Tuesday, September 18, 2018

rats. I should have saved this book for October: The Moons At Your Door, (ed.) David Tibet

97981907222429
Strange Attractor Press, 2016
450 pp
paperback

As I'm sitting here writing this, in the background I'm listening to the eerie music of Current 93's album Faust .  Had I been listening to this  when I read Count Eric Stanislaus Stenbock's tale in this book of the same name,  it would have totally heightened the creep factor that the story produced in my head.   The editor of this collection of strange, hallucinatory tales just happens to be David Tibet, the founder of Current 93, and that particular album was inspired by that particular story. 

Tibet's music isn't solely limited to Stenbock as inspiration though;  it reflects at least one way in which the stories and authors in this book (and beyond) have "crept, crept, crept" into his work; in the introduction to this book he lists other music which has been inspired by Ligotti, Machen,  M.R. James and others, whose "names and phrases and worlds and dreams" he has "channeled" into what he's done.  And if Faust is any indication of how he's managed this, I need to listen to more.

Getting to the book now, it's one thing reading an anthology of strange, supernatural tales and it's quite another to read a book that serves as part of a roadmap of stories that have not only made a huge influence on someone's life, but continue to "enthral, and terrify" that person. All of these stories, he says,
"...spell how close is the darkness, how subtly and slyly it may seep into our lives and change them utterly." 
"Enthral, and terrify" they did in my case, and seep into my life is an understatement in the case of some of these stories.  For example,  Stenbock's "Faust" I had to put down in the middle and continue the next day because it was so utterly terrifying;  "The Tower of Moab" by L.A. Lewis and  "The Testament of Magdalen Blair" by Aleister Crowley  took me out the comfort of my reading chair, out of my living room, and into another place entirely.  Those last two are probably imprinted on my brain forever now, and along with the two stories and two poems by Stenbock in this book, have raised the bar for what I'll be expecting from my strange/dark fiction reading from this point on.  Some of these twenty-eight stories I've read before, but I didn't care -- I got a  sense that they belonged here for some reason so I reread them with absolute pleasure.


I'll post the contents here, but I will not be going into any detail about any of them. That should be a pleasure best left to anyone reading this post.

"The Moons at My Door" by David Tibet

*"Faust," "The True Story of a Vampire," "Vol d'Amor," and "Requiem"  by Count Eric Stanislaus Stenbock 

"Casting the Runes," "A School Story," and "O, Whistle and I'll Come to You My Lad" by MR James

*"He Cometh and He Passeth By" and "Look Up There!" by HR Wakefield

"The Horla" by Guy de Maupassant

"The White People," by Arthur Machen

* "The Testament of Magdalen Blair," by Aleister Crowley

"The Frolic" and "Les Fleurs," by Thomas Ligotti

"The Monkey's Paw," by WW Jacobs

 * "Ravissante," by Robert Aickman

"Smee," by A.M. Burrage

"Sredni Vashtar," by Saki

"Bluebeard," by Charles Perrault

"The Touch of Pan," by Algernon Blackwood

From "The King in Yellow," by R.W. Chambers

 *"Young Tambling," traditional (as sung by Anne Briggs)

* "The Hobyahs," traditional

 *"Levana and Our Ladies of Sorrows," by Thomas de Quincey

 *From "The Thunder: Perfect Mind"

From The Epic of Gilgameš

 *"Couching at the Door," by DK Broster

"The Old Nurse's Tale," by Elizabeth Gaskell

Rounding out the rest of this book are "Biographical and Story Notes," by Mark Valentine and "Lunar Tunes," by David Tibet. 

