Friday, December 28, 2012

Patrick McGrath, Blood and Water and Other Tales (1988)

McGrath, Patrick, Blood and Water and Other Tales, Poseidon Press, February 1988
McGrath, Patrick, Blood and Water and Other Tales, Ballantine Books, April 1989

For Friday's Forgotten Books

Blood and Water and Other Tales at Goodreads
Blood and Water and Other Tales at ISFdb
More Friday's Forgotten Books at Pattinase

Rating: 7/10

Patrick McGrath is most often described as a Gothic writer, which is certainly a more appropriate description than horror. Though the two are closely connected, McGrath's stylistics are heavily Gothic, whereas many of his stories have only a tenuous link with horror as we have come to understand the genre. Genre aside,   is a strong collection of stories that are vastly varied in their approach and content, but utterly similar in their tone.

This is McGrath's only collection of stories; the later book The Angel and Other Stories (Penguin Books, 1995) includes four stories from Blood and Water, and was part of the Penguin 60s series of books celebrating the publishing house's 60th birthday, and issuing a series of short books at 60 pence apiece. Amid its varied approach, the stories in Blood and Water offer tales narrated by both men and women, as well as by other more unusual narrators, such as a boot and a fly. Stories take place in England, India and the US, from Manhattan and Greenwich Village to the Louisiana bayou. We have tales about houses, family histories, vengeance, psychological breakdowns and the post apocalyptic, with the prominent undercurrent of sexual repression and perversion. Consistent throughout is McGrath's elegantly verbose and controlled prose. The writing throughout each of the thirteen stories is a pleasure to read.

While the stories in this collection do include some clear horror tales, they encompass aspects of the darker parts of our inner selves rather than of an exterior threat. Whatever horrors the characters encounter, they are inflicted not by outward malevolent forces, but as a result of human malevolence. Our dark subconscious, our repressed desires and our inability to recognize truths about ourselves and those around us, or to simply deal with them appropriately, are factors lying in abundance here. These stories are unconventional, and many don't have a clear, linear plot, but are presented more as character sketches, people confronted or dealing with unusual circumstances. Most of the stories borrow elements of classic literature, both of classic supernatural tales as well as elements of Victorian and Edwardian prose, Gothic and otherwise.

McGrath is very much a stylist. His prose is flawless, smooth and literate. His sentences are so well constructed that often I read them aloud in order to better appreciate them. The stories also embody elements beyond simple story-telling, as McGrath imbues many of his tales with serious thematic elements. Often he will open a story with a kind of discussion on a topic, such as colonialism in "The Dark Hand of the Raj" and the humourous considerations on priesthood in "Ambrose Syme." He is not being didactic or preachy in any respect, but rather playful.

There is not a bad story in this collection, but a few do suffer in that the plot aspect is lacking in a tale that should be more story than sketch.

The Angel     6/10     The Quarterly #4, Winter 1987
During a sweltering New York heat wave, our narrator makes the acquaintance of Harry Talboys, an elderly and eccentric old man. Over gin Harry talks while our narrator thinks of topics to use for a book, yet Harry manages to grasp the other's interest when he tells him he once met an angel. "The Angel" uses the classic supernatural trope of a narrator telling a story he heard from another, the act of removal adding distance between the narrator and the unusual event, yet McGrath's use is more modern as narratives come together and our narrator is a less than trustworthy conduit of information.

The Lost Explorer     7/10     Blood and Water and Other Tales, 1988
Playing in the family garden, little Evelyn encounters an explorer struck with malaria and mumbling in a fevered haze that they must get away from the pygmies. Evelyn is both fascinated and sympathetic, while her parents, oblivious of the world outside their own little cocoon of concerns, are wholly unaware of Evelyn's new interest and of the explorer's existence.

This story was an absolute pleasure, fusing pathos with comedy and the obscure. The sadness lies in Evelyn's father's self-importance and in her mother's unnatural estimation of him, whereas the little girl is partially neglected. Conversations and aspects of this self-interest is treated with humour, and the explorer's existence provides the obscure.

