It’s a little funny to be starting this “week in review” series up again at the end of the year like this. But, start as you mean to continue, right? Also, the depressive haze of “nowhere to go, no one to see, nothing to do” of quarantine and the slow apocalypse has decided to lift somewhat as of late, and my reading has increased in response.
- “Compulsory Games” by Robert Aickman
- “The Mask” by Robert W. Chambers
- “In the Court of the Dragon” also by Chambers
- Things have gotten worse since we last spoke by Eric LaRocca
- Some amount of Love, Activism, and the Respectable Life of Alice Dunbar-Nelson by Tara T. Green
- Dangerous Dimensions
- The Witcher Season 2 (partial)
- Some episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation (Season 2)
There was also Christmas and family events and all that, so it’s been a busy week.
Aickman in particular has made a very strong impression on me. I started with his story “Hand in Glove” (all of my reading of Aickman comes from the NYRB collection of his works Compulsory Games edited and introduced by Victoria Nelson). My initial response to that story was, ‘This is too English for me to really understand it.’ Which might seem silly, but there have been times where that particular flavor of English reticence and ingrained class conscious conflict (among other cultural factors) has utterly baffled and alienated me.
My second go-round with Aickman, which I was considering after I wrapped up “Dangerous Dimensions” and had to (sullenly and with much grumbling) reassess my view of Algernon Blackwood (I wasn’t a fan of “The Willows” — the vacillation between unhinged hysteria and obviously doomed attempts to rationalize the supernatural was exhausting and somewhat irritating), I felt it was only just to give Aickman another shot.
I finished the story “Compulsory Games” which I had already begun the previous time I had picked up the book. And after finishing it, no more certain of what I had just experienced that I was at the end of “Hand in Glove”, I turned to Nelson’s introduction to the volume of Aickman’s fiction. While I disagree with some of her points about “the horror genre” as a comprehensive whole (Of black humor she says, “Like sex, this element, and its prerequisite of a sophisticated sensibility, is usually absent in the horror genre.” (p. xii) I also feel that her view that sex is necessarily or usually absent from horror fiction holds true only in certain eras of the genre. But my rapturous and irrepressible rhapsodizing about Livia Llewelyn will have to wait for another day.)
Most importantly, Nelson helpfully contextualizes Aickman’s fiction as being not necessarily “supernatural” so much as “unnatural.” (p. viii) And indeed, thus far it seems best to approach Aickman with the tacit recognition that no explanation is forthcoming, and that any attempts to classify or qualify the experience of his characters according to known modes will result in abject failure. Here, again, Nelson fails to distinguish between the “neatly wrapped up” ending of the traditional ghost story or gothic model of the tale, where the supernatural elements are controlled, contained, and neutralized within the narrative, and the often more ambiguous, unresolved “explanations” of authors generally associated with the Weird.
Indeed, by this measure of irreducible weirdness Aickman can, without a doubt, be counted among the writers of the weird. However, I believe his fiction may leave some readers wanting for something a bit more coherent than what is actually on offer within his stories. He, for the most part, avoids the irritating sensation that he, the author, is as ignorant of understanding as the reader. But nor does he convey the absolute confidence of some other writers (Laird Barron comes to mind, and even Michael Cisco) that he is in full command of his concocted un-reality, and merely choosing to omit an easy answer for the benefit (or frustration) of the reader.
All this to say, more to follow on Aickman soon. I have 13 more stories to go in this volume.
Dangerous Dimensions (1st and 2nd Impressions)
When ordering books for the store, my boss read the title of this book and said, ‘Hey this is the book for you!’
Indeed, I keep threatening that once I get my act together I’ll figure out how to design a t-shirt graphic that conveys “spooky polyhedra” à la “Dreams in the Witch-House.” I love the somewhat ridiculous – though often extremely effective – notion of maddening and mind-bending mathematics. Who needs monsters when you can have equations that rend the very fabric of the known universe?
Unfortunately, Dangerous Dimensions takes us back to the early applications of the discovery of a “Fourth Dimension” (other than time), starting with H.G. Wells’ “Title”. I found this one almost unbearable. Here the fourth dimension becomes a kind of pseudo-scientific purgatory, where the souls of the dead spectate the lives of the still-living. There wasn’t anything particularly wrong with the story, but it really got into a particular kind of religious- or piously inflected supernatural horror which has never ‘done it’ for me.
