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.

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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.

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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.”

***

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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?

The Traitor – Michael Cisco

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Apologies for the blogging hiatus. My confidence in this thing goes up and down like a sine wave, and with that same kind of regularity.

The Traitor (2007) is an early novel by avant-garde horror fiction maestro Michael Cisco. I’m confident in calling it “early” because, although it’s his fourth published book out of nine so far, it pre-dates The Narrator (2010), which, it seems, is generally considered to be the point at which Cisco’s work adopted the strikingly more challenging and abstract tone for which it is best known. That’s not to say that The Narrator was an abrupt volte face for Cisco stylistically, and this book – The Traitor – contains many of the narrative qualities commonly associated with his oeuvre as a whole (societal rejection, moral ambiguity, emotional darkness, repetitive idiosyncratic prose, long philosophical asides, etc.), but the book’s small cast of characters, its consistency of setting and relatively easy-to-comprehend plot perhaps make The Traitor a good way-in for new readers intimidated by the abject confusion-fests of his more recent novels like The Great Lover (2011), Celebrant (2012) and Member (2013)

The Traitor takes the form of the autobiography of the tongue-contortingly named Nophtha, who’s writing his first-person confessional while incarcerated for treason at the end of his life. Nophtha is a ‘spirit eater’, that is to say, a guy who consumes pesky spirits that harass the public and who uses their energy to heal people. He’s imprisoned because of his actions relating to Wite, a one-time spirit eater who’s gone rogue and become a ‘soul burner’ (essentially the same thing, but a ‘soul burner’ uses the spirit energy he consumes to increase his own, self-serving powers, rather than to heal others).  Nophtha and Wite have a tempestuous, deeply unhealthy relationship, with the former becoming more and more disciple-like as the latter’s power grows to godly proportions. Indeed, the second half of The Traitor smacks more of a dark Gospel than the end-of-life confessional that the narrator initially claims the text to be. Characteristically, Cisco refuses to satisfy the reader with any real information about the book’s setting, but we do know that it takes place in a country under the occupations of the “Alaks”, a force who remain kinda mysterious, except for a suggestive one-time description of their troops as “goose stepping”, which I guess tells you all you need to know about them, really.

The plot, such that it is, is a relatively simple one: the narrator, Nophtha, is tasked with tracking down the rogue spirit eater Wite. After a brief period as Wite’s captive, however, he becomes his disciple, tasked with spreading the word while Wite grows ever more terrifyingly powerful (like, reducing an entire army to mulchy red goo using only his thoughts powerful). There’s a definite suggestion that by the end of the novel Wite can do, literally, anything he wants to.

Ostensibly, then, The Traitor is a Gospel to Wite’s transformation, from a healer-gone-rogue, to a God-like being on the verge of bringing about some terrible species-ending apocalypse from which only wretched social outcasts will be saved. But it’s his disciple-narrator Nophtha who really piqued my interest. The novel opens with a sort of coming of age montage that depicts the child Nophtha as, variously, a victim of familial abuse, perennial romantic reject (and obsessive), and pretty much constantly ill. This history of persecution (as he sees it) forms the subtext for Nophtha’s eventual rejection of humanity and his siding with the elementally destructive Wite. As a justification for his later actions, however, I found Nophtha’s traumas to be a little on the nose, which is perhaps indicative of the fact that Cisco hadn’t quite reached the peak of his abilities w/regards to narrative subtlety.

But despite this seemingly clear dichotomy between, on the one hand, Nophtha as a persecuted victim and, on the other, society as pitiless persecuting force, our narrator remains nonetheless confused about his own identity and moral standing. Stylistically this comes across in the brilliantly stilted, repetitive and self-obsessed narration that doesn’t really develop its pure philosophy of annihilation until the novel’s final pages, when Nophtha’s rejection of the world is most keenly expressed. It makes for hypnotically addictive reading; page-long paragraphs swirl and tangent, with a strange rhythm and a sense of dark poetry that’s unlike anything outside of Cisco’s own highly idiosyncratic method.

