Please welcome our regular book reviewer, Maureen Kincaid Speller, with her first column at WFR. You can also read her work at Paper Knife and in magazines such as Interzone. — The Editors
“The mere touch of cold philosophy.” – Keats
Reviewed in this column:
Glorious Nemesis by Ladislav Klíma (Twisted Spoon Press, Prague, 2011)
The Orphan Palace by Joseph S. Pulver (Chômu Press, 2011)
Bluegrass Symphony by Lisa L. Hannett (Ticonderoga, 2011)
The Man From Primrose Lane by James Renner (Sarah Crichton Books, NY, 2012)
Sleight by Kirsten Kaschock (Coffee House Press, Minneapolis, 2011)
Since I accepted the invitation to become Weird Fiction Review’s book reviewer, I’ve been thinking a good deal about what I mean when I say ‘weird fiction’. The ostensive definition – what I point to when I say ‘weird fiction’ – can only go so far in accounting for my choices in this and future columns and so some sort of rule of thumb is maybe in order. But while definitions have their uses the reviewer can all too quickly be transformed into gatekeeper, determining how weird is weird enough rather than being open-minded. In part one defines by discarding, so for me weird fiction is mostly not science fiction, nor classic and contemporary fantasy, nor urban fantasy nor paranormal romance, nor ghost story … except that it might have elements of all or any of these and be weird as well. Likewise, experimental form does not automatically mean weird content but the two do, on occasion, go together. And anyway, rules exist to be broken.
Tzvetan Todorov’s theory of the fantastic, having winnowed out that which is accounted for through rational explanation and that which is accounted for by the supernatural, leaves the reader with the moment of hesitation, wherein resides the purely fantastic story. However, for Todorov, the ‘fantastic’ is inevitably fleeting, vanishing before the end of the story because the reader must and will opt either for the real or the supernatural explanation. Todorov’s understanding of the fantastic is, to my mind, so refined as to be almost unworkable in terms of practical criticism, but I’ve always liked that idea of the moment of hesitation, that teetering on the brink of possibility. And in turn I’ve always been interested in the kind of fiction that pushes that moment of hesitation beyond the brief questioning flicker of uncertainty, depriving the reader of the swiftly following moment of relief as understanding arrives. Which is not to say I want my reading experience to be stretched beyond endurance but I suspect that somewhere in that extended moment of hesitation, just as panic sets in, but long before the reader says ‘oh, this is just silly’, there is a sweet spot of profound uncertainty wherein resides the weird.
But the weird is not simply a matter of an exquisitely drawn-out moment of hesitation. Scott Nicolay recently presented his Dogme 2011 for Weird Fiction here on Weird Fiction Review, and this has also contributed to my own thinking about weird fiction, not so much for the things he discards as ‘not weird’ as for what he insists is essential: place and atmosphere. I might in part disagree about place, depending on how one defines that, but yes, weird fiction, classic and contemporary, definitely has an atmosphere about it, and for me at least, it is atmosphere, that literary equivalent of a faint mist rising out of nowhere, that first tends to catch my interest. Interestingly, Nicolay also quotes Caitlin Kiernan’s dictum: ‘dark fiction dealing with the inexplicable should, itself, present to the reader a certain inexplicability’, which seems to lead us straight back to Todorov’s moment of hesitation.
So, these are the thoughts that preoccupy me as I turn to my first set of reviews for Weird Fiction Review. My first choice is Glorious Nemesis by Ladislav Klíma (Twisted Spoon Press, Prague, 2011), not least because his name was previously unfamiliar to me. One thing I have learned since I began reading The Weird is that while I am familiar with the Anglo-American tradition of classic weird writing, I know almost nothing about the European tradition, and I am in haste to rectify that. Klíma, like Kafka, his younger contemporary, was born in Bohemia, then lived a peripatetic life, spending money as it came his way, before finally settling to writing. Much of Klíma’s work was published posthumously (he died of tuberculosis at the age of fifty), and was then suppressed by the Soviet authorities, but his ‘vision of one’s innate ability to achieve inner freedom, to pursue spiritual sovereignty through deoessence’ subsequently inspired artists and dissidents. Klíma’s philosophy ‘in which all reality culminates in an absolute subject’, to the point of ‘the subject fully understanding his substance and becoming the creator of his own divinity’ underpins Glorious Nemesis, a short novel which also draws on Sturm und Drang and English Romanticism.
