Tag Archives: Literary

Head Games

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Locke & Key: Head Games [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez, & al., introduction by Warren Ellis, book 2 of the Locke & Key series.

Hill Rodriguez Locke and Key Head Games

Not as violent, but every bit as creepy as its predecessor, this second collected volume of the Locke & Key comics expands the range of magics in play, concentrating particularly on the powers of the Head Key. It also exposes more of the events among the prior generation in the Massachusetts town of Lovecraft that served to set up the present scenario. Existing characters become more complex, and there are some new characters that I liked a lot, like the drama teacher Mr. Ridgeway.

As before, Rodriguez’s art is gorgeous, with a style that is impressively well adapted to the material.

Warren Ellis was a surprising choice for the introduction, which he keeps short and hilarious. There is substantial end matter, including some reference material on the magic keys, reproductions of the individual issue cover art, and a disenchanting account of the art development process used by Rodriguez.

The Place of the Lion

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Place of the Lion [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Charles Williams.

Williams The Place of the Lion

This novel is certainly the least accessible of Charles Williams’ novels I’ve read so far. Principal characters discuss matters like Neoplatonism and angelology in ways that I understood, but would likely mystify the general reader. There is also a little plot sloppiness: for example, trains become inoperable, and then a character takes a train on the allegedly impassable line, with no explanation of how it was restored. The conclusion lacks plot closure in some important respects, with the cause of the book’s central crisis never really explained, despite the exposition of how it becomes mystically resolved.

The central concern of The Place of the Lion is a class of theriomorphic “Celestials” that answer to the denotations of Christian archangels, Platonic ideas, Gnostic archons, and so forth. These are somehow unleashed on the countryside by a minor theosophical organizer named Berringer, and they proceed to sow terror and ecstasy among the locals. The first two Celestials to emerge are the Lion and the Serpent, as manifestations of archetypal Strength and Subtlety. 

Although the characters overtly reference Plato and Abelard, the theology central to the book’s plot is very much that of Pseudo-Dionysius, with the protagonist Anthony Durrant prosecuting cataphatic mysticism, while his complementary character Richardson is engaged in a severely apophatic aspiration. Gnostic elements are also conspicuous; the philosophy graduate student Damaris Tighe takes the role of the inferior Sophia in a redemptive process that also makes Anthony Durrant into a possessor of the Holy Gnosis. 

A friend recently pointed out the class-constrained character of Williams’ diction (which he finds off-putting), and I did notice that this novel was not only fully as class-conscious as the other Williams I’ve read, but that the omniscient third-person narrator seems to assume and validate class prejudices more often than overturn them.

On the whole, I enjoyed this book, but I found it to be the weakest of the author’s books I have yet read.

The Contract with God Trilogy

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Contract with God Trilogy: Life on Dropsie Avenue [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Will Eisner.

Eisner The Contract With God Trilogy

There is a tiny irony in the fact that when Will Eisner coined the phrase “graphic novel” in 1978 to describe his work A Contract with God, the book in question did not have the single plot of a unified novel. It was instead a set of four shorter narratives joined by a common setting at No. 55 Dropsie Avenue in the Bronx. The first of these is the properly-titled “A Contract with God,” and it concerns the moral vicissitudes of a Jewish immigrant in New York. The other three stories center on a Depression-era “street singer,” the building superintendent at No. 55, and a summer vacation season.

The Contract with God Trilogy collects the original book with its two sequels, both of which fully merit the “graphic novel” label. The Life Force is a complex story centered on the carpenter Jacob Starkah, and taking place mostly in 1934. Dropsie Avenue spans more than a century of transformations of the Dropsie neighborhood, pulling the events together into a single tale of striving, corruption, and transformation. The Trilogy volume is supplied with a preface and some new interstitial art from Eisner.

When he composed these pages, Eisner had already developed his techniques of visual storytelling to a high pitch, and throughout the work the characters and plots are presented with startling efficiency, while the compositions are striking and effective. The illustration is all in monochrome inks, presented in this handsome hardcover with uniform dark brown line art on ivory paper.

All of these stories raise powerful moral and emotional concerns, leavening them with occasional humor. They also clearly incorporate a level of memoir that powerfully documents 20th-century cultural history for the Bronx. I read a copy borrowed from the local public library, and I strongly believe it deserves a place in such collections.

The Book of Monelle

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Book of Monelle [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Marcel Schwob, trans Kit Schulter.

Scwob Schulter The Book of Monelle

This short but impressive and important work makes Marcel Schwob a sort of fin de siecle decadent successor to Dante and Colonna, constructing a significant mystical text in memory of the lost Beatrice-Polia-Monelle. Wakefield Press, the publisher of the 2012 English translation says that it was adopted as the “unofficial bible of the French symbolist movement.” The book is divided into three sections, each in a different style.

“The Voice of Monelle” is the first part, consisting of spiritual imperatives. It reads almost like Kahlil Gibran on an absinthe bender. It is excellent stuff for anyone who wants another installment of Aleister Crowley’s “Liber Cheth,” although Schwob was of course writing seventeen years before Crowley’s reception of that “secret of the Holy Graal.”