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The crux of the story is that Nophtha wants so much not to care about the world, about other people, about himself. He wants so much to be like Wite, the man-turned-God entity he idealises; not because he desires Wite’s phenomenal powers, but because Wite has transcended beyond humanity, beyond that mortal state of human vulnerability that has made such a victim out of Nophtha. Nowhere is this more keenly demonstrated than when Wite, besieged in a country house, melts the approaching army with his thoughts while locked away in a hermetically sealed room: a metaphor for his uncaring distance from the rest of humanity. Wite is idealised by Nophtha because he is beyond those who would persecute him. Wite is the ultimate expression of the Nietzschean Ubermensch and the Will to Power: whatever Wite wills to happen, happens.

Wite has already lost all resemblance to his former state, he’s become something else entirely, he’s as blind and relentless as a hurricane – do you imagine there’s something you could say that would “change his mind”?

So in part The Traitor is about Nophtha’s struggle against his own humanity as he endeavours to achieve the sort of ultimate aloofness manifested in Wite, and which would liberate him (in his mind) from his abusers. This struggle is evident by degrees; firstly Nophtha falls in love with Wite’s cousin, the unpronounceable Tzdze (seriously… “Tuz-duh-zeh”? “Tuh-zee-duh-zee”? “Tuzzed-zee”? I literally have no idea), but later betrays her to further aid Wite. By the end of the novel, Nophtha protests that he doesn’t care about anything human whatsoever, while, somewhat paradoxically, also claiming that his “pity is reserved only for those you’ve pushed out of your commonsensical way”.

What makes The Traitor so great is that it’s full with these kinds of contradictions. That in attempting to go beyond what’s human, Nophtha unintentionally expresses the most human trait of all: that we’re all inconsistent thralls to the moment, and not the unified and consistent psychological constructs of certainty that we’d all like to believe. Nophtha rejects humanity, but still finds himself subject to the whims of love. He welcomes Wite’s coming apocalypse with a maniac glee as he anticipates the downfall of the human race, but while longing for the destruction of everything, he still finds people (the wretched) that he wants to save.

Paradoxically, he allies himself with Wite because he delights in the idea of extinction, but also because he thinks that by doing so, he may be able to save himself. His rhetoric of annihilation, then, isn’t total; it’s not humanity he despises, but a certain view of it: he would save his lover and those like him. Nophtha’s final vision of the world is of cities, those great symbols of civilization, now ruined, sparsely inhabited and lorded-over by the one-time wretched, those underdogs who society rejects; from the weak, to the sick, to the criminal to the romantically incompetent.

Those future ruins of your city now shall have vanished under a blank expanse of trees and grass stones hills rivers lakes oceans swamps sun and weather, and shall have been blanked out of the ghostly minds or our silent solitary successors. Once and always alone they are going on, they will go on and you will drive them on, and they will betray you to what isn’t human, I was part of them once and I betrayed and betrayed, I betrayed you all and I could never betray you enough.

The language is suitably Biblical, and the more I consider my earlier description of the book as a “dark gospel”, the more apposite I think the label. Nophtha’s compassion for the rejected and his desire to wipeout everybody else is definitely a twisted and over-literal version of the Sermon on the Mount’s Beatitudes (“Blessed are the ____”). Similarly, biblical analogues can be found in the Judas-like behaviour of our narrator; at one point, overcome with anxiety and love for Tzdze, he attempts to kill Wite – one of the many instances of treachery alluded to by the title. Placing Wite in a cave, he returns later to discover that Wite, still alive, has become even more powerful – a resurrection analogue if ever I’ve read one. This is also, though, one of the novel’s few character missteps: Nophtha’s an intelligent guy who’s just witnessed Wite make protein shakes out of his enemies using only his thoughts; does he really think that taking a knife to him would bring the guy down? Maybe you could generously argue that it’s an act of desperation or whatever. Either way, Wite’s “resurrection” is genesis of Nophtha’s annihilation fantasies, so it’s an important narrative event, albeit reached in a kinda weird fashion.

***

In a way The Traitor reminds me of that modern phenomenon we might call the “revenge of the persecuted geek”. I’m sure we can all bring to mind some story or other about a bullied and romantically rejected college loner who pens some hate-filled invective about “I’ll show you all” before going on to commit a horrific act of innocents-killing reprisal. Here we have much the same thing, only transposed to a Dark Fantasy setting where the “I’ll show you all” threats actually carry the possibility of apocalypse. Nophtha definitely fits into this type, rejected for his unusual abilities/interests (here manifesting as ‘spirit eating’, but you could paste whatever geek niche you like over the top of this), and developing a bitterness that goes way beyond what could reasonably be expected.