"The Lost Explorer" was made into a short film by photographer Tim Walker, starring Richard Bremmer. I have not yet seen it but here is a trailer. Interestingly Walker's site refers to the short story as a novel.

The Black Hand of the Raj     7/10     Blood and Water and Other Tales, 1988
In 1897, Lucy Hepplewhite travels to India to meet her fiancé Cecil Pym (a reference to Edgar Allan Poe's The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket?). Excited and concerned, she's heard that once an Englishman has spent ample time in India, he is a changed man, and once reunited she is immediately aware of Cecil's brooding silence and the fact that he will not remove his hat. To her horror he reveals that, after receiving a slight bump on the head from an old Indian man, a hand has begun to grow from the top of his head.

Cecil's fate is predictable, but his fate is not what the story is about, nor where the story ends. Lurking behind the curse is a comment on colonialism, since Cecil is cursed after stepping out into what he considered to be "my" garden. Yet beyond the curse we have a story of sexual repression and carnal sin.

Like "The Angel," "The Dark Hand of the Raj" uses classic weird tale tropes. For one thing it is set in colonial India and involves a British officer and a curse. Yet also like "The Angel," McGrath modernises these aspects by taking the story in other direction, and the creepiness in "Dark Hand" lies well beyond the presence of that malicious hand. Moreover, McGrath opens the story with some details about British imperialism which is a nice, unique touch, both paying homage to its story-telling roots, while simultaneously distancing itself by being conscious of those roots.

Lush Triumphant     6/10     Between C & D, 1988
An alcoholic painter slowly reveals to himself the nature of his current work, and thereby of himself. "Lush Triumphant" is a difficult story to pull off, since McGrath relies on a combination of character and description to reveal what is lurking behind both. Another tale of sexual repression and latent homosexuality.

Ambrose Syme     7/10     Bomb, 1988
The third tale of sexual repression and the second involving homosexuality. A young Ambrose Syme is forced by his father to enter the seminary, and though he progresses with his education he is nonetheless overly aware of his sexual desires, which unfortunately culminate in a terrible tragedy.

The story begins with a humourous attack on the inherent sexual repression of the priesthood, and evolves into something quite tragic and sad. Among the more powerful pieces in the collection.

The Arnold Crombeck Story     6/10     Blood and Water and Other Tales, 1988
In 1954, an ambitious American woman reporter is sent on assignment to London to interview serial murderer Arnold Crombeck shortly before he is hanged. Again McGrath takes on a familiar premise, the relationship between a level-headed interviewer and a man, evidently unstable, behind bars. Mildly similar to the 1975 Thomas Harris novel, Silence of the Lambs, in that an up-and-coming female career person is involved in a potentially dangerous series of interviews with a serial killer behind bars. There is a little twist in this one which I saw coming early on, though the story does not hinge on this twist. Well written but as fresh as the other stories.

Blood Disease     8/10     Bomb, 1988
A multi-layered and complex story. Anthropologist "Congo Bill" is struck with malaria among the Pygmies (elements used also in the story "The Lost Explorer"), yet manages to survive a broken man. On his return he, wife Virginia and son Frank, along with a monkey he had brought back for his son, find themselves at an inn, where Virginia meets an old flame Ronald Dexter who is travelling with his attendant Clutch. Only Clutch is aware that the inn is run and inhabited by a kind of vampire community, victims of pernicious anemia, a condition according to our omniscient narrator, which can result in a chemical balance that can lead to the craving for blood.

This is a busy story, and without ruining any elements of suspense I will note only that the story is superbly written, with strong, descriptive prose, solid characters, great elements of both mystery and suspense, as well as a good, rounded structure and mysterious, open-ended finish. There are many nice allusions to vampirism, with the anemia, the descriptive passage on malaria development, fleas sucking blood and so forth, marking "Blood Disease" among the better vampire stories, or rather non-vampire vampire stories.

Of McGrath's short stories, this is the most anthologized, which isn't stating much since his work tends not to appear in anthologies. "Blood Disease" appeared in both The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales (Chris Baldic, editor, Oxford University Press, 1992) and A Taste for Blood (Martin H. Greenberg, editor, Dorset Press, 1992).

