Tag Archives: Horror – General

The State of the Art

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The State of the Art [Amazon, Abebooks, Publisher, Local Library] by Iain M Banks, book 4 in The Culture series. (n.b. there is a new paperback edition, due April 2024 [Amazon, Bookshop, Libro.fm, Publisher, Local Library]).

Banks the State of the Art

The jacket copy boasts that The State of the Art is “the only collection of Iain Banks’ short fiction,” and it appears that it does account for most of the short fiction that he ever published. Three of the eight stories, including the novella that makes up about half of the eponymous book, are explicitly Culture tales, and several of the others seem to sit comfortably in the Culture’s universe. It is thus figured as the fourth book of the Culture series, and I read it as such.

The novella brings the Culture’s exploratory agency Contact to 1970s Earth, thus linking Banks’ science fiction to the hardly sfnal “Piece”–a meditation on censorship and violence with an arch irony–and to the quite terrestrial prose poem “Scratch.” The narrator of “The State of the Art” is even Diziet Sma, the Special Circumstances operative from Use of Weapons.

I had wondered before about the genealogical relationship of the Culture’s posthumans to our own population. Banks clearly implies that we are a not-especially-remarkable instance of a galactically ubiquitous pan-humanity, products of parallel evolution it appears. The differences between the Culture’s phenotype and ours are briefly described in what Sma needs in order to pass for Earth-human: “I got a couple of extra toes, a joint removed from each finger, and a rather generalized ear, nose, and cheekbone job. The ship insisted on teaching me to walk differently as well” (106-7).

The story “Cleaning Up” involved an extraterrestrial influence that was almost certainly not the Culture. It seemed like Banks’ take on the Strugatskys’ Roadside Picnic, playing up the comical elements of that work. The comedy in all of these stories tends towards the decidedly dark.

There is a full-page illustration by Nick Day for the frontispiece and one for each story. These are all in black-and-white and seem to be linocuts. The style is more diagrammatic than representational. By refusing to offer more eidetic images, these made me conscious of their lack in the larger Culture corpus, where the cover art tends to be abstract and symbolic. A quick ‘net search for art depicting the Culture revealed that just last week saw the posthumous publication of The Culture: The Drawings reproducing Banks’ own diagrams and sketches of Culture environments and technology.

Despite The State of the Art being a quick read, I think I’ll likely take a breather from the Culture for a little while, since I don’t have a copy of Excession, and I am also engaged with a couple of other series that seem to have more urgent plot continuity between volumes.

Mysterious and Horrific Stories

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Mysterious and Horrific Stories [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu.

Le Fanu Mysterious and Horrific Stories

This book collects more than a dozen stories by the 19th-century Irish writer Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. None of the individual stories are published here for the first time, and I suspect that most or even all of them are available for free online. The apparatus of this edition is limited to a table of contents, an appended single-paragraph “Note About the Author” and a similarly short self-promotional “Note from the Publisher.” Just two of the stories have leading editorial notes (227, 255) with a modicum of bibliographic information, but these notes are unsigned and the collection credits no editor. Publisher Mint Editions instead credits a “Project Manager.” The book is a glue-bound hardcover, comfortable in the hand, not ugly, fabricated through a print-on-demand process. I certainly found it more pleasant to read than I would have to scroll through the stories on a screen.

The stories are good. More than half of them are set in Ireland, and nearly all of them involve the supernatural. Although the note to “Stories of Lough Guir” says, “It differs from the other stories in this volume in being apparently a record of stories actually told to Le Fanu and not invented by him” (255), many of the other stories have a very strong aroma of the folkloric, especially the ones about menacing fairies and those ghost stories that lack a moralizing agenda. Even the many vivid Gothic fictional tropes concerning old houses and cursed families are typically hedged about with documentary conceits, including imputed sources and variant tellings.

Le Fanu’s strong influence on writers like Bram Stoker and M. R. James makes many of his techniques seem familiar to readers of older horror fiction, but he was doing this work earlier and every bit as well. This collection does not include the tales for which he is most famous, but they are a solid assortment nonetheless.

If This Book Exists, You’re in the Wrong Universe

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews If This Book Exists, You’re in the Wrong Universe [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Jason Pargin, “A John, Dave, and Amy Novel”, part 4 of the John Dies at the End series.

Pargin If This Book Exists Youre in the Wrong Universe

This book is the fourth in a series with a label that has been expanding in a failed effort to keep pace with its central cast of characters. The original volume was John Dies at the End. Later books/editions were called “John and Dave” books, adding the name of principal narrator David Wong–an in-story pseudonym and also the pen name later abandoned by author Jason Pargin. If This Book Exists… is tagged a “John, Dave and Amy” book, including a character who has been central for previous volumes, but there is a fourth who earns poster placement rights in this installment.

Anyhow, the series consists of supernatural horror with a little science fiction, a lot of lowbrow humor, and a fair amount of unsubtle but essentially humane social commentary. I felt like this book had the most conventional plot arc of the four, despite overt courting of time travel paradoxes and multiple denouements. It didn’t make me laugh out loud as often as the earlier ones, but I experienced more odd synchronicities while reading it, which was a definite point in its favor.

There’s an evil cult to thwart in the course of the novel, and the very end (before the author’s afterword) supplies the key commandments that Dave and his pals add to the cult’s scriptures to keep them from becoming a pernicious world religion. These few pages really could stand the frank consideration of earnest “seekers,” even out of context.

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.

Kalle was burdened with an intense pain located about a hand’s breadth below his right collar bone. No, there was no tumor or anything of the sort there, he had had it checked, but it was exactly there that it started to hurt whenever life got to him. A black heart pumping despair into his body.

John Ajvide Lindqvist, trans. Ebba Segerberg, Let the Old Dreams Die: Stories [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library]

Hermetic-quote Lindqvist Let the Old Dreams Die burdened intense pain no tumor exactly started hurt whenever life got him black heart pumping despair into body