The asterisks by a few of the story titles mark those I hadn't previously read; I'll just briefly mention a few of those here.  Some time ago I preordered (and am now anxiously awaiting) Strange Attractor's  edition of Of Kings and Things: Strange Tales and Decadent Poems by Count Eric Stanislaus Stenbockalso edited by David Tibet. Not to steal Strange Attractor's thunder, but if anyone's interested, Snuggly Books has recently published a collection of Stenbock's work called Studies of Death.   If the Stenbock entries in The Moons at Your Door are any hint of what's to come, I'll be freaked out, utterly terrified, and delighted all at the same time. HR Wakefield's two entries reminded me of MR James, perhaps not with as much depth, but both had eerie twists; Aleister Crowley's "The Testament of Magdalen Blair" chilled me to my bones with its implications.   Aickman's "Ravissante" actually woke me up one morning at 4:30 with an "aha" moment; evidently it was strange and powerful enough to have lingered on in my sleeping subconscious after reading it twice.  "Young Tambling" sent me to youtube to listen to the haunting voice of Anne Briggs;  "Couching at the Door" seems mild and even a bit silly at first but don't let it fool you: it hides a darkness that completely crept under my skin and has stayed there. 

I'm now deep into a second round of Current 93's Faust and thinking how sad I am that this book is over, but fortunately all is not lost.  I have Tibet's newest collection, There is a Graveyard That Dwells in Man (also preordered) to look forward to.  I'm just sorry I didn't save The Moons At Your Door for October reading -- it would have been great to include it in the heading-to-Halloween lineup.

One more thing: yes, you may have many of these stories in various anthologies shelved in your library, but the ones you probably don't are well worth the cost of this book.  The Moons At Your Door should be a mainstay in the home libraries of any serious reader of strange/dark/supernatural fiction.




Tuesday, September 11, 2018

two beautiful books from John Gale: Saraband of Sable; A Damask of the Dead

"For do not we all wait for something that we know nothing of, something that has not arrived, and possibly never will."  -- from "Vigil," A Damask of the Dead 



A few months ago for reasons I still can't put my finger on, I picked up a copy of his Saraband of Sable from Egaeus Press (the third book in the Egaeus Press Keynote Edition series), never having read anything by John Gale before that time.  Now I would read anything this man writes.




9780993527890
Egaeus Press, 2018
illustrated by Alfredo Guido
185 pp; hardcover

With absolutely no idea what to expect from this author on opening the book,  it didn't take me long at all to realize that I had something exquisite in my hands. By the time I'd finished it, I was telling everyone and anyone who reads dark/strange/weird fiction that they need to buy a copy of this short but sophisticated, highly-satisfying collection of tales, not just because the stories are so good, but also because of the unique quality of the writing.  I'm actually lost for words in trying to describe it, so perhaps I should refer to the description at Egaeus (from the link above) which says that
"Saraband of Sable presents eight of Gale's sumptuous strange tales; dreamlike at times, dense in their imagery yet delicate as dimming perfume."
It also noted there that the author's "previous collections" ... "garnered praise for their sophisticated and decadent prose styling," and I'd only add that I found a sort of ethereal quality to his work, but it really goes much deeper than any description that my non-writer's head can produce.  The most surprising quality of these stories, though, is that while basking in the sheer beauty of the writing, it's like the clouds lift and there at the heart of each story is the darkness that's been peeking through all along, finally emerging with gut-punching force. And while it seems that we're in the middle of long ago and far away, the essentially-human traits that are represented here are tragic, real and timeless. One more thing -- the incorporation of the natural world flows beautifully through each and every story, as in this description of a city's necropolis:
"... a few do venture here, to tarry for a while amidst the cypress and the ebony poplars, basking in the light which falls here like tarnished copper during the diurnal hours; they are the dreamers that revere the lank and elegant grasses that grow between the monuments of obsidian and chrysoberyl, the grasses that turn from jade to gold during autumn; and they love the jackdaws who inhabit the sable green of the elder yews and who often speak in the voices of the dead through eating the fruits of the trees that look like crimson pearls, the trees whose roots bind tight the ivory bones of the long departed."  (from "Lord of the Porphyry Nenuphar"). 
The truth is that even before finishing Saraband of Sable, I was so enchanted that I absolutely had to have more, so I tracked down a copy of the now out-of-print A Damask of the Dead published by Tartarus.