The Skewer     7/10     Confrontation #37-38, Spring/Summer 1988
Neville Pilkington experiences odd hallucinations as he sees the miniature forms of Sigmund Freud and other analysts, such as Otto Rank and Ernest Jones. The story is pieced together by Neville's nephew from journal entries, Neville's own psychoanalyst's impressions of the case, and the truth as our narrator sees it.

The story is an homage to Sheridan LeFanu, with unusual ghostly appearances as we have seen in LeFanu's excellent stories "Green Tea" and "The Familiar." In case the reader is in doubt, Neville visits the LeFanu café, and one of the ghosts is described as "simian," a direct allusion to the ghostly monkey in "Green Tea."

An odd premise rewards well as the story is simultaneously entertaining and suspenseful, and features a solid finish. Psychoanalysis is poked at, and the title refers not only to the object but to the fact that psychoanalysis is like putting a skewer to the brain.

Marmilion     7/10     Blood and Water and Other Tales, 1988
This Louisiana tale features a female photographer specializing in, you guessed it, monkeys. Specifically spider monkeys, and while in the Louisiana swamp she comes across a crumbling house where, spending the night, she hears an odd scraping in the chimney. This leads her to research the house, Marmilion it's named, and learns of former owner Randolph Belvedere, his family and the tragic circumstances surrounding all. A strong story with a creepily mysterious conclusion.

Hand of a Wanker     5/10     Between C & D, 1988
The weakest of the stories, this one features the runaway hand of a chronic masturbator. The story doesn't fit in with the others in the collection. It tries to be funny and playful, but McGrath's other somewhat humourous story of the collection, "The E(rot)ic Potato" works far better, particularly since it also carries with it some serious undertones. "Hand of a Wanker" is just silly.

The Boot's Tale     7/10     New Observations, 1988
A post apocalyptic tale of the decline of an American family told through the point of view of an old and wise boot. Yet another strong story, this one with a kind of 1950s atmosphere, mixing dark humour with an apocalyptic scenario featuring a bomb shelter and a commentary on modern American families and their gluttonous nature. The story can be narrated by an omniscient voice rather than footwear, and it's not fully clear why it is told by a boot since throughout much of the story the boot takes a back seat and we even forget about it (as I did), but McGrath succeeds well in that the boot narrator does not detract from a great story.

The E(rot)ic Potato     6/10     East Village Eye, 1988
A short piece told by a fly as it searches for food along with a myriad of other insects. This fly is observant and McGrath does well with giving him a personality, and the narrator has more (obvious) purpose than the boot in the previous story. Not as strong as "The Boot's Tale," it is nonetheless good, with a vivid and striking image to finish off, and an incidental commentary on human life.

Blood and Water     6/10     The Missouri Review 11.1, 1988
This tale of a man snapping under the pressures of keeping his wife's unusual sexual secret from the public features much to nearly make the reader snap. Boilers and boiling water help escalate our madman's plight in a story that manages to garner sympathy for its aggressive and eventually violent protagonist.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Unthology No. 2 (2011)

Unthology No. 2, edited by Robin Jones and Ashley Stokes, Unthank Books, November 2011.

Unhology 2 at Goodreads
My review of Unthology No. 1 is over here.

This edition of Friday's Forgotten Books has something recent released under the mainstream radar.

Overall rating: 6/10

It took me some time to get through volume two of the Unthology anthology published annually by Unthank Books. There's something about the dense print and the odd minimal spacing between paragraphs that I just don't like. If we're trying to reduce space and page numbers we can eliminate the individual story title pages which aren't necessary, otherwise I don't see the purpose of such compressed print. My vision is 20/20 and I don't expect something along the lines of the Magnum Easy Eye Books, but something a little more aesthetically appealing and, since I do read a fair amount, less straining to the eye.

Content-wise (which is also important) Unthology No. 2 is on par with its predecessor. While there are some fine and varied stories, many do fall a little flat. The problem with trying to be different and offering less of the same is that not every story will appeal to every reader. While no story is strictly bad, there are just some that I simply, within the boundaries of my own eclectic tastes, did not care for. Variety is the winning force, something the Unthology has so far proven to contain more than other periodicals, and variety forces the brain to work a little harder. My favourite stories include the non-experimental opening story by Sarah Evans and the surreal "Siramina" by M. Pinchuk. Other strong entries are those by Melissa Mann, co-editor Ashley Stokes, and the closing story by Joshua Allen.

