HUMAN VOICES, an in-depth review of Dreams from the Witch House

Cover and Illustrations by Danielle Serra

Dreams from the Witch House edited by Lynne Jamneck is a gorgeous book.

It’s a larger than usual format—25.5 cm by 17.8 cm—soft cover, with beautiful full bleed, color illustrations by Danielle Serra. With a smooth, matte cover and generous layout, it feels good in the hands and easy on the eyes.

“There are black zones of shadow close to our daily paths, and now and then some evil soul breaks a passage through. When that happens, the man who knows much strike before reckoning the consequences.”

H.P. Lovecraft, “The Thing on the Doorstep”

In her introduction to the collection, Lynne Jamneck muses on the fragility of male sanity, particularly in Lovecraft’s own work, and the willingness present in the feminine experience to encompass unknown and unimaginable possibilities.

She lightly admonishes the puritanical impulse in some corners of Lovecraftianism, a reminder that the genre is dedicated to exploring the far reaches of all possible universes. This is a task which demands the greatest possible plurality of voices, a mere fraction of which she has gathered here.

Jamneck opens the collection with a restrained and dreamy historical piece, “Shadows of the Evening” by Joyce Carol Oates, which sees a young woman travel from her German-Hungarian neighborhood in upstate New York to the home of an aged aunt in Massachusetts. Its Lovecraftian elements come through in the setting and the manner in which the young, innocent protagonist is drawn in by some force far beyond her ability to understand, only in part because she has literally left her known world behind. The style is exquisitely crafted, harkening back to the language of a by-gone age, melding an early-20th century style with something older still.

Oates cleverly builds tension throughout the story by compressing time and allowing the future to project itself into the narrative of the past. The reader knows that the young woman will live to be quite old and that she will get married and have a family, which creates anticipation as the audience – aware they are reading a horror story – is rushing ahead of the story to figure out where and what will go wrong. The answer, of course, is almost impossible to describe.

The globe spins. In the next story, the reader finds themselves in an untamed wilderness during the early days of white settler incursion into New Zealand. Tamsyn Muir’s “The Woman in the Hill” is an epistolary story in the form of one letter and a single footnote. It lingers on the terror of wandering out into the hills only to encounter something too old to even recognize. It draws on the primal fear of the wilderness, how it has always been able to close around people and make them disappear, while also asking, “What comes back?”

The story poses an implicit question about the dangers of curiosity and empathy as the land – far more ancient and dangerous than anything else the settlers have encountered – makes its victims into accomplices, consuming them, spirit and flesh, until even their attempts to save the people they care become acts of complicity.

Cat Hellisen’s story “The Face of Jarry” will…

Capsule Reviews I

It has seemed incomprehensible to some that there should be any need or desire for horror fiction when one need only look to the newspaper or out the window to find things to make one’s blood run cold.

But Professor Nobody, who makes his appearance in Thomas Ligotti’s Songs of a Dead Dreamer, explains why it is exactly, in moments of turmoil and distress, that we turn to horror fiction, not as individuals, but as a collective:

“In transforming natural ordeals into supernatural ones, we find the strength to affirm and deny the horror, to savor and suffer them at the same time. […] In story and song, we could entertain ourselves with the worst we could think of, overwriting real pains with ones that were unreal and harmless to our species.”
— “Professor Nobody’s Little Lectures,” Thomas Ligotti

With that in mind, consider picking up the following titles the next time you are at loose ends and looking for something to read.

The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff Vandermeer

Beyond a barrier blocking off a portion of the Floridian peninsula, some kind of otherworldly natural rejuvenation is at work. In Annihilation, the first book, we join the 12th expedition, this time comprised entirely of female scientists, across the barrier as they seek to understand what is happening in Area X,. Few things in that otherworldly Eden are as they first appear.

The first installment works excellently as a stand alone narrative, introducing us to Area X and establishing the tantalizing promise of the Southern Reach, the government department tasked with understanding Area X. The subsequent two books take you deeper into the mystery of Area X and the Southern Reach to find answers that are as strange and satisfying as the questions to which they correspond. Vandermeer’s lush prose is rivaled only by the Florida landscape it describes and the elegant tapestries of his characters.

Ultimately, Jeff Vandermeer’s alienating masterpiece might best be described as it was by the reviewer Scott Christensen on Google Books: “It’s kind of a love story at the end. And I thought that was sweet.”

(Read Annihilation to prepare for its cinematic adaptation, starring Natalie Portman, Tessa Thompson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Oscar Isaac.)

Looming Low (Vol. 1) Edited by Justin Steele and Sam Cowan

The first anthology out from Dim Shores, a press established by Justin Steele and Sam Cowan in 2015 dedicated to Weird and dark fiction. The press has has made a name for itself publishing chapbooks from esteemed Weird fiction authors including Jeffrey Thomas, and more recently, Gemma Files and Joseph S Pulver, Sr.

