Tag Archives: fiction

Ghost Story

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Ghost Story [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Peter Straub.

Straub Ghost Story

Ghost Story was Peter Straub’s breakout novel in 1979, and I remember seeing it in the “new” section of my local public library at the time. The publisher flogged it as a supernatural horror book with literary merit, and it was a fair boast. Straub was an admirable prose stylist, and his monsters have come a long way from their folklore and pulp origins. I found precursor comparanda in some of Seabury Quinn’s semi-traditional creatures and most especially Jack Williamson’s Darker Than You Think. Straub, who would eventually edit the two-volume American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny for Library of America, consciously adverts to his more literary antecedents Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry James, even going so far as to name two central characters Ricky Hawthorne and Sears James.

It’s a big book, with the storytelling heft of, say, a full season of the Stranger Things television horror drama. Like that show, it is multigenerational in scope, although Straub’s key ensemble is geriatric rather than adolescent. And Straub’s imagined town of Milburn, New York provides the Hawthorne-to-HPL New England sense of a lost frontier buried deep in the unconscious, rather than the vulnerable bucolic Midwestern sensibility of Hawkins, Indiana. All sorts of characters are powerfully drawn, with relationship tensions extending in every direction.

The body of the book provides several layers of background for the frame story focused on the horror novelist Don Wanderly. There is naturally some metafictional positioning that results, both from Wanderly’s metier and from the ghost-storytelling preoccupation of the Chowder Society, the clique of old friends around whom most of the novel is constructed. The climax takes place in late December, thus attaching the book to the English tradition of the Christmas ghost story, for which those of M.R. James are paragons. While there was less metafictional meat here than in Straub’s later book The Hellfire Club (i.e. Wanderly’s The Nightwatcher is neither so well-developed nor so pivotal to the story as Hugo Driver’s Night Journey), it still put a shine on the writing.

I have not yet seen the 1981 movie which was “loosely based” on the novel, but the book itself gives more than a little attention to cinema. Attorney Ricky Hawthorne is a movie aficionado given to describing people in terms of old screen icons, and he is friends with the proprietor of the local picture show. A key background character Eva Galli was a film actress, having appeared in a single silent film China Pearl (1925), and there is also important business involving a more recent actress Ann-Veronica Moore. The film of Ghost Story turned out to be the final screen appearance of Fred Astaire (in the role of Ricky Hawthorne), and Astaire is actually name-checked in the novel: “… Clark Gable in a bush jacket turning into Dan Duryea in a gangster’s nipped-in-suit turning into graceful, winning Fred Astaire in a Chowder Society tuxedo” (465).

My copy of this book is the first edition, which has a feature of interest extirpated from later re-issues. The chapter “Alma” (181-221) details Wanderly’s previous marital engagement during a brief university gig in Berkeley, California. By way of making the Alma character mysterious and creepy, Straub associated her with something presented as more dreadful than “California lunacy at its worst,” to wit: “O.T.O. … Ordo Templi Orientis … raw material for nightmares” (194-5). Some incidental details demonstrate that Straub’s awareness of O.T.O. was almost certainly based on press coverage of the Solar Lodge pretender organization. In any case, he never presents any specific characters or activities as being part of O.T.O., he just uses the allusion for nebulous menace. Since the actual O.T.O. was operating in Berkeley in 1979, they felt a bit slandered and reached out to Straub, who graciously apologized and made an edit for later printings to change the name to an occult order of his own invention: Xala Xalior Xiati.

The rich character development in this book is the feature that makes it most effective as supernatural horror, in my opinion. You can’t be very afraid for people you don’t care about. On the other hand, there are doubtless adrenaline junkies for whom the pace of this novel with its nested retrospection is just too slow to keep them engaged. (I’ve certainly read complaints to that effect online.) It continues to find a place in “best of” horror indices, and it deserves one.

Z Is for Moose

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Z Is for Moose [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Kelly Bingham and Paul O Zelinsky.

Bingham Zelinsky Z is for Moose

Sure, kids find this book funny. But it combines a sort of capitalist precarity of labor with anxiety about the arbitrariness of semiotic identities. Fortunately, the solution is solidarity. The revolutionary pages N and O are the most engaging part of the story.

The Long Tomorrow

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Long Tomorrow [Amazon, Bookshop (New), Publisher (New), Local Library] by Leigh Brackett.

Brackett The Long Tomorrow

As an SF author, Leigh Brackett is known for her planetary romances, which are indeed very fine. But this novel, perhaps her most lauded book-length work, involves a more serious and credible look at the future of our society. Indeed, the book’s scenario for the not-so-distant time to come is not much less believable now than it was when she wrote it about sixty years ago. The only ways it seems dated are that she didn’t predict the microprocessor, or describe any anthropogenic climate change. Given the nature of the story, the first of these is not a significant lack. 