Maybe Cisco had this idea of the Geek Revenge Fantasy in his mind when he wrote The Traitor, maybe not. And I don’t want to claim that the book is any kind of satire on this pathetic notion of persecution; rather, the whole idea actually makes fantastic fodder for horror fiction. The end-of-the-world manifesto, while rational in its writer’s head, is of course a thing of abject horror and a disturbed mind. There’s a satisfying tension between the reader’s desire to pity our downtrodden yet fascinating narrator, then, and the desire to utterly condemn his philosophy. There’s also a third conflict too, whereby those of us who don’t feel the world is quite set up how we’d like it to be may knowingly smile in recognition at the fantasy of wiping it all out and starting again from scratch. (Does the human race deserve to end is one of the subtextual questions raised by the book) Michael Cisco’s most resounding achievement with The Traitor is in perfectly balancing all of these contradictory elements, the end result of which is, as we’ve come to expect, something genuinely disturbing in its revelation of the human spirit’s propensity for darkness.

Earth Abides – George R. Stewart

Earth_Abides_1949_smallEarth Abides (1949) is an early post-apocalyptic SF novel notable for its rigorous attention to ecological and sociological verisimilitude. The book opens when reclusive Geography student Ish – having been bitten by a rattlesnake while conducting fieldwork in the wilderness – returns to his native San Francisco to discover that a plague of unknown origin has killed 99.999…% of the world’s population. Here he unintentionally becomes the de facto leader of a small group of ragtag survivors, and together they try to make a life for themselves in the ruins of the world while simultaneously attempting (and failing) to maintain such tenets of civilization as democracy, education, justice etc.

Ironically the novel feels somewhat refreshing by today’s standards, purely because it pre-dates the establishment of many of the genre’s more tiresome clichés; there are no mutants roaming the wastes, no militaristic tribes or would-be warlords, no irradiated “zones” and no visual fetish for gasmasks, makeshift weaponry and all other such over-familiar genre paraphernalia. The most recognisable intact trope is an obsession with the idea of salvage, but rather than scrap metal, guns and trains, Ish is concerned with the salvage of learning: his primary site of plunder being the city library. Perhaps the novelty of this approach to salvage speaks to the current state of the genre: a kind of retrospective proof of how post-apocalyptic fiction has dumbed down in recent years, from mostly scientific thought experiment, to mostly hyper-violent glamourisation of neo-con survivalism. (Not that the so-called salvagepunk variety doesn’t occasionally throw up interesting stuff). It’s notable that modern apocalyptic settings are often used as a narrative device to legitimise character behaviour that, under normal circumstances, is hard to justify: particularly violence.

The apocalypse of Earth Abides undoubtedly fits Brian Aldiss’ much-quoted notion of the “cosy catastrophe”. Almost everybody has died, but the world, in fact, doesn’t seem at all that bad. Characters are liberated from the post-industrial emasculation of the nine-to-five office routine, and, unchained from the shackles of societal responsibility, are free to live where they want, to take what they want, and to behave how they want. The big draw of so much apocalypse stuff seems to be that, in a post-apoc world, nobody would need to get a job. Surely it’s a damning indictment of society that apocalypse has become a kind of fantastical or idealist escapism? There’s no radiation or zombies here; indeed, the only concern is the procurement of clean water (and in this regard the catastrophe is uniquely First-World: scarce access to drinking water is a situation so alien to our experience that apparently we need to invent some extraordinary apocalypse in order to appreciate such a thing, when, as we know, a lack of clean water is a real-world lived reality for millions if not billions of people).

There’s definitely something of a male power fantasy about not just Earth Abides, but (post)-apocalypses in general, too: the way in which they welcome an atavistic return to a time of more “empowered” or “natural” manliness: hunting, butchering and providing; it’s a vision of building the world, rather than just living in it. In Earth Abides, this brings an uncomfortable utopian tone to the book, with the frequent suggestion that humanity has fucked-up so badly that hitting the apocalyptic reset button is probably the best thing for the species. The plague, then, is a happy accident that brings with it a sort of fortuitous social cleansing: a chance for liberal scientist Ish to restart society as he sees fit. Ish protests that his apparent enjoyment of the empty world is merely a scientific interest, but such claims are thrown into question by the novel’s commonplace assertions that he is living a life “of greater freedom than anyone could possibly have lived in the Old Times”.  The bare world is painted as a kind of post-deluvian paradise, washed free of all the bad stuff, enabling Ish to (attempt to) create the kind of society he’s always wanted. Apocalypse is societal palimpsest. A catastrophe for the rest of world, the plague is the making of Ish: transforming him from a nobody into a great leader of men. (He claims to be a reluctant chief, but I don’t believe this for a second. He loves it). It’s apocalypse as a personal utopia, then; though little space is given over to the billions who’ve died to make this possible.  (And as a note: 99% of the global population had been killed; surely there should be a lot more bodies lying around than, like, the two or whatever that Ish encounters?)

