Sunday, August 21, 2016

The Wretch of the Sun, by Michael Cisco

Hippocampus Press, 2016
272 pp

read earlier

"Their power is their invisibility, the illusion that they don't exist, the illusion that they stand for something if they do exist ..."

Extremely challenging, but well worth it, as are all of Michael Cisco's works that I've read, both in short story format and novels.  If you google the author, the phrase "avant-garde" comes up a lot, and that pretty much sums up his style of writing.  The Wretch of the Sun is a demanding read, which calls for active reader participation, since he's certainly not going to be handing out answers in a clearly-defined way.

Trying to explain this novel is probably as challenging as reading it, so I'm not even going to attempt it. It is and isn't a haunted house novel; it is and isn't a ghost story, and it definitely has a dystopian feel to it.   It's a book about secrets and different forms of terror, and at the center of it all stands the house known as Sanglade.  It's a place where "there are ghosts in the house," yet
 "it's as if the house were a spirit itself. Artificial intelligence. Edifice intelligence. The other ghosts are like its guests or disciples."
And while a student named Trudy Bailey is trying to find out all she can about the house and the ghosts of Sanglade, little by little the reader comes to realize there are ghosts on the streets of this city as well, in the form of a secret organization working in the background against any form of dissent (i.e., the truth). This group has its own secret prisons, where horrific things happen, "all entirely legal; one way or the other everyone voted for this."  I think, though that another important component of this story is how truths are disseminated here, for example: one man sees visions of the future during his migraines, history plays a role in the revelations about the house, and there's one man who wants the story of his arrest and imprisonment to be told, but can't do so openly, so he resorts to a series of terrible puppet shows/short plays to get the word out about "el miserable del sol," doing so in a sort of code. As the narrator tells us,
"Or to be more precise, it is in as many codes as could be managed." 
Sadly, the performances are so badly done that the audiences leave before the truth gets out, which adds an intensely tragic note to the whole thing.

As I said earlier, this book is very challenging, to the point of brain-frying frustration, but there is a wonderful novel underneath it all.  It really does take a while to put everything together, but by that time I was just left with my mouth hanging open because of how really good this story actually is.  There are some truly excellent moments here, for example, when Celada (the man who sees visions during his migraines) compares the haunted house, "the shrine where life triumphs over death, perfection actually manifesting itself," its ghosts, which are "frightening because they are too perfect to see without going insane or being injured somehow by intensity of adoration," and the secret organization Ukehy, which is frightening because they will torture and kill you; they are elementals of sordidness and cruelty." 

There is so much more here to be experienced,  so I'll leave it there.  If you get to the end of this book and you say "WTF did I just read," well, maybe Michael Cisco isn't your cuppa. But if you get to the end of this book like I did and think "oh my god, what a creepy story, all the more creepy  because he nails it,"  then go on and read the rest of his work. I'm planning a reread of his The San Veneficio Canon sometime soon, but he has a lot more to offer as well.  Cisco is definitely not a mainstream writer relying on standard tropes or same-old same-old (which is a good thing for me),  and his writing takes a lot of work and time.  But patience is its own reward in this case.

By the way,  a very special thanks to the person known as Seregil of Rhiminee at Risingshadow who told me about this book in an online group we're in together at goodreads. You were right. I loved it.

Monday, August 8, 2016

filled to brimming with paranoia: Saint Peter's Snow, by Leo Perutz

Pushkin Vertigo, 2016
originally published as Sankt Petri-Schnee
translation by Eric Mosbacher
188 pp


When I got to the end of this book, my first reaction was a very jolting "what?" but in the space of a couple of seconds, it changed to "ah, I get it."

 Saint Peter's Snow was originally published in 1933 by Austrian publisher Paul Zsolnay,  whom the Nazis labeled as a "Jewish" publisher, causing many of his writers' works (including that of Perutz, also living in Austria)  to be banned in Germany.  I mention this little tidbit of information because it might help to put the book in historical context, which is very important in this case,  and also so that anyone who may be interested in Saint Peter's Snow won't have the "what?" reaction I did because I'd completely forgotten about it.  Enough of that, now briefly to the book.

I was seriously caught up in this strange book from the beginning because as the novel opens, the main character, Georg Amberg, has evidently been in a deep coma, and on coming out of it, has lost his memory.  First, what he thinks he remembers and what he's told is the reason why he's laid up in a hospital bed are two different animals; second, he thinks he's been there five days but he's been told it's been five weeks, and third, he's absolutely positive that the hospital porter attending him is a disguised Prince Praxatin, "the last of the house of Rurik." Huh??  So right away the reader feels a sense of disorientation along with the main character, and that feeling continues throughout the rest of the book.  The story then launches into Amberg's recollections about the time leading up to his hospitalization, but the reader doesn't quite know if this is a product of his damaged memory or if what he's saying is actually what happened.  It's a balancing act where the reader walks a fine line -- you have to decide if what Amberg remembers is actually true and if you go that route, then you have to wonder why the doctors, nurses and others may be trying to insist that he's delusional.  It's an interesting scenario, for sure, and I found myself trying to find clues to support both sides of that argument, and there are a number of them scattered here and there throughout this story.

