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Recently Stephanie and I have become fans of Escape to the Country. Produced by the BBC it is aired in Australia on the 7 Network. Why have we become addicted to this daytime television show about that most clichéd of yuppie dreams? Because it is incredibly frustrating! The couples never seem to buy a house. Either they are outbid, or they decide not to move after all, whatever the result in many cases beautiful homes nestled in picturesque bucolic towns are left for another buyer and viewer gratification goes unsatisfied once again.
There is something instinctively appealing about buying a home in the countryside though. I find it ironic that I am now on the other side of the world and all of a sudden have discovered a love for country living. Especially given that it is the English countryside (although Stephanie is partial to a move to France), and here we are living outside Sydney with a veritable panoply of exotic wildlife just hanging out in the back garden.
Partly this is due to the sense of accumulated history that is associated with rural towns and villages in England. My dream would be to find a nice cottage, turn one of the rooms into a study and just stuff it with weird and wonderful books. Head down to the local pub for a pint or two of Old Speckled Hen and buy my groceries from the local farmer.
Alex Hunter unwittingly finds himself in just such a town, a place not even on the map named Strangehaven. After crashing into a tree while travelling out to Cornwall, Alex wakes up in the local B&B being tended to by Doctor Charles and Jane his receptionist, who quickly befriends the injured stranger. He reports to them that he saw a girl in a black dress standing in the middle of the road moments before he crashed, but they assure him no one else was found at the scene of the accident. As soon as he recovers, Jane takes him around the town and introduces him to the casually odd inhabitants of Strangehaven.
There’s Albert Bonneti an Italian mechanic who speaks in pidgin English and an exaggerated accent; Adam who claims to be an alien who insists on wearing shades the entire time for fear of Earth’s ultraviolet rays; Maggie McCreadie the B&B owner who spends her evenings searching for something in the graveyard after midnight; and Meg, an Amazonian shaman who through the course of the series begins to instruct Jane’s brother Jeremy in shamanic initiation rites. Unbeknownst to Alex many of the town worthies including the school head-master, the doctor and the police constable are all members of a Masonic Order known as The Knights of the Golden Light.
Strangehaven is also host to normal village excitements such as romantic affairs and family conflicts. Jeremy’s father John takes exception to Meg’s relationship with his son. The green grocer Peter is sneaking around behind his wife Beverly’s back with Suzie Tang. Even the sweet friendship between Alex and Jane, which she tragically misconstrues, is well-drawn.
The town, however, is not simply inhabited by a collection of eccentrics, but under the influence of eerie supernatural forces. Alex discovers he is unable to leave Strangehaven, finding himself turned around when he tries to drive on to Cornwall (with a series of crop circles visible in the background). Jeremy and Meg successful manage to inhabit the bodies of two birds courtesy of a magical ritual. Also Alex seems to have forgotten that the woman he saw suddenly transform into a tree looked just like Jane. There are frequent cutaways to a naked painting of her, depicting her body floating in a fish tank, being stared at by a mysterious stranger in Strangehaven.
Creator Gary Spencer Millidge has many strings to his bow. Writer and artist of the wonderful Strangehaven, he also self-publishes the series, has written a biography of Alan Moore and despite the irregular release of issues, still insists that number #24 will complete the story. The influence of Twin Peaks, The Prisoner and The Avengers is clear, with innocent seeming English towns revealed to be sites of global importance. Alex’s car accident resembles the opening of Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren, a favourite of mine that has the protagonist encounter a woman outside the city of Bellona who transforms into a tree. The art is impressively photorealistic, with creased smiles and angry outbursts perfectly captured.
An excellent series, strongly recommended.
I took the book from her, and the pen, and opened Silent Riots to the title page. I signed my name, trying to remember the last time I’d signed one of my books, trying hard to recall how long it had been.
“Not the sort of thing I usually read,” she admitted, “I mean, it is rather explicit. A bit grim for my tastes. But, even so, I thought it was quite well written. Poetic, even.”
Horror fiction has enjoyed any number of stories involving a discovered text, or diary hinting at the horrible fate that befell the writer of the tale we are about to read. The House on the Borderland by William Hope Hodgson is one of my favourites. Not only is it set in the west of Ireland, but Hodgson’s story manages to describe its narrator’s increasing desperation convincingly, before throwing the equivalent of everything and the kitchen’s sink in terms of mythical eschatology right at the reader. It is intimately written (poor Pepper), while also managing to be ambitious in its scope. Cut to a hundred years later and Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves managed to repeat the feat, introducing us to three distinct narrators, with their individual texts interwoven on the printed page.
Caitlín R. Kiernan’s novel opens with yet another ‘editor’s note’, revealing that we are about to read a manuscript by author Sarah Crowe, a genre writer who committed suicide following the events described.
With that established, Sarah’s arrival at the Wight Farm, located near a large and distinctive red oak tree is described in diary form. She has travelled from the south all the way to Rhode Island to get away from her past and maybe, just maybe, actually write a book that will get her publisher off her back. Unfortunately she has been suffering from writer’s block, is still traumatized by what happened to her lover Amanda and is starting to suspect that she has nothing left to write. Instead of working on a new novel, Sarah begins to explore the history of the Wight Farm, discovering that the previous tenant an academic named Charles Harvey, hung himself from the oak tree outside. He had been working on a history of the farm and its eerie history, with a number of mysterious happenings over the years seemingly connected to the area.