***

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In fact, I’m not sure what’s more bleak: the assessment of humanity as a species so far down the road to failure that a 99% killing-off is the only chance we have of regaining the true path… or the novel’s problematic and inconsistent treatment of race and gender. The former is dour in an obviously nihilistic way, and can perhaps be accounted for today as post-war anxiety(/scaremongering), but the latter issue raises some difficult questions for modern readers concerning the novel’s moral identity. The text will frequently take snipes at women (such as a description of mothers as “bovine”), which seem part tongue-in-cheek, and part downright offensive. But things get even worse when Ish encounters a group of black people basically scraping around in the dirt because, apparently, without civilization to guide them, they’ve reverted to their more natural behaviour. Or something.

At this point it would seem easy to categorise the book as appallingly racist, but such an exegesis is complicated by later narrative developments, such as when Ish marries a black woman – Emma – whom the text portrays as a complex, sympathetic and strong-willed character, dubbed the “mother of nations”. It’s difficult to overstate quite how progressive the wilful presentation of an interracial marriage was in 1940s America. Biblical analogues are easily drawn against many of the book’s ideas, and as the starting point for a second replenishing of the Earth, if you will, what could be more liberal-idealist than an interracial union? But comparing this with the aforementioned bigoted presentation of black people (and the potential damp-squib-making comment that Ish only marries Emma because, in a post-apocalyptic landscape, one can’t afford to be picky…) makes for a pretty inconsistent treatment of race. Indeed, trying to reconcile the book’s progressive handling of Ish’s marriage with its occasional racist asides is a tricky business, and perhaps the novel’s major difficulty.

***

Much of the book is given over to meticulously thought-out descriptions of the survivors’ day-to-day lives; how they make new tools, build shelters, try to farm etc. There’s very little dialogue, and stylistically the prose (at least for the first two thirds) smacks more of ecology textbook than novel; but I guess this is in-keeping with its realist agenda and Ish’s identity as a man of science. The writing isn’t especially florid, except for occasional (though unnecessary) interjections from Ish’s diaries. The descriptions of plant life slowly encroaching on urban areas, of rusting industry and crumbling metropolises have become standard fare for the genre, but any sense of familiarity is mitigated by the knowledge that Earth Abides’ imagery was the progenitor of this now commonplace SF aesthetic.

And so the book would seem to be a straightforward story of survival coupled with a scientific thought experiment, and in some ways it has that classic SF feel of Vernelarge or Wells about it. The novel’s final third, however, is a far stranger thing, elevating the book from something kinda interesting if forgettable, to something that’s actually very good indeed. A temporal jump shifts the narrative into the future to show us Ish’s old age; the style changes from one of cold objective description to a highly sympathetic third person, and the imagery becomes more and more hallucinatory, dreamlike and uncharacteristically vague. Ish spends his old age in a kind of fog (the cause of which is not disclosed, though dementia is most likely), with only fleeting moments of clarity. Years pass in a matter of pages as Ish, mostly living in his own head and unaware of the world, ruminates on the possible futures of humanity. When the fog occasionally lifts, we’re given glimpses of Ish’s band of survivors and the generations coming up behind them: the people who were born after the plague and who have no experience of the world before. Without Ish to lead them, the tribe becomes increasingly primitive, both in action and language. In one of Ish’s final moments of clarity, he finds himself on the remains of the Golden Gate Bridge with some men dressed in animal skins and carrying spears, and realises that all trace of the pre-apocalyptic civilization has now vanished.

