Friday, February 25, 2022

Waiting For the End of the World, by R.B. Russell


PS Publishing, 2020
279 pp


"It did for those with the eyes to see..."

If your only connection with R.B. Russell is the truly great work he does along with his partner Rosalie Parker in publishing books at  Tartarus Press, you should also be aware that he is also an author and a pretty damn good one.   The last book I read by R.B. Russell was his short-story collection Ghosts, and when I finished that book one of my first thoughts was that I need to read more by this man.  Off to the online realm I went for more, and I picked up two Russell books, Death Makes Strangers of Us All and this one, Waiting for the End of the World.  After reading this book, I enjoyed it so much that this morning I bought his The Stones are Singing.  I mean, I knew after Ghosts that he could do great short stories, but maintaining cohesion and  tension well enough to last the length of  a  novel is another thing altogether.  Some writers just aren't able to bring it, but that's certainly not the case here.  

I will not go too much at all into detail about what happens here, and that is because this is the sort of book where you don't realize until toward the very end that you've been given signs along the way as to what's actually going on.  Even so, I didn't actually understand that until this morning when going through all of the pages I'd tabbed; suddenly all of my synapses were on fire as I made connection after connection.  At that point it became not just a good read, but an eye-opening, crazy good read.  

It all begins as our narrator Elliot Barton is sitting in a train in October of 2006, reflecting on things, including his partner Lana, the joy of sharing life with her at their house on Sapphire Street and his job. On that first page life seems great, and then comes the first clue that there may be some trouble in this paradise.  As he says,
"Above all, I can't believe that what I did so long ago has yet to catch up with me. What I have not told Lana is I live each day as though it is my last of freedom. When the post arrives, the telephone rings, or if there is a knock at the door, I am expecting the worst, even after ... I do the calculation ... eighteen years."

 In what he describes as an "unusually fatalistic mood," he thinks about the "few words" of a  phone message he'd heard after work  and how because of it "the first stone has been loosened from the foundations of our house on Sapphire Street."   Once home, and after a night of strange dreams, the next day Lana's off to her job and Elliot plays the remainder of the message, erasing it afterwards.  It seems that a friend from his school days, Vince Reynolds, wants to talk to him about something that happened in their past.  He continues to avoid Vince on the phone, but eventually speaks to him and learns that Vince is thinking of going to the police to confess and that he would like to get together to talk.  Vince has found religion and wishes to "atone" for his "sin," to "face any punishment;" strangely though, his version of events of that day are quite different than Elliot's.   Elliot, who now has had to tell Lana what it was all about, believes it's the beginning of the end of everything; he doesn't want Vince to do anything and travels to St. Michael's  retreat where Vince and his fellow members of the Children of the Cross are now living, along with none other than a man whom the Children of the Cross believe is Jesus Christ, who has come again "to shepherd his flock."  Elliot's aim: not to have Vince reconsider his plan, but to have him "change his mind and disappear from my life once again."   What Elliot doesn't realize is that his visit to St. Michael's will change everything in ways he could not possibly expect. 

While it may sound like the plot of a crime novel, Waiting for the End of the World is anything but.  Shortly after the beginning of the present timeline, the story begins to move back and forth through  time (and knowing what I know now I'm absolutely fighting with myself to not say anything more about that).  At each move there are added elements of context, suspense and tension that kept me turning pages, yet, as I said in my initial thoughts at goodreads, while reading I kept wondering to myself what all of this was leading to.  Let me just say that there came an OMG moment toward the end where I not only realized what was happening, but also when I realized that everything that had come before has suddenly taken on momentous significance. 

Among other fascinating topics, within Waiting for the End of the World  the reader will encounter themes of religious belief through history, cults and what it is about the need for a Messiah that drives people to  gather around a particular individual to take them through an apocalypse,  the importance of dreams and the idea that one particular event can unknowingly and unwittingly change the course of things.  It's an amazing book, and the writing is utterly fantastic, drawing you in slowly until there comes that above-mentioned moment when everything just explodes.  On top of everything else, I've also made note of all of the book titles that the author included in this one, and I was so pleased to see Machen's Hill of Dreams listed among them; I'm sure that its inclusion as well as that of Rolfe's Hadrian the Seventh (and others) were not simply random choices.   

Very nicely done, and my advice for readers who at some point feel like you're wondering where this story  is headed is to just be patient and enjoy the ride,  but to be sure to pay attention along the way. In this book, things have a habit of turning up again when least expected.   This one I can certainly and very highly recommend.  Like all of my favorite books,  I can honestly and without reservation say that I've never read anything quite like it. 

Thursday, February 3, 2022

Whisper, by Chang Yu-Ko


Honford Star, 2021
originally published 2018
translated by Roddy Flagg
287 pp


  I ran across Whisper while browsing through World Literature Today, one of my go-to spots for discovering translated books. Reading through the review by Sean Guynes (where that link will take you), the words  "literary horror fiction," "spooky stuff" and "ghost" were what caught my eye,  and I read no further than the second paragraph because I just knew I had to have this book and I didn't want to know what happened.  

