The Best British Fantasy 2014

BBF2014Don’t let the name fool you, The Best British Fantasy 2014 (ed. Steve Haynes) plays it both fast and loose with its definition of “Fantasy”. Which I like. I would actually categorize the majority of these stories as Science Fiction, but by using the moniker “Fantasy”, Salt Publishing enable themselves to include stories that are less easily defined, and this anthology contains a multitude of fantasy types, from supernaturalisms, to horror, to mythology. Editor Steve Haynes addresses the ever-shifting nature of genre borders in his short introduction, and in this regard the book feels bang up to date; the collection as a whole, as well as the stories individually, functions as a snap-shot of the current state of genre writing and the recent trend of blurring genre distinctions and mashing-up literary styles. Similarly, the list of contributors is nicely diverse, especially with regard to the number of women writers represented. At the end of a year which has seen greater-than-ever debate about gender in SF writing, this is to be applauded, and is, hopefully, finally, a sign of a paradigm shift within the genre community.

As with any anthology, there are hits and misses. But I’m pleased to report that the former outnumber the latter. Here’s what I thought about some of them:

***

Triolet – Jess Hyslop

The first paragraph of Triolet begins with the prosaic “An elderly lady lives at the end of our street”, and ends with the estrangingly odd “She grows poems”.  This dissonance between the everyday and the weird is a kind of microcosm for the entire story, which uses a supernatural conceit (plants that speak poetry) to both trigger and examine the breakdown of a seemingly ideal, if actually mundane, suburban marriage. I liked this for lots of reasons, but mostly because Hyslop has managed to write a genre story about poetic form, wherein the form of the poetry itself is the fantastical element (there’s also some very clever punctuation stuff going on – the plant-poem’s meaning changes when it drops its commas like so many dead leaves). I’m not sure if casting poetry as something fantastical and estranging is a wry dig at the genre community’s lack of engagement with the medium, but that kind of subtextual joke definitely presented itself to me.

Stylistically, Triolet reminds me of M. John Harrison: there’s a convergence of psychological and literary realism with the supernatural, occasionally interrupted by moments of imagist beauty. It’s great.

I don’t go to work that day. I don’t go home either. I just get in the car a drive. I take the A-road out of town, and then I take every back road I come across until I’m way out in the countryside. There are no clouds in sight, and the air is a pale winter blue.

***

Build Guide – Helen Jackson

Bit nit-picky, but my problem with this story is that there’s no point in it actually being science-fictional. I like my SF to be inexorably so, by which I mean, the story should be impossible to tell without the parts that make it science fiction. The narrative should be inseparable from, to quote Darko Suvin, its “novum of estrangement”. This tale about a construction worker embezzling company funds on a moon hotel is perfectly serviceable… but it could have been set on any building site. The Moon stuff is just window dressing, which feels a bit like a wasted opportunity. The prose is good and the characters do what they need to, but the ending let me down by not exploding into the volta that I’d anticipated. It’s kinda refreshing to find an SF story focusing on menial labour, though. So there’s that.

moon

***

Zero Hours – Tom Maughan

This is post-recession SF satire, in which desperate workers must bid, e-bay-style, for shift work in shops, coffee houses, factories etc. Whoever bids lowest, that is to say – whoever will accept the lowest pay for the shift – gets the work. Zero Hours is notable for being equal parts funny and downright terrifying. The satire is biting: the image of people trying to screw each other out of work by under-cutting their colleagues is an obvious exaggeration of current neo-liberal business ideals. The deployment of present-day technology (bidding websites, tablet computers, the gamification of work etc) makes the whole thing alarmingly plausible-seeming. This is the story’s greatest achievement but also, of course, its point.

***

Aspects of Aries – David Turnbull

Another satirical one, set in a future in which society is divided along astrological lines, with Earth signs waging war against Water signs, Taureans murdering Pisceans etc. The ever-shifting allegiances and comical swapping of accidentally-born-under-the-wrong-sign babies between star sign nations highlights the arbitrariness of war, as well as the bullshit that is astrology “astrologers on both sides were keen to insist that the portents of the stars were on their side”. The juxtaposition of comedy with utterly horrific depictions of war is deftly handled. But the ending makes it feel as if the entire story is nothing more than ground work for a particularly over-laboured and borderline-offensive pun. Would’ve been better without its final paragraph, maybe. Not sure. Kinda fun.

***

Ad Astra – Carole Johnstone

Incredible Science Fiction Horror story (and why is this such a rare sub-genre?) that takes a modern theory about prolonged space travel (that missions to Mars(/wherever) might be best undertaken by married couples whose relationship can weather the months of claustrophobic close-quarters living) and really runs with it. A husband and wife are travelling through space in a small capsule that may-or-may-not have some horrible alien living in its walls. As the narrative progresses, paranoia and distrust being to permeate, until not even the reader can be certain of what’s going on, of who is mad and who is just lying. The story is impressively crammed: there’s Hard SF discussions of zero gravity, intense psychological realism, sex, violence, mind-games: the busy and jam-packed form of the narrative mirrors the claustrophobic, cluttered, cramped nature of its setting. Ad Astra is both genuinely frightening in its un-spoken suggestions of alien horror and conspiracy, and genuinely sad in its examination of marital distrust.