It’s a profoundly moving passage, made all the more affecting by the sudden and jarring way it contrasts stylistically with the novel’s first two acts. It also adds a subtextual depth to the novel, too; with the playing-out of the apocalypse functioning as a metaphor for the slow degeneration of old age, both bodily and, in Ish’s case, mentally. You can almost track the progress of the apocalypse in time with the aging of our protagonist. Just as Ish’s consciousness and body are decaying around him, so too is the world until, as epitomised in the spear-carrying, superstitious primitives of the final pages, things have changed so much that Ish no longer has a place. This parallel between the decay of society and the decay of Ish as a person further strengthens the aforementioned argument that Earth Abides is a deeply personal apocalypse; the world of the novel behaves in sympathetic tandem with Ish, from the limitless opportunities it offers him in his youth, through its creeping deterioration, to something finally, utterly broken and changed.

It’s almost tempting to argue, therefore, that the apocalypse of Earth Abides isn’t a literal narrative event, but a metaphor for Ish’s slow decay; an externalisation of how Ish psychologically conceives of the world around him, rather than a factual representation of the world as it is. I wouldn’t tug at this thread too much (and it would, of course, be more convincing if the novel were written in the first person), but the fact that such an interpretation even suggests itself speaks to the highly personal and human nature of Earth Abides. Ultimately the book isn’t without its flaws (flat prose, rambling explanations of day-to-day-life, racism, sexism), but its concern for psychological realism initiated an engagement with human emotion that wasn’t really seen again in “realistic” post-apocalypse fiction until Cormac McCarthy’s The Road in 2006, and this, if nothing else, is what makes the book worth reading.

Inverted World – Christopher Priest

9780575082106I like to think that there’s a sort of spectrum of expositional praxis available to authors who want to create (science)-fictional settings so estranged from everyday life that they require a shitload of explaining if they’re to make any sense whatsoever. On one end of the spectrum you’d find the ‘information dump’ method, which I guess has the merit of getting the heavy, boring, background clarification stuff out of the way as quickly as possible, and is charming in its own no-nonsense manner; but that’s about the limit of its appeal as a stylistic or narrative technique (I’m looking at you Arthur C. Clarke). The opposite end of the spectrum would be a kinda Miévillian refusal to provide any helpful context or perspective of any kind, and instead expect the reader to orientate herself by decoding subtly deployed clues as to  the nature of the fictional world a la The City and The City (c.f. also: M. John Harrison, Michael Cisco etc.). The latter is definitely my preferred delivery method, but I get that it’s a significantly harder sell than the former, requiring as it does some vested input (/work?) from the reader, and a higher level of technical ability from the writer.

Christopher Priest’s Inverted World occupies an expositional space half-way between these two extremes;  it casts an adolescent ingénue as its protagonist, and proceeds to guide him (and by proxy the reader) through the weird post-apocalyptic wilderness of the book’s setting via a continuous slow-reveal of facts that doesn’t let up until the novel’s infamous mind-fucky dénouement. But while this expositional praxis avoids the awkward “As you know, Geoff…” explanations of the ‘info dump’ method, it isn’t without its difficulties, namely: Christopher Priest has to contrive a reason why the hero should reach his 18th (or whatever) birthday without having learnt anything about the world in which he lives. Happily Priest manages this in a way that’s not just congruous with the book’s setting, but darn near essential to the both the immediate narrative and it’s subtextual concerns for perception, protest and the way we handle the evidence for the world around us. Given the nature of the book’s setting, and the slow but constant bleed-out of major plot revelations, it’s almost impossible to discuss Inverted World without recourse to at least a few spoilers, so consider yourself duly warned…

As its title implies, Inverted World is set in a kind of opposite-universe: an infinite world in a finite space. Which is to say, the planet on which the book is set stretches forever; it’s not a globe, but a never-ending hyperboloid. The action transpires on the last human city of “Earth”, as it is winched slowly forward on rails (which are taken up from behind the city and re-laid ahead of it) in order to avoid a crushing gravity field that’s eternally moving forward a few miles in the city’s wake.  It’s difficult to overstate the influence of this idea, and indeed you might recognise the ‘ever-moving-city-on-rails’ trope (I can’t think of a better name…) from the giant Cathedral trains of Alastair Reynolds’ Absolution Gap, or the titular train city of China Miéville’s Iron Council. (And isn’t it awesome to encounter the sparking genesis of a now commonplace SF trope? At least, I can’t think of any direct predecessors to Inverted World…) Most of “Earth”’s inhabitants don’t know that the city moves, or anything about the world that surrounds them: they are raised within the city’s walls, never allowed to leave, fed on synthetic foodstuffs and are generally kept as unwitting thralls to the city’s directorate. Only specially privileged “Guildsmen” (who travel outside the city to help move it, or to map the forward terrain etc.) are privy to the truth, and are oath-bound to keep it a secret.