1872621635
Tartarus Press, 2002
100 pp, hardcover (#136)

The dustjacket blurb really tells you all you need to know about this book:
"The perfumes of the East suffuse these tales, of poets, lovers and kings who, despite the luxury and beauty of their surroundings, desire something beyond."
Immediately we find ourselves standing at the gates of  "Death's City", with "palaces with colonnades flooded with darkness, stretching away into infinity," moving later onto "a castle of many turrets that reared up from a cliff of dark rock," complete with "black tourmaline crypts," at some point reaching an "onyx-domed city."  The fourteen stories in this book transport the reader completely out of this world and into others where sorcery is a natural part of life, where poets can really fall in love with the moon, or where the ghost of a king appears one night to give advice to his son and heir, and more.

Fantastical these stories may be, but they are not breezy tales with rewards at the end; as with Saraband of Sable, there is only tragedy, unhappiness, and darkness to be found within.

On the dustjacket blurb of A Damask of the Dead, Mark Valentine has this to say:
"As Machen has observed, literature consists in the art of telling a wonderful story in a wonderful manner. Few writers today acknowledge the need for either element. John Gale is someone who has mastered both."
I couldn't agree more, and that goes for Saraband of Sable as well.  John Gale is a rare find indeed.

So highly recommended that no scale exists for how highly I recommend these books.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

The Marvelous Story of Claire D'Amour, by Maurice Magre, adapted by Brian Stableford

9781612276526
Black Coat Press, 2017
254 pp

paperback

"They were all dreamers, and they were there because they had dreamed of the ideal on earth, and were suffering bitterly..." -- 175

After spending the summer exploring other areas of reading interest, I'm back here again with this book, which is the first of twelve in a series exploring the work of Maurice Magre, a French writer, who as Brian Stableford reveals in this book's introduction, was "one of the most far-ranging and extravagant writers of fantastic fiction active in France in the first half of the 20th century," and  "perhaps the finest of them."   The fourteen stories in this book are examples of "contes merveilleux," or "tales of enchantment," but as Stableford notes (and which quickly became obvious once I started reading), some of these are actually quite nihilistic, trending more along of the lines of tales of "disenchantment."  As I also discovered not too far into these tales, he's also on the money when he says that "in Magre's work the tragic component usually outweighs the comedic component, and sometimes swamps it entirely." [For a more complete take on Magre's work, I can point you to Stableford's articles in The New York  Review of Science Fiction  (NYRSF) vols. 341, 342, and 343; the last article is available for free online; the other two you can pick up as pdfs for $3.00 each.]

Before launching into just brief sketches of each story, I'll add here that while not true for every tale, there's no missing the message (as Stableford tells us)  that "amour, although irresistible is invariably fatal because it is blinded by illusion" (NYRSF, 341, 7), which may reflect on events in Magre's own life and how they influenced his fiction.  In the introduction, for example, we learn about the author's breakup with "the first woman with whom he became infatuated as soon as he discovered that she had slept with someone -- someone he found particularly loathsome," and that this same motif also runs "incessantly" through Magre's stories. It may be that the author "changed his philosophy of amorous relationships abruptly in 1903", and if so, it is probably
" not a coincidence that Maurice, in "Histoire merveilleuse de Claire d'Amour" is blinded by illusion, and thus immunized against jealousy. Such, so far as it can be determined, is the personal context of Magre's early fiction, insofar as it deals with claire d'amour -- i.e., the bright light of amour in the broad sense."
Whether or not this background is of interest to anyone else or not, the bottom line is that I fell in love with this book while reading it, and as brutal as it can be sometimes, it is absolutely delightful.

