Christopher Buehlman’s The Lesser Dead

Christopher Buehlman’s The Lesser Dead is another favorite (recent) read.  It’s a vampire novel, set in New York City during the 1970’s, about a group of vampires living in the subway system who encounter a terrifying threat.  It was my bedtime reading for a few nights, and it kept me awake and reading each and every one of them.  In large part, this was due to its narrative voice, which is simultaneously streetwise and lyrical, ranging back and forth among the histories of its narrator and his fellow vampires.  There’s so much in this novel that feels as if it shouldn’t work:  from the first-person vampire narrator, to the vampires dwelling in the subways, to vampires being stalked by a predatory creature, to a twist ending, but Buehlman pulls all of it off with verve and panache.  It’s as if he set himself the challenge of taking these familiar elements and doing something fresh and new with them.  It’s a cliche of writing instruction that there’s no idea so old and so worn that a talented writer can’t do something interesting with it, based on his accomplishment here, Christopher Buehlman is talented, indeed.

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Laird Barron’s X’s for Eyes

My longstanding friendship with the Honey Badger is a matter of (by now, frequent) public record.  For me, it began in admiration for Laird’s fiction, and while we’ve discovered many shared passions, undertaken a few insane adventures together, I always come back to his fiction, and how much I enjoy it.  I’ve written reviews of his work (The Imago Sequence, in an early issue of Dead Reckonings, The Croning, in the Los Angeles Review of Books) and I expect I will again.

 

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Matthew Revert’s stunning cover..

This isn’t so much a review of his latest novella, X’s for Eyes, as it is an appreciation of it.  I suppose a capsule summary of the story would go something like, A pair of brothers, scions of an American dynasty, are initiated into the true nature of their inheritance.  Except that this would leave out the space probe, and the supercomputer, and the assassins, and the pyramid in the ice, and the other world, and the floating godhead, and all manner of other things.  As the surplus of details I’ve provided suggests, the book is stuffed full, a Big Bang of a narrative, throwing out characters, secret history, cool vehicles, weird monsters, and exotic locales red-hot.  It moves briskly, its narrative voice confident and cheerful.  Its heroes undergo thrilling adventures, encountering nefarious villains, narrowly escaping certain doom.  The story reads like a return to the pulp adventure tradition of Doc Savage and The Shadow, with a bit of Robert Howard and H.P. Lovecraft thrown in, too–and there’s a moment in the story when this is revealed to be very deliberately the case.  For all its good-humored mayhem, though, there’s an underlying melancholy about the novella’s boy-heroes, and, when they glimpse one of their possible fates, a real sense of dread that is not undone by the story’s end.

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Laird reading at WORD, this past October.

A real danger for any artist worth the name, I think, is repetition.  I don’t mean the refining of a particular approach to their art–what I think you find in Cézanne’s painting, say–I mean the cookie-cutter reproduction of what they’ve done before.  It would be easy enough for Laird Barron to have remained where he is, consolidate the gains of his first three collections and two novels and produce more of the same.  As those of us who have been reading his more recent short fiction have seen, however, this is not the path he’s chosen.  Instead, he’s opted to experiment, moving in new and strange directions.  At the same time, much of what he’s writing now connects back to those earlier stories, but does so in a way that opens up new dimensions to them.  There are more stories about the Tooms brothers promised, to which I’m looking forward.  I’m as excited to see where Laird’s fiction takes him next.

Matthew Bartlett’s Gateways to Abomination and Rangel

I had been reading about Matthew Bartlett’s collection, Gateways to Abomination, in my friends’ Facebook posts for several months, but it wasn’t until this past Necronomicon Providence that I picked it up, along with Rangel, a chapbook published by Dim Shores .  One of the dangers of social media is its echo-chamber effect:  if a few of your friends and acquaintances are saying the same thing and liking and re-posting one another’s remarks concerning that thing, it can foster the illusion that whatever is being discussed is of more worth and consequence than, in fact, may be the case.  Happily, this was not true of both Gateways to Abomination and Rangel; indeed, as the year winds down and I look back over what I’ve read during the last twelve months, Matthew Bartlett’s fiction stands out as among my two or three real discoveries in that time.