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The narrative follows new Guild initiate Helward Mann (I know, I know… I laughed too, but I promise the twee-ness off this wears off with time; much like with “Batman”, or “Superman”, you kind of get used to the weird silliness of the name), who, as the novel’s opening tells us, has “reached the age of six hundred and fifty miles” (I challenge you to find a more immediately estranging first sentence).  Having come of age, Helward takes various oaths, learns about the city’s founder, Destaine, and gets hitched.

The first half of the novel is essentially an extended description of how a massive city can be moved in the first place. There’s an initial charm to be found in the seriousness with which Priest treats this idea, but as the novel delves deeper into the mechanics of city moving, I became genuinely impressed with the depictions of scale, hard labour and the pyramid-building magnitude of such an endeavour; the dirty, sweaty, ironclad reality of which offers a nice visual and thematic contrast to the somewhat dry opening passages of solemn oath-taking, governmental procedure and explanations of familial privilege.

Interspersed between these long descriptions of engineering are chapters with a tighter, more human focus: Helward’s relationship with his new wife, Elizabeth, and his internal struggle with – on the one hand – her demands for openness and whole truths, and – on the other – his commitment to his Guildsman vows of secrecy. These smaller, quieter scenes offer a nice counterpoint to the high Science Fiction of the city-moving stuff, and make for impressive proofs of Christopher Priests’ writing chops; he’s equally as comfortable with the most demanding of the genre’s fantastic tenets as he is with the most intimate study of human relationships. My fear that the kitchen-sink drama of Helward’s marriage was nothing but filler to break up the descriptive monotone of the engineering chapters was proven unfounded, too; as such intensely personal scenes of marital difficulty function as both microcosm and set-up for the novel’s prominent crisis: a schism and rebellion within the city.

When the inhabitants discover that their leaders have been withholding the truth, they inevitably become restive, demanding that the city stop moving, that they stop exploiting the local tribes people, and that the population settles in a permanent site: they refuse to believe that the city will be destroyed if they stop moving forward. This is exacerbated by the arrival of some outsiders who see the world very, very differently. Cue lots of dispute, civil unrest and threats of sabotage. But while we’re treated to some interesting and lengthy debates, it’s a shame there isn’t more visceral description of the protests that wrack the city; we’re mostly forced to settle for second-hand reports and hearsay, with the majority of the disorder happening off-stage, as it were.

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For left-wing readers like me, it’s tempting to deconstruct Inverted World in terms of economic structures and modes of production. The moving city is a definite metaphor for late-stage capitalism: devouring all resources in its path at the behest of a small minority of privileged elite who propagate a politics of fear that keeps the workers loyal, industrious and unambitious despite their subsistence-level living conditions. Likewise the plundering of the land and exploitation of the surrounding tribes definitely rings of the colonial. The civil unrest that occurs when the workers of the city are finally educated about their true condition is an explicit class struggle, and the threats from the ruling Guildsman that the city “will be destroyed” if things change reflect Capitalism’s disdain for any narrative that differs from its own self-imposed and self-serving world-view.

But what of that crushing gravity field that pursues the city? Well, this too becomes a metaphor of sorts; not for any existential or physical threat, but for the realpolitik of capitalist narrative. By which I mean the capitalist assertion (lie) that society has to function this way, or surrender itself to a terrible alternative. It becomes a matter of perception: it’s obvious that the ruling Guildsmen genuinely believe in the crushing gravity wake, so much so that they are unwilling to test it, challenge it or entertain the notion of an alternative explanation. Just as, say, the bankers in our world insist that their way of handling the economy is the only way that works. Conveniently, though, this rigid belief that this is the way things are is what enables the Guildsmen to maintain their control in the first place. They refuse to entertain the notion of an alternative way of seeing the world. The city, therefore, becomes itself a mode of production; the movement of which is the industrial process by which the ruling Guilds implement their will to power.

So while stopping the city may not actually be dangerous in any material sense, it’s dangerous because it would free the workers from the grind that keeps them down, and challenge the Guilds’ political hegemony.  The Guildsmen are unwilling to accept any alternative narrative to the “crushing gravity field” because to do so would neuter the fear with which they shackle the people and keep themselves in power.

