Saturday, March 18, 2023

Pictures of Apocalypse, by Thomas Ligotti

Thomas Ligotti, as a prose writer, is one of the best post-Lovecraftian horror writers. He has also published a small number of poem cycles, and Pictures of Apocalypse is I think the fifth of these. It is illustrated (quite admirably) by Jonathan Dennison, and the book (with accessories) is very well-produced by Chiroptera Press. The volume consists of some twenty poems in the cycle, some very short, some long, with a prose introduction. But like his other poem-cycles, the form fails to show Ligotti at his best. There are occasional striking images ("The sky above was streaked with veins, / winding like rivers of color, sickly pale" from VI. "The Cult of Melancholy"), but despite Ligotti's talent for poetic prose, the poetic form itself seems to limit his ability to achieve the qualities found in his prose. There, his mesmeric style can grow into something more potent as he goes along. Here, though, with techniques like repetition (even with slight differences), it leads to unsatisfying things like "A Poetics of Existence" (IV), which is only eight lines long, and the first four are dull: "We had grown tired of the cycle: / beginning, middle, and end, / beginning middle, and end, / beginning, middle, and end." This early in the volume, the sentiment is prophetic for the rest. Ligotti's stories are essential reading; his poem cycles are not. Ligotti's devotees will enjoy this, but readers new to Ligotti should begin with the fiction.

Saturday, February 25, 2023

The House on the Brink, by John Gordon

The House on the Brink is John Gordon's second novel, published in 1970, after his first, The Giant Under the Snow (1968). Both are a kind of folk horror for young adults, and both are in the mold of Alan Garner, with children protagonists encountering weird phenomenon. The House on the Brink has also been acclaimed as a novel in the style of M.R. James's ghost stories, but there is little spookiness in this flat tale of two teens who are haunted by a recurring tree stump in the marshes which may or may not be animated, and in association with a local legend of King John's lost treasure. The teens also learn they are water diviners, and they mix with peculiar adults with potentially sinister motives. This could have made a good story, but the real problem is in Gordon's punchy newspaper-styled prose, with lots of sentence fragments and metaphors that stick out like sore thumbs. This leads to many ambiguous sections where the reader simply isn't told properly what has happened, and is left to infer by subsequent events. As a story I found it a real disappointment.

Sunday, February 12, 2023

The Big House, by Naomi Mitchison

Originally published in 1950 as a children's book, The Big House might better be described as a Scottish fairy novel with two children as the protagonists. It is overly descriptive and wordy, using many unusual Scottish terms and representing the characters' speech in a Scottish dialect; it is hard to imagine children of today having the patience to read it through to the end. It is also a timeslip novel, with a critique of class structures. Set at the end of World War II, it tells of young Su (short for Susan) of the wealthy Big House in western Scotland, and her friendship with a fisherman boy called Winkie, who together, one Halloween night, befriend a piper Donald Ferguson who has just escaped from the fairies after being captive for two terms of seventy years. The piper is pursued by the Prince and others of the fairies, and Su and Winkie help him to be reborn among modern people, while they timeslip back twice (to multiples of seventy years) in history, first to recapture Su's stolen shadow, and then to restore baby Donald's purloined soul. If this sounds confusing, that's because it is. The book, which has many intriguing aspects, unfortunately fails to bring life to the story, and it feels more like an exercise than an entertainment.

Tuesday, January 24, 2023

The Collectors, by Philip Pullman

This is another short tale associated with Pullman's His Dark Materials series, published as a small book, illustrated by Tom Duxbury. This time the tale is set in another world, visited in the past for a short time by Marisa van Zee, known to Pullman's readers as Mrs. Coulter. Marisa was painted as a young girl, and her monkey daemon was rendered as a one foot high bronze statute of special malevolence. This story concerns the history of art collectors acquiring  the painting, or the statuette, seemingly then randomly acquiring the other, with ill results. The tale is self-contained, but one wishes there were more meat to it. The story was originally released as an audiobook in 2014. The printed book came out in 2022.

Thursday, January 19, 2023

The Good Neighbours, by Nina Allan

This is an odd mix of a murder mystery with elements of a fairy novel. Cath is photographer who works in a Glasgow record shop, but she returns to the island where she grew up, intending to photograph murder houses. One of these is the house where her best friend was murdered when both girls were in their teens. Killed at the same time were the mother and the younger brother, followed quickly thereafter by the death of the father (the presumed murderer) in a car accident. Twenty years later Cath wants to understand the murders, and her amateur investigation leads her haphazardly to new friends and new theories. One of the theories involves the fairies, or the "good neighbours" as they are sometimes called.  Cath's leaps of intuition seem followed by discoveries that lead her further, but the internal logic of the narrative is flawed. And the ending (like the ending in Allan's earlier novel The Rift) is very unsatisfying. The dust-wrapper blurb describes the book as "an enquiry into the unknowability of the past and our attempts to make events fit our need to interpret them"--which seems a highfalutin way of saying that the book is about misdirection and failure. Certainly the author means this, but the author writes well enough to keep the reader going, even as one realizes the frustrating direction that the tale is following.

Sunday, January 15, 2023

Stalking the Atomic City, by Markiyan Kamysh

The subtitle gives a good picture of what this book is about: "Life Among the Decadent and the Depraved of Chornobyl"-- published originally in Ukrainian in 2015, and translated into an occasionally chic (by intention) but faltering (in slangy expression) English in 2022. It is a quasi-memoir of a man from Kyiv who is obsessed with exploring the Exclusion Zone around Chornobyl, the site of the 1986 nuclear disaster. He leads westerners through the area in a kind of disaster tourism, all the while drinking heavily, smoking heavily, and complaining about the winter cold and snow obsessively. Kamysh wonders frequently what its the point of him doing so, and so does the reader. He stalks the area (the apt terminology is clearly intended to echo Andrei Tarkovsky's 1979 film, The Stalker, doubtless an inspiration), encountering looters and scrap hunters, and trying to avoid the police who chase them. All the while he has a complete indifference to the toxicity of the area. There are photos (which are bland) and a map (which leaves out many of the sites visited in the text). Otherwise the text is merely a paean to danger fetishism.

Monday, January 9, 2023

Mr. Bear Squash-You-All-Flat, by Morrell Gipson

The oddly-titled children's book originally came out in 1950. The comics writer Gary Larson found the book when he was three, and made his mother read it to him over and over again, many times. Thus the book and its quirky humor were in some sense a kind of spark which inspired The Far Side. Larson said in 1986:  "There was something so mesmerizing about the image of this big bear going through the forest and squashing the homes of these little animals. I just thought that was the coolest thing in the world."  And it might just be one of the coolest things in the world.  The story is amusing and clever, and the illustrations (particularly of the "very stupid" and at times surly bear) are complementary--they are signed only as by "Angela." The book was reprinted in 2000 with a short Foreword by Gary Larson.  And it came out again in 2014, credited as the 65th anniversary edition, with Larson's piece moved to the end of the book. Fun.