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“There was an incident,” he said. “A series of incidents, I guess. A dead guy, another dead guy. Some drugs. It’s kind of a long story. Now we can see things. Sometimes. I have a dead cat that follows me around, wondering why I never feed it. Oh, and I had one hamburger that started mooing when I ate it.” He glanced at me. “You remember that?”

I grunted, said nothing.

It wasn’t mooing, John. It was screaming.

John Dies At The End was originally a story serialised on a website. Then it was published as a book. Now it’s about to be released as a movie, directed by Don Coscarelli who made Phantasm and is therefore a very cool person in my book. Here have a look at the trailer. My high concept for the story is William Burroughs rewrites Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. It made me laugh, a lot. More impressive though is that it also managed to disturb me with the implied horrors bubbling along beneath the comic banter between our hero David Wong and his friend John.

As David is telling the story of his adventures – actually during the course of an interview with a reporter named Arnie – we learn that his name has been changed to make him harder to find, presumably by the obsessive fans who follow his adventures online given his growing reputation as a combater of supernatural threats. See one night David and his friend John – also not his real name – were at a concert in the town of Undisclosed (many of the details in the story are redacted for legal reasons) when they encountered a strange fellow pretending to be Jamaican and supplying folks with a drug called Soy sauce. It was a hallucinogen, those who took it experienced visions, heightened senses – as well as death. Overnight almost every person who met the fake Jamaican had died mysteriously, except for John.

The two friends quickly realized that Soy sauce is not just a drug. Following their exposure – David accidentally manages to inject himself – they become aware of strange creatures massing on the borders of this dimension. The end of the world is coming and its only hope is two confused video-store clerks who don’t really understand what is going on.

Much like House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski, John Dies At The End cleverly embraces the capacity of the internet to spread stories. Through the course of the book we learn that David and John are becoming more famous, a neat parallel for the growing interest in the book itself online.  This is also the source of the story’s greatest strength. By rooting itself in the commonplace weirdness of the internet – every possible combination of aliens, demons, magic and superscience is just a google search way – the book apes an almost convincing plausibility. The seeming personal testimony of Wong, the pseudonym of Cracked.com contributor Jason Pargin, is also a nice gimmick.

However, the story also has a number of poignant moments surrounding death and our awareness of our mortality. It pop-nihilism, stripping away the ponderousness of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu-beasties but retaining the crushing awareness of our cosmic insignificance, is surprisingly compelling. There is a lot of laughter to be found in these pages, but also a creeping sense of dread.

Finally it must be said the ending for this book, a book which is relentless in its foreshadowing of endings, is simply perfect. I cannot wait to see the movie.

John Dies At The End by David Wong

If you accept that loneliness is the great existential terror that we all, in our different ways, try to escape, it isn’t hard to apprehend the fraught relationship that this gives us to our own bodies, because it’s our bodies that keep us so basically and dreadfully apart. It’s interesting to note how often words used to express the value of literature (or art more generally) conjure up kinds of immaterialism: ‘seeing the world through different eyes,’ ‘being transported’, forging a ‘psychic connection’ with the author, ‘losing yourself’ in a book – all of these are expressions that run against what seems to be the brute material truth: that we are locked inside our skulls.

There was a time there where I could not have a conversation about books with a stranger at a party say, without them launching into a speech about how amazing Atomised by Michel Houellebecq was. This became increasingly annoying for me because these ‘fans’ seemed unable to describe exactly what the appeal of the book was. They were astonished by the sense of shock that the writer had elicited and sometimes a conspiratorial feeling of belonging to a fellow-traveler – yes that is how the world really is – but both of these reactions seemed entirely self-directed. My conversational partners were unable to enlighten me as to why I should read the book too. I suspect fans of Portnoy’s Complaint were similarly cultish back in the day, but that was another time and polite conversation so firmly stratified, that the risk Roth-fans ran of offending was far greater. By the late nineties this was less of a concern.

Ben Jeffery tackles the meaning behind Houellebecq’s writings head on, placing the fictional exertions of the French literary enfant terrible within a far broader context  in order to draw out exactly what the egotism of the author is aiming at. In effect, he has done a massive service to a writer occasionally dismissed as being a reactionary whose deconstruction of modern society as being nothing more than a series of sexual power exchanges lies somewhere between Foucault and a depressing Carry On.