***

iRobot – Guy Haley

Nice title. This is more of a vignette than an actual story. A short description of a far-future desert Earth after some non-disclosed apocalypse has wiped out all life on the planet. The writing is highly stylised, replete with repetitions, internal-rhymes, non-sequiturs and imagism, it’s a rare example of Science Fiction prose poetry. A domestic robot, uncovered by a storm and temporarily brought to life when the sun touches its solar panels, begins to ask questions to a leathery human corpse. The story is dripping with pathos and manages to highlight both the transience of human endeavour and our potential for self-destruction. The ornate nature of the writing is nicely contrasted to the emptiness of its landscapes and the lack of any human characters. Atmospheric and weirdly moving:

‘You are quiet’ it says. ‘Are you sad?’

Again the machine falls silent as its worn brain searches for something to cheer this last master.

***

Cat World – Georgina Bruce

Cat World is a deeply sad story about two homeless sisters, both children, living in some future metropolis. The elder sister, Oh, engages in sex work in order to provide her and her younger sister (the narrator) with small amounts of food and “gum”, a kind of hallucinogenic drug that lets them temporarily travel to a shared dream-world of suburban comforts and safety. The emotional gut-punch of the story is the younger sister’s inability to comprehend the disappearance of Oh, who has most-likely been murdered or kidnapped by one of her customers. The narrator worries that Oh has abandoned her, or has been adopted alone by some benevolent (and imaginary) mother figure. The pathos of the story is found in its corollaries with real-world child sex trafficking, and the realisation that ‘Cat World’, the girls’ escapist fantasy, is really nothing more than a simple desire for a safe home and loving family. Bruce manages to construct all of this in a gritty, dark and blunt and unflinching way: the story’s strong emotions develop from the well-realised voice of its narrator, rather than any overly-sentimental use of manipulative language. Utterly brilliant, and very timely in using genre fiction to highlight prevalent modern-day concerns.

The Day the Call Came – Thomas Hinde

The Day the Call CameThe Day the Call Came (1964) occupies a kind of genre superposition by simultaneously functioning as both a spy thriller and a tale of suburban paranoia. The difficulty is that, rationally, the story the book tells cannot be both of these things at once; our protagonist is either a sleeper agent for a shady organisation, or he’s suffering from severe paranoid delusions. Unlike the superpositions of quantum physics, however, observation doesn’t collapse the ambiguity to reveal a definite identity; the either/or problematic remains intact right until the end. Indeed, you may exit the novel more confused about its character than you were when you entered it. It’s down to the caprice of the individual reader, therefore, to decide exactly what kind of book this is. But I would argue that even attempting to pin it down and nail it with  definite narrative explanations and genre signifiers is to wilfully miss the point.

The novel is narrated in the first-person past by Harry Bale, a married father of two living the suburban dream: walks in the country, dinner parties with the neighbours, tennis on the weekend etc. etc. One day a letter arrives instructing Harry to “Stand by”, activating him as an agent for some non-disclosed secret organisation. What his orders will be, when he was recruited and what kind of organisation this is are never explained. The crux of the narrative is that all of this spy stuff might be a delusion; maybe he wrote the letter to himself, maybe it’s all just in his head. Harry will occasionally ask these questions of himself, but for the most part he is firm in his conviction that the spy thing is real.

The more natural reading, it seems to me, is the one that interprets Harry as raving batshit insane, rather than a genuine sleeper agent awaiting orders. And indeed this appears to be the critical consensus, with the majority of reviews discussing Harry’s “obvious” paranoia. Spies don’t live like this, suburban lives aren’t this exciting, there are no conspiracies; Harry must be paranoid. But other than a postmodern distrust of narrators and our knowledge that twentieth-century suburbia wasn’t a hotbed of espionage, what reason do we have to doubt him? After all, we accept without question much wilder claims from our fiction on an almost daily basis. Maybe the book’s style, which has more in common with literary realism than traditional genre writing, is what sways critics to the paranoia interpretation? After all, it certainly doesn’t *read* like a spy novel.

And Hinde manipulates style to admittedly convincing paranoid effect. This is mostly achieved by a constant deployment of intransitive verbs. Harry “suspects” and “witnesses” and “sees”, but the referents are always missing, generating a vagueness that definitely reinforces the sensation of paranoia.

Despite this, though, the text always feels balanced, never giving the reader the advantage of its protagonist, and never, in my opinion, favouring one interpretation over the other. For example, when Harry receives a call from his superiors, he simultaneously hears both a dial tone (suggesting he’s delusional) and his employer’s voice (suggesting he really is in communication with someone). The gender-neutral pronoun in the following quote nicely reinforces the ambiguity of the scene:

What was clever was that the dialling tone wasn’t interrupted by their voice.