In this collection of tales, it is "amour," "the flower of youth," the power of illusion, and "the ideal" that takes center stage, beginning with "Marcelle."  Unlike the stories that follow it, there are no elements of the fantastic to be found anywhere, just a man whose lover deceives him with other men. He breaks it off in anger, later bemoaning that he'd killed "amour...by virtue of stupidity and pride."  "Doctor Faust's First Love" follows a young student named Fritz in love with the daughter of the local burgomaster, Elsbeth. Sadly, Elsbeth has a "mediocre soul" under her outer beauty and accepts her father's choice of husband, a "rich and aged lord." Fritz, believing that "science and labor might perhaps bring a remedy to his woes," goes to visit local sage Dr. Faust and arrives at just the wrong time. "Marinette and Old Water-Sprite" is a delightful tale about a sad young girl and those who love her, including a water sprite, a simple young man "full of gaiety and charm, and a "very rich lord," born under the sign of Saturn. The centerpiece of the book, and the titular story is next, "The Marvellous Story of Claire D'Amour. "  One would think that when one has Jesus Christ and the Holy Virgin as godparents, life would be great for young Maurice.  It may have been except for the "gift of illusion" bestowed upon him by the Sandman that will permit Maurice "never to see life as it is." When he meets and falls in love with the poor, amoral but beautiful Claire, that extra gift will cost him.   Beyond excellent, it is my favorite story in the book and while this one is definitely on the nihilistic side, it is a joy to read.


Maurice Magre, from Black Coat Press

"The Toy Merchant" is the story of Lubin and Colette, who vow as children to love each other forever.  It starts out sweetly enough and then BAM!, end of that.  How I won't say, but it's another good one.  Next up is "The Story of Lili-Des-Roses and the Black Prince," in which Lili, "the glory of the country" scorns the simple pastor Jean-des-Bois and his "limitless love for her" in favor of the black prince"because he is rich."   This one is followed by "The Poor Musician and the Little Genie," which also touches on amour but also something a bit different -- the love and dedication of an artist for his art.  "The Flower of Youth" comes next, a true quest story in which young Joël must find the flower of youth in order to marry Princess Raphaële, who has sworn to love only the "King of France, the Devil," or the man who brings her this treasure.  She is, of course, taking advantage of his "naivety" and being cruel, but he doesn't know this, and off he goes, abandoning everything previously dear to him in his search.  A very twisty ending has this one, catching me completely by surprise.  In "The Story of an Unlucky Grenadier," a young man who has, since childhood, had the worst luck ever, desperately wants to impress the parents of the woman he loves after they refuse to consent to the marriage.  All I'll say about this story is that maybe he should have rethought that idea.  "The Doll" is its own way a poignant story, focusing on a man whose attraction to a beautiful actress causes him to rethink his career choices in order to get her attention while he wonders what he can do to make her love him.   "The Goatherd King" has a lovely touch of irony, beginning with a prophecy made to young Eloi by a witch who reveals that he is destined to be a king; this is followed by "The Last Siren" who is discovered by a man in the Seine after deciding to end it all.  Finally, the end of this book offers  "Jeannett's Three Professions," reminding me a bit of a rather twisted "Parable of the Talents."

I can't begin to say how very much I enjoyed this book and how I looked forward to coming back to it every time I had to put it down.  I've been stockpiling books from this series for a while, and now that I've had my first taste of Magre, I don't doubt that I'll be reading as many of them as I can.

yes, yes, yes, highly recommended. 

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Compulsory Games, by Robert Aickman (ed.) Victoria Nelson