In some features, this book resembles Logan’s Run, which I read recently. Both involve a protagonist rejecting a stultified society and looking for a possibly-mythical site of organized resistance which has continuity with the lost values of the past. Where Logan’s Run has Sanctuary, The Long Tomorrow has Bartorstown. But while Logan flees an urban technocracy, Brackett’s Len Colter is trying to escape an American anti-civilization in the etymological sense: a society that has overtly rejected the idea of the city, along with all of the industries and technologies of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. 

With this rural, piously conservative, post-apocalyptic environment as the setting for what is in large measure a coming-of-age story, the novel invites an even more direct comparison with John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids. On the whole, I consider Brackett more successful. She better realizes the ways in which even those oppressed by the prevailing morals have internalized them, and she traces a more extensive and nuanced process of maturation in her characters. 

The Long Tomorrow reads quickly — “I finished The Long Tomorrow today,” I remarked paradoxically to my Other Reader — with digestibly short chapters divided into three component “books,” which might have been titled “Piper’s Run” (the village of Len’s childhood), “Refuge” (a community where his exile leads him as a young man), and “Bartorstown.” Although it was not issued as YA fiction, it would serve that increasingly sophisticated market well today. And it continues to deserve the attention of adults willing to reflect on social and technological change outside the myth of progress.

3001: The Final Odyssey

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews 3001: The Final Odyssey [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Arthur C Clarke, book 4 in the Space Odyssey series.

Clarke 3001 The Final Odyssey

This “Final Odyssey” is the last and least of the three novels that Arthur C. Clarke wrote to extend the ideas introduced in 2001. The setup is clever enough: Frank Poole, a Discovery expedition member murdered by HAL 9000 back in 2001, is recovered in his excursion pod still exiting the Solar System, and he is restored to life by fourth-millennium super-science. Much of the book–the more interesting parts, really–concerns his difficulties and successes adapting to a “braincapped” posthuman society after a thousand years out of circulation.

At one point Poole’s birthdate is specifically given as 1996 (199), which would have made him only five years old when crewing the Discovery. This sort of retroactive discontinuity is common to the Odyssey Sequence, which Clarke called “variations on the same theme … not necessarily happening in the same universe” (261, quoting 2061).

The interactions with Poole’s previously monolith-integrated colleagues were a little disappointing. In particular, Heywood Floyd went missing altogether, while Dave Bowman and HAL were collapsed into a character called “Halman.” This element of the plot is focused on a threat posed by the monolith network, and defeated by human ingenuity. Clarke later rather sadly noted that his narrative resolution here was notably similar to that already used in the film Independence Day, which “contains every known science-fiction cliche since Melies’ Trip to the Moon (1903)” (253).

There is a certain irony in the book’s extensive criticisms of religion and metaphysical thought generally, while the Prologue and Epilogue construe the “Firstborn” creators of the monoliths as basically divine entities who may yet judge and sentence humanity. Perhaps inspired by the then-recent (in 1997) Aum Shinrikyo attacks, Clarke makes religiously-motivated terrorism responsible for biological and informational attacks that lead to greater global cooperation among governments in the early twenty-first century (216).

The book includes two pieces of interesting end matter. The Sources and Acknowledgements provide a chapter-by-chapter review of scientific justifications for the speculative technological elements of the novel and references to relevant current events. The Valediction is an author’s retrospective on the full Odyssey Sequence. In it, Clarke protests too much perhaps that “it’s all [his] own fiction” (262), disclaiming any co-authorship for the four books, but thus downplaying the significant contributions of Stanley Kubrick to the development of 2001 from “The Sentinel” and the features of the cinematic narrative later retrofitted to the not-sequels.

Pygmy

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Pygmy [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Chuck Palahniuk.

Palahniuk Pygmy

Not nearly in the running to be one of my favorite Chuck Palahniuk books, Pygmy still had the author’s twisted sense of humor in evidence. The first-person narrative voice — attributed to the protagonist, terrorist exchange-student infiltrator “Pygmy” — shuns standard English, which, if not a deal-breaker for me, makes it unlikely that I will enjoy a novel much. So I guess it succeeded in that uphill struggle. A representative sentence: “Horde scavenger feast at overflowing anus of world history” (146).

The whole story is over-the-top and not at all believable, but it scores a few obvious criticisms of American culture, while instating (on a more fundamental and tacit level) a defense of that same culture. It amplifies the cartoonish elements evident in earlier Palahniuk work like Survivor. I don’t regret having read it, but I can see how many readers would.

An Oath to Mida

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews An Oath to Mida [Amazon, Local Library] by Sharon Green, book 2 in the Jalav/Amazon Warrior series.

Green An Oath to Mida

I read this a couple of months ago, and held off on reviewing it — because, honestly, I’m embarrassed to have read the whole thing. I was looking for something trashy, but this was really awful. The story is told from the perspective of the amazon savage “war leader” Jalav, in a constructed idiom (and rather unconventional English syntax) to emphasize her alienation from the relatively medieval society in which she is sojourning. Her language alienated me too. Although she learned to read in the course of this novel, Jalav still called chairs, tables, and beds “platforms,” and lanterns were “boxes with lights in them.” Men and women were always and only “males” and “females.” The words ‘day’ and ‘night’ were eliminated, to be replaced with “feyd” and “darkness.” 