I was tempted to be anti-establishment and review this entire book as if it *were* a straight-up, unambiguous spy thriller, just to be contrary and screw with the apparent consensus of the paranoia interpretation. Perhaps it’s my reading history that inclines me to give greater credence to the fantastical spy aspects than is really justified by the text? But ultimately I decided not to let the spy interpretation dominate the paranoia one, and vice versa. This is because holding these two contradictory ideas about the novel in your head at once creates a cognitive dissonance out of which emerges the book’s most interesting tonal duality: that of comedy mixed with horror.

The comedic elements are the more obvious; scenes of Harry – who may or may not be a spy – breaking into his neighbours’ houses and fixating on their mundane private lives are undeniably funny, but such is Hinde’s skill that these scenes are never over-played or heavy handed:

Either I was mistaken and Charlie’s early-morning golf was the genuine health-obsession of a retired man; or more sinister and complicated things were happening around me than I’d imagined.

The horror manifests itself in different ways: if Harry is working for a shady organisation, then we must accept that our lives are subject to the whims of powers beyond our immediate perception or understanding. If, however, he is paranoid, another kind of horror presents itself. Firstly there’s the surface-level stuff; the horror that’s explicit in mental unwell-ness. But there’s also something else going on; a suggestion that the spy thing is an escapist fantasy that enables Harry to cope with the meaninglessness of modern suburban life. His neighbours are impossibly boring, he’s distant from his wife, he worries that people are attempting to undermine him in unfair and unreasonably small ways, he’s getting older. This is suburbia as a place of abject panic and despair, without sense or future or love: a life-horror.

The most striking visualisation of this, of the unnatural, wasteful meaninglessness of modern life, is the oft-repeated image of “fruit rotting on our trees”.

In this regard The Day the Call Came reminds me of more modern philosophical horror writers like Thomas Ligotti, whose “corporate horror” sub-genre extracts horror from microscopic examinations of day-to-day life and the panic-inducing quest for value in an indifferent, meaningless world. Dinner with the dull neighbours and their stories about golf is not what life was supposed to be. The spy fantasy, if that’s what it is, gives Harry meaning, and elevates him beyond the horrific mundane of the suburban:

And now I didn’t care whether or not I should let myself hunt. I didn’t care that I was making my memories real when they might not be. To me they were real because they were the only reality I had.

The spy narrative becomes a metaphor for the modernist search for genuine, non-contrived experience. In order to feel real among the salvo of suburban bullshit, Harry has to inhabit a fantasy life of his own devising: this is the novel’s most potent horror.

The balancing of comedy (Harry on spy “missions” crawling through his neighbours’ bushes etc), with paranoid horror is the novel’s greatest achievement; these seemingly contradictory genre elements, when deployed in unison, is what makes the book so original, and each aspect enriches the other. The comedy imbues the horror with a sense of pathos that, if anything, makes the suburban even more tragic, whereas Harry’s paranoia, if that’s what it is, augments the blackness of the comedy: the laughs are bigger and darker when you know that Harry really, really believes in all of the stupid stuff he’s doing. This a great little book, but it discourages over-zealous interpretation. Holding two contradictory ideas about something in your head is a difficult thing, but Thomas Hinde’s prose almost forces you to do this, and, as I hope I’ve shown, with good reason, and to excellent effect.

Romeo and Juliet at the Sherman Theatre (2014)

The most striking aspect of the Sherman Theatre’s frenzied new modern-setting production of Rom and Jules (dir Rachel O’Riordan) is Sophie Melville’s original and stunningly complex interpretation of Juliet; a performance that functions in a space between traditional tragic ingénue on the one hand, and something more sassy, worldly and modern on the other.

Rather than contradict each other, however, these two elements converge to create a performative depth that presents Juliet as simultaneously child and adult, naive yet passionately self-determined. It’s Juliet as a 21st-Century teenager. There’s Bambi-eyed innocence when the text most demands it, but there’s also sass: some of Melville’s deliveries are pure innuendo (which sounds weird, I know, but trust me it really, really works), and it’s a testament to the actor’s skill and theatrical balance that neither one of these aspects ever comes to dominate the other.

It’s a sort of hinterland performance, one that rejects the standard interpretations of Juliet as either wholly innocent or entirely hubristic in favour of a more nuanced, if more difficult, presentation. Sophie Melville’s speech is likewise varied: in dialogue this often involves charging through line breaks and ignoring rhymes in an excited and frenetic tumble that mirrors the rhythms of teenage slang, while in soliloquy things are slowed down in such a way as to reveal a startling fragility. It’s brilliant.

Rom and Ju

This dualistic performance in fact works as a microcosm for the entire production, which is characterised by a keen awareness and exuberant exaggeration of the play’s inherent contradictions. Rachel O’Riordan directs a first half which is unadulterated Shakespearean Comedy (feuding families, gate-crashing teens and sneaking lovers), and a second half that’s fully Tragedy, a genre switch signified by the pre-interval volta of Mercutio and Tybalt’s deaths.