 I think that's about all I'll say for the time being except for the fact that the word "sinister" can most definitely can be applied to this book, along with twisty, dark, and strange.  If anyone's at all interested in trying this novel, don't read anything that may spoil it. The back-cover blurb, in my opinion, gives a bit too much away, but I will repeat and agree with the part that says
"Saint Peter's Snow is a conspiratorial, politically charged tale of suspense about the mysterious workings of memory, and the lies we choose to believe." 
It's a novel just steeped in paranoia, and it's right up my reading alley, one I can recommend to anyone who loves obscure fiction stepping well off the beaten path.

I'll also say that even if Perutz himself wasn't Jewish, or even if his publisher hadn't been labeled as such, the Nazis likely would have banned this book from publication strictly based on the subject matter.   Perutz's work, according to several sources I've read (not limited to but including the "Did You Know" section of this edition), was highly regarded by Borges among other people, so you know it's going to be different and well worth reading.  It's a very satisfying read, but do try to remember the historical context to avoid the shaking-my-head reaction at the end.

  Pushkin Vertigo keeps coming out with some great books (Vertigo and She Who Was No More for starters); I had to buy this one from the UK but it was totally worth it.

Monday, August 1, 2016

yes, yes and yes: Experimental Film, by Gemma Files

Chizine Publications, 2015
305 pp


I've just read my favorite modern horror novel of the year thus far,  and that is Gemma Files' Experimental Film.  Not only is it a book that pushed every single one of my horror-loving buttons, it is also a story very well told, one that grabbed my attention on the second page of chapter one and didn't let up, not for one instant.  And it was done without tentacles, walking dead, or splatter, although, as the main character of this story reveals more than once, there are most certainly cosmic forces at work in this tale:
"...the world is full of holes behind which numinous presences lurk -- secrets no one should ever have to see, or want to. And those who do will never be the same."  
In downtown Toronto, Lois Cairns is on hand to review the newest ten-minute offering of film maker Wrob Barney, a guy who "rubbed a lot of people the wrong way."  She's seen his "collage art" movies before, so she's pretty much ready for anything. However, this time things are a bit different -- a certain bit of imagery in Barney's Untitled 13 sparks some memory in Lois, unsettling her and reminding her of "something, ... Not a movie."  It takes her a while but she eventually finds what that "something" is -- a particular story written by a Mrs. A. Macalla Whitcomb, originally printed in a collection of "Wendish Legends and Folklore."  She studies this story "line by line,"
"... seeing almost every phrase of it reflected in my memories of Wrob Barney's Untitled 13..."
Already "disturbed" with what she saw in the film, now she's even more so.  She knows that the "best parts" of Barney's work have always been "stolen from somebody else," so she's curious about that particular bit of imagery and where it may have come from.  A little research reveals the origins of  the clips, setting Lois on a path of discovery that she hopes will eventually become a much-needed project of her own that will connect the writer of the original stories with those bits of film.  What she doesn't realize as she begins is that  a) there are those who aren't at all happy about what she's doing and b) that her work will eventually have major implications that will move well beyond the realm of the cinematic world.

And that is where I'll leave things because to tell is to certainly spoil in this case, and well, that would just be a shame for potential readers.

silver nitrate film clip, from "Nitrate Nocturne 2," at 50 Watts

Not only is the haunting story here an absolute hackle raiser that had me flip flip flipping pages,  there are also a LOT of interesting things going on here outside of the creepy elements.  There are Lois' experiences as the mother of an autistic child, the novel's focus on films, on writing, on art in general and much, much more. After reading about the author just briefly, it seems that she's pouring out parts of her own story into these pages, something that when done well tends to augment an author's work, and here it brings an added layer of life to this book.  I loved one line in particular where she says that
"doing your art -- your work -- can help you save your own life," 
and that idea most certainly comes across in this book.

There are a number of excellent professional reviewers of this novel out there who do so much more than I can in talking about this book, but as a plain old reader person, I'll just say that this book is definitely one any horror novel lover should have on his/her shelves.  While it's probably on the tame side for a lot of readers in this genre, it has everything that I could possibly want.  Considering it's a modern novel and given how much I prefer works from the past,  well, that says a lot.