9781681371894
NYRB Classics, 2018
341 pp

paperback

Just recently I told someone who'd never read an Aickman story  that while reading this author's work,  don't go looking for the weird, the strange, or the horror in his work, because it will pop out at you when you're least expecting it.  So imagine my surprise when my own thoughts were somewhat mirrored in one of the stories in this book,  "The Fully-Conducted Tour,"in which Aickman says that
"... strange things happen all the time to many of us, if once we can get our minds off our own little concerns.  One point is that the strangeness usually takes an unexpected form, it is no good looking looking for something strange.  It only happens when you're not looking." 
 And when you finally catch on,  when the strangeness finally makes its way onto your radar, you find yourself, as the narrator in "The Strangers" describes, at
 "...the moment one yells, and with luck, wakes up, during a long nightmare: its nature, can never be quite examined, quite elucidated, or quite extinguished."
Or, to put it in another way, as the editor notes in her introduction to this book, the "kinds of questions" that are left in the wake of any Aickman story,
 "lay eggs under your skin. No satisfactory answers are available, either in the stories themselves or in the readers's head.  More precisely, any answer that might be proffered will be (to echo an Aickman title) insufficient."
Personally, I think Aickman was a genius writer and an artist in every sense of the word.   His writing is unique -- reading him  really is like being caught up in someone's bizarre nightmares that straddle the real world and a different sort of space in which time, nature, and human oddities all merge into the surreal or the strange. In Compulsory Games, there are numerous examples of his work that begin with ordinary people in ordinary situations on ordinary days, creeping slowly into the realm of the strange before it hits you that ordinary has left the building.     In "Hand in Glove," for example, two young women decide to go on a picnic in the countryside after one of them ends a bad relationship.  Things start out benignly enough, and then everything completely changes -- at first in subtle ways, and then before you know it, this picnic takes on a most menacing, surreal tone. And even then, it's not quite over.  Or take "Residents Only," which on one hand obviously highlights some of the complete absurdities of a town's council bureaucracy and then turns into something much, much darker.  With Aickman, the simplest things can take on terrifying significance, for example, a herd of cows, an airplane, or a house on a riverbank.  He builds dread and the feeling of doom ever so slightly, and he has the ability to horrify without overtly doing so.  In this book, as is true in most of his work, half the fun of reading is in trying to discern exactly what is going  on; sometimes the situation seems pretty straightforward but then, after reading the same story a second time, lends itself to an entirely different way of thinking as you pick up on things missed the first time around. 

Out of fifteen, I didn't particularly care for two ("A Disciple of Plato" and "Raising the Wind); as for the remainder, each had its own moments of brilliance. I loved "Hand in Glove," my personal favorite, which is one of the creepiest and the best stories in this collection once you stop to consider what's going on here; "The Strangers" is another favorite, taking on a theme familiar to horror readers but with added twists and a deeper darkness,  and "No Time is Passing" takes us into that zone so familiar to Aickman readers where time, space, and nature go awry in a most surreal way.  The rest I will leave to others to discover, but with the exception of the two I mentioned that I didn't care for, they are a mix of creepy, strange, just plain weird, or slow-burning horror tales told only as Robert Aickman can tell them. 


 The stories he writes are, for the most part brilliant, capturing the nuances that make people human or some recognizable, realistic situation that  shortly begins to morph into something beyond weird before all is said and done.  His work is definitely not geared toward readers who need closure ... his stories are, again borrowing from the introduction, like a "door left confoundingly ajar."  One more thing -- I've seen several reviews by readers who say that this should not be your first experience with Aickman, but I have to disagree.  The stories in Compulsory Games are not nearly as complicated as most of his work in other collections, so this book offers a learning experience in  how to read/approach Aickman.   I also know that the Aickman-newbie friend with whom I read this book was so wowed by it that he immediately ordered another book of  Aickman stories as soon as he'd finished this one. 

Take your time with it, and be aware that you might feel lost or groping around in the dark while reading, but trust me, the experience is well worth every second.  Very highly recommended. 


for a professional review, read "Burial Plots" by Anwen Crawford at The New Yorker. 

Friday, May 18, 2018

"What's your favorite shade of yellow?" Giallo Fantastique (ed.) Ross E. Lockhart

9781939905062
Word Horde, 2015
225 pp

paperback

Now here's something you don't run across every day: a book filled with stories blending giallo and the fantastique, as interpreted by the twelve authors contributing to this volume.  In his introduction Ross Lockhart says that what we're about to read is
"a paranoiac descent into a dark world of literary Grand Guignol like no other ... on the one hand grim and fantastic, on the other pure (if grotesque) cinematic fun" 
and he isn't joking.  Fun, for sure; grotesque, definitely; and grim is an understatement.

Rather than just doing my usual, I'll focus on my favorite three stories here, in order of appearance.