The staging is likewise bipartite, with a set that’s divided into two levels, an impoverished, slum-esque estate at the bottom, and a more opulent set of windows and balconies on the top, designed in such a way as to subtly suggest the shapes of classical Verona architecture in a nice nod to the play’s original setting. Initially I was wary of this “Romeo and Juliet on the estates” rendering of the drama, but I soon came round to the idea. Re-casting the uber-rich Montagues and Capulets as warring working-class gangs is particularly effective as a commentary on post-financial crisis Britain, and, let’s face it, in light of the recession, sticking to the standard presentation of the families as  wealthy elite, and then expecting the audience to sympathise with them, would have been somewhat of a faux pas. The concrete greys, the graffiti and substitution of swords for knives brings additional pathos to the drama, made all the more disconcerting by quite how modern the story seems when it’s told in this way (I hate the word “relevant”, but it’s probably apt). It would be overly simplistic to claim that O’Riordan has turned Romeo and Juliet into a play about street kids stabbing each other, and I wouldn’t tug at this thread too much, but it’s there if you must: the imagery of street crime making this a controversial rendering of Shakespeare.

RandJ

Also of note is Scott Reid‘s Mercutio, a tempestuous performance that’s equal parts volatile trickster and philosophical malcontent, it’s real fire-in-the-belly stuff. Chris Gordon is solid as Romeo, and it’s noteworthy that this is his professional theatre debut, but I would have liked to have seen some of his idiosyncrasies pushed even further; there’s a suggestion of cockiness that needn’t have been so restrained, I feel.

Anita Reynolds gets the biggest laugh as the Nurse, making her strutting entrance in a hot pink tracksuit, arms flailing and full of attitude. It’s definitely the most out-there performance, but it’s perfectly controlled, and Reynolds manages to rein in the exuberance in such a way that maintains her character’s identity without undermining the seriousness of later scenes.

So, yeah, it’s a really great production. It’s about the borders between child- and adulthood, poverty and excess, love and hate etc. This interest in dualism is reflected in everything from the set design to the performances to the music. Rachel O’Riordan doesn’t so much blur the boundaries of these things as she does violently smash them together. The resulting explosion is fierce and sexual and loud and sad and controversial and everything theatre should be. Go and see it.

Tom.

Physics of the Future – Michio Kaku

Physics-of-the-FutureWowza, Michio Kaku really phoned this one in. He spends a good chunk of the introduction explaining how, unlike other books that aim to predict the technologies of the future, this one derives its ideas from “proper” research, interviews with specialists and yadda yadda yadda. We should, apparently, pay special heed to this book because Kaku isn’t some nonsense-spewing charlatan, but an actual scientist OMGZ. This egoism soon develops into an all-pervasive tonal smugness;  Physics of the Future is stuffed with constant references to Kaku’s achievements, the places he’s been and the things he’s seen, as well as all of the conferences he has “Keynoted” (note: “Keynoted” IS NOT A VERB!)

Unfortunately, and despite the opening’s protestations to the contrary, the book goes on to peddle the same kinds of utopian futurist bullshit we’ve seen over and over again. Kaku demonstrates an almost baffling lack of knowledge of even the most basic social and economic realities, and makes statements about the world so sweepingly general, Western-centric and atheist-normative that I began to wonder if he’s even aware that places and cultures outside of American laboratories actually exist.

On a stylistic level the book is a complete train wreck; equal parts convoluted and condescending, it reads like a waffly first draft of what should evolve into a much tighter, learner work. It’s full-to-bursting with clichés, and it’s mind-numbingly repetitive, with entire paragraphs of itself copy-pasted across several chapters, with only the most meagre attempts at hiding the fact that copy-pasting is the editorial modus operendi. Maybe he had a word count to fill or something I dunno.

One of Kaku’s more irritating stylistic ticks is his habit of repeating little refrain-type statements over and over again, but without any sense of self-awareness or irony, as if whenever he makes such a statement he’s doing so for the first time. The most grating of these is his assertion that advances in modern technology will grant us the powers of the “Gods of mythology”, “the ancients of mythology” and the “Greek Gods of mythology”. This last one is especially irksome, firstly because it’s tautological as all hell, and secondly because it doesn’t really mean anything. It seems to me that if you mention the powers of the Greek Gods, that you’re referencing a very specific set of established fantastics. I’m pretty sure Michio Kaku doesn’t mean that future technology will enable us to shapeshift into bulls so that we can rape beautiful maidens. But who knows? I’m sure NASA has all kinds of weird non-disclosed research projects going on.

Europe and the Bull

The technologies he describes are all fairly run-of-the-mill futurist things, familiar to anyone with even the most cursory interest in popular science: quantum computing, life extension, 3D printing that enables mass customisation of consumer goods etc. Despite its title, the book has almost nothing at all to do with physics other than in the very cosmically broad sense that everything is, technically, to do with physics. The thing is, I have no doubt that many of Kaku’s technology-based predictions will in fact come about. What I disagree with are his declarations that relatively near-future tech (the next 20-30 years or so) will unite all of humanity into a kind of affluent global super community. Seriously: internet contact lenses and wall-to-wall holographic projectors and asteroid mines aren’t going to wash away political and religious strife in the Middle East or mass starvation in African countries crippled by debt to their former colonial occupiers. As for genetic manipulations, life extension and nano-surgery: we all know who’re going to be the primary beneficiaries of that sort of tech: rich, rich white people, that’s who.

