Monday, 29 June 2015

Teatro Grottesco - Thomas Ligotti

Thomas Ligotti has become a cult writer since the millennium.  People liken him to Lovecraft, Poe, and M R James.  I like all those authors so naturally I was keen to try Ligotti.  My conclusion?  He's not like the aforementioned.  He's not scary, though he does successfully get under your skin, and for all the very obvious work that goes into crafting his stories, he ends up being a bit dull.  For me, the problem is that his first-person narrator has always the same characteristics - reclusive, obsessive, an outsider with a bad stomach - no matter whether he is a creative artist or a drudge in a slave-labour town.  The towns, likewise, are always in the north, on the border, and he has usually left by the time he comes to write down his experience.  There are other regular tropes - other recluses, bizarre modern artworks, and carnival performers (carnies are much scarier in America, apparently, than they are in the UK).  Frankly, some of the long pieces are distinctly over-wrought - by the time I've got to the end of some of his paragraphs I've forgotten what he began with.  I admire the work, the commitment to form.  I own Ligotti has created a fictional world almost as real as Lovecraft's Arkham.  But he's not adventurous enough for my taste.

The King in the North - Max Adams

I've got one problem with this book, and that's the title.  It's not really about Oswald, king of Northumbria and, very soon after that, a saint.  He is just one of the many kings covered here, some of them (for example his brother Oswy) at much greater length.  OK, the subtitle "Life and Times" is supposed to deal with the problem but it doesn't because Oswald's reign was only eight years in the middle of a timescale of close on two centuries.

I understand Adams feeling the need to individualise his narrative but it doesn't work.  What we really have here is the story of the foundation of the late Saxon kingdom of Northumbria from two earlier kingdoms, Bernicia and Deira.  We have two royal dynasties coming together in Oswald and Oswy, their unity forged on early conversion to Christianity.  Their lasting achievement was probably the Synod of Whitby presided over by Hilda, a member of the royal house.  But Oswy called the synod, not Oswald.  In fact, Oswy was much more successful a king than his shortlived brother, not least by becoming the first king in the region to die in his bed.  Oswald was supposedly lucky, but not lucky enough to avoid being hacked to pieces on the battlefield.  Indeed Adams devotes almost as much narrative to the travels of the various body parts as he does to Oswald himself.  And again, it was Oswy who decided which head on a pole belonged to Oswald and thus began the cult which, four hundred years on, led to the relic being buried in Durham Cathedral alongside the uncorrupted remains of St Cuthbert.

Within the terms of what is, as opposed to what it claims to be, The King is the North is fascinating.  Adams knows his Anglo Saxons, he knows his Bede back to front, and he is a native of the region he describes so beautifully.  He has produced a major work of scholarship which has the added bonus of being eminently readable.

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

The Man in the High Castle - Philip K Dick

I have long been aware of Philip K Dick, but the only book of his I had hitherto tried was complete and utter rubbish.  Unfortunately I cannot remember what it was called.  All I know is, it read like it had been knocked up late at night on an unhelpful cocktail of caffeine and amphetamines.

Yet I was still interested enough to give The Man in the High Castle a try.  It seemed a safer bet, having been written early in Dick's career and having won the Hugo Award in 1963.  The cover art on this Roc paperback was also an inducement.

And how taking the chance paid off.  This is not only a good dystopian novel, it is a good novel, many-layered with rounded characters and a cunningly contrived writing style.  The action is set in San Francisco in 1962, but California is the Japanese part of North America, the East Coast being part of Germany.  Thus Japanese people are high status and the indigenous population converse with them in a form of pidgin shorthand.  Yes, the Axis of Japan and Nazi Germany won World War 2.  Baldur von Shirach has drained the Mediterranean to provide extra farmland and Lufthansa runs a rocket service that can cross the Atlantic in under an hour.

The Japanese are much more easy-going than the Nazis.  The Reich is run by Bormann, Goebbels, Goering and Heydrich are all still active, though Adolf himself is in an asylum.  Genocide is still very much the order of the day (presently concentrated on the African continent) but the Japanese consider such policies subhuman.  The Japanese collect prewar American artifacts, like Colt pistols and Mickey Mouse watches.  Rickshaws ("pedecabs") thread their way through downtown traffic. The Nazis meanwhile are exploring space.

The current bestseller on the Pacific Coast (it's banned in the Reich) is The Grasshopper Lies Heavy by Hawthorne Abendsen, a dystopian novel in which the Allies overcame the Axis in 1945.  It is said the Nazis hate it so much that Abendsen has to live in a fortified tower to protect himself and his family.  He is the Man in the High Castle.

The book which everyone on the West Coast is obsessed with is the I Ching.  Everyone, irrespective of race or status, is casting hexagrams at every opportunity.