Lockhart made a wise move in using Michael Kazepis' "Minerva" as the gateway to the rest of this collection; as I've often noted, for me the first story should whet the reader's appetite for what's to come,  and it most certainly did that.   While I could feel giallo happening here,  this story is also incredibly weird, as in good weird, as in brain-boggling weird.  It centers around a young woman who comes to Greece after the death of her estranged brother.   She starts out with the idea of making "an attempt to know something about him as the man he'd become," and gets way more exposure to him than she'd bargained for. I love the out-of-the-box, strange way this writer thinks, most especially during a scene in a most bizarre theater.   Like the main character  who says at one point "I never want this to end," -- well, neither did I.    Anya Martin's "Sensoria" also gets my vote in the category of great, mixing music, the artist's inner gaze, and the psychedelic/psychotropic to create a story I can only describe as surreal.   I may have just discovered what it might be like to enter into someone else's hallucination.    Nods to giallo in this one, but to me it moves much more along the fantastique line; it's a story you live rather than simply read.     "Sensoria" is one of the most truly original stories ever;  the ending on this one will send you right back to its beginning to read it again.  And then maybe a third time.   And even then you'll still be thinking about it.  And finally, we have Orrin Grey's  "The Red Church."   Sick of writing "fluff pieces," when Yvonne is assigned to interview eccentric artist Wade Gorman, "a brilliant underground artist" who hasn't produced anything in the last six years, she's excited.  Hoping for an "exclusive" on possibly new projects, she makes her way to Gorman's studio.  Let's just say the experience will change her forever.  I made the  mistake of reading this one just before I turned off the book light and closed my eyes; I kept seeing it play out in my head, unable to turn off the completely unnerving feelings it caused.  What these three stories have in common goes far, far beyond the thematic elements of this book; these are some of the most literary, most well-written  pieces of horror that I've encountered in some time.  If more of today's horror writers would learn to write like these three people, I might be tempted to read more contemporary work.    Outside of these three, I have to give major applause to Garrett Cook for his "Hello Handsome," a not-for-the-squeamish murder tale which is told from a different, most unsettling, and original perspective. 



Bava's "The Girl Who Knew Too Much" from Kultguy's Keep


Pointing out these stories specifically as personal favorites doesn't mean I didn't like the other ones, because there is some really good, quality writing going on here.  Quite honestly, the only one that I really didn't care for was the last story written by Brian Keene, "Exit Strategies. "  Here we find a serial killer on a mission, but for me it read like the author just wanted to throw in a bunch of killings, violence, and gore for scare effect.   Yes, there's a bit of plot, but it's nowhere near as nicely composed as the more literary offerings in this book, and I'm still kind of wondering how it fits with the rest of the stories here.

The other authors in this book are Adam Cesare, Nikki Guerlain, MP Johnson, Cameron Pierce, Ennis Drake, E Catherine Tobler, and John Langan, most of whom are new to me and all of whom bring a unique take on that space where, as the editor reveals, "crime and supernatural horrors" intersect.     You can find the full table of contents here at SF Signal.   This one I'd certainly recommend.




Saturday, May 12, 2018

The Other Passenger, by John Keir Cross


9781943910977
Valancourt Books, 2017
originally published 1944
261 pp

hardcover

"We go, you see; and with us goes always Another Passenger. He is beside us in every deepest action and speaks through us in every fateful announcement. There is no escaping him or his influence. His voice whispers suddenly in the night, his presence intangibly lingers at our shoulder when we feel ourselves most alone...  We go; and he -- the Other Passenger -- is always at our side."


In the introduction to The Other Passenger, writer and blogger J.F. Norris from Pretty Sinister Books (which has been responsible many times over for titles added to my out-of-control tbr pile) says that
"John Keir Cross is a master at capturing and evoking the indescribable, of exposing the forbidden desires and the criminal impulses, of showing us the people who fall in love with the macabre.  The Other Passenger will take you on whirlwind tour from dizzying heights of delirium and whimsy to the chasms where lie tortured souls forever lost."
 I couldn't agree more.  It is one of those rare books which from the very beginning pushed me to an edge where I don't normally find myself while reading and then kept me there until it was all over.  I knew this book and I were meant for each other after reading the first story, "The Glass Eye," which for a while there gave me an eerie sense of déjà vu before I remembered I'd seen it played out on TV somewhere -- a quick bit of research and I discovered that it was an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. I pulled out my  DVD of Season 3 and  watched it again, and yes, there's Jessica Tandy as Julia, at the theater to catch Max Collodi's show.  Back to the book for another read and from


from Shatner's Toupee

that point on, I knew I was in good hands so I just surrendered and let John Keir Cross take me where ever he was going to go.