Physics of the Future doesn’t address the most striking social reality of technological advancement: that such things are never evenly distributed. Rather than producing a utopian global community on its way to becoming a type 1 civilization, the obvious concern is that super technologies like life extension, nano-surgical cancer cures and designer supermodel babies will create societal divisions between rich and poor of an unprecedented kind. I don’t want to fall into the trap of going too much in the opposite direction to Kaku, but it’s strikingly easy to imagine the end result of all this not as an utopian ideal, but a dystopian nightmare of split humanity, where the rich have access to near immortalising medical advances, and the poor remain as wretched and hopeless as ever. It’s a common supposition of the Left that we have to finally admit the revolution isn’t coming, but putting some of this future tech stuff into a sociological context makes me wonder if a major catalyst for mass action against social divisions isn’t just around the corner. At the very least it would have been nice if Kaku had addressed these commonplace concerns.

In short, Physics of the Future just isn’t very good. It’s a vision of the near future characterised by hysterical technocratic optimism on the one hand, and dull science fictional blah on the other. Occasionally Michio Kaku will hint at socio, political or psychological problematics (“holodeck”-addiction stuff), but such things are largely pushed into the margins of the work, and are swiftly dismissed. The book should have been so much more. Instead it’s just… drivel.

 

Broken Monsters – Lauren Beukes

broken-monsters-saBroken Monsters (2014) combines a stylistic predisposition towards social realism with a geeky love of supernatural horror in a convergence that’s becoming an aesthetic commonplace of the New Weird SF/H sub-genre. If the supernatural stuff is particularly offensive to your readerly sensitivities, then Lauren Beukes offers you a way-out in the form of a potentially realist-materialist explanation of the book’s more trippy events, but you’d have to be pretty bloody-minded in your approach to make such an exegesis fit, I feel. For the purposes of this review, therefore, we’re gonna take the supernatural at face value.

Unfortunately, I expect Broken Monsters will attract the same kinds of gloriously point-missing reviews that dogged The Shining Girls; reviews characterised by a sense of disappointment that Beukes didn’t explain the origins of the time travelling house, as if an infinitely-retreating sequence of whys and wherefores is a prerequisite for fantastical narratives to have any value. This is the unfortunate legacy of worldbuilding, and perhaps speaks to the more conservative literary tastes of many genre fans. Like the House in The Shining Girls, the “dream” that possesses the serial killer of Broken Monsters is given little to no biography, but also like the House, therein lies its merit. It’s not in their convoluted histories that Lauren Beukes’ supernaturalisms become interesting, but in their weird unknowableness, their horrifying effects upon the reader, and their worth as metaphors and subtexts for whatever real-world issues the writer is addressing, that is: misogyny and problematic cultural representations of women in The Shining Girls, and poverty, production and the quest for originality in this book, Broken Monsters.

Similar to The Shining Girls, this is a serial-killer crime novel with supernatural elements. This time the action transpires in present-day Detroit, American’s most notoriously depressed, semi-ruined and semi-abandoned city (just look at the declining population stats). The book is uncompromising in its gritty (gritty gritty gritty) portrayal of violence, poverty, misogyny etc, and, also like The Shining Girls, it’s a real emotional gut punch, with Beukes again demonstrating her amazing aptitude for big-picture social commentary conveyed through intimate portrayals of individual emotional lives.

21313933

The primary narrative takes the form of a police procedural; there’s a very large cast, with short chapters alternately flitting between several groups of characters. It takes quite a while to settle into the book’s rhythm, but even when you’ve got a handle on all of the peeps involved, Beukes has a tendency to upset the reader’s comfort with micro cliff-hangers and chapter-long deviations; it’s a standard structuralism of the thriller genre, but hey, it works: the book’s pretty pacy.

Things hit the ground running with the discovery of the mutilated body of a teenager (he’s been cut in half and his torso glued to the similarly-severed hind legs of a deer. Eww gross. Lauren Beukes must have been gutted that True Detective (with its comparable deer-parts-stuck-on-a-dead-body opening scene) aired just a few months before BM was published. Deer hybrids must be zeitgeisty, or something). The investigating detective, Gabi Versado, is the main protagonist; a well-realised single mum, equally as adept at investigative policing as she is at batting away the sexist machismo bullshit she faces as a female police officer. To be honest, though, I found Gabi to be the least interesting of the players, partly because the cop-struggling-with-personal-problems is a tad cliché (though the fact that it’s a female police officer occupying this role is amazingly refreshing), but partly because, as readers, we already know who the killer is, and so we’re permanently at the advantage of Gabi, whose investigation is always playing catch up. Not that the ‘whodunnit’ is the only viable form for a thriller to take, of course, but in a book with so much going on, scenes in which the characters struggle to work out what the reader already knows can be a bit dry.