Instead Jeffery runs the gamut from Schopenhauer to David Foster Wallace to properly situate the likes of Atomised and The Possibility of an Island, revealing that Houellebecq is investigating the relevance of any literary action at all. Engaging in fiction is in and of itself an ephemeral act, itself an echo of how we attempt to escape our own sense of mortality. What is most worthwhile about Anti-Matter is that Jeffery does not fall victim to the typical trap of Houellebecq critics. This is an intellectual salvage operation, that avoids rampant speculation about the personal life of the headline-bating writer, not to mention the rancorous testimonies of the author’s own mother.

What I am saying is I am grateful someone finally took the time to try and explain the point of Houellebecq to me. I have not had an easy time with the writer’s work myself. I thought his essay on Lovecraft bitterly disappointing for one, but Jeffery cites it prominently in Anti-Matter. The New England fantasist’s own ‘depressive realism’* is tied into Houellebecq’s, both arguing that life is essentially pointless. The latter’s own jaunts into sf utopias demonstrates his continuing interest in using imaginary worlds to illustrate how incomplete, fleeting and immaterial the engagement humans have with reality is. Fiction/fantasy are decadent acts that in Houellebecq’s assessment squander what is vital about life itself – hence his obsession with sex – but Jeffery’s astute addendum is that whatever sense of truth, or engagement with our existence that we enjoy is equally a ‘lie’. Realism is concerned primarily with seeming real and Houellebecq’s pessimism punches through the nadir point to the ‘truth’ – we need the lies.

Ben Jeffery has produced not only an excellent critical assessment of Houellebecq’s writings, but a fantastic think-piece in and of itself, refining the intentions of his subject, as well as opening up this erudite discussion of art to the act of living in the world.

With thanks to Zero Books for my review copy.

*Excepting your occasional ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn – of course.

Anti-matter: Michel Houllebecq and Depressive Realism

He saw Maja’s little hands reaching for the baby’s bottle with her juice in it, her thin fingers curling around the edges of a Bamse comic as she lay back in her bed, reading. Her feet sticking out from under the covers. Six years old.

Anders stared out into the vast darkness with its single, flashing point of light. The wine had gone to his head and the light was swaying, sliding across the sea, and he could see Maja in her red snow-suit. She was glowing in the darkness, and she was walking across the water. The little body, the soft skin, the muscles tucked into her warm suit. A patch of red that was moving closer, but which dissolved when he tried to focus his gaze on it.

One of my, many, objections to the recent US film adaptation of John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Let the Right One In was that the prosaic title change – Let Me In – was stripped of the author’s intent. For not only was the book’s title a description of the relationship between the main character and a vampire, but a reference to a song by The Smiths. Given the story’s setting in the 1980’s this was obviously a personal call-back for the author.

So when I found that a section of Harbour includes a flashback featuring characters becoming obsessive about The Smiths, well, let’s just say I was not surprised.

The story begins with a simple tragedy. Anders and his wife take their child Maja on a trip across the ice to the old Domarö light house. While the parents investigate the abandoned building, pointing out the graffiti left by teens who grew up on the island much like themselves, Maja walks outside to explore and then vanishes. The townsfolk help search the surrounding area, but no trace of the young girl can be found. Broken-hearted Anders turns his back on his marriage and embraces the bottle. Years pass before he can bring himself to return to Domarö.

Simon has lived on the island for most of his adult life. His landlady Anna-Greta was his only friend on the island when he first arrived and has since become his lover. Now an old man, Simon remains an outside on Domarö despite his relationship with Anna-Greta. Over the years he has grown used to their offhand treatment of him, but with the disappearance of Maja he begins to suspect something more sinister lies behind the community’s sheltered existence. He regards Anders protectively in a grandfatherly like manner and tries to help the young man find some balance in his life. Bound together by the tragic disappearance of the young child, they face the conspiracy of Domarö and the mysterious reverence felt by the people of the town towards the sea.

Lindqvist’s writing is fascinating in his rooting of supernatural horror in the ordinary lives of his characters. Like his previous book Handling the Undead, this is a wonderfully thoughtful piece of horror fiction, that takes its time to let us get to know these people, so that when diabolical misfortune enters their lives it feels all the more devastating.

There is also a cute storytelling device where the book itself – no one narrator emerges – apologises for having to dip in and out of Domarö’s history. Similarly a wedding scene in the latter-half of the book is glossed over because readers typically do not find weddings terribly interesting to read about. There is also an apt moment when Lindqvist addresses with horror fiction head on, namely that the ‘monster’ is typically an anticlimax when it finally appears.

As such the mystery of Harbour is teased and unravelled slowly and gently, making this a very enjoyable book, in terms of technique. The melancholy of Anders and Simon’s growing paranoia are very well handled, transferring to the reader.