Sider, the novel’s protagonist, is a man deeply moved by the Alpine landscape through which he is travelling, so much so that on the spur of the moment, he gets off the train at Cortona, where he spends an idyllic few days, overwhelmed by ‘mysterious, monumental sensations’. In his heightened state of receptivity, Sider teeters on the brink of a great revelation that somehow eludes him, though he relishes the lack of clarity of these sensations. ‘The entire world intoxicated him, existence itself was his lover, songs erupted from his inner being, and at night he was embraced by magical dreams …’ It is hard not to think of Wordsworth’s response to the landscape in The Prelude but the heightened emotional response both to Cortona and to leaving it seems to owe more to Sturm und Drang and indeed, as the story unfolds Sider’s emotional responses will guide him more than any engagement with the landscape.
Sider’s disenchantment with Cortona itself is replaced by an obsession with two mysterious young women, one of whom is the living embodiment of his recurring dream of Her, ‘indistinct, flickering and yet powerful’, Sider’s pursuit of the women finally leads him up the mountain, that classic Romantic site, where they vanish. In the meantime, having failed to obey a summons to return home, he has been financially ruined, and must now work to recoup his fortunes.
Until this point, Sider might seem to be a fanciful young man with more money than sense and an inclination to find things about which to obsess. The one woman’s resemblance to his vision can be accounted for insofar as we assume Sider is fantasising about a type rather than a person. It is only some years later when, as the narrator puts it, ‘the emptiness of [Sider’s] soul become more profound, calling on something to fill it’, the woman begins to appear to Sider, in visions and in the street. Sider now believes in her corporeal existence but his pursuit of her takes on a profoundly hallucinatory nature; parts of the town where he is lives assume aspects of Cortona, and when he finally returns there, he finds the other woman, Errata S., seemingly incarcerated in a lunatic asylum. Sider is caught up in a bizarre series of events in which he may, or may not, have killed an old woman; in which the two young women may or may not have fought over him; have been ghosts, or have impersonated ghosts. The layers of explanation negate one another and the novel shifts in register from being emotionally overwrought to the unfathomably peculiar, until the denouement takes a distinctively more transcendental direction.
How much of what happens in this story can be construed as ‘real’ is a moot point. Sider’s initial encounter with Cortona seems to be external to him while his long and confused pursuit of the women becomes increasingly internalised to the point where Sider is apparently journeying deep into his own soul, engaging with the eternity of his own divine essence. Or else he is mad. Either way, this story has characteristics I associate with other continental weird writers, most notably the way that real and imagined experience collapse into one another over and over, to the point where reality and fiction become totally blurred. The flavour is distinctively different from American and English writing of the same period, which often seems reticent by comparison, determined to re-establish those boundaries. Glorious Nemesis is perhaps not an enjoyable story but it is intellectually challenging.
Moving to the present day, The Orphan Palace by Joseph S. Pulver (Chômu Press, 2011) certainly cannot be accused of such reticence. Ostensibly, the story of a road trip made by a serial arsonist and killer, from the West Coast to the East, in search of his childhood nemesis is not promising material, and I don’t mind admitting that The Orphan Palace initially seemed to sit far out on the edge of my reading comfort zone. However, it quickly became clear that there is much more to this novel than a trail of dumped cars, torched buildings and broken and bloody bodies.
The reader is travelling with Cardigan, a man damaged by his childhood experiences, first at home, then in Zimms County Home for Orphaned Children, where he spends years at the mercy of Doctor Archer. His friend and fellow survivor, Sharkey, has found peace running a bar in Long Beach and wants Cardigan to stay with him, but something still gnaws at Cardigan, and only a return to the site of his childhood trauma can assuage this. We assume, because narratives of this kind usually demand it, that Cardigan is seeking a cathartic showdown with Archer.
