantly to check out the many classics I’d never yet read. This sort of self-taught course in SCIFI 101 has been instructive, but not always in the ways I would have expected. There have been books I’ve read and said “Wow, how could I have waited so long to discover this?” and others I’ve read and wanted to stop before the end, thinking to myself, “What the hell is this crap? Who decided this was a classic?”

It’s caused me to think differently about the relative merits of some names that occupy mostly equal levels in the pantheon of big science fiction names. I mean, if you post a request on some public message board for recommendations of what science fiction classics you ought to read, you’ll get a lot of people suggesting the obvious Heinlein and Asimov and Clarke and Bradbury stuff, as well as plenty of Niven and Anthony and Dick and Sagan and Haldeman, and you know what? Some of that stuff stands up really well, and some of it doesn’t. Some of the ideas are really fresh, and some is quite stale. Some of it is very good writing, and some of it is excruciating on a sentence level. Interestingly, some of the guys with the best “big ideas” write some of the worst sentences and most cringe-worthy dialogue, while a guy who’s a better wordsmith might be lacking in the “sense of wonder” department.

As I continue plodding away through my own Science Fiction Academy, I’ve reached a point where I feel like I know only a little, but enough to start asserting opinions, pushing a certain point of view. That’s what I’m going to work on here for a while, a piece-by-piece reporting of what I’ve learned and how I assess some of the major books and big-name writers of the science fiction genre (and other related styles), possibly with occasional diversions into lessons from movies, TV or even art. I’ll tag these entries with Science Fiction Academy, as well as with the relevant names and titles.

I’ll also start to give some more specifics of the stories I’m working on writing.