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In Gateways to Abomination, he gives you what I first took to be a series of pieces of horror flash-fiction, one- and two- and three-page radio broadcasts, vignettes, brief narratives.  From the start, his prose style is strong, elegant and macabre in a way that reminds me of some of Thomas Ligotti’s early stories.  There’s a deliberate off-kilter quality to the way the pieces move from the mundane to the bizarre that I found very effective.  The further you progress in the book–and it is one who contents I would recommend reading in order–the more clear it becomes that these assorted shorter pieces are adding up to something more, a kind of fractal treatment of the part of Massachusetts about which he’s writing.  It’s one of those books I became more excited about the further I read in it and the more I realized what Bartlett was up to.

Rangel

Rangel occurs in the same geography as Gateways, and encompasses some of the same details as the earlier book, but it tells a longer story about its narrator’s encounter with a strange and awful civic event, one that appears to connect to his long-lost sister.  I wasn’t sure how Bartlett would handle the transition from the shorter pieces in Gateways to what must be Rangel‘s novelette length, but I needn’t have worried.  It’s as weird as the earlier book, with an added resonance that makes its end truly disturbing.  My only regret is that it appears to have sold out; perhaps an electronic copy might be released?

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I met Matthew Bartlett and his lovely wife this past Necronomicon; he was gentle and witty.  I look forward–eagerly–to what he writes next.  If you haven’t read him yet, I strongly recommend searching out Gateways to Abomination.

 

Bone Tomahawk

When my older son and his family were last up to visit, he and I decided that we had to watch Bone Tomahawk (2015), which was recently available on Amazon.  Nick and I sat up watching the film, which we both found enjoyable, gripping, and horrifying in I think equal measure.  Almost two months later, I find I’m still thinking about it.  In part, this is because of the way the film moves from semi-traditional western (a group of heroes rides out to rescue a kidnapped loved one) to out and out horror film.  There’s a kind of pulp quality to the narrative that makes me think of Robert E. Howard’s fiction, or maybe one of Joe Lansdale’s weird westerns.

Bone Tomahawk Poster

There are elements to the film that are pure western, particularly the plot-construction:  you have a fast-moving beginning, a fast-moving ending, and a period in-between in which the characters move across a vast landscape (which makes me think that there’s an element of the sublime in westerns I’ve never thought much about, and which does seem to dovetail with the concerns of cosmic horror in an interesting fashion).

Bone Tomahawk Landscape

It isn’t too bad as long as they have horses…

There are also elements of the film that are pure horror:  you have acts of awful violence committed by a group for whom the rest of us are so much provender; you have a lone, wounded hero confronted with the seemingly-impossible task of defeating that group.

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Ouch!

Finally, there’s the cast.  I’m a big fan of Kurt Russell, whose work I admire more with each passing year  (and whose facial hair in this film I would emulate, were it not for the fact that it would cost me the love of my wife and family), but Patrick Wilson, Matthew Fox, and especially Richard Jenkins all bring their best work to the table.

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Look at that facial hair!  Look at it!

There aren’t a huge number of what you could call horror westerns:  J.T. Petty’s brilliant The Burrowers (2008) comes to mind, and Ravenous (1999), and I suppose High Plains Drifter (1973).  You can add Bone Tomahawk to that small but creditable list.

New Trailer!

A couple of days before Christmas, I opened my e-mail, and there was an e-mail from my older son, telling me that he had made a short trailer for my fiction as an early Christmas present for me.  I was quite thrilled by it, and am happy to share it here:

The October Report, Second Installment:WORD, The H.P. Lovecraft Forum, and A Group Reading at the New Paltz Public Library

I know, I know:  it’s December, for the love of Pete, practically 2016.  Probably, I shouldn’t bother, but I can be pretty compulsive when it comes to completing stuff.  So:

I.

The second half of my busy October began the Thursday before Halloween, with a mid-morning trip to New York City along with the Honey Badger, so the two of us could read that night at WORD, a  fine independent bookstore in Brooklyn, at a Halloween-themed event organized by the brilliant Alex Houston.  Once in Grand Central, we went our separate ways, me to lunch with my outstanding agent (Ginger Clark, for those who may have forgotten), and him to a long photo shoot at his agent’s (Janet Reed).  The weather was rainy and windy in the extreme.  Ginger and I enjoyed an excellent lunch at a French restaurant, during which we talked over my adventures during the first part of October, as well as my third novel (in process).  After lunch, I met Laird at Janet’s office, where he was deep in the photo session.  I have to admit, it was fascinating to watch the couple who were taking his picture at work.  (The older I get, the more interested I find I am in anyone who’s good at something.)  I succeeded in keeping my heckling to a minimum.