Stuck by Sarah Evans. 7/10

At the end of his bachelor outing in Prague, Simon is stranded for an additional day due to severe weather conditions. Tensions with his bride-to-be and panic over being trapped in matrimony send the thirty-or-so year-old to wonder about a possible last fling with a pretty girl he's just met.

There is nothing terribly original about "Stuck," and nothing experimental in terms of what the editors seem to be seeking, but it is nonetheless a very well written piece and a great opening story to any anthology. The title works on several levels. Simon is stuck in Prague as well as in a relationship with Selina. He is stuck in a unvarying profession and life routine of weekend drinking bouts that marriage threatens to eliminate, only to replace it with another routine to keep Simon stuck. Most integral to the story is that he is stuck in a moral quandary, not in his pursuit of matrimonial bliss but in how far can he go with this new woman without crossing any obvious boundaries. These considerations are complicated by Simon's all-around averageness, his inability and unwillingness to seriously consider the dilemma, and even drinks a half a glass of wine in order to not have to think too seriously about it. He cannot make a decision and wants something to happen, possibly in order to "save" him from this impending union he doesn't seem to really want.

The story itself doesn't plow into the philosophical considerations of Simon's thoughts, but follows him as he forges ahead, simultaneously with purpose but lacking direction. The story offers no answers and acts more as a kind of character sketch; there are no wrenches and no surprises, just the numbness of someone who has, in an array of ways, become stuck.

Differences in Lifts by Lander Hawes. 6/10

In a paranoid totalitarian society, where citizens are ruled by police and regional councils, notions of responsibility and friendship are challenged. I like the story for its approach to theme. Skewed notions of responsibility are presented in a society where citizens are made responsible for their actions to the extent that the fire department has been dismantled and people must walk around at all times carrying a bucket of water. The story also features a strong revelation of the narrator which implies this society is the result of human nature, that as a race we lack the ability to be responsible even for those around us. My problem with the story is that it is in need of a desperate re-write.

When I first started the story I had to put it down before finishing the first page. I was frustrated with the awkward wording and sloppy sentences, and wanting to give the story a fair chance, I put the book down for a few days. I returned to the story prepared for the flaws, and managed to get through and enjoy it.

Let's look at some sentences.

Opening sentence: "In the office where I work there are two lifts, positioned next to each other at the rear of the lobby." Aside from the unnecessary comma that acts as a misplaced speed bump, there are far too many needless words. "In the office where I work," first of all, sounds like a literally translated sentence, whereas "positioned next to each other" is not specific enough, and my brain placed them at one point side by side and at another facing each other. Overall the sentence begins with the information that we are at an office, then mentions the two lifts, only to return to location with the insert of that lobby. Using the author's own vocabulary I would recommend: "At my office lobby there are two lifts positioned side by side." Of course we can play around with this, attempting something like, "Side by side at my office lobby are two identical lifts" ("identical" I borrow from the next sentence to add an element of mystery).

Sentence two: "...they were both identical in every way..." Why not just "...they were identical..."? Similarly, the third paragraph phrase "...I said to Paul, my colleague from the marketing department" can be reduced to "...I said to Paul from Marketing."

Second paragraph: "I began to notice that the lift on the right had a door that closed more quickly and forcefully than the door of the lift on the left." The flaw here is grammatical; read it closely and you'll notice its literal sense is off. The lift on the right is compared to the door on the left, rather than the intended target, which is the other lift.

The story is filled with many unfortunate word and phrase errors, so that the narrative, like an old rickety elevator, is a bit of a bumpy ride. Yet I will commend the author for that great side-swiping sentence introducing buckets, and would suggest it or a slight variation as the story's opening line: "It was around this time that the county council changed the health and safety regulations, and we all had to start carrying buckets of water." Precious.

