Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Our Share of Night, by Mariana Enriquez


"You have something of mine, I passed on something of me to you, and hopefully it isn't cursed. I don't know if I can leave you something that isn't dirty, that isn't dark, our share of night."

Hogarth, 2022
originally published as Nuestra Parte de Noche
translated by Megan McDowell 
588 pp.


My introduction to author Mariana Enriquez was her short-story collection Things We Lost in the Fire, which I loved so much that I moved on directly to her The Dangers of Smoking in Bed, also exceptional.  I was super excited for the release of this novel, Our Share of Night and I have to say that I was not at all disappointed.  

It's a hot day in Buenos Aires Argentina as 1981 begins.  Juan has everything ready for the long trip he is about to make with his young son Gaspar to the home of his in-laws.  It's just the two of them, as Gaspar's mother Rosario had died some three months earlier, but Juan has decided that he needs the time with just his son.    Juan knows he must be careful as "the repressive forces were unpredictable," and that he needed to "avoid any incidents" -- after all,  Argentina was in the midst of the dictatorship period (aka the Dirty War) and the police and the army "kept a brutal watch over the highways."   On reaching the hotel where they will spend the first night, Juan, who suffers from a serious heart condition, has also taken precautions so that if he fails to wake up, Gaspar knows what to do and who to call.   It is also there that  Juan comes to realize that Gaspar can plainly see a strange woman in the hallway, not a living one, but an "echo," part of  "the restless dead" (i.e.  "discarnates," ghosts of the disappeared),   "moving quickly," because they wanted to be seen.  Juan sees them all of the time and has learned how to banish these visions;  it's something he'll have to teach Gaspar, but of concern at the moment is that he's realized that his son has inherited his own ability to see into "the floating world."   This is not the best news; Rosario's wealthy and very powerful family is part of  a longstanding "secret society" known as the Order,  and they have their own plans for the boy, beginning with a test to ascertain whether or not he is a medium like his father.   

While I won't give too much away plotwise, members of the Order, as the dustjacket blurb notes, seek "eternal life" or more to the point, the preservation of one's consciousness after death.  Juan's role as medium allows them contact with an entity called the Darkness which Juan refers to as "demented... a savage god, a mad god,"  and there are steep, atrocious and even inhuman costs to be paid in doing so.  It is not a role he relishes -- Juan feels trapped, and even worse,  he knows that he likely won't live long enough to protect Gaspar from the Order as much as he needs to.  He makes plans that he hope will safeguard his son long after he's gone, but the question here, as noted on the dustjacket, is whether or not Gaspar can actually escape what has been foreordained to be his destiny.  

The book moves back and forth through time and events before, during and after the dictatorship, following Juan's efforts to protect Gaspar, while simultaneously examining the horrific violence and human wreckage caused by the Order, a way to reckon with colonialism as well as the corruption and evil bred from wealth and power.  Horror is the perfect vehicle to tell these stories -- as the author states in an interview at Literary Hub (2018), 
"There's something about the scale of the cruelty in political violence from the estate that always seems like the blackest magic to me. Like they have to satisfy some ravenous and ancient god that demands not only bodies but needs to be fed their suffering as well" 
and in a 2018 article for the Freeman's Channel at Literary Hub Enriquez writes that she had asked herself
 "what were the first written texts, the first horror texts that I had ever read? They were the testimonies of the dictatorship.  Bodies disappeared. Common everyday houses which served as concentration camps in neighborhoods. The secrecy of it all, the negation of reality. Children in this time taken from their parents and given another name. It was phantasmagoric."
In Our Share of Night, she brings this "blackest magic" to vivid, horrific life; as with her other books, Things We Lost in the Fire and The Dangers of Smoking in Bed,  this one also reminds readers that the traumatic past has the power to linger and to haunt the present. While the dictatorship may have ended, there are still the scars and shadows to be reckoned with. You need not look any further than the recurring image of the child who disappeared inside of a house and completely vanished, never to be seen again, her disappearance affecting her friends and family for years to come. 

While not everyone seems to share my feeling about it, I loved this book. While I've kept any spoilers out of this post, trust me, there are more than enough horrors filling these 588 pages to satisfy any reader of the genre; there is also more than enough historical base and cultural lore to satisfy someone like me.  I do think perhaps it could have used some editing here and there, but all and all, it's likely going to be a novel I will never forget, one that made such a strong impression that I've had it on my mind since finishing it.  Very, very highly recommended.  