The other notable stinker in the collection for me was “Space” by John Buchan. In a sense the introduction to Buchan and his story were of greater issue than the story itself. This volume contains one of the Lovecraft collaborations, and almost the entire introduction to the story/authors for that entry is given over to superficial discussion of Lovecraft’s racism, to the point where I learned nothing about Henry S. Whitehead. Now, “Space” is a story whose entire set-up relies heavily on the notion that Europeans are a more “evolved” form of man and have lost the senses unique to animals and “Savages” which allow them to distinguish the fourth dimension of ‘space’.
I’m not here to rampage against the impolitic and backwards “scientific views” portrayed in the story, but I do take issue with the notion that Lovecraft has become the popular repository for all discussion about racism and eugenic description in genre literature of a particular era. Race featured in a negligible capacity in the Whitehead & Lovecraft story (the 16th century evil Austrian magician or whatever he was had two Black slaves, which is unpleasant and perhaps upsetting but does not really conform with the more egregious elements of Lovecraft’s unpalatable social and scientific views on race). Meanwhile, “Space” displays the very form of ‘eugenic epistemology’ which so tarnishes Lovecraft’s work, and not a single mention of the evolutionary rhetoric is included in the introduction to the story itself.
That is to say: string them all up.
The story itself was fine, but the discussion of the “aboriginal savage” which dominates the beginning of the story definitely left me feeling the strain of having to look past the less than savory socio-political-epistemological aspects.
The stand-out winners in the collection were, for me, Donald Wandrei’s “Infinity Zero” and the Robert Heinlein story “…and he built a crooked house…”. The former has inspired me through its vivid imagery to finally attempt a suitably ‘mathematic’ Weird illustration, as well as being genuinely freaky. The science is also quite good.
Meanwhile, the latter – the Heinlein – was so funny that I’m perplexed no one has adapted it to cinema as of yet. It would make for a very fun, and very funny, little film. Strong visuals, and a lighthearted and enjoyable tone. Some minor “updating” might be required to render the female character a little more palatable for a contemporary audience, but I’m sure there are people who would utterly fail to recognize the light misogyny which persists within the characterizations.
On the whole, it was a solid collection. I felt that the editor tipped his hand a bit including two Blackwood stories (a personal favorite and academic interest of the editor) but I must admit that both Blackwood stories were pretty good. Enough that I’m seriously considering searching up more of the John Silence stories for future reading.
Quick Notes on Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke
I have plenty to say about Eric LaRocca’s Things have gotten worse… Though not perhaps as many to say as the run-away hit of the season merits. The big one is that while I expected it to go one way (and then after the first twist another way, and then yet another way after the second twist) it never really went where you expected it to go. This means that though the experience is deeply horrifying and made my skin hurt, it was never banal.
I must admit that I’m not sure the book ever really tips over into the realm of “erotic horror” but the bar/standard I have for that was set by Livia Llewelyn (specifically the collection Furnace), then solidified with Steven Berman’s Fit for Consumption, with an honorable mention for That One Story in Bracken MacLeod’s 13 Views from the Suicide Woods. Which is to say, an epistolary narrative is unlikely to meet the necessary qualifications of embodiment to really make the “erotic horror” grade. This is in no way a criticism of the book itself, but rather the way the presentation implies a particular tone or expectation which is not quite fulfilled.
Mr. LaRocca certainly has my attention. My tastes run toward the more supernatural than the mundane in the annals of horror and weird fiction, but LaRocca’s characters are so vividly painted and pleasingly complete (if utterly unhinged) that I would be willing to venture into the depths of the believably horrible with his prose charting the path.
That’s certainly MORE than enough words on any number of topics. And I’ll be back with some slightly more fleshed out reviews as well as a few musings like “What exactly is appetite in horror?” (Brought to you by Fit for Consumption where food and sex make for natural if discomfiting bedfellows.) Formal reviews for the above mentioned collections should be forthcoming, and something a little meatier for Mr. LaRocca’s work as well, when I finish digesting it. (I only finished the book two nights ago.) As well as hopefully something on Jeffery Ford’s Big Dark Hole collection, which I am part-way through.