Similarly, the moving city – trundling along in its never-ending straight line – and the infinite world ahead of it, function as allegory for the so-called ‘End of History’: acity kind of capitalist end-game: the point at which social, cultural and economic progress halts, and society stagnates and just rattles on in the same way, forever. It’s at this point that we become aware of Inverted World’s greatest irony: the city – so long a literary metaphor for movement, bustle, energy and ambition – is turned by Priest into a metaphor for stasis; the most striking of the title’s many suggested inversions. Indeed, a real movement would be to stop the city; freeing its citizens from the back-breaking labour of moving the thing, and instigating instead an opportunity for social change. Perpetual movement is the same as inertia.

Inverted World, then, functions as a warning against the single-minded and unthinking acceptance of the narratives imposed on us by our masters. The tragedy of the book lies in the protagonist’s socially-encoded refusal to look at the world from a different perspective. It’s essentially an appearance vs. reality paradox: a classic mode of Science Fiction, here re-figured into possibly the strangest and most original planet I’ve ever encountered.

The Devil in Silver – Victor LaValle

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It’s like an Americana re-telling of the Minotaur in his labyrinth. Now the Minotaur has the head of a Buffalo, and the labyrinth is a crumbling mental health institution.

Being the slow-on-the-uptake kinda guy that I am, it took me until about halfway through Victor LaValle’s horror-drama The Devil in Silver (2013) to realise that it’s one of those location-as-metaphor books, wherein the claustrophobic, dilapidated corridors of its New York mental health institution setting (the narrative in fact never exits this one building), functions as a microcosm for 21st Century socio-political America. By which I don’t mean that the novel’s overarching message is “America is like a mental ward”, rather, LaVelle uses this setting to both illustrate and critique the US’s wider and frequently shameful track record with various social issues: mental health, race, immigration, old age, sexuality, disability and poverty. The events that take place in the mental institution, then, are representationally characteristic of what happens in American on a larger scale. So we know that when a riot breaks out and the cops storm in – only to shoot the first black person they encounter – LaValle is taking on the wider problem of institutionalised (pun quasi-intended) racism, and so on.

But it’s not all as heavy handed as that.

The novel opens when “Pepper” – our working class, uneducated, loving but short-tempered protagonist – is sanctioned into a psychiatric ward by a group of police officers who’re too lazy to go through the bureaucratic rigmarole of processing him at the station: Pepper has committed an assault, and by the time he’s released back into police custody after the weekend, he’ll be somebody else’s problem. (The police are a particularly frequent target of the writer’s needle-sharp ire).  Pepper may be ineloquent and unable to control his temper, but he’s not crazy (though this is no impediment to the overwhelmingly patronising treatment he receives from the hospital’s orderlies). Once inside, Pepper befriends a rag-tag group of psychiatric patients, ranging from schizophrenics to manic depressives, and together they hatch a plot to kill the “Devil”, a nightmarish creature with the body of an old man and the head of a giant buffalo who stalks the ward at night, occasionally murdering patients (more on this later).

The characterisation of these patients is highly sympathetic: this to simultaneously de-stigmatise the conditions from which they suffer, and to critique the US health system’s approach to such people.  Several of the characters are also minorities, which allows LaValle to tackle such auxiliary issues as racism, ableism, xenophobia (etc.), and the places where these problems intersect with mental health difficulties. But this isn’t to say that the characters are nothing but proxies for whichever social/mental health issue they represent, and if anything LaValle should be praised for his efforts to avoid the stereotypes so often so offensively associated with the fictional presentation of mental health patients.  Of particular note thereby are “Coffee”, an African with conspiracy obsessions, and Sue, a middle-aged Chinese asylum seeker whose story is equal parts horrifying and heart-breaking: a much stronger character study than any that appeared in ether of LaValle’s previous novels.

The moral course of the book is a somewhat predictable one: the patients, initially strange, ambiguous characters, are slowly revealed to have deeper hearts and brighter eyes and greater value than we (and Pepper) may at first believe. If you’re the sort of person who’d pick up this book in the first place, then The Devil in Silver probably won’t challenge any of your prejudices, but the treatment of its characters and the dismissive manner in which they’re hidden away (the hospital in question is oh-so-knowingly named “New Hyde”) is nonetheless shocking. Patients are (illegally) restrained in their beds for days on end, sedated so heavily that weeks pass without their knowledge, made to live in filthy clothing, and generally thrown about like ragdolls by the orderlies, to whom consent seems to be an alien concept. This makes for some distressing (and potentially triggering) reading, which is augmented when the text is suddenly (and frequently, and brilliantly) interrupted by newspaper clippings detailing some failure of the state to provide adequate care for those suffering from mental health disorders, addictions and other vulnerabilities.