Tuesday, March 14, 2023

Dark Arts, by Eric Stener Carlson


Tartarus Press,
243 pp


The end of our January and the entire month of February was just terrible after a death in our family, and although I managed to actually finish reading this book midway through February,  it's really only now that I have the mindspace to talk about it.  

When I first found out about the release of Carlson's new Tartarus Press publication of Dark Arts, I didn't hesitate to add it to my library immediately,  having loved both of  his novels The Saint Perpetuus Club of  Buenos Aires and  Muladona.  On my nightstand (sadly unread as of right now) also sits his two-volume chapbook The Story of Anja Sigmundsdottir, published by Zagava, which I moved off the tbr shelves directly after reading this book and which I will be taking with me on our sorely-needed vacation in April.   In short, I'm a huge fan of this man's work.  

In his introduction, the author writes that 

 "Art is illuminating, but there's also something dark about it -- something menacing, magical, obscure ... a conjuring of sorts, a reaching beyond the circle of the campfire, a groping of sorts, a reaching beyond the circle of the campfire, a grouping for dangerous things hidden in the faintly-perceived undergrowth."

 As the dustjacket blurb notes, art is also a "spirit board" that allows his people to "contact shades from the past, or to discover danger in the shadows."  

While I could certainly write great things about each and every story in this book, I'll have to settle for just a few of my favorites in the interest of time and space.  In  "Golden Book," the collection's opener, a woman makes contact and finds connection with a young girl in a library in Thailand while introducing her to a completely different understanding of the afterlife.  Up next is "Bradycardia,"   a reality-bending (and pardon the phrase from the psychedelic 60s), utterly mind-blowing stunner of a tale which you will want to reread straight away before even thinking about going on.  The subject of this story is a successful editor whose work has allowed him to "shout into the void" a number of "new voices," but who is also plagued by a debilitating series of nightmares of being on the editorial board of a company that has published some really crap hack material. Reality is interwoven with vivid dreamscape here as well as the "contradictory images" that keep floating through the editor's mind, and just when you start to wonder what the heck might happen next, Carlson provides a most shocking, unexpected and horrific ending to it all.  "Salt" is a redacted transcript of the interrogation of a professor who enjoys witty rebus puzzles and who, like the character Campbell in Vonnegut's Mother Night (mentioned more than once here and throughout Dark Arts) believes in his own form of a "Kingdom of Two"  -- "a closed circuit" where he and his wife are deeply in love, and 

"thought for each other, lived for each other. We would finish each other's sentences, were probably thinking each other's thoughts..."

and, as he says, came to develop other distinct ways to communicate with each other so as to "avoid detection" -- a "triple layer of communications" -- when she first drew him into the world of espionage. As he lays out their life together including the birth and death of their son (with whom he can still  supposedly communicate afterward) his interrogator drops a bombshell that very likely changes this man's life completely, and yet, because "all those messages have to count for something ... some greater meaning," the show must go on.  

from Circady

Eric Stener Carlson is an incredibly gifted writer who never fails to offer a deep, enriching and soulful quality in his work which illuminates the humanity of the author's characters no matter where they exist in the world.  Like the best of the best weird tales, the stories in Dark Arts reach that certain point where people in the mundane world find themselves at some point having crossed a threshhold into a completely different reality; like the best authors, Carlson's skill is in illuminating the challenges of his characters who must make their way through what he describes as the "dark spaces" that are "intertwined with life and death and art."  At the same time, it seems to me that one major idea that he never loses sight of throughout this book is that even in the darkness there will continue to be love and hope that may help to offset the horrors found there, so very much the case in our current world.  Dark Arts is a truly excellent collection, both beautiful and terrifying, written by a skilled master of his own art.   Beyond highly recommended, I cannot praise this book enough.  

Thursday, January 5, 2023

Fox Tales, by Tomihiko Morimi

"On short summer nights, in between the rice paddies, the foxes scatter."  

Yen On, 2022
published as Kitsune no Hanashi, 2006
translated by Winifred Bird
228 pp


I don't remember where I first came across this title, but I do remember looking at the description and thinking that this book is so me:
"A collection of four spooky tales for the modern era, all tied to a certain Kyoto curio shop."
These stories play out in the streets of the city, and as the dustjacket blurb goes on to say, over the course of the book the author "offers an eerie glimpse into the beguiling and mysterious darkness of the old capital."   Eerie, most definitely.  Mysterious, an understatement. 

