Thursday, March 8, 2018

War With the Newts, by Karel Čapek

Northwestern University Press
European Classics, 1999
originally published as Valka s mloky, 1936
translated by M & .R. Weatherall
370 pp


"... we are all responsible for it."

Anyone who has not yet read this book should run, not walk, to find a copy.  I don't particularly care for apocalyptic fiction but this book is absolutely brilliant.  I'll also argue that although written in the 1930s, it's still highly relevant today in many ways; it's one that can go on the list of "timeless" books, making it a true classic.   It's also the epitome of offbeat, quirky, satirical and sardonic, which puts it squarely in my wheelhouse.  And even as humankind makes its journey toward the end of civilization as we know it, as it continues to sow the seeds of its own destruction,  god help me, I couldn't help but laugh through a huge part of this book.  I'm sitting here giggling with embarrassment  right now thinking how callous that makes me sound, but you really have to read it to understand.

The book chronicles the journey to the "War with the newts" in a sort of documentary style, beginning at the island of Tana Masah "right on the equator, a bit to the west of Sumatra..."  It is there that Captain J. van Toch has sailed, hoping to find a new source of pearl-bearing oysters.  He's told that there is a "strip of coast" where no one will go into the water because of "Sharks, and all the rest," along with "sea devils" which the natives refer to as "Tapa." Eventually he gets one poor guy to get in the water at Devil's Bay, where he comes back not only with oysters but also with reports of "thousands of devils."  These devils are actually salamanders, some "as big as seals."   van Toch gets the idea that if he can "make those lizards tame, and train them, ...they'll bring me the pearl-shells."  He also gets the idea that to fight the shark problem, he'll arm these tapa-boys  with knives.   The captain sees endless possibilities here, and later, back on land, explains to a potential investor that  that if only he had the right kind of ship he could transport these lizards anywhere he liked.  If he could take them and drop them in the ocean here and there...

... and thus it begins.

The author uses a number of different narrative styles to relate the history of the newts and the "steps of civilization"  -- there are personal accounts, scientific (and pseudoscientific) reports, letters, meeting minutes, newspaper cuttings, etc.etc., all in an effort to (as revealed in the introduction) "make his science fiction more lifelike." There are pictures of business cards, handwritten notes, and several changes in typeface that help to achieve that goal.  Čapek

"patterned his narrative on the events of the time, the catchwords, the diplomatic maneuvers, and the advertising slogans, and he made allusions to living people in their work. " (xviii)
It's a great strategy, and it works.  As this sort of documentarized history proceeds, though, it's what's under all of this that really draws our attention -- rampant capitalism on an epic scale.  With the newts, who require very little cost outlay other than food, the world has an unlimited supply of cheap labor:
"They have learned to use machines and numbers... They have omitted from human civilization everything that was without purpose, diverting, fantastic, or ancient; in this way they have left out all that is human, and have taken over only the portion that is practical, technical, and utilitarian."
 The question is at what cost, but I'll leave that for other readers to discover.

It's impossible not to notice parallels with  history up to the time this book was written -- slavery, exploitation, reform movements, immigration, and at the end, you'll get a shocking jolt as you realize what is behind the actual "war with the newts." Careful readers will notice the ongoing foreshadowing of what's to come, so read this book slowly.   At the same time, because of the parallels to our own time, it's also impossible not to realize that this could could have been published in the last decade or so -- hell, it could have been published last week!

Yes, while a book about a war with newts might seem, as one of my friends calls it, "preposterous," there is definitely a method in the author's madness, as well as a lesson to be heeded.  Do yourself a favor and as I said, run, do not walk, to find a copy.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Terror Tales of Wales (ed.) Paul Finch

Gray Friar Press, 2014
240 pp


My introduction to this so-far great series of British regional horror tales edited by Paul Finch was the excellent Terror Tales of the Seaside.  Like that one, Terror Tales of Wales is a collection of stories by modern writers of horror with 13(!) brief interludes in between which bring to the table a number of short bits of Welsh/Celtic history, folklore, myths, and legends.
The back-cover blurb tells us that Wales is 
"the cradle of poetry, song and mythic rural splendour. But also a scene of oppression and tragedy, where angry spirits stalk castle and coal mine alike, death-knells sound amid fogbound peaks, and dragons stir in bottomless pools..."
and indeed, many of the stories found in this collection are tied to the Welsh landscape, either on terra firma, in freshwater lakes, or related to the sea.  And, as  in my favorite horror stories, there are a number of  all too-human anxieties that are laid bare here; when those are combined with the mythological, the supernatural,  and the natural elements, the result is a group of stories that move well beyond the standard fare into something much more elevated and well worth reading.

While there are a number of really good stories here, I did have a few favorites, including Reggie Oliver's "Druid's Rest."  I wasn't too far into it before I realized that it read much like Aickman's "The Trains," and then...  If Aickmanesque is any descriptor, this story of two young women seeking shelter from a storm in a closed hotel definitely falls under that heading.   Thana Niveau's "The Face, was also great, a tale in which a photographer whose "favorite place of all to photograph" is the waterfall called Pistyll Rheaedr.    While going through her photos and tagging friends Owain and Gareth at the falls, she is asked by the photo software "who is this?" noting a spot at the top.  She sees no one at all, but the computer insists that there's someone there. When she looks at it in a different way, it's then she sees what might be a face, but might be only a trick of the eye since "nature's full of weird things." She'll get a chance for an up close and personal view when she accompanies Gareth to photograph him climbing the falls when they freeze over.   "Matilda of the Night" by Stephen Volk is another standout, in which a folklorist named Rees gets wind of an elderly woman in a nursing home who swears the Gwrach-y-Rhibyn, whose appearance portends death, has paid a visit, and sure enough, death followed in its wake.  Rees makes a deal with the woman that if he stays with her until she dies, she'll tell him all she knows, but it's deal that will cost him. 

Pistill Rheaedr, from Wikipedia

The remaining stories are also quite good, although I'm still not sure about "Dialedd" by Bryn Fortey, which came off as a piece of dark humor that didn't seem to fit the whole "Terror Tales" connection (in my opinion):

"Under the Windings of the Sea" by Ray Cluley
"Old as the Hills," by Steve Duffy
"Swallowing a Dirty Seed," by Simon Clark
"Don't Leave Me Down Here," by Steve Lockley
"The Sound of the Sea," by Paul Lewis
"The Flow," by Tim Lebbon
"The Offspring," by Steve Jordan
"The Rising Tide" by Priya Sharma
"Apple of their Eyes," by Gary Fry
"Learning the Language", by John Llewellyn Probert

I have three unread "Terror Tales" books on my shelves and am slowly picking up the rest until I have the complete set.  They're worth whatever I'll pay since not only are these deliciously nightmarish, but they're also a great example of the work of modern horror writers who definitely know how to ply their craft.  The idea of grounding an entire body of work in regional horror is just brilliant.