The shoot done, Laird and Janet and I caught a cab to Brooklyn, where we found a pub near WORD.  The three of us succeeded in consuming a platter of very delicious sliders and chips, after which, we were met by the editorial team from Penguin who had been responsible for the republication of Ray Russell’s The Case Against Satan, for which Laird had written a new preface.  They were a charming and fun group, and walked with us to the bookstore.  There, we were met by Alex and the night’s other readers, Livia Llewellyn, Ryan Britt, and Tobias Carroll.  A considerable crowd filled the bookstore’s basement reading space; I was happy to see Ellen Datlow, Michael Calia, Robert Levy, Ardi Alspach, and well-known diva Theresa DeLucci among its numbers.  The reading itself went well:  Ryan Britt made some interesting and amusing references to vampire trousers.  Laird read from his introduction to The Case Against Satan, and a brief excerpt from the novel, itself.  Livia delivered a powerhouse reading; she’s a talented and inspired performer of her own work who never fails to impress, and if you have a chance to see her read, you should.  Tobias Carroll read about half of one of Thomas Ligotti’s stories, and I have to say, brought out a humor I hadn’t recognized in Ligotti’s work before.  I read a self-contained narrative from my story, “Corpsemouth,” which appeared in Ellen’s The Monstrous.

Me at WORD

Let me tell you about Ellen Datlow…

After the reading was done, the booksellers kept the store open while my co-readers and I signed a lot of books for a lot of very nice people.  Then it was off to a local Polish restaurant for still more food (hunter’s stew, very tasty), before Laird and I began the trek to the nearest subway station, and home.

I’ll be honest:  reading at WORD has been one of my personal goals for a few years, now.  Thanks to Alex Houston and the fine folks at the store for making it happen.

 

II.

The day after WORD was the annual H.P. Lovecraft Forum at SUNY New Paltz, number 28 by my count.  Organized by my friend and mentor, Bob Waugh, the Forum has been bringing all sorts of scholars and artists to the New Paltz campus to discuss Lovecraft’s fiction and its impact since I was a college freshman.  This year’s program was among the more modest:  Bob and I each read selections from upcoming, Lovecraft-related stories, but we were joined by artist Stephen Hickman, who brought along copies of his Lovecraft-related sculptures, whose genesis and development he shared with us.

Hickman Lovecraft Pieces

The Original You-Know-Who

 

III.

The day after the Lovecraft Forum, I took part in a group reading sponsored by Inquiring Minds, the local independent bookstore.  Sadly, the bookstore had been damaged by a freak flood; happily, the local public library stepped in and hosted the event.  Half a dozen more or less local writers, including myself and the Honey Badger, read to a full house that included a couple of my students (who were amazed to discover I was an actual writer).  As we read, college students dressed in their Halloween costumes for the contest being sponsored by the bar across the street wandered past the windows, as if extras in the stories we were reading.

And I’m happy to report, the bookstore recovered from the flooding, and about a month later, I read there with Bob Waugh to celebrate the release of his first collection of stories, The Bloody Tugboat and Other Witcheries.

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This is a strange, strange book…

 

 

IV.

So that was October.  Thank God it only comes around once a year.  But a sincere thank you to everyone who was involved in making the various events I took part in happen, and to everyone who attended them, and to everyone who asked me to sign a book or sent a kind word my way.

 

On T.M. Wright’s Passing

I was very sorry to learn of the passing of author T.M. Wright yesterday.  I knew him best for his 1984 novel, A Manhattan Ghost Story.  It’s a weird, trippy book which shuttles back and forth between a past in which two boys are breaking into a mausoleum and a present in which a man is losing track of the difference between the worlds of the living and the dead.  Its style is low-key, conversational, its evocation of Manhattan vivid.  In its experimentation with narrative convention, it strikes me as akin to Peter Straub and Tom Tessier’s fiction (not to mention, as a kind of thematic ancestor of Paul Tremblay’s recent A Head Full of Ghosts).  It’s another one of those books that demonstrates how much a talented and ambitious writer can do with the material of horror; if you haven’t read it, I recommend it.  Nor was A Manhattan Ghost Story Wright’s only book:  his output of novels and stories was impressive.

From what I understand, Wright had been ill for some time.  May he rest in peace.

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