 If you're not familiar with Japanese mythology, in a nutshell, kitsune or foxes (according to The Collector) "possess many powerful magical and spiritual abilities, including shapeshifting, far-seeing, high intelligence and longer lifespans." They are also viewed as tricksters, and can be benign or benevolent.   There are any number of websites you can turn to such as Ancient Pages, Yokai.com or anywhere you can get to by looking up Japanese mythology or folklore. 

The title story, "Fox Tales" introduces the reader to Hourendou (and I do wish I could see the Kanji for this word to try to glean some sort of meaning),  a curio shop "the size of maybe six tatami mats."  The narrator, a university student, first met Natsume,  the proprietor of the shop, when he worked delivering bento lunches.  A year later, he was working at Hourendou, his job to watch the shop and make deliveries.  The story opens as he is delivering something to a strange man by the name of Amagi, who lived in an old mansion near the Saginomori Shrine.   Natsume reveals to the narrator that she should have gone there herself, but she doesn't like going to Amagi's house.  He, in turn, decides that it was his duty to take on the Amagi deliveries himself to "ensure that Natsume never went there again."  Things begin to happen when the narrator drops a particular plate in the shop and  is sent to Amagi for a replacement.   Natsume warns him that Amagi might "jokingly" request something, but "under no circumstances should you agree" and that he must not "promise him anything, no matter how insignificant."  Unfortunately he fails to heed that advice, and after the first trade he makes with Amagi, he soon finds himself involved in a trade involving a fox mask.  It's really at the this point that things take that turn to the strange and the weird, and all the while the narrator tries to understand how Amagi had "managed to sink his claws so deeply into my soul. "  Pay attention: this one lays many a foundation for what follows. 

"Kitsunebi" (foxfire) from Yokai.com

  In "The Dragon in the Fruit," a university student spends a great deal of time with a rather isolated and lonely senior student, listening to his numerous stories.  The senior has many --  as he tells the other, in the five years he'd been in Kyoto,  "some mysterious things have happened," and he proceeds to relate a few of his bizarre experiences in the city.  His tales encompass a woman in a fox mask, unique magic lanterns, the strange appearance of a "lightning beast",  a very real serpentlike creature with a face like a crocodile supposedly captured in the Meiji era,  and a netsuke of a dragon "coiled inside a piece of fruit," any of which he feels he might run into as he walks through the city.  

As the senior says about the people of Kyoto, 
"Most them are strangers, but I know they're connected by mysterious threads I can't even imagine.  And when I have the chance to touch one of those threads, it makes a strange sound under my fingers. I think that if I could trace them all to their source, they would lead to a mysterious, shadowy place at the very core of the city."

Holding that thought, the weirdness continues in "Phantom,"  in which a guy who enjoys "exploring the tangled backstreets" and alleys takes a job as tutor to a somewhat "laconic high school student" and becomes caught up in a hunt for a "phantom ..."  also described as "something like a spirit" in the area. Surprises are in store in this one, and the ending is not only eerie, but sinister and foreboding.    "The Water God" rounds out the collection, with a family which has gathered on the death of an elderly relative telling stories and sharing memories and family history that go back in time as they wait for a "family heirloom" to be delivered from Hourendou.  All I can say is 神聖なたわごと ...  this was my favorite story, as well the absolute weirdest tale in the entire book and one of the creepiest I've ever encountered.  

 Fox Tales just sucked me right in, with the combination of the author's skill in creating a dark, almost suffocating at times atmosphere as well as his awesome storytelling abilities.  This is the type of book I look forward to reading, where the mystery of it all pulls me in further and further until there is no outside world for the duration. And as I mentioned in an earlier post, I love folklore of any kind, and  I actually got a bit more from this book than I bargained for in a good way, with Japanese mythology and folklore interwoven into each and every story.  Along with the strange connections to the curio shop advertised on the dustjacket, it is this element, I believe, that ties everything together and gives this collection its heft.  This book may not be for everyone, especially those readers who need explanations to make their reading complete, which leads my to my only criticism:  it might have been helpful to have added some sort of introduction for non-Japanese readers who may not have much familiarity with Japanese folklore.   

For me, this book was a great way to end the 2022 reading year,  and it's one I can recommend highly.