When I started reading it, I couldn't stop, finally finishing at two in the morning but remaining completely wired from what I'd just experienced.  Sleep -- not happening. 

Taxi driver Wu Shih-sheng and his wife Kuo Hsiang-ying used to be happy, but after Wu was laid off from his job working for an electronics importer, their lives started taking a downward path.  To make matters worse, when he'd first started the taxi driving, he'd run over someone and the victim's family took him to court where as compensation he was ordered to pay over four million dollars.  Between that and the legal fees, they had to sell their apartment; although Hsiang-ying works more than one job, their reduced circumstances had landed them in a cockroach-infested iron shack;  their daughter left home and they haven't seen her since.   And now, as the novel opens, it seems their situation just might be getting even worse: after getting yelled at by her boss at work one day,  Hsiang-ying ran into a woman in the food court causing the customer's  "bubbling tofu hotpot" to fly, scalding the woman and disfiguring her face.   Hsiang-yang blacked out and was sent to the hospital by her boss, where she could think only about the compensation the other woman's family would demand and the loss of her job.  But as things turn out, these would be the least of her problems. Back home again,  Hsiang-ying hears "an ear-splitting burst of static" just before she hears someone saying something about "a great forest of bamboo" and the name Minako.  She then experiences something completely bizarre before a fall from a window sends her back to the hospital.  

Meanwhile,  Shih-sheng decides to take a break and parks his taxi in a local cabbies' spot.  Next to his car he notices a cab that has been "clearly long closed," and decides to take a look inside.  He discovers a cassette recorder in the glove box and presses play, hearing a man's voice "interrupted by regular crackling sounds" as well as the word Minako.  When he's called to the hospital after Hsiang-ying's fall, she begs him for help -- she's sure that Minako is going to kill her and their daughter.  Surprised at hearing that name, he brushes her off, saying she's mad,  but hearing her say the name Minako takes him by surprise.   Is there some kind of coincidence at work? Later at home as he begins to think about his wife, he begins to realize that "something wasn't right," bringing his thoughts back to the abandoned cab, the cassette tape and Minako.    By now, Hsiang-ying has been moved to the psychiatric ward where her conviction that she's going to be killed grows stronger, to the point where she's "screaming hysterically" and the doctors have to put her in restraints and  sedate her.  But there is no safety for Hsiang-ying here, and her roommate watches in sheer panic as Hsiang-ying fights whatever horrors are assailing her.    

Shih-sheng comes to believe that had he only listened to his wife then things would have been different, so he decides to get to the bottom of things.  Independently, so too does a social worker, Jui-yi who is working with Hsiang-ying's by now terrorized roommate who while in a deep state of shock begins calling out strange words, talking  about ghosts, and making references to a place named Mount Jade.   Indeed, it seems that all roads lead to this place, as by now Shih-sheng has also made a connection to Mount Jade and is determined to destroy the evil that he is sure has its origins there despite a warning to stay away since "the mountain is the gateway of the ghosts."  

Someone reading this post might wonder about how much I've potentially given away here, but don't worry -- we're only up to page 83 by this time and there is much, more that has already happened and which will happen before all is said and done.  The author has created a  truly eerie ghost story that weaves together Taiwanese legend and folklore, the severity of the problems faced by Taiwan's indigenous people, the troubled era of the Japanese occupation, and history that goes back to 1930s Manchuria and the Chinese mainland.   Taken together, all of these elements reveal how, as the dustjacket blurb so accurately states, "a past can still kill."   It also shows how the spirit world is alive,  surviving beneath the trappings of the physical world and that  it is definitely not a force to be messed with, and there is no doubt that he has captured the anxieties of a modern society.  There is much to be said about the author's skill here in using horror and the supernatural to reflect on the modern world -- this is no average ghost story but rather a strong departure into the literary zone. 

 I will say that I wasn't wild about the subplot involving Hsiang-ying's sister and her revenge on her cheating husband.  While it did make for some truly creepy horror moments and shows how natural it might be for people to turn to the occult for assistance, it could have actually been left out and I wouldn't have minded, because for me it was just too much as well as a major distraction in the reading flow and I became impatient to get back to the main story. And quite honestly, I didn't care.     I also thought the ending a bit off, but I won't go into any detail here to explain why -- it should be apparent to anyone who reads this novel.    However, I loved and was completely absorbed in the ghost story itself, as well as in how the past not only reverberates in but also shapes the present in so many unseen ways.  What a mind this author must have, and I will certainly look forward to reading anything more he writes in the future.  My manythanks to the translator, Roddy Flagg, and to Honford Star for making this work available to English-speaking readers.  

recommended, for sure.