Hang Up by Shanta Everington. 6/10

Ian works at a help line, struggling with calls as he has his own tragedies to deal with, tragedies that come to the fore when a woman named Anne calls. A good story, though I am confused with the last paragraph and can't quite get the tone. I blame myself here and promise a re-read.

Gottle O' Geer by Melissa Mann. 7/10

During his stay at a sanitarium, an alcoholic listens to the tribulations of other addicts, from sex addicts to those with obsessive compulsive disorder, and has even taken up knitting to bide his time and keep his hands busy. Both serious and amusing, "Gottle O' Geer" is a well written cynical sketch on our sense of self and a societal system that has little to offer in helping us deal with our real problems.

The Swan King by Ashley Stokes. 7/10

The view from Adrian's apartment window looks into the window of the unusual man known as the "Swan King." The Swan King is normally seated behind the glass, staring directly into Adrian's room, upsetting girlfriend Zara, who is convinced the odd neighbour is responsible for the disappearance of university student Elaine Preece. Well written and well developed, I feel it should nonetheless be shorter, hence losing some of its middle monotony, and perhaps eliminating that opening that reads like a prologue but adds little; the closing paragraphs did not require the opening scene. A few other moments I felt didn't grab me, either a paragraph or a series of thoughts, but overall it is a strong, thinking story, with tight prose and some nice play on expectations.

Stokes wrote the good "A Short Story about a Short Film," which appears in the first Unthology, reviewed here.

Nine Hundred and Ninety-Something by Nick Sweeney. 5/10

Narrator tells of a buddy's experience in a small town in southern Poland, when the friend was lured away from nine hundred and something dollars. Things do come around. While I like listening to such tales, I didn't feel this one added much to the travelogue, and I found the writing a little too self-conscious, unnecessarily attracting attention to itself and away from the narrative.

The Poets of Radial City by Paul A. Green. 5/10

A satire on poetry and art. I gave up early on this one, unable to get into it, primarily as the humour is not to my taste. The story quickly reminded me of that terrible Aldous Huxley novel Antic Hay which I barely remember so perhaps the relationship between the two is tenuous.

Hours of Darkness by Tessa West. 5/10

An overnight encounter, an urban tale of birth, renewal and second changes. Some nice moments but overall a little flat. I prefer West's story "Paralax" from Unthology No. 1.

Stations of the Cross by Ian Madden. 5/10

A westerner living in a commune in a homophobic Sultanate searches for a fling while trying to evade those who wish to entrap him. Solid prose, but like the previous story a little flat.

Recovery by Charles Wilkinson. 6/10

Another short piece, but this is more than a sketch, involving a retired English professor, an obscure (fictional) poet and the mysterious death of the professor's brother. Mysterious, subtle and quite good, with some nice plays on time and tense. Like the opening story, the title of this one encompasses various instances of recovery, such as recovering a manuscript, the past and the truth concerning an old tragedy. The opening is great, with the professor seeing the world without his glasses, telling of the uncertainty of the universe and the unreliability of detail, as it stares us straight in the face, yet we nonetheless can't always see it clearly. The professor, the inspector investigating the brother's death, and the poet all search for detail, while the reader wonders whether there is such a thing as clarity.

Siramina by M. Pinchuk. 7/10

A gentle and surreal piece of a tourist visiting an unmapped island by the name of Siramina, in search of its only hotel. The story is haunting and engaging, and manages to present us with a potential horror that becomes somehow welcoming. The stranger wandering through a maze-like town is reminiscent of Kafka and other, lesser-known Eastern European contemporaries, and can be a metaphor for so many things.

127 Permutations by Stephanie Reid. 6/10

A short and amusing sketch of seven people living at Number Seventeen, whose harmony is about to collapse due to a simple act of human nature.

Classified by Joshua Allen. 7/10

The paranoid journal of an Aryan idealist, intelligent yet mentally unstable, who spends much time at the library ruminating over various permutations of hierarchy among men. Disturbing in its seriousness, yet nonetheless comical in its exaggeration. While we cannot sympathise with the modern Nazi narrator, we can be amused because he is such a caricature of paranoia and angst. A character I would certainly have followed for a longer narrative, and a solid finish to the unthology.