The murderer is lonely, struggling artist Clayton Broom, who’s been possessed by a “dream” – some supernatural evil that more-or-less controls his actions – and who attempts to make works of art out of the various people he kills. Whether or not the dead-bodies-as-art is a goal of the “dream” itself, or whether the art thing is a side-effect of the dream having possessed an artist whose conscious is kinda bleeding into its own, is left deliberately ambiguous; muddled in a way that mirrors the hybrid nature of the bodies-art themselves.

Art in general, in fact, is a major theme. Broken Monsters is partly an attempt to show the real life suffering behind the hipster “ruin porn” photography that’s oh-so-trendily emerging from post-industrial Detroit, “the number one Death-of-America pilgrimage destination”. Tied up with all of this is the phenomenon of art flourishing in times of social crisis, and one of Beukes’ most striking achievements is portraying the production of art as social catharsis in a time of disaster (while simultaneously satirising the crappiness and effectual impotence of bad installations, cliché photographs of abandoned factories, and lame Instagram filters etc).

With the collapse of the motor industry, Detroit’s most iconic mode of manufacturing production, it’s tempting to interpret the “dream” as a nightmare manifestation of Detroit’s own subconscious: the desire to produce combined with the expressive opportunities of art all mixed with the sheer rage of being the victims of a crisis the people of the city didn’t make. For the “dream”, which presents as simultaneously sinister and childlike, murder is a means of production, a process by which it can increase its own capital in the world and put itself out there.  This is recession America as horror, then. Stuff has gone wrong, things are overlapping and becoming confused.

“There are places that are borders. Where something was but isn’t anymore, and other things can surface.”

***

detroit

The novel’s most striking character is Layla, the teenage daughter of detective Gabi. Layla is a sharp-tongued, sassy super wit who, as a young teen, could almost be a proto- version of Kirby from The Shining Girls. Lauren Beukes is freakishly gifted at ventriloquising the brought-up-by-the-internet, meme-dominated tech slang dialogue of twenty-first century teenagers, and to this end large chunks of the action transpires as YouTube comments, Skype IMs, Facebook messages, Tweets, Reddit threads etc. etc.

Now, this kind of stuff is a double-edge sword for me. Firstly, modern advances in communications technology present particular problems for writers of thriller fiction. How much of fiction’s tensions depend upon characters being separated, being out of touch, being at a literal distance from one another? (answer: a lot). Something of mystery and apprehension has been lost now that everyone is just a text or phone call away. Writerly responses to this are varied; some writers concoct shit reasons why a character has no signal, or has lost their phone or whatever. Others go as far as to set their dramas in a pre-mobile phone period purely to avoid having to contrive such bullshit no-cell-reception-at-the-moment-of-crisis scenarios. Both of these solutions are terrible. Lauren Beukes, then, should be praised for diving in at the deep end and swimming with, rather than against, the tide of modern comms tech, and creating a narrative whose tensions exist because of the ubiquity of modern communications, rather than in spite of. Indeedy, Layla’s involvement in a paedophile-baiting scheme is one of the most tense yet socially relevant thriller plot lines I’ve ever come across.

Secondly, I love anything that looks weird on the page, and YouTube-style comment threads definitely disrupt the standard novelistic textual layout. Lauren Beukes, being brilliant, manages this in a way that transcends gimmickry to become something genuinely insightful. It’s a critical truism to point out how much of our lives are now lived online, but here we go: The manner in which the layout of such passages differs from the rest of the novel reflects the internet’s simultaneous identity as something part of, but also other to and essentially separate from, our day-to-day lives. Lauren Beukes is doing more than just saying “these things exist!!”

But, but but but but but. But. All of these things (YouTube and Twitter and Instagram oh my!) aren’t mediums of communication in the way that television and letter writing are mediums: they’re also brands. And there’s something uncomfortable about reading a book that’s so utterly in-your-face with real world brands. All. The. Time. It’s like advertising but also not.

To be honest I don’t know what the solution is. Inventing some fictional but obvious equivalences to real-world social networking sites is just naff, but ignoring the stuff completely is, as I’ve argued, just burying your head in the sand. I mean, even the BBC struggle: as an organisation they’re (rightly) brand-averse, as expressed in the oft-repeated phrase “other ____s are available” (often uttered when some guest or other has made the gaff of name-dropping a corporation), but even the BBC has to name-check Twitter and the like, as if Twitter isn’t a money-making business with competition, as if this isn’t advertising, or as if social media are somehow outside of normal business culture (maybe they are…).