The real surprise of this story is how it confirms Lindqvist as the true inheritor of Lovecraft’s title as the master of existential horror, albeit refining and maturing those concepts in a far more coherent form. An excellent work, genuinely gripping.

Harbour John Lindqvist

 

She turned. When his hat came off, his hair had come off too. In the confusion all she had seen was a chalk-white scalp, so she turned expeting to see a bald albino maybe. But no. With his sunglasses gone and his scarf hanging down, there was no denying the fact that he had no flesh, he had no skin, he had no eyes and he had no face.

All he had was a skull for a head.

Ok, I’ve got my writing music playing (Pat Boone’s cover of Enter Sandman, if you must know) and am in the mood to celebrate. See I get happy when I find an Irish writer I had not heard of before. 2009 was the year of Eoin Colfer for me, whose Artemis Fowl novels I blitzed through in a fortnight. I was excited to find a contemporary author who could take the mythology I had been raised with and update it for modern times.

It appears Derek Landy is of a similar calibre.

This book opens with a mysterious will and ends with a young girl set upon a very peculiar destiny. In between we have skeleton detectives, cthonic gods, wars of magic and a murder mystery.

The death of Gordon Edgley, known as a popular author of portentous horror fantasy novels, comes as a surprise to many but occasions little grieving. Edgley had an uncommon ability to get under people’s skin and was known to move in very unusual circles. His twelve-year-old niece Stephanie had grown quite close to him, being one of the few interesting individuals in the coastal town of Haggard near Dublin. When the reading of the will reveals that Gordon left her both his home and fortune the assembled Edgley clan is left in shock, most notably her aunt and uncle who strongly resent her incredible inheritance.

Yet her sudden good fortune is not the only thing that Stephanie came into that day. She also made the acquaintance of Skulduggery Pleasant – mystical detective. When her inheritance earns Stephanie a powerful enemy, Skulduggery comes to her rescue and introduces her to a world of magic and wonder that exists side-by-side with our own. His talk of ancient weapons, councils of sorcerors and elemental magic all sounds quite plausible to her. After all, Skulduggery is a talking skeleton who can shoot fire from his hands.  

On the run from museum vampires and the malevolent Hollow Men, Skulduggery and Stephanie can count on few allies – such as the tailor-cum-boxer Ghastly Bespoke and London monster-slayer Tanith Low – as a malevolent force sweeps through Dublin’s magical community, threatening to tip the world into a mystical apocalypse. All Stephanie has to do is find the key to a magical artifact that can summon gods, prevent the villain from obtaining it first and try to make sure no one learns her real name – as in the world of magic, names have power. Oh and hide all of this from the watchful eyes of her parents. 

This book is a delight from start to finish. The plot races along, the banter between Stephanie and her undead companion is hilarious and Landy utilises his experience as a black belt in Kenpo to describe some fantastic fight scenes. When detailed descriptions of blocks and kicks don’t suffice, he’ll then have Tanith perform feats such as run along a ceiling to hack at the heads of attackers from above. 

On a related note, I was pleased to hear that Landy practices Kenpo, as when I was just a little nipper in 80’s Ireland I had the pleasure of meeting Ed Parker (and yes, this is a photo of him training Elvis Presley).

On top of being very funny, thrilling and filled with monstrous creatures such as the unstoppable White Cleaver, Landy also throws in some nods and winks to Lovecraft fans. The ‘Faceless Ones’, are a homage to the New England fantasist’s ‘Old Ones’, and are even credited as such  by the book’s antagonist. There is even a hint that Stephanie’s adventures could all be the result of a form of family dementia. Perhaps all of what she is experiencing is a grief-stricken hallucination inspired by Gordon Edgley’s writings. I was briefly reminded of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode Normal Again – an association encouraged by the Buffy-esque Tanith, who shrugs off major wounds and even has a catchphrase ‘Come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough’.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough, great fun all round.

‘Do you mean to say,’ he began, ‘that if I take the trouble to observe your directions – place myself in the condition which you demand: solitude, night, and a tallow candle – you can with your ghastliest work give me an uncomfortable sense of the supernatural, as you call it? Can you accelerate my pulse, make me start at sudden noises, send a nervous chill along my spine, and cause my hair to rise?’

Before Robert W. Chambers, before H.P. Lovecraft, Algernon Blackwood and Arthur Machen, there was Ambrose Bierce. The increasingly more excessive supernatural tone of their stories, with an equal increase in the overwrought standard of prose – at least in certain examples of the above, was initially derived from Bierce’s use of melancholic horror.