Sarah’s isolation is rudely interrupted by the arrival of Constance, a local-born artist who has returned home from L.A. It appears the landlord is hoping to squeeze as much rent out of the property as possible. Constance actually knew Charles Harvey and happens to believe in all sorts of occult phenomena, explaining to Sarah that she believes ghosts are phantom projections through time of past, or future events. Initially exasperated at having to share her new home with a stranger, the two women grow closer even as the red tree sitting outside their home inexplicably becomes more menacing. Over time they both witness a series of strange phenomena, including missing time, sudden nausea, dislocation, vivid dreams and yet neither can bring themselves to leave the Wight Farm. As Sarah continues to study the increasingly erratic writings of Charles Harvey, she finds herself following in his footsteps into madness.
I chose this book as it was mentioned in the King of Nerds article that inspired this horror novel glut I have embarked upon. As it happens I have read Caitlín R. Kiernan’s writing before. Some years ago a friend gave me a lend of her debut novel Silk. I was not a fan. The Red Tree was nominated for this year’s World Fantasy Award so I wondered whether I would enjoy this more.
This has to be one of the most defensive books I have ever read. It reminded me of Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories, particularly the sequence where he attacks the critics of his films. Sarah Crowe rails against her own critics, both in the media and on amazon.com comment threads, while despairing that maybe she is just a hack. She peppers her conversation with literary quotes and references, the book quoting liberally from Lewis Carroll’s Alice novels and Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative Arthur Gordon Pym. The absolute low-point for me was when she repeated a memorized passage on Francis Bacon that she read on Wikipedia (Irony!).
It is the humourlessness of Kiernan’s writing that I find most disagreeable though. Chalk this one up as another negative review.
But since he knew the smell of humans, knew it a thousandfold, men, women, children, he could not conceive of how such an exquisite scent could be emitted by a human being. Normally human odour was nothing special, or it was ghastly. Children smelled insipid, men urinous, all sour sweat and cheese, women smelled of rancid fat and rotting fish. Totally uninteresting, repulsive – that was how humans smelled.
Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, the villain of this novel, is a monster, a demonic presence. A homicidal maniac. He is also an artist, a creator of fabulous combinations of scents, whose talent lies in his ability to identify a multitude of individual odours using his sense of smell alone. His skills are so extraordinary that the parfumiers he is apprenticed to cannot understand why he does not exploit his abilities for financial gain – just as they are exploiting him themselves. Little do they realize he is intent on a far more ambitious project. The creation of a scent that defines what it is to be human.
For Grenouille himself was born without a personal odour of his own. Orphaned from the moment of his birth by his mother’s criminal neglect, he is passed between a series of wet nurses and monks until arriving at a boarding house for children. No person can stand to be near him for long, his lack of a smell forming an intolerable absence that leaves those in his vicinity uncomfortable and disturbed. Grenouille assumes this is due to contempt, for his body bears the tell-tale scars of disease and infection.
Paris is the city of his birth, a metropolis of rankness and rot, the smells and odours possessing to the ugly foundling character and presence due to his preternatural olfactory talents. He soaks up the scents and aromas of the city, cataloguing them in his brain and feeding his imagination with the material for possible future creations. He becomes fascinated with the idea of perfume and its ability to mask what is essentially human. Eventually he wrangles his way into the service of Giuseppe Baldini, a parfumier whose business is failing. Grenouille earns his new master great fortune, all the while learning more about the business of perfume and privately experimenting with his own otherworldly concoctions. He is uninterested in earning the partronage of an aristocrat, or starting his own successful business. Grenouille is on a quest to distill the scent of innocence itself and is willing to murder to achieve his aims.
Suskind’s novel appears to be attempting to be a Candide for the twentieth century, Voltaire’s comic satire on Enlightenment philosophy and its abstractions. Sadly I feel he missed the mark, with the tone of the book resembling Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. This is a modern novel that apes the conventions of the period it describes, but offers up anachronistic parody. At one point Baldini and his assistant have an exchange that is rendered on the page in the form of a script. Most exposition is given to us from the point of view of one of the characters, with the commonplace omniscient narrator absent, save only for references to the present day. There is a smug cynicism to the proceedings that I found off-putting.
Grenouille’s demonic aspect is a supernatural element that confounds the reason of those he meets. Baldini is used to the business of perfume being conducted through formulae and his scarred apprentice’s instinctive mixing of bases and scents is an affront to his understanding. A misguided lord experiments on Grenouille to prove his theories of fluidum vitale, which resembles Swift’s philosophers attempting to extract sunlight from cucumbers in Gulliver’s Travels. Antoine Richis, the father of one of Grenouille’s intended victims, uses the investigative method to evade the murderer, failing to realize the extent of his rival’s powers. Furthermore anyone who encounters him is subject to a mysterious curse, that results in their death, or great misfortune after he leaves. Suskind relates these demises with barely suppressed blackly comic glee.
The conceit of the novel is to introduce a supernatural agent who can manipulate the baser aspects of human nature. Reason collapses and religion is exposed as fraud before Grenouille’s talent with vials of scent. Overall though I found the tone unnecessarily parodic and the humour cruelly callous. To be honest I far prefer Lemony Snicket’s tragic fables.