***

If you’ve read The Shining Girls you’ll more-or-less know what to expect from Broken Monsters. It feels a bit looser than the former; an unfortunate side-effect of a significantly larger cast and a more sprawling plot (indeed, some of the book’s tangential meanderings could be lost to no ill effect); but this is a minor niggle against a novel that, for its length, maintains an impressive sense of tension and ever-impending crisis that’s perfectly balanced against a steady stream of revelations. The book’s most prominent achievement is the way it rocks the genre boat by converging horror fictional tropes with a more lit fic-style interest in psychological and social realism; using the supernatural as metaphor to express the social in a way that makes the two impossible to disentangle. It’s fucking brilliant and very much, I hope, the future of genre writing.

The Spectral Link – Thomas Ligotti

Spectral LinkThe Spectral Link (2014) comprises two novelettes that represent the first new fiction from cult horror writer Thomas Ligotti in ten years, following a protracted case of writer’s block (or “existence block”, as the dust jacket puts it).

The blurb, by the way, which describes Ligotti’s output as being “as paltry as it is directionless” must surely have been penned by the writer himself? It’s this weirdly long and self-aware invective that functions as much as biography as it does synopsis, and focuses on the “abdominal crisis” (read: emergency surgery) that was the genesis of his creative second wind. The depiction of Ligotti on the surgeon’s table reminds me of this horror story by Georg Heym, and the almost-negative tone of the thing calls to mind those early editions of Iain Banks’ The Wasp Factory that included reprints of bad reviews as a kind of ironic marketing ploy to attract the sort of book hipsters who like the idea of reading shocking and disturbed stuff because it’s cool or anti-mainstream or whatever. With Ligotti, though, I get less the impression of smart-arsed marketing, and more a genuine feeling of discomfort with having actually published something, with having to describe it and sell it, and with the idea of existing in general, really. Which articulation of discomfort, after all, is why we read his books in the first place, I guess.

The first of the two novelettes, Metaphysica Morum, combines Ligotti’s early interest in bodyshock with his more recent concerns for emotional despair (as best captured in the exceptional “corporate horror” novella My Work is Not Yet Done). It’s about a guy “at odds with the status quo of the world” attempting to recruit his therapist, Dr O., into euthanizing him by anaesthesia. Forming the background to this is some vague dream stuff about a sinister figure called ‘The Dealer’, and a short diversion into the narrator’s disquieting family history. The prose is characteristically purple, but more theoretically dense than his usual output, calling to mind his non-fiction philosophical declaration “The Conspiracy Against the Human Race” more than any of his earlier narrative writings. This, it turns out, is a double-edged sword, as the flowery philosophy of the story brilliantly articulates the narrator’s conception of humanity as wretched, of life as an “eternal nightmare” and being in the world as an “organic horror”, but it nonetheless stifles some of the atmosphere and tensions, creating a jarring and stilted reading experience as scenes are constantly interrupted by long philosophical asides. Some may argue, of course, that this is the whole point: the fracted story and constant reminders that life is awful is a narrative and structural reflection of the lived day-to-day reality of the narrator (and the writer, it seems) but I preferred Ligotti’s nihilism when it was more implicit, less preachy. This aside, however, I enjoyed the story immensely.

The second story, The Small People, is longer, but feels the more minor of the two. Perhaps this is because it’s less of an in-your-face philosophical statement. Who knows? The story is about a boy’s hate-filled campaign against the titular small people, a race of tiny itinerant humans. This is framed by a therapist’s-couch sort of conversation, as the boy, years later, describes his childhood to a doctor. The Small People is genuinely disturbing in its articulation of pure hatred, and in this way it reminds me of Michael Cisco’s The Traitor, where there’s an odd cognitive dissonance between, on the one hand, the perverse voyeurism of wanting to see how far his hatred will go and, on the other, condemning his bigotry and cruelty. There’s also an unresolved dualism going on, with the narrator simultaneously presenting as both batshit insane, and the only person with the clarity of vision to have seen and recognised the horrible truth about the world. The Small People themselves call to mind Gulliver’s Travels, but other than a playful literary reference, I can’t really parse out the significance of this. It’s a good story, and the ending especially is composed of such chillingly dark language that I was genuinely panicked for a while.

Having read The Conspiracy Against the Human Race we are, more than ever, aware of the parallels between Ligotti and his equally isolated, misanthropic, suicide-fixated characters. This equivalency between the writer’s inner life and those of his protagonists’ brings a quasi-autobiographic poise to his writing that, given the incredibly weird and distressing nature of these stories, augments the sense of horror by orders of magnitude, making him the purest horror writer writing today. As a sufferer of chronic anxieties myself, I found The Spectral Link reassuring in a you’re-not-alone kind of way. But as a human being, I also found it upsetting, cruel, and unrelenting in its darkness.

You’re never likely to find a more perfect exemplar of the old idiom that the purpose of art is to disturb the comforted, and to comfort the disturbed.

The Rats in the Walls – H.P. Lovecraft

LovecraftOne of the things I love-hate about Lovecraft is that the horror fiction-ness of his writing is permanently dialled all the way up to eleven. The default tone of his prose is one of abject fear, panic and impending doom: and this tone both supersedes and precedes any narrative events that might reasonably justify it.

So when the narrator of The Rats in the Walls (1924) discovers a long-hidden cavern underneath his ancient country mansion, he immediately dubs it “the pit of nameless fear”.