His name is often mentioned as one of the founders of the Cthulu Mythos, which would have been much to his amusement I imagine. For the horrors he unleashes are neither squamous, nor cyclopean, but often the very real horror of war. Certainly this collection of short stories, divided into two sections ‘Soldiers’, and ‘Civilians’, is rooted heavily in the events of the American Civil War, with the division of families and loved ones a recurring theme. What there is of the supernatural on show is weighted by Bierce’s own agnosticism.

The afterlife here is not so much damnation below, or a heavenly reward, but that brief moment when the dying soldier imagines that they have escaped their fate. There’s an excellent line in the story Parker Adderson, Philosopher that illustrates Bierce’s perspective on religion. A Union soldier – the Union throughout is referred to as ‘Federal’, which was a term I was unfamiliar with in this context – has been arrested by the Confederate army as a spy. Parker Adderson proves to be a witty and bemused subject for interrogation, engaging the enemy Confederate general in a battle of words. When it is made clear that he will be executed, Adderson refuses to speak to any priest, as he says: You can hang me, general, but there your power of evil ends; you cannot condemn me to heaven.

A Horseman In The Sky and The Coup De Grace both treat of the costs the war brought to bear on families, with fathers turned against sons and husbands leaving wives and offspring to a doubtful fate when called to the field. The former story features a native Virginian following his principles and joining the army from the North, setting him against his family and community. The hallucinatory story Chickamauga, resembling at times a gory Hideo Nakata movie, shows how children playing soldier games are blind to the inhumanity of the battlefield.

Cthulu scholars should read An Inhabitant of Carcosa and Haita the Shepherd with interest as both stories feature names of gods and places referred to by successive authors, although the deity known as Hastur here appears in a far more benevolent form than in later supernatural fiction. The opening story The Suitable Surroundings, from which my opening quotation was taken, even has an early progenitor of the ‘evil book’, trope although once again, Bierce’s materialism does not allow for the amorphous threat posed by the Necronomicon. In fact I would argue his matter of fact scary story is far more frightening, as it is more plausible than outer gods threatening our reality through the gateway of mouldering, old books.

The real star of the collection though is Bierce’s seminal story An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge. This is an excellent study in suspense, with the protagonist a civilian devoted to the Confederate cause attempting to aid them and survive capture by the Federal soldiers. The story is as much a study of the lengths a man can go to when motivated by feelings of patriotism, as it is a mediation on death itself. An excellent story.

Many of Bierce’s writings can be found in different collections. This book that I have read was published in 1964 and his reputation has grown since then thanks to the generous credit given to him by contemporary Lovecraft scholars.

Suspenseful, thoughtful and chilling, this is classic supernatural fiction that does not stretch plausibility.

This book we proudly delicate, to Aussies overseas,

You’re trying to make a safer world, for all our families

Last Saturday I read Fly Away Peter by David Malouf, which featured an astonishing vision of a Hades dedicated to Australian Diggers who lost their lives during World War One. This book features a collection of poems, stories and memories of home, intended to lift the spirit of Australian service personnel working overseas.

That said my favourite story in the collection is Melanie Harris’ Loon Kitten Stories, which has nothing to do with the war in Afghanistan, but does feature a determined kitten named Sarge. This simple tale of the author and her flatmates attempting to break in a fiendishly intelligent feline manages to raise a smile and remind the reader that sometimes the simplest things in life can lift the spirit. A year in the life of one frustrated cat owner becomes an epic story of human versus ball of fur and claws. It is a sweetly endearing comic tale.

Swede by Sergeant Grant Teeboon also is concerned with the furry kind, a police dog in this instance, who takes a distinct dislike to Margaret Thatcher. Then Allan Goode’s Mateship defines that most quintessential of Australian qualities by comparing it to the relationship between two puppies.

For the most part though the book features poems and stories from service personnel telling of difficult experiences in distant lands; with families and loved ones waiting for them at home. It is also a book about Australia and Australian pride, about why the Diggers are so well regarded.

Broken into a series of different sections, some dedicated to humour, even romance, the book reminds us that these are men and women who have left so much behind. It also serves to remind them what is waiting for them when they return. Not everyone agrees on the case for war and certain pieces express the anger of those fighting for a cause they are not convinced is a worthy one. Nevertheless once committed the Diggers will not refuse to serve.

In addition to the intimate thoughts expressed in verse and prose, Postcards from Home also features art and photography dedicated to the sights of Australia. Carlo Travato’s illustrations feature throughout the book, but his drawings of quotidian objects are startlingly detailed. There are also photos of some ordinary things, such as a mother possum with its child. Some contrast the familiar sight of Sydney bay with a certain animal in shot. Another comical image has a rather confused Santa Claus stuck halfway up a post.

