Thursday, March 28, 2019

Resonance and Revolt, by Roseanne Rabinowitz. I love this book. I seriously love it.

Eibonvale, 2018
374 pp

"I will always raise my  voice and write things down so people will know about them. I will never be like a bell without a tongue."

There is just something about this collection of stories that makes me want to buy a gazillion copies of it, then hand it out to people and tell them "you really need to read this."

 The tales offered in this book by Rosanne Rabinowitz, as noted by Lynda Rucker in her introduction,
"weave a cyclical sense of the ebb and flow of power and tyranny and resistance ..."
which you might expect from a book with this title, but that is really just the beginning.  At some point as you're reading, it dawns on you that while you've started out in some recognizable reality, suddenly  you find yourself "between the boundaries of the known places"  and have arrived at "other places, special ones," as her stories make a nearly-imperceptible shift into the periphery of the strange. What makes this collection of stories so unique and so different is that they work sublimely across time and space, past, present, and future, ultimately revealing that  "time and history exists in layers all around us" and that we are  "living with echoes of and surrounded by the past." 

Here's part of the actual blurb:
"A secret sect of medieval heretics stumbles upon the secrets of quantum entanglement, a centuries-old wanderer thrives on rebellion as well as blood in the ruins of post WWI-Munich. Anti-austerity demonstrations lead to haunting connections with past and parallel events, while quantum computing meets 'welfare reform' in our near-future.  Meanwhile, persecuted Jews in early 20th century Russia must decide whether extraterrestrials are allies or the schnorrers out of space."
When I read that little bit o' the blurb before I'd even started reading Resonance and Revolt, I knew then that this book and I were going to be soulmates. I'd also read something (and I can't remember where, sorry), that showed the author describing this book as a "melancholic merging of social realism and the strange," and that is an absolutely spot-on description. 

As just two examples of what you'll find here (although you really have to experience this book firsthand to really appreciate it), the first story "In the Pines,"  is  a sort of triptych of tales that occur in different points in time, where the centerpiece is a particular song that puts the main characters "in synch with signals and waves elsewhere," and reveals a concept that the author calls "dissonant symmetry." It begins with a woman in the past who's lost someone, and as she's trying to deal with her loneliness, the future offers its own echoes to her. Things move forward in time, carrying with them not only that song but adding to it a  deep resonance of loneliness.    In another story, "Return of the Pikart Posse," a young woman with her job on the line and a not-so-satisfying relationship travels to the Czech Republic to learn more about her subject of  her Ph.D. research.   Evelyn  is focused on a particular member of the fifteenth-century "heretic"  Pikart/Adamites, a group who broke away from the Hussite orthodoxy and thus became a target for violent repression. She takes as a sort of mantra a line from the book Lipstick Traces that "Unfulfilled desires transmit themselves across the years in unfathomable ways," and has "set out to decipher all those unfilled desires as they hurtled across the centuries."  She gets her wish, in more ways than she thought possible, as she "entwines" with the past.  This will not be the last story which works on these opening ideas, as they continue to  float throughout this entire collection.   And really, part of the genius of this book is that  the final story, "The Turning Track" (written with Mat Joiner and one I've read before in the excellent Rustblind and Silver Bright ed. David Rix) brings us back 'round to the first in a most brilliant and beautiful way.

Lynda E. Rucker sums up my feelings about this book in the first line of her introduction:
"There's something very special about finding a writer whose work speaks to you in a particular way."  
Author Roseanne Rabinowitz definitely speaks to me --  I've always believed that "history exists in layers all around us," and not solely in terms of events.  The book is a beautiful blending of the historical, the mystical, the surreal, and the strange, but even more than that, it is a book that is absolutely relevant to right now in her rendering of  many recognizable contemporary issues.    The stories do not easily yield answers, but the more you read the more in tune you become, as her writing not only crawls under your skin, but deep into your pores, your veins and your entire being.  And do not miss the excellent and most insightful introduction, but leave it until last.

I'm so incredibly impressed with the people who write for Eibonvale --  as far as I'm concerned, the authors I've read have all made it to the very peak of  my imaginary tier of writers of the strange.

I also have to once again thank the lovely Alice for sending me my copy of Resonance and Revolt. She made me a very happy person for introducing me to the work of  Roseanne Rabinowitz.  I love her work.

Friday, March 1, 2019

Kaiki: Uncanny Tales From Japan (ed.) Higashi Masao, Volumes 1, 2, and 3.

Kurodahan Press, 2009
paperback - 271 pp

Back in 2015, I bought the first volume of these three books of kaiki, Tales of Old Edo,  promptly shelved it, and as with so many other books that I own, left it sitting there unread all of this time.   So when I was prowling through my translated fiction shelves a while ago, I'd forgotten I had it, and a) it was like Christmas finding it again, and b) I decided I needed to give it a go.  It didn't take too long to find myself absolutely loving this book, and I hadn't even finished the first one before buying the other two, which did not disappoint.  