And it’s like “the pit of nameless fear”!? Wut? You’ve only just stumbled upon the entranceway; it could be the pit of cuddles and ice cream for all you know. Why don’t you at least take a look or throw a match down there or something before coming up with such a prejudicial moniker?  So it’s not just horror fictional narrative events that characterise Lovecraft’s oeuvre, but the ubiquitous and pre-emptive expectation of horror, too

For Lovecraft the universe is, by nature, terrifying and indifferent and cold, and should be approached as such: the evidence will present itself in time. It’s curious that even though Lovecraft was a great admirer of science and scientists (indeed he spent much of his time self-educating himself on the subject) he nonetheless expected science to eventually yield up some universal truth so cosmically scary that “we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age”.

Of course this expectation of horror, if you will, forms a large part of the idiosyncrasy that we refer to as “Lovecraftian”, which has always seemed to me to be less a type of narrative schema (tentacle monsters and extinction threats and science gone mad and etc.), than it is an over-arching nihilistic philosophy of cosmic indifference, taking a stand against our natural propensity for anthropocentrism and highlighting the fact of our cosmic smallness.

The expectation of horror, then, is borne out of Lovecraft’s default philosophical position that the universe is hostile and terrifying and humans are a blip of no importance destined for horrifying extinction. HPL should of course be applauded for having developed a literary voice that expresses his own philosophy with such clarity (which is so vital for horror fiction), but the reason I say that I “love-hate” this aspect of his writing is that, despite the lucidity with which it drives home this world view, it nonetheless has a detrimental effect on some of his works’ tensions. The above example from The Rats in the Walls illustrates how the ubiquity of such a narrative voice can undermine the seriousness of a scene with more than a little comedic bathos. “The pit of nameless fear” is an extreme turn of phrase, yet it becomes kinda comedic because the intensity of the language isn’t justified by anything that’s as-yet happened in the story.  As it goes, of course, the narrator is correct in giving the cavern such a name, but the reader doesn’t know this at the time; rather than slowly build suspense, this approach consistently gives the reader a very heavy-handed heads-up re: what’s coming next. So in order to maintain his brilliantly-realised philosophy as a universal constant, Lovecraft has to employ this sort of stylistic monotone, wherein everything is potentially terrifying. It’s a shame, and a frustrating pay-off, as stories like The Rats in the Walls would surely benefit from more fluctuating levels of tension and suspense.

But this stylistic niggle is all that’s bad about The Rats in the Walls. What’s good about it is: everything else. It’s about an American who returns to his ancestral home in England only to discover that beneath the foundations of the estate is a buried city that was maintained by his dynasty for centuries, where they lived a life of cannibalistic savagery and kept generations of “human cattle”, many of which devolved to become animalistic quadrupeds. This revelation sends the narrator insane and, like those past members of his family, he attacks and attempts to eat another man.

As a work of horror The Rats in the Walls succeeds by converging various pre-established genre tropes into something shocking and new. The rats that scurry in the walls of the mansion call to mind the ghosts of classic haunted house mysteries, albeit transposed into something tangibly corporeal: this physicality is classic Lovecraftian, rather than the supernatural explanations offered by many such older, gothic narratives. The wealthy and privileged lord whose family history harbours horrific and dark secrets is a common trope of anti-aristocracy fantasies. And tied in with this is the old Christian notion of inherited familial shame and atavism, or reversion to type (a common theme in Lovecraft – that scientific and moral enlightenment is transient). The narrator recruits several scientists to aid him in the exploration of the “pit of nameless fear”, hoping that modern scientific approaches will somehow protect him from the horror that awaits, or the shame of his less-enlightened ancestor’s actions. The failure of the scientists to do either of these things perhaps speaks to Lovecraft’s conviction that humanity isn’t as far evolved from animalistic savagery as we’d like to think, and that we may revert backwards just as easily as progress forwards.

Oh, I should probably also mention the cat. So when I said that the monotonal approach was the only bad thing about the story, I was remiss. There’s also the narrator’s pet cat “Nigger Man”. It’s definitely one of the more in-your-face examples of HPL’s abhorrent racism; the casual employment of such a loaded epithet it grotesquely shocking, and a common stumbling block for many readers.

Unscrambling the racist artist from his accomplished art is par for the course in literary criticism, it seems, but when said art is so informed by the opinions of (is, indeed, a reflection of) the artist, things become strikingly problematic. The reasoned approach would be a criticism that recognises the philosophically compelling nature and brilliant originality of Lovecraft’s fiction, while calling-out the unsavoury fact of his beliefs. Racism in Lovecraft is something I fretted over for a long time, and I’ve more-or-less settled on the opinion that it *is* perfectly valid to praise one aspect of his writing, while simultaneously condemning others, and in the harshest possible terms.

Love-hate, then, is the critical standard by which I approach HPL, and I flatter myself in thinking that holding two contradictory opinions about a writer is a sign of critical maturity, rather than of moral weakness. But who knows?