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What I’ve described thus far could almost sound like a work of realist literary fiction, but that’s merely a trick of the light: there’s a tension at play between the hyperreal (the patients’ emotional lives, the real-world setting, the social justice issues), and the fantastic (the monster that stalks the wards), with much of the book functioning in a hinterland between these two spaces.  Stylistically the book is decidedly genred; in its form, content and the tropes it deploys, The Devil in Silver reads as a horror novel. And like so much horror, the impetus for narrative action is the setting, which is explored via the horror-fictional device of an ingénue outsider being unwittingly thrust into a strange and dangerous situation from which he has to escape. Similarly, the claustrophobic hallways and the “Devil” that stalks them are evocative of more traditional haunted house mysteries. The gore, the preoccupation with the body, and the tangible physicality of the buffalo-headed demon likewise take cues from the so-called New Weird horror sub-genre.

And yet (and yet…) while The Devil in Silver is decidedly horror-fictional – and would seem to self-announce as such – to call it decidedly ‘horror fiction’ feels somewhat to short-change it, if not to miss the point entirely. For every horror trope that the reader encounters (the gore, the slow-build of tension before the violent cathartic release, the stylistic focus on atmosphere and the deliberately estranging setting), there are several others that LaValle sub(/in-)verts.  The most prominent of these is the characterology, particularly the sympathetic portrayal of the hospital’s patients. It reads like horror fiction, and there are mental health patients involved, but where we might expect knife-wielding, straight-jacketed crazies running amok in blood-stained gowns, we instead find a pair of old women in what’s obviously an undeclared lesbian relationship; a self-harming teenage girl tragically too-aware of the life she’s missing, and a lonely man from a fractured, messed-up family.

But why filter this realism through the lens of horror fiction? Well, in part, The Devil in Silver is an attempt to liberate horror from its own appalling track-record of presenting the mentally ill as, variously: demonically possessed, pathologically violent, physically deformed, criminally insane etc. The tropes of horror fiction give LaValle access to signifiers which, when flipped, expose the unpleasant, often unspoken truths of his subject. For example, a superficial reading might conclude that the “monster” of this horror is the buffalo-headed-man-thing that haunts the ward, and on a surface level this appears to be the case. But what’s really going on is a kind of inversion of the monstrous that results in the demon and the patients becoming, ultimately, victims at the hands of the fair-faced monsters of a negligent care system, inadequate funding and a stigmatising media. If you want to be particularly twee about it, you could argue that the buffalo demon is a metaphor for the harmful and false public perception of the mentally ill as dangerous, ugly, frightenting people.

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Elsewhere a rat (another standard trope of horror fiction that comes with its own pre-attendant signifiers (disease, decay, general uncleanliness)) is coupled with the post-modern device of an anthropomorphic internal monologue, through which LaValle describes the history of the now- decaying mental health institution. Sure this rat is a more cutesy horror inversion than the monster-as-victim (a rat – so often one of faceless millions – here individualised), but it serves a narrative purpose nonetheless. Not only does the rat’s confessional de-fang and personify the setting, turning it from a place of unknowableness and horror into something deeply tragic with a material past, it simultaneously acts as a middle-finger to horror fiction’s impolitic history of exploiting and misrepresenting mental health facilities as places of terror and strangeness.

So if horror’s mandate is to shock, disturb and, well, horrify, then The Devil in Silver definitely succeeds: but not in terms of horror as a mappable genre; the word “horror” is appropriate here in its literal gloss: more like how the media would use the word, than a bookshop. The horror is explicit in the novel’s exposé of the uncaring, abusive and oftentimes illegal treatment of mental health patients, and the demonising manner in which they’re frequently portrayed. The Devil in Silver is, as we’re coming to expect from Victor LaValle, a powerful, imaginative, big-hearted novel that simultaneously celebrates and challenges the precepts of traditional genre fiction, and much like Big Machine, the book’s resounding achievement is a convergence of the fantastically genred with the socially relevant.