However, Michael Cisco raises an interesting point in the introduction to this novel, when he talks of Cardigan as the paranoid man who ‘knows’ and ‘understands’ everything, and I think this is key to appreciating how The Orphan Palace works. Everything in this novel is very real to Cardigan; the novel may be a road trip across the United States, but we can also read it as a painstaking mapping of Cardigan’s own mental territory. To read the novel is then to in part decode Cardigan’s thought processes and to reach some understanding of what prompts him to commit murder and arson as he goes, and also to understand the influences of others on him. The most notable is Huey, another orphan at the Home, convinced that he is the quarry of the Hounds of Tindalos, and Tibet, who offers Cardigan a gentler framework of Eastern philosophy around which to build his life. The novel in part lays bare Cardigan’s struggle to find a belief system which can sustain him, so we might also read this novel as Cardigan’s attempt to construct a narrative in which he explains himself to himself.
Cardigan’s view of the world is quite literally black and white. Black is bad and he sees himself as a kind of vigilante, keeping Blackness at bay. However, the reader is entirely reliant on Cardigan’s construction of that moral landscape; we have no other clues as to why some people are Black and others White, yet oddly, instinctively, we trust Cardigan’s judgement and accept his view of the world, even when it makes no sense, or perhaps because it doesn’t. For all of its strangeness, his world possesses a coherence, and in particular to one strand of it, although at the same time this narrative thread calls Cardigan’s entire existence into question.
Time after time, as he travels, Cardigan finds himself in what he comes to call the Ghoul Hotels, identical in design, the same woman (Ms Kafka) on reception, the same room, the same film on the tv, the same books on the shelves. What at the beginning seems like a coincidence begins to take on a new significance for Cardigan as the journey continues, becomes a quest to understand the significance of the publisher Shadow House and the film company Shadow Brothers. Or is it that Cardigan chooses to interpret the endless series of identikit budget motels as something sinister rather than tedious, and to cast himself as some sort of saviour for Ms Kafka’s people.
The metafictional quality of The Orphan Palace is difficult to ignore. How much is Cardigan trying to find ways to describe what is happening in his head, how much is direct outside experience is hard to tell. There are odd little moments when characters seem to have strayed in from somewhere else altogether. Cardigan’s encounter with the engaging demon hunters, Cake and Dune, and the afternoon he spends working with them, contrasts strikingly with his own daily life of countering Blackness in the world and contending with the Animal that demands fire. It offers a momentary glimpse of a different life, one that Cardigan might be part of if he chose, except that the lure of his own road, however dangerous, however suspect, is too strong. Perhaps he cannot write that other story except in brief snatches.
In the end, it is impossible to decide what in Cardigan’s life is ‘real’, what is ‘fantasy’. One might feel that Cardigan’s entire journey is an imaginative construction rather than something actually happening within the frame of the novel, but it is impossible to tell. Instead, this novel seems to be one long hesitation between the real and the supernatural, constantly shifting ground, catching the reader unaware, making her sympathise with a man who can only express himself in fire and blood.
While we cannot take for granted Cardigan’s view of the world, the stories in Lisa L Hannett’s collection, Bluegrass Symphony (Ticonderoga, 2011), require that the reader simply accept. We are in very different territory to Pulver’s America, somewhere close to Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County or the American South of Flannery O’Connor or Eudora Welty, but a world in which strangeness is fully realised in a way that these writers only hint at. And it’s in that unblinking acceptance that the integral weirdness of most of these stories lies. Take the comedy of a woman with a flock of fortune-telling chickens and a shape-changing fox-husband (‘Fur and Feathers’): Aurora’s efforts to help her clients, protect her flock and become reconciled with her husband intermingle the quotidian hopes and fears of people with little left to lose but still desperate for help and comfort with the promise of something magical but also with Aurora’s own longing for the recalcitrant Reynard. O’Connor’s interest in carnival freakshows resurfaces in Hannett’s ‘Forever, Miss Tapekwa County’, a story in which becoming a carnival-show mermaid is seen as a life-enhancing transformation; the reader is left thinking not so much about the horror of the change as that it is a perfectly natural part of life. Similarly, in ‘Wires Uncrossed’, although Bo may have sprouted tentacles or antennae and be able to tune in to people’s phone conversations, the story focuses on his desire to reunite his estranged parents rather than the oddity of his own situation, and therein lies the strangeness. Nonetheless, the first story, ‘Carousel’, remains the most arresting with its extraordinary moment of revelation as moths work on the broken body of Cassie, a young girl whose hopes of escape have already been doubly dashed. and raise up her spirit. Yet, this is a contemporary world in which the small moments of familiar normality, trucks, seatbelts, telephones, vie with other forms of power. The apparent timelessness of Hannett’s stories, that eternal fantastic present, is persistently if quietly undermined, disorienting the reader time and again.