“The Sisters of Monelle” are a collection of narrative vignettes, closer in form to Schwob’s previously-published work in The King in the Golden Mask. But these all feature lost or wayward girls for protagonists. Each story is named for a moral or psychological quality, such as “The Perverse,” “The Disappointed,” “The Faithful,” and “The Numb,” suggesting that they are allegories in which each story’s girl represents a different plight of the unenlightened soul.

“Monelle” per se is the third part, consisting of six short chapters in the voice of an unnamed narrator, and this section is presumably the one that draws most directly on Schwob’s personal memory of the girl Louise whom he had lost to tuberculosis in 1893. Even so, it is surreal and repeatedly floats across an ambiguous threshold of mortality.

Translator Kit Schluter’s afterword contains both a general biography of Schwob and a more particular study of his relationship with Louise, including a facsimile of the sole surviving correspondence from her to the writer, and an account of the composition of Monelle and her book.

Welcome to Lovecraft

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphlius reviews Locke & Key: Welcome to Lovecraft [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Joe Hill, Gabriel Rodriguez, & al., introduction by Robert Crais, book 1 of the Locke & Key series.

Hill Rodriguez Locke and Key Welcome to Lovecraft

This volume collects the first six numbers of the horror comic Locke & Key, which came to me highly recommended, and lived up to its reputation. The writing is truly scary, and the art is gorgeous. The writer and artist have each done excellent work in developing the central characters, and the plot involves both supernatural horror and more “pedestrian” terror. Psycho-cinematic devices like flashbacks and imagined alternatives come across clearly. 

The story has some similarities to Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, but with a more complex backstory that can clearly support a longer narrative of evolving conflict. Rodriguez’s art reminds me a little of Rick Geary, but definitely has its own style: bold lines and dramatic perspective help to keep the reader following the action. And the colors by Jay Fotos manage to hit just the right notes, no small consideration in a horror comic.

Although this book is the first of several collections from a continuing title, it does contain a full plot arc, and it makes for an excellent read in its own right. I’m happy to pass along the recommendation that brought me to Welcome to Lovecraft.

Pauline cried out; and as she heard her own vain emphasis, added with a little despairing laugh: “How can I tell you? I only want everything to be as it is—for myself, I mean.” “Change,” said the shape. “I don’t change.” Pauline cried out: “And if it changes, it shall change as it must, and I shall want it as it is then.” She laughed again at the useless attempt to explain.

Charles Williams, Descent Into Hell [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library]

Hermetic quote Williams Descent into Hell cried out vain emphasis despair how can i tell you want everything as it is change as it must want it them useless to explain

Utopia Avenue

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Utopia Avenue [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by David Mitchell.

Mitchell Utopia Avenue

This review is for my recent and extremely tardy read of a LibraryThing Early Reviewer copy of Utopia Avenue. My explanation–though it’s not an excuse–is that when the book first arrived, it was filched from my TBR pile by my Other Reader. It was the first David Mitchell she had read, and she liked it well enough to read six other novels by him right away. (I think she still hasn’t read Cloud Atlas, although we saw the film together.)

Utopia Avenue is very much of a piece with Mitchell’s universe of psychosotery and atemporals; it may even make connections of plot and character among earlier novels that had previously seemed to be detached from each other. I found it distinctive from my other Mitchell exposure (Cloud Atlas, The Bone Clocks, and Slade House) in having a smaller number of viewpoint characters and keeping them all contemporaneous, with the action (outside of ten pages of epilogue) contained within a very limited timeframe of 1967-8.

The story centers in loose rotation on keyboardist/vocalist Elf Holloway, bassist/vocalist Dean Moss, and lead guitarist Jasper de Zoet, the three songwriter members of the English psychedelic rock-folk fusion band Utopia Avenue. Drummer Peter Griffin (oops! a search engine could have saved Mitchell from accidentally evoking a character from a long-running US cartoon!) got a writing credit on one track, and a corresponding viewpoint chapter–as did producer Levon Frankland. The entire book is structured around the band’s three albums, and each chapter is named for a song, focuses on the member who wrote the song, and generally includes the moment of the song’s inspiration. It is an impressive, tightly-built container. (I’ve seen the novel-as-album, chapters-as-tracks conceit done before, notably in Newton’s Wake by Ken MacLeod, but not with this level of rigor.)

Within the container, there is a lot of rich character development and a healthy mix of tragedy and triumph. The sfnal psychosoteric business is pretty much invisible until halfway through the book, and becomes the dominant concern at about the 3/4 mark, which is a pattern I have seen in other work by Mitchell. I didn’t find so much of the authorial and publishing reflexivity he has dropped into other books. Instead, the story is full of delightful and borderline-gratuitous cameos from music and counterculture celebrities of its era. The chapters are long, but they read quickly. There are plenty of sex and drugs, and they are treated with realistic ambivalence, rather than celebratory glee or cautionary horror.

The sort of brother-sister dynamic between Elf and Dean is quite sweet. After the first third of the book, the band of initial strangers–“curated” by the benevolent Levon–have become fast friends. By the novel’s end, they feel like old friends of the reader.

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.