The plot is terribly slow, and Jalav is a captive for most of the book. She gets raped and beaten many times, and the “oath” of the title is her coerced swearing by her goddess Mida that she will obey a certain man, who subsequently domesticates her and passes her around to his pals. There’s plenty of psychological and cultural justification for the sequence of events. Then, at the end, the pace picks up considerably, culminating in Jalav’s ultimate rape by a demon-god, with the apparent connivance of Mida. 

It seems that this book (the second in a series of five) is intended to establish a set of affections and enmities that will motivate the remainder of a saga. But, ugh.

The Best Ghost Stories of H Russell Wakefield

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Best Ghost Stories of H. Russell Wakefield [Amazon, Local Library] by H Russell Wakefield, ed Richard Dalby.

Wakefield The Best Ghost Stories

This collection of Wakefield’s stories is very good. Although there is a slightly larger range of supernatural horror than might be suggested by the title’s category of “ghost stories,” most are in fact about spectral hauntings and the effects of genii locorum — always malign. “The Red Lodge” and “Blind Man’s Buff” are, for example, almost painfully traditional haunted house tales in terms of plot, but told with great skill and effect. Wakefield’s curses and ghosts are never exorcised; at best (and that rarely), the living characters manage to flee and escape their further influence.

A couple of the stories are concerned with sport. “The Seventeenth Hole at Duncaster” drew on the author’s own long-term enjoyment of golf, and is in many ways a solid example of his work in the ghost story genre. As usual, the origin and nature of the spirits are much murkier than their effects. “Professor Pownall’s Oversight” is a chessghost story, and not only a good one, but perhaps the best chess ghost story possible.

Another notable feature is in the two stories featuring characters modeled on the magus Aleister Crowley. In “He cometh and he passeth by …” Crowley is made over into the homicidal sorcerer Oscar Clinton, while in “A Black Solitude” Apuleius Charlton is based on an older and more benign Beast: “He was sixty odd at this time and very well preserved in spite of his hard boozing, addiction to drugs and sexual fervour, for it was alleged that joy-maidens or temple-slaves were well represented in his mystic entourage. (If I were a Merlin, they would be in mine!)” (128)

The stories are a rough mix between those in which evildoers meet some justified comeuppance, and others where the supernatural afflicts characters merely mediocre or already cursed with unusual talent. In several cases, there are both, or it is left to the reader to judge which of these categories applies. Wakefield’s work had the admiration of M.R. James and H.P. Lovecraft alike, and it is easy to see why.

House of Suns

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews House of Suns [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Alastair Reynolds.

Reynolds House of Suns

I hadn’t previously read anything by the successful contemporary sf author Alastair Reynolds, and rather than start with any of the series books for which he is perhaps better known, I read the standalone House of Suns. This doorstop novel is a far-future space opera centered on a “shatterling line,” i.e. a star-faring community of immortal clones, capable of stellar engineering, who explore the galaxy individually and rejoin to pool their knowledge and memories at intervals of many thousands of years.

(Reynolds is about my age, and I wondered at one point in this book if it had been partly inspired by a childhood reception of the mysterious allusions to the ‘Clone Wars’ in the 1977 Star Wars film, before those were fleshed out into the typically disappointing fare of the later development of that franchise.)

There are three characters with narration duties. At the start, and at wide intervals throughout, a much earlier story is told by Abigail Gentian, founder and clone parent of the House of Flowers, or Gentian Line of shatterlings. Otherwise, the narrative voice alternates chapter-by-chapter between a pair of incestuous Gentians in a “present” setting millions of years later.

Important to the plot and the setting of the book are a race of autonomous “Machine People” who vastly surpass humans in physical and mental capabilities at the individual level. I thought it a little odd that these were often referred to as “robots” as if the term were not pejorative. There are allusions early in the book to an interstellar human faction (“human” is used to include a wide range of post- and trans- humanity) called the Disavowers, who are antagonistic to the Machine People, but this notion is never fully developed.

In reviews and commentary on this book, I have seen it characterized as “hard” science fiction. Reynolds certainly has the scientific chops to write hard sf, but this story is set amidst technology so very advanced beyond our immediate ambitions, and so speculative, that it read as fairly fantastic to me. Only the willingness to take seriously the relativistic limitations on interstellar polity seemed “hard.” The stasis technology used for “abeyance” and “chronomesh” time drugs in particular seemed almost as hand-wavy as superluminal jump drives.

In its galactic scope and range of humanity-stretching concepts, this novel most reminded me of two other space operas, Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep and MacLeod’s Engine City. I did enjoy it, but it didn’t deliver an itch to seek out and read more of Reynolds’ work immediately.