There are various narrative strands, loosely linked: the retailer of high-end Americana Robert Childan; Frank Frink, the secret Jew who actually makes some of the so-called antiques Childan sells; Frinks estranged wife Juliana, a judo instructor who takes up with an Italian trucker and sets off in a quest to find the man in the castle; Tagomi, who heads up the Home Islands trade mission in San Fransisco; the mysterious Baynes, who purports to be a Swedish businessman.  Everyone seems to have a position, but everyone has to review their position - usually in consultation with the yarrow stalks of I Ching - when the third Fuhrer, Martin Bormann, unexpectedly dies.

Unlike the other Dick book I tried, The Man in the High Castle is brilliantly constructed, the writing polished without ever toppling over into bland.  If the author of the first novel was fried with stimulants, this one has the focus and clarity of Sherlock Holmes on cocaine.  I am now willing to give any Dick novel a try.  Apparently The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch is also available in Roc paperback (a Penguin imprint I had never previously heard of), so that seems like the perfect next step.

Thursday, 18 June 2015

The Other Log of Phileas Fogg - Philip Jose Farmer

The title says it all: there is another log, other than the one Jules Verne edited for publication, containing the real, intergalactic context of Fogg's round-the-world journey.  It is crossover literature to a certain extent, in that Verne was of course for many people the father of science fiction, but Around the World in Eighty Days was not one of his science fiction works.  Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea was, however, pure sci fi, and Farmer imports Nemo here as his criminal mastermind.

Farmer was the pioneer of this form, which is one I love and try to write myself.  He began with Tarzan, then Fogg, and on to create an entire world - the world of Wold Newton, in which all the heroes of fantastical pulp fiction coexist.  The Other Log, as I say, was his second experiment in the form.  Farmer completes the illusion with  editorial digressions.  The result is great fun, though I would say that, as so often with Big Idea Fiction, the characterisation suffers somewhat.  Finally, I must put on record how much I adore the artwork on this original 1973 Daw paperback.

Thursday, 11 June 2015

The House on the Borderland - William Hope Hodgson

Mr Hodgson is perhaps second only to Algernon Blackwood in his serious treatment of unreality.  Few can equal him in adumbrating the nearness of nameless forces and monstrous besieging entities through casual hints and insignificant details, or in conveying feelings of the spectral and the abnormal in connexion with regions or buildings
Thus said H P Lovecraft in his rolling survey of the form, "Supernatural Horror in Literature", written between 1925 and 1934.

Well the object here is very much the building, and what happens there is abnormal to the ultimate degree.  Those who know Hodgson only for the Carnacki stories or his innumerable tales of the Sargasso, are missing out.  Borderland prefigures his final novel, The Night Land, which even Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith felt 'went a bit too far'.  It might have been written in 1907 (see 'the editor's' introduction) but in many ways it could easily have come from the acid-ridden 1960s.

It starts traditionally enough.  Two Victorian chaps take a holiday in the far West of Ireland.  There they stumble upon the ruined, abandoned house, perched precariously on an unstable rock platform over a huge bottomless abyss.  In the rubble inside the house they find a damaged manuscript written by the last owner, a nameless recluse.  We do not know when the manuscript was written or when the house was abandoned, and very soon the issue of time becomes irrelevant.

The recluse describes how he was sitting in his study late one night when he felt himself being borne up and away by invisible forces, into space and out of the solar system.  In another part of the galaxy he visits a planet where he finds a massive replica of his house hewn out of green stone, standing on the border of the Silence.  He wakes back in his study and finds that nothing has changed.  Or has it?

Part of his garden is carried away in a landslip.  The pit begins to form.  Creatures emerge and attack the house, which the recluse now realises stands on the border between dimensions.

A good third of the book is taken up with a second out-of-body experience in which he seems to live forever, so long that he sees and survives the death of the sun itself.  He seems to wake, but---

Unique for its day and very much a precursor of modern visionary sci fi, this book essentially defines the term 'fantastic fiction'.  A must-read for any student of the genre.

And what, for the record, did Lovecraft think of The House on the Borderland?  Why, this---

The House on the Borderland (1908) - perhaps the greatest of all Mr Hodgson's works - tells of a lonely and evilly regarded house in Ireland which forms the focus for hideous other-world forces and sustains a siege by blasphemous hybrid anomalies from a hidden abyss below.  The wanderings of the narrator's spirit through limitless light-years of cosmic space and kalpas of eternity, and its witnessing of the solar system's final destruction, constitute something almost unique in standard literature.  And everywhere there is manifest the author's power to suggest vague, ambushed horrors in natural scenery.  But for a few touches of commonplace sentimentality this book would be a classic of the first water.
I'd quibble with the last sentence - Lovecraft, understandably, had no knowledge of Hodgson's love life, which I see mirrored in the recluse's reunion with his lost love in the second vision - but otherwise, I think he pretty much covers all the bases.  And I'd forgive him almost anything in return for the word kalpas, albeit Lovecraft borrows it from Hodgson's book.