Since J.F. Norris has completely captured the essence of this book in the paragraph I quoted above, there's really not much left to say here, except that each and every story has some sort of gut punch, sometimes quiet, sometimes full force.  While every story in this book is beyond excellent, my favorite is "Miss Thing and the Surrealist."  Like many of the other tales in this collection, the true horror in that one sneaks up on you only at the end as you brace yourself from the start, knowing that something's going to happen, but you just don't know what that something's going to be.  You might think you know, but then everything changes in an instant.  The stories here all feature some sort of  tragic figure, adding a touch of poignancy to their situations,  but then things begin to turn toward the horrific as you come to realize the sense of doom that engulfs them.  It's like Cross has looked into a variety of human souls and has brought forth the darkest or most tragic among them. The eerieness of this book is so finely crafted that, as I said earlier, it will keep you on the edge and on edge until that final page has been turned.

Once again, my thanks to Valancourt for bringing this book back into print.









Monday, May 7, 2018

back to the present with The Garden of Blue Roses, by Michael Barsa

9781630230616
Underland Press, 2018
226 pp

paperback


"...he was both a fiction and real somehow." 

It took me some time to readjust to the real world after reading this book, which threw me completely off kilter during my time in the head of the main character, not always a comfortable place to be.  There are a number of unsettling things about this story, not so much because of what happens here, but rather because it left me somewhat disoriented throughout, trying to discern what exactly was real and what was not. In a mind that's filled with fragments of memory, strange dreams and living in a house filled with shadows and "strange echoes," it can get tricky sometimes. To his great credit, the author immerses us in atmosphere from page one and doesn't let up, ratcheting up the tension until it actually becomes a relief to finally make it to the end and breathe again.

 Briefly, because this is yet again another novel that needs to be experienced,  Milo Crane and his older sister Klara live together in the family home after the death of their parents in a car accident.  It is a quiet life for both of them, and Milo wouldn't have it any other way.  Given his dysfunctional childhood and his failed attempt at college, home suits him just fine. As we're told, thanks to their parents, neither Milo nor Klara were "suited for the modern world," so they share the house, Milo busy  constructing models while imagining himself as part of the world his figures inhabited. Life changes though when Klara decides to make big changes in the landscaping and brings in Henri Blanc, the gardener who will be doing the work.  Is it, as he wonders, only Milo's imagination that makes him so "wary" of this man?  Or is there something more at play here?  The dilemma here is that we're not quite certain what's real and what is a fiction.  Fictions, according to Milo's father, live "in the mind. Of the reader," and Milo has come to the point where he needs to, as he says,
"find a way out of this novel I was trapped in -- out of the entire mental architecture I'd built up and only now realized was a cage..."
But at some point, the fictions and the reality will merge, and then...

I know it's incredibly cliché to say this, but this book really does work in layers, and they are beyond-skillfully crafted here in this author's debut novel. Secrets abound, memories come to light, and even then we're still not sure that we're dealing in reality.  While there is a LOT happening here that will jump out at you, it is, in a very big way, a book that deals with the question of perception, to the point where everything has to be questioned.   The first time through was unsettling; the second time through I gained much more of an appreciation for what he's done here. Not only has he produced a rather chilling tale, but if you look at (and are familiar with) the literary references the author mentions,  you can definitely see how these have helped to shape his own narrative in terms of both style and story; at the same time, this is clearly an original work.  And without going into any sort of detail,  I'll just say that my favorite references scattered throughout this novel are those relating to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein -- to me they were the most appropriate of all, but I won't say why because I don't want to wreck anything.

Don't expect a quick thrill here, because that's not what's going in in this book.  It is a story that both intelligent readers and literary-minded authors can enjoy.  And if this is his first offering, I'll be the first one in line for the next.