The term "kaiki shōsetsu," as explained by the editor in the introduction to this volume is used to describe "uncanny/strange/fantastic fiction," and traces back to the mid-seventeenth century.  Just briefly, because the introduction is quite lengthy (but well worth taking time to read), Masao Higashi reveals that until the second world war, the more familiar term "kaidan" was used to reference "strange tales or ghost stories" that was applied to not just fiction but also folklore and storytelling.  Afterwards, as he writes, new "genre names" began to take hold -- 
"kai'i shōsetsu (tales of the strange,) kyōfu shōsetsu (horror stories), kaiki shōsetsu (uncanny fiction) and gensō to kaiki (the fantastic and the strange) also appeared as its equivalent, and in the mid-eighties, horā (horror) came to represent the entire field." 
[As a brief aside, the little macron over the vowels means that you hold that sound for an extra tick when speaking or reading.]   There's much more to the history of Japanese strange fiction, of course, but for now this tiny little bit should suffice to explain the title.  Just one more thing: one important "characteristic" of kaiki is a "blurring of the boundary between fiction and nonfiction," which among other sources, may have its "foundation" in the "Skin-Thin Falsehood and Truth" theory of Chikamatsu Monzaemon, which said that "art abides in a realm that is neither truth nor fiction."

2011, 286 pp, paperback
Volume one encompasses stories that are set in or are connected in some way to "Old Edo," hence the title and begins with the well-known story "In a Cup of Tea" written by Lafcadio Hearn, aka Koizumi Yakumo.  Interesting factoid: this story is part of a bookend, because another more modern take (1981) on this tale finishes out the three volumes.   Here there are a mix of old and new with stories ranging from 1776 ("The Chrysanthemum Pledge" by Ueda Akinari -- whose Tales of Moonlight and Rain is a definite must read) to 2005 ("Three Old Tales of Terror" by Kyōgoku Natsuhiko), whose bizarre novel  Summer of the Ubume is also one of my favorites.    Miyabe Miyuki's  delightfully creepy "The Futon Room" makes an appearance, and as another brief aside, I recently read her collection, Apparitions: Ghosts of Old Edo (2013) which I liked but didn't love.   But by a huge margin, my favorite story in this volume is "The Inō Residence," by Inagaki Taruho (1972),  novella length in size and a tale that takes place over a thirty-day span of time. 

Volume Two takes us into the realm of "Country Delights,"  getting us out of the city and its neighborhoods into more rural and especially more isolated spaces, where anything can and does happen.  Once again, it's the longer story here that I absolutely loved, "Midnight Encounters," by Hirai Tei'ichi , written in 1960  It has all the creepiness of fine gothic blended with slowly-darkening subtle horror and strangeness, and I won't say why but it also reminded me of the legends of Pan in a different form.  There was only one story I didn't really care for, "Reunion," by Takahashi Katsuhiko (1993) because it was just too weird for me, but I can honestly say that this volume was even better than the first.  Another highlight of this book is the story called "Sea Daemons," by Izumi Kyōka (1906), another excellent  mix of horror and gothic that plays out on a cliff overhanging the sea during a raging storm and also offers a huge dose of supernatural terror on the seas.     Now that I'm thinking about these stories again, I can honestly say that with the exception of "Reunion" (which quite a few readers raved about so it's probably me),  I quite enjoyed them all and have nothing negative to say about any of them.

Now to Volume Three, Tales of the Metropolis, where the action moves back into the city streets.   In his introductory chapter, Higashi Masao notes that the stories found here are set in the "Tokyo Megalopolis,"  which sits at the juncture of the North American, Eurasian, Pacific and Phillipine tectonic plates." It is a city that has been through a number of disasters over its four hundred year history,  "earthquakes, fires, and air raids during World War II."  It is a city that has been "reduced to rubble," only to be "reborn like the phoenix," and these catastrophic events, he says, have "influenced the evolution of modern weird tales and ghost stories."  And while this idea comes across clearly in some of these stories, there's much more to be found here.

302 pp

In Yamakawa Masao's "The Talisman" (1960) for example, you clearly sense the existential angst of the young company man who fears that he's lost himself and decides to do something about it, while in "Ghosts of the Metropolis," by Toyoshima Yoshio (1924), the throngs who populate the  crowded city streets  provide the perfect prey for those who came before.  One of my favorite stories in this book was by Tanizaki Jun'ichirō, "The Face," which was written in 1918 and contains a certain trope that by now seems sort of old hat especially in Japanese horror, but I do believe this may be the earliest use of it that I'm aware of.  The added bonus to this story, that of the face itself, is delightfully eerie. I had a sense of déjà vu  reading "Doctor Mera's Mysterious Crimes," by Edogawa Rampo (1932), which I swear I've read before but in a more updated and quite possibly in a European setting.  They're all very, very good, and like writers of horror or weird/strange fiction worth their salt, these writers explore anxieties of all types which are writ large here. 

 In Endō Shusaku's terrifying tale "Spider" (1959, Volume 3) the main character feels obligated by his uncle to go to a meeting where a group of people have gathered to tell ghost stories.   He doesn't really want to be there, and he's so bored at one point that inside his head he's thinking
"Country hotel room -- the middle of the night -- the ghost of an old woman who'd hanged herself in the same room appears.  Heard it before."
That is definitely not the case across these three lovely volumes of kaiki.  There is so much variety here of the highest quality, and the editor has done a great job creating frameworks that help to put these stories into appropriate context as well as providing a detailed history of kaiki and other forms of strange fiction throughout Japan's literary and storytelling tradition.   I will say that if you go into these books solely with the expectations of a good scare, you might want to think again.  Many of these tales are open ended and demand participation and thought from the reader, so it is by no means an average horror collection.  At the same time, these books both individually and taken together will provide hours and hours of entertainment for the interested reader who wants something altogether different from same old same old.  

I leave you with a photo from Tales of Old Edo, page 23, showing pages from the 1809 edition of The Image of Asama Ravine by Ryūtei Tanahiko.  Seriously, someone needs to translate more of these works of kaiki and bring them to English-speaking readers to be savored and loved.