Hannett offers one approach to dealing with the weird in the modern world but her stories raise a more general question. In 2012, where does the weird live? How does it survive? Although the advent of the electric light proved not to be the death knell of the ghost story, as some had feared, the nature of the English ghost story changed after World War Two. Perhaps so much violence was, ironically, inimical to telling ghost stories, or perhaps it was simply that the academic milieu from which so many fine stories emerged no longer existed. Pastiche abounds but the modern ghost story is a very different beast to its ancestor. The same, I suspect, must apply to the weird if and when it doesn’t deliberately turn away. We might turn to Fritz Leiber’s ‘Smoke Ghost’ for early pointers on weird modernity but how do other contemporary writers deal with it?
The Man From Primrose Lane (Sarah Crichton Books, NY, 2012) by James Renner seems very brash by comparison with Hannett’s stories. It is bright, suburban, a world of Kettle chips and Tivos, and seems to offer little in the way of weirdness. Yet, even from the beginning, a distinct undercurrent is detectable. The novel’s tone reminds me somewhat of Peter S. Beagle’s A Fine and Private Place; the grieving husband and his small son, getting by after the inexplicable death of Elaine, wife and mother, struggling to make sense. In flashback we see David and Elaine’s complex courtship, his lack of comprehension set against her capricious responses, his disbelief when finally she accepts him. There is a sense of entrenched inertia as the framework of life somehow slides through Neff’s fingers.
Set against this is a death, the murder of the Man from Primrose Lane, an eccentric old man never seen outside without a pair of mittens on his hands, whatever the weather, and a different pair every time. The murder itself seems to be eccentric, more so if it is actually a murder. How might a man chop off and liquidise his own fingers before killing himself, and more pertinently, why would he do such a thing? Here we have no delicate meditation on lost love but something altogether more Fortean. Neff, perhaps a little conveniently, is formerly a successful true-crime writer, and his publisher is convinced that investigating the murder will provide the therapeutic push that he thinks Neff requires.
Certainly, when he realises that the Man from Primrose Lane possessed a false identity Neff is intrigued, but as the investigation brings him ever closer to home, to the disappearance of his own wife’s twin sister in childhood, and to the secret his wife seemed to be concealing shortly before her death, one begins to wonder what is actually going on. The discovery of Neff’s own fingerprints compounds the sense of wrongness. At this point, the novel looks set to transform itself into a lively if unorthodox police procedural, except that bizarre coincidences persist. The novel is seriously straining at the seams and one wonders if it can actually take the strain. It has actually reached the point where the author may have to invoke the ‘with one bound he was free’ card. Except that he doesn’t, and it is at this point that the novel settles into the sweet spot. It is also the point at which I haver because I do not want to deprive the reader of the necessary revelatory moment of ‘oh, so that’s what’s going on’. Suffice it to say that a suspicion had begun to form in my mind from quite early on that temporal discrepancies might be in play, but not in a classically hard science-fictional way.
While it is possible to tidy the novel’s denouement away in a flurry of quasi-scientific explanations, something still doesn’t quite ring true, and I don’t think it is entirely the result of the novel making its escape from authorial control. It’s certainly an ambitious novel, and the author has a struggle on his hands, but its exuberance overcomes the weaknesses and moments of convenience in the plot. Buried deep in the heart of the novel there is still something that remains fundamentally inexplicable, something that wanders back into the reader’s mind when she least expects it, something that can’t quite be answered, and it is this rather than the more obvious trappings of Fortean weirdness that finally convinces me that this novel itself belongs the weird.
