Tag Archives: Suspense & Thriller

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.

Seven Demons

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Seven Demons [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Aidan Truhen.

Truhen Seven Demons

Seven Demons is a second smoking stream-of-psychopathy tale in the comma-abstemious voice of criminal entrepreneur Jack Price. The book thinks it wants to be a heist thriller, but it is programmatically ambiguous about that intention. Price takes his team to Switzerland where he learns much about Swissness, foes and friends die, and Nazis get satisfyingly obliterated.

The story offers a lot of entertaining dialogue, often featuring the distinctive exchange of double-quoted ellipses as a conversation reaches an absurd impasse. Jack has some awesome pillow talk with the global science felon who is his not-girlfriend (87-9) and delivers a not-unrelated monologue on the art of cunnilingus (180-1).

The prior book The Price You Pay was so amusing and sui generis that I was prepared for a certain level of disappointment here. Nevertheless, Seven Demons made me LOL all the way down to my crime testes on a regular basis. I will not be surprised to see another book after this one of Jack Price just trying to get along in the world, and I will gladly read it.

The Price You Pay

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Price You Pay [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Aidan Truhen.

Truhen The Price You Pay

The Price You Pay is entirely in the first person voice of Jack Price (pun intended and explicitly emphasized) and his immediate interlocutors, present tense, all internal monologue and external dialogue with not a quotation mark in sight, not even that em-dash alternative, and never a “he said.” Simple paragraph breaks and sparing direct address do all the heavy lifting of speaker identification, and they do it well.

Where plot is concerned, the book is a clear if remote descendant of John Buchan’s seminal “thriller” The Thirty-Nine Steps, although set in the 21st century with an elite coke dealer protagonist and a lot more collateral damage (also, no war propaganda). To the episodic man-on-the-run structure are added extra helpings of violence, plus the energy and ambivalent misanthropy of an early Chuck Pahluniuk novel.

“I am a fucking asymmetric criminal startup. I got limited expertise in criminal strategic warfare. I hotdesk and I outsource and I franchise but what I mostly have is a core concept, forward momentum and the unassailable fact that I’m crazier than a fibreglass hairball.” (73)

I don’t think this book has any socially redeeming value other than being twisted and funny as hell.

2001: A Space Odyssey

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews 2001: A Space Odyssey [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Arthur C Clarke, book 1 of the Space Odyssey series.

Clarke 2001 A Space Odyssey

This read of 2001: A Space Odyssey was my first, and I last watched the film over thirty years ago. The edition in hand is the 1999 “millennium” pocket paperback, with retrospective front matter by Arthur C. Clarke discussing the authorial process. In light of that introduction, I’m a little surprised that Stanley Kubrick didn’t get a byline on the novel as a co-author. The book was plotted as a stage of the development of the screenplay, drawing on earlier stories by Clarke and incorporating Kubrick’s ideas and ambitions for the film. Then the two parallel media products were completed in dialog with each other. In the end there are some significant differences between the novel and the movie, but the book certainly exposes and clarifies many of the ideas behind the film.

Clarke wrote “hard” sf, with an effort to maintain scientific and social plausibility. So, with the passage of time, his projected world of “2001” now set a generation in our past has come to represent an alternate history, and it’s one that makes me nostalgic for turns not taken in our cultural and technological paths. Clarke’s 2001 has a manned moon base, and in general space exploration has progressed in preference to the technologies of simulation and social control that have come to dominate our 21st century to this point. He imagined a better diversion of the military-industrial complex into the work of peaceful extraterrestrial inquiry than we have been able to achieve. His geopolitical scenario failed to foresee the collapse of the USSR, but credibly made the USA and USSR allies in tension with China, as the USA and Russia arguably were in our actual 2001.

It was interesting to reflect that one of the conceits of this novel has come to dominate a lot of 21st-century sf: a “first contact” with extra-solar intelligence that is mediated by some sort of archaeological remains. I see this trope in a lot of recent space opera, including MacLeod’s Newton’s Wake, Harrison’s Kefahuchi Tract books, the Expanse series, and even Wells’ Murderbot books. I wonder if my library catalog needs an “exo-archaeology” tag to tie these works together.

Another notable feature was the epistemological feint in Chapter 15, where . . SPOILER hover over to reveal . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . This passage stands as a foil for the protagonist’s later alien-curated experiences in the final section of the book, and together they offer a sfnal interrogation of human subjectivity that is not quite phildickian but still savory.

2001 has very short chapters; I usually read three or more in a sitting. These in turn are grouped into six parts: Primeval Night, TMA-1, Between Planets, Abyss, The Moons of Saturn, and Through the Star Gate. The structure suggests an initiatory ascent according to the symbol systems of modern Hermetic Kabbala: Malkuth/Earth (Neophyte), path of tav to Yesod/Luna (Zelator), path of samekh to Tiphareth/Sol (Adeptus Minor), path of gimel and Da’ath (Babe of the Abyss), Binah/Saturn (Magister Templi), and Chokmah/Zodiac (Magus). The initiand in this case would be humanity as a whole, and the viewpoint characters differ from section to section in the first half of the book.

The relationship of Clarke and Kubrick’s 2001 to Homer’s original Odyssey is not fully obvious. It seems to have been widely understood merely in the sense of episodic adventure over a journey, but my reading of the novel reassured me that the more specific sense of a homeward journey was intended, and this gist is consistent with the mystical progression that I inferred from the divisions of the text. . . SPOILER hover over to reveal . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . I plan to read further in Clarke’s “Odyssey Sequence,” and I am curious to see whether the esoteric themes are perpetuated in the later books.

Briefing for a Descent Into Hell

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Briefing for a Descent Into Hell [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Doris Lessing.

Lessing Briefing for a Descent into Hell

This novel is beautifully written. I felt like it was very demanding of my attention, because although styles and speakers vary in the course of the text, there are no full page-stop chapter breaks. In the absence of dialogue, paragraphs tend to run for multiple pages, and the prose (sometimes breaking into poetry or incantation) has an insistent restlessness in keeping with its subject matter–especially in the first half, where a narcotized sleep is an ambivalent power for desired healing or feared imprisonment.

“I never learned to live awake. I was trained for sleep. Oh let me sleep and sleep my life away. And if the pressure of true memory wakes me before I need, if the urgency of what I should be doing stabs into my sleep, then for God’s sake doctor, for goodness sake, give me drugs and put me back to dreaming again.” (139)

This waking/sleep dialectic is one of the features that insinuates a mystical subtext throughout. Others include the intimation of people destined for companionship, the foreboding of illusion in consensual phenomena, and reflections on the urge to engender praeterhumanity in our children.

There are many different levels of storytelling involved, of which the outermost is a set of clinical notes and correspondence surrounding the hospitalization of a man with what seems to be traumatic amnesia. Within that setting are conversations, and within those are dreams and memories. In one dream an entire governance of the solar system is set forth as background to the protagonist’s sense of dislocation and urgency. In an unreliable memory, guerrilla warfare becomes the setting for a tragic encounter with idyllic nature.

Others have noted that this is a book worth re-reading, and I’m inclined to agree.