Looming Low Vol. 1 serves as a whistle-stop tour of contemporary Weird fiction. While it features works by established names like Michael Cisco, Brian Evanson, Livia Llewellyn, and S.P. Miskowski, it also includes stories from less immediately familiar names. As a whole,  it serves as an excellent introduction to Weird fiction and its impressive variety of styles and topics; from the supernatural to the mundane, the romantic to the fraternal, and beyond, the human heart is metamorphosed before your eyes as it tangles with the incomprehensible and the irreconcilable.

Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe by Thomas Ligotti

Thomas Ligotti has been described as a mix between Kafka and Lovecraft. His personal brand of transcendental horror, as if Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau had ascended to that higher spiritual plane only to realize that life is something worse than a cosmic joke, is utterly unlike anything else. His dreamy, rotting post-industrial landscapes peel back to reveal humanity dancing on the end of a string, while elsewhere, close by, the universe laughs.

Perhaps most effectively, unlike the hapless or blissfully ignorant characters which populate Weird and Science Fiction, who unwittingly stumble upon unimaginable horrors, Ligotti’s characters often walk to their doom with some foreknowledge. His protagonists are seekers after truth, aware that they are damning themselves by looking but unable look away.

The Penguin classics single volume re-release of his first and second collections of short stories (Songs and Grimscribe, respectively) is an opportunity for everyone to re-/discover this master of dread.

Edited 26 JULY 2018 (for typos/clarity)

On Thomas Ligotti

A follow up on my review of The Grimscribe’s Puppets:

I have now read Thomas Ligotti.

It changed my life.

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Thomas Ligotti can paint tableaus with his adjectives that repulse me. He can fill my head with images that burden me as they burden his protagonists. But no one has ever made me want to draw the way Thomas Ligotti does.

Justin Steele’s comment that Ligotti is not for everyone feels unavoidable, but nevertheless, I think everyone should read Thomas Ligotti. The things that make him difficult are, like with all good authors, the things that make him enchanting. His stories are immersed in an almost academic rhetoric that pushes the mind beyond quotidian engagement with the universe. In contrast to other kinds of contemporary fiction, he strays from the traditional depiction of the everyman. What makes his protagonists ordinary is their tendency towards base emotion: curiosity, irritation, selfishness, egotism.

More than all that, Ligotti is a Transcendentalist.

He follows in the footsteps of Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau, exploring the possibility of an interconnected universe. He leaves no doubt; his universe is interconnected. There is a higher knowledge, a greater understanding, and sits just beyond our usual sphere of perception.

But unlike Whitman or Thoreau or New Age prophets, his interconnected universe is not nearly so pleasant. Ligotti writes of a world where higher knowledge, undeniably satisfying to achieve, is always a burden. The existential project is a fruitless one, to understand the universe is to destroy the self. When you can see the cardboard trees for what they are, when you understand—truly understand—how the universe is all strung together, and what things exist, just beyond the blue sky – you might wish you hadn’t.

Book Review: The Grimscribe’s Puppets, Joseph S. Pulver, Sr. ED. Miskatonic River Press, 2013

“I don’t really want to see a ghost, but if someone said, ‘Do you want to go to a haunted house and see a ghost?’ I would say, ‘Yes’.”  — Kelly Link. Oct. 6, 2015. Brown University

A review of The Grimscribe’s Puppets by Justin Steele on said, “Thomas Ligotti, one of the finest horror authors, can be a tough pill to swallow. […] His work is definitely not for everyone though, casual horror readers would most likely be turned off by this particular brand of philosophical horror, yet everyone should read Ligotti at least once.” Though I have never read Ligotti, I can easily (and eagerly) imagine his desolate cityscapes, and agonized protagonists who lurch through them, revolted by the existential truths they have uncovered. Their miserable voices call to me saying, “We are all connected. None of us is alone.”

Book photo from MIskatonic River Press

Pulver’s collection here is (according to Wikipedia) award-winning and rightfully so. The stories in it bring a range of voices, both narratively and creatively, together in a dizzying rush through the darkened, greedy corners of our universe. I started the book in the middle, with Jon Padgett’s 20 Simple Steps to Ventriloquism, and from there explored outwards from the center of the book, devouring the stories and letting the thread, whatever Ligottian impulse Pulver had called forth from them for this collection, which bound them together, thread its way through me and draw me in, another puppet for the Grimscribe, or whatever else is hiding out past the blue veneer of the sky.

Of extra special note are Livia Llewellyn’s Furnace, Kaaron Warren’s The Human Moth, Robin Spiggs The Xenambulist, and Gemma Files’s Obliette (which I didn’t save for last, and highly recommend you take the editor’s implicit recommendation and let it be the last morsel of this collection you savor to end the experience). The Human Moth left me feeling like Ms. Link, now that I know stories like it exist, though I might prefer to have eschewed that knowledge, I must seek them out.