However, when it comes to the contemporary weird, Kirsten Kaschock’s Sleight (Coffee House Press, Minneapolis, 2011) is the most remarkable novel I’ve encountered in a long time. It focuses on sleight, an art form which is remarkably elusive; indeed it seems to be not so much an art form as a denial of art, an effacing of performance, a self-abnegation, perhaps even an indulgence given one wonders if it actually exists. One learns, mainly from footnotes to the main text, that it involves sleightists (the actual performers) and objects (architectures) which they in some way move with and around on stage, and link together in assemblages of people and objects, but this is performance which is form stripped of narrative and which, when done well, manifests its success through the performers no longer actually being visible on stage. The performances themselves are somehow ‘drawn’ by ‘hands’ yet at the same time sleight appears to be an art form which almost from its inception has been ossified, slavishly adhering to its original forms. Preference is given always to men although it seems that women may, on the whole, be the better sleightists and indeed it was a woman who brought sleight into being. Creativity is simultaneously necessary yet suppressed. It is, if you like, the highest form of performance art in that the sleight troupes seek no recognition as individuals, and indeed exceptionality in performance is institutionally frowned upon. Audiences do not applaud, and there is much debate as to whether they actually understand what it is they are seeing. One might suppose that sleight, as an art form, is somehow related to the Emperor’s new clothes in its very invisibility.
One might also suppose that Kaschock has written a very clever satire on the state of dance as performance; it is certainly possible to read the novel as such, certainly if one has any knowledge of the history of certain dance troupes, but I actually think there is rather more to the novel than a simple commentary on the insularity of ballet masters. Kaschock poses fascinating questions about the nature of art and creativity through the medium of this art that is not actually a performance medium at all, at least not in this world. Except that she presents it in the most plausible manner imaginable, not just holding it in place with suitably academic footnotes but bolstering its reality through interviews and critical commentaries. The novel maintains a tone of complete rationality throughout – one is vaguely reminded of the Officer’s account of his bizarre machine in Kafka’s ‘In the Penal Colony’, except that sleight seems rather more reasonable.
Sleight follows the fortunes of the Monk troupe as it collaborates with West’s Kepler troupe. West fancies himself as an iconoclast, determined to turn sleight inside out, by introducing everything that has been historically undesirable: colour, costume, lighting, music, narrative. His motives are not entirely clear: there are suggestions that it is a long and complex revenge for a perceived adolescent humiliation. West himself is no sleightist, at least not in the accepted sense, although he is a gifted director. In which case, he is a sleightist of a different stripe, manipulating people rather than structures, absenting himself when there is trouble, bereft of scruples when it comes to achieving what he wants. On this basis he has no hesitation in manipulating both Clef, a brilliant technical practitioner of sleight, and her sister, Lark, retired from sleight but troubled by her inability to fully express her creativity, into working for him. Lark is beset by Needs, physical embodiments of the feelings she cannot fully articulate. Her Needs are transformed into pigments with which she colours what she calls Souls, bowl-like knots of wood. Lark and Clef are estranged, having fallen out over Kitchen, Clef’s lover, once Lark’s as well.
West has an instinct for finding people’s weak spots. In bringing Lark and Clef together again, West is perfectly he is setting up a potentially toxic dynamic within the troupes, and deliberately exacerbates this by also bringing in Byrne, an artist, and his wayward brother, Marvel. The boys’ mother always regarded Marvel as the more talented child while Byrne is the one who carries the guilt for his father’s death. As if this weren’t enough, West insists that this group of damaged and fragile people work with a story recently in the news, of children kidnapped, abused and transformed into weird art by the Vogelsangs. Their story has come to light because they have deliberately drawn attention to themselves, seeking recognition for their work. It is not difficult to see why West is similarly drawn to their story.
It is perhaps glib to say that West simply doesn’t understand the forces he is working with but in this instance it is undoubtedly true, in the same way that he believes he can transform sleight into a commercial art form, something it inevitably seems able to resist with ease. The irony is, perhaps, that this is West’s finest performance but in ways that the audience cannot actually see, which is of course what sleight in its pure form is supposed to be about. In trying to be iconoclastic West has remained true to the roots of the form.
West dominates the latter part of the novel as he brings his flawed creation to performance, and Kaschock’s handling of his struggle is well controlled. His slide into failure is inevitable, of course, but that inevitability is well paced. However, for me the novel’s fascination resides more in the first half, trying to understand the strangeness of this art form that everyone accepts so easily, tracing its history through the footnotes, and to an altogether different revelation as to its origins. Kaschock’s skill in calling into being something which, we suppose, doesn’t exist, and the intensity with which she writes about it is truly impressive. This is one of those novels that lingers in the mind long after the book is closed.