For more Friday's Forgotten Books, please visit Patti Abbott's site.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Dan Simmons, Song of Kali (1985)

Simmons, Dan, Song of Kali, Bluejay Books, November 1985 (cover below right)
Simmons, Dan, Song of Kali, NY: Tor Books, November 1986 (my copy bottom is the 1991 reprint)

Song of Kali at Goodreads
Song of Kali at ISFdb

Rating: 8/10

For Friday's Forgotten Books

Dan Simmons is best known for his Bram Stoker Award winning horror novel Carrion Comfort (1989) and his Hugo and Locus Award winning science fiction novel Hyperion (also 1989), yet his first novel, Song of Kali, published by the short-lived small press Bluejay Books, established Simmons's reputation early on as a talented genre writer.

Set in bustling 1977 Calcutta, Song of Kali is the story of a sentimental American poet who travels with Indian wife Amrita and newborn child Victoria on a commission to locate a manuscript. Evidently the celebrated Calcuttan poet M. Das has resurfaced eight years after having disappeared without a trace, and has produced a new poetic saga about the goddess Kali.

It's difficult to discuss Song of Kali thoroughly without spoiling it, so I will touch upon some of the more impressive aspects of the novel without over-elaborating. The novel pits the notion that violence equates power against the abstract sentimental view that amid all crises there exists an element of hope. Simmons sets this battle amid the chaos of Calcutta, where idealistic poet Robert Luzcak struggles against the reality of ever present and pervading violence. Far from his serene and rural Massachusetts, he quickly rejects the world of Calcutta, wandering its streets and listening to its tales with disbelief. Yet Calcutta, like the goddess Kali that the city is named after, manages nonetheless to be seductive, and his return home is continually delayed as he becomes enmeshed in a conspiratorial plot involving a missing poet and the mysterious Cult of Kali. Luzcak's ideology of hope is particularly challenged when his infant daughter is endangered.

The novel succeeds not because it is a good story (which it most certainly is), or because it is well written (which it most certainly is) but because the story is well fused with Simmons's ideas. Though the struggle between the ideology of hope and the notion that violence equates power is not subtle, it doesn't need to be, allowing the reader to grasp the point quickly and focus on the plot, the disturbing sequences and the wonder that is Calcutta (and India in general). The novel weaves through Calcutta as it weaves through plot, constantly shifting and hence never growing dull. A hunt for a manuscript encompasses tales of body snatching, kidnappings and cult practices.

The novel's point of view is not limited to a westerner's experience of an eastern culture. Luzcak's Indian wife has strong views on Indian culture, and though she is westernized, she does offer a strong balance to our protagonist's growing wonder and frequent periods of inaction. Song of Kali also includes a lengthy narrative by an Indian student's own experience in his country. His experience is heavily laden with the supernatural, yet it also invokes the experience of caste and the reality of the untouchable. This lengthy narrative is my favourite sequence in the novel, as two Indian men search for a corpse as an offering to the goddess Kali. Though morbid and telling of India's darker difficulties, the sequence manages to be comical amid the exaggerated though very real bureaucratic system. This sequence delivers truly engaging story-telling.

As a side note there is an interesting reference to a popular 1980s horror author: "I had never even been able to interest her in the trashy Stephen King novels I would bring to the beach each summer." (52) Is Simmons poking fun at himself as another genre author, or elevating himself beyond the confines of mainstream horror-fantasy? Likely the latter since the novel is his first, and in a decade rampant with King imitators, he would want to separate himself from that phenomena. Though this is my first Simmons novel and I am no expert on the works of King, in my opinion Simmons is rungs above King in terms of literary consciousness, proving that modern genre writing works best when invoking very real human conflict and pitting diverse ideas together. It isn't about being scary or about being gory, since perhaps the greatest possible horror is the complexity of modern existence.

Song of Kali was awarded the 1986 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel, placed sixteenth on the Locus Poll Award for Best First Novel, and was included in the Stephen Jones and Kim Newman publication Horror: 100 Best Books (1988).

For other Friday's Forgotten Books, please visit Patti Abbott's blog.
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