An unexpected triumph: Jupiter Ascending, the most feminist sci-fi film of the year

Jupiter Ascending got wrecked on the critical shores. The most recent film from the Watchowski siblings (who brought you The Matrix), is a critique of capitalism, disguised as a space opera romance. I can see some of you shaking your heads, thinking, “She’s both drastically overselling this film” and “Come on, sure, the Matrix had some philosophical undercurrents, but this is a film about Channing Tatum helping Mila Kunis become a space princess.”

Give me a moment to sell this movie to you again.

Your average hard sci-fi fan will find a lot to complain about with Jupiter Ascending. But we need to take a moment and remember that most hard sci-fi fans will complain about Star Wars, too. And everyone is about to fall over in excitement for the JJ Abrams Star Wars sequel set, so I’m not sure “It’s not hard SF” is enough to pronounce this film DOA.
Let me be entirely clear: Jupiter Ascending is a space romance. It’s primary function is to serve up two beautiful people who fall in spectacular love with one another, while elevating Mila Kunis’ Jupiter from a life as a toilet scrubbing illegal immigrant. But in the process it does a number of surprisingly lovely things.
For example, it doesn’t take itself too seriously.
The monotony of free-falling action sequences, explosions, space battles, and beautiful CGI alien worlds is broken up with moments of foot-in-mouth humor, and a bureaucratic scene unlike anything we’ve seen since Douglas Adams and the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Buried underneath the verbal faux pas of Kunis’ and Tatum’s courtship is the plot that drives the film forward, throwing the characters together in life-or-death situations to help them fall in love. It is a plot that relies on rather well-developed world building that draws the more indulgent viewer into the politics of a genetically-driven economy.
In fact, the hand-wavey science of genetics undergirds the entire world Jupiter (and the viewers) are thrown into. (I remind you again, that the Force is basically magic. And that a decent number of people sat through the scientifically unteneble Limitless and Lucy. So demanding a strict adherence to “real science” seems somewhat excessive.) With sufficiently advanced technology, the film argues, we will no longer be slave to our natural genetic code (with various characters having been genetically engineered before birth as soldiers, Tatum among them), and not even to time itself, but at a cost.
Ultimately, the film seems to say, it is not the science that produces real evil, but the economic structure with its commitment to profit, and product, that will play out the real evil. There are literal human costs to this system, which uses raw genetic material to produce longevity. Kunis’ Jupiter has been drawn into a battle between the siblings of a corporate empire by virtue of her particular genetic code.

But what of the romantic genre itself? In the quest for better female representation in popular media, Romance as often been called upon to come to the rescue. After all, girls like love and having their social station elevated to grant them access to more finely made clothes, right?
I posted a number of months ago about the Bechdel Test, and asked you to think back on how many films had female characters interacting with each other (an order so tall that even with all the weight of Disney behind it, Marvel has only managed to pull it off on the small screen). Jupiter Ascending succeeds without any huge fanfare. The primary exposition for the film takes place when Tuppence Middleton shuffles Kunis into a vague understanding of her new station. In the words of my father, “What? Exposition between two women? But that’s ridiculous, everyone knows women don’t know anything!” Jupiter also has a relationship with her mother and her aunt, one of the women she keeps house for, and the lady captain of a space police ship.
Walking the tightrope of hyperbole, I would be willing to suggest that this is the most feminist science fiction film you’ll see this year. Certainly by this time this year.

I promised you social commentary on the nature of capitalism and I feel I should deliver. The film is split into a few factions: you have the Egiss who are a regulatory body, they are referred to at least once in the film as “space cops” and they serve as the instrumental power of the state, essentially to try and curb the greed of the ruling semi-aristocratic class who will lie, and murder without compunction to achieve their ends of growing their profit margins. Then you have the “Entitled,” who are a sort of landed gentry. They own planets, which they harvest to create a product that essentially renders people immortal. Bureaucracy makes its appearance as a hinderance, but also a neutral entity that can be used or abused pretty much entirely due to one’s familiarity with the process.
After that, violence is a commodity that can be bought, much as in our world. Bounty hunters abound, and can be made instruments for the Entitled in their battle to get their hands on the best source.

It is not a complex film. If you follow the surface plot, it’s a rag-to-riches, harlequin romance, complete with a handsome and loyal soldier for the romantic lead. If you fall to the second level, it’s a simple parable cursing the rich and their greedy, thoughtless practices, with a coming of age plot about reassessing your place in the world and making the best of your new station.
It also has lovely computer generated sets, that create a lush backdrop for the slightly humorous costume choices (space society is big on corsets). While it is not a film set to win any awards, it should neither be thrust in the category of “completely unremarkable” nor should it be cast out as “foolish” or worse “confusing” (that last one has left me perplexed, as there did not really appear to be anything that actually needed explaining, any “science” working as a large scale plot device devoid of anything resembling math or biology).

If spectacle, a dash of romance, and having a good laugh when space capitalists fail to produce offspring competent in hand-to-hand combat are things you enjoy give Jupiter Ascending a shot. It is, in the honor of a particular science fiction tradition, a damn good time..