A sudden change of tone is offered by Kris Farrant, a Canberra based musician who submitted a series of poems taking their inspiration from H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulu Mythos. At first I was surprised, after all I am very familiar with the line That is not dead which can eternally lie, but I have always considered that New England writer to be something of a cult concern. However, it just goes to show how home itself is a collection of memories and things that are not fixed in the soil of Australia. R.A. Dee’s Charmers is a humourous, yet quirkily romantic tale, without a single squamous in sight (and thank Cthulu for that, a Lovecraft romance is not something I would like to read). Both writers offer contrasting views on life at home….alright not so much with the Cthulu, but you can read Lovecraft at home! They might discourage that in the armed services.

This is a book dedicated to a good cause and is quite a heartfelt at that. Many thanks to Odyssey Books for the review copy.

It is well known how the book spread like an infectious disease, from city to city, from continent to continent, barred out here, confiscated there, denounced by Press and pulpit, censured even by the most advanced of literary anarchists. No definite principles had been violated in those wicked pages, no doctrine promulgated, no convictions outraged. It could not be judged by any known standard, yet, although it was acknowledged that the supreme note of art had been struck in The King in Yellow, all felt that human nature could not bear the strain, nor thrive on words in which the essence of purest poison lurked.

The magical book is a recurring trope in fantasy and horror fiction. Lovecraft’s Necronomicon and Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story are two sides of the same coin, both describing a powerful tome that can contain whole worlds (the one a gateway to madness, the other escape from the cruelties of the ‘real world’). It is possible that this symbol of a book that is far more than a book is a reaction to the cultural perception of the Christian Bible, which is said to contain the word of God Himself – and is therefore far more than just a book. In recent years the trope has become almost a cliché. Everything from The Care Bears Movie to Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves (and even Nicholas Gurewitch’s wicked Perry Bible Fellowship) have riffed on the notion of an ageless book that has magical properties. Before any of these, however, there was Robert Chambers’ The King in Yellow.

The titular book is never fully described, yet carries a dire reputation. Chambers features it within several stories in this collection, with the fateful encounter between a protagonist and The King in Yellow acting as a catalyst for the onset of madness. The title refers to a malevolent god, described as wearing a ‘Pallid Mask’ whose realm borders our own. The publication of the book is seen as an initial sortie, a sign of an inevitable assault on our world itself.

As an ex-patriate American art student in Paris, Chambers became enamoured with the Bohemian lifestyle of his fellow students. The protagonists of his stories are therefore also often artists and Americans, speaking French with a degree of fluency afforded to the well-educated upper class, but also vulnerable to flights of fancy that lead to the disintegration of reason.

Interestingly the first story of the collection, The Repairer of Reputations, is set in a projected future 1920’s New York. America has instituted tighter immigration controls, Europe is under the sway of Russia and legalised Lethal Chambers have been opened (is one of Sarah Palin’s advisors a Robert Chambers fan?). The protagonist Castaigne is a young man who after suffering a fall from a horse was committed to an asylum, mistakenly he believes. There, fittingly, he encounters a copy of The King in Yellow. Following his release he encounters a fellow devotee, Mr Wilde, who explains how his own future and that of the American nation itself, is bound to the vision of the book.

With each following story Chambers quotes from the opening chapter of The King in Yellow, revealing little of its content beyond names and places described featured out of context. The seeming innocuousness of such references – Carcosa, the Lake of Hali, the Pallid Mask, Hastur – disguises the true danger of reading the book, after which madness, and oftentimes death, is the inevitable result.

The Mask and The Yellow Sign both feature Americans abroad in Europe, enjoying the pursuit of artistic ideals. However, the stories end very differently, with the former’s protagonists enduring much suffering, but eventually discovering a curious kind of happiness. The latter, however, is a ghoulish tale of revenge from beyond the grave. Unlike in Lovecraft’s fiction, with its indiscriminate Outer Gods crushing the sanity of unwary explorers, Chambers seems to be suggesting that the King in Yellow subjugates with his dreadful yoke only those who deserve to be damned. Retreating to holy ground, such as a church, or hiding indoors provides no sanctuary from his touch.

The remaining stories are divided between more traditional ghost stories such as The Demoiselle d’Ys and romances, as well as a story of a besieged Paris in a future Franco-Prussian conflict. Chambers consistently writes with a beautifully descriptive manner, typical of his training as an artist.

A milestone in American horror fiction.

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