Monthly Archives: March 2014

Review: The Imago Sequence, Laird Barron

I am not easily “creeped out.” Grossed out, yes; I’m unable to partake of stories, written or otherwise, that bathe victims in buckets of gore. It takes a lot to unsettle me, though: Stolid, unimaginative, I plod bovine, complacent, unwitting, into and through the weirdest of tales. I was thus astonished and delighted to realize that Laird Barron had successfully spooked me with “Old Virginia,” the first story in The Imago Sequence (2007, Nightshade Books).

The Imago Sequence, Laird Barron

The Imago Sequence, Laird Barron

The influence of H. P. Lovecraft looms large in The Imago Sequence, the title of which is a reference to one of Lovecraft’s alien races. Barron neatly drops other references to Lovecraft throughout his stories, such as his use of “chthonic” in “Bulldozer.” Of course, the sentiment that there exists something behind the veil of reality, and that that something is not friendly towards humanity, is in line with Lovecraft’s mythos. Barron’s horrors, seen only on the periphery, if at all, take earthly form in the guises reminiscent of fungi (a favorite of authors of “the weird”) and jellyfish. You will see the monsters straightforward only as they unhinge their jaws to consume you.

Barron’s stories, although not formally connected to one another, do indicate a comprehensive vision. There is the notion, quite unsettling, that human history is just a backdrop to the machinations of beings older and greater than ourselves. A refugee from the past lectures an American soldier about her hopes for the outcome of the Cold War in “Old Virginia.” In “Hallucigenia,” practitioners of occult “sciences,” dating from before the Bible, achieve success in the modern age. The title story, located at the end of the collection, refers to a series of arcane photographs that offer viewers an insight into the possible outcome of human evolution.

Barron wears an eyepatch. That's just badass.

Barron wears an eyepatch. That’s just badass.

Nature, viewed through the lens of The Imago Sequence, is at best indifferent, if not hostile, to humanity. The stars are “cold” in the skies. The weather conspires against Barron’s protagonists: If it’s not raining at an inconvenient time, then it’s hot, muggy, foggy, hazy, any set of conditions that might make characters uncomfortable, not at their best. Darkness looms at the edges; when night falls, it’s total.

Barron builds upon his descriptions of nature by evoking the decay of the human environment. “Procession of the Black Sloth” is set in a gated community in Hong Kong built for expat Westerners, but, despite its apparent comfort, is subject to power outages (and other phenomena). Human habitations are either the decadent, “overripe” homes of the wealthy, or the hotel rooms, hovels, and diners that entertain the poor. Old barns appear to be a favorite of Barron’s. As any reader knows, old barns are never good.

Barron’s characters turn to drugs and alcohol to numb themselves to the hostile world they inhabit. Nearly all of Barron’s protagonists are borderline alcoholics, and most indulge in the abuse of narcotics, too, to varying effects: The main character in “Hallucigenia” is poorly served by giving up the pills he began taking after the incident (in an old barn, of course) that left him injured and his wife a vegetable. The chemicals serve only to mask the horror for a time; as the drinks numb the protagonists’ senses to reality, they only contribute to the overall aims of whatever it is that “lurks beyond the threshold.” You might drug yourself into a stupor, but sooner or later you’ll be called upon to face reality.

Readers should be aware that Barron’s protagonists are all men. Female characters are present, but in minor roles; they mostly function to demonstrate aspects of the protagonists’ personalities, few of them laudable. These guys are mostly “rough ‘n’ tumble” sorts, strongmen, henchmen, the agents of someone else’s will. They’re not above hurting people, and they take their share of punishment. Indeed, many of them speak in a curiously anachronistic vernacular. In “The Imago Sequence,” the protagonist refers to a drowning victim as having ended up “in the drink.” Imagine hardboiled detectives coming face-to-face with the eldritch. Still, Barron pulls it off.

The Imago Sequence is not an entire success. Some of the stories are uneven, at least in the context of the whole. It isn’t that all of the stories aren’t good; rather, some are much better than others, and at least one, “The Royal Zoo is Closed,” doesn’t seem to belong. The latter is shorter and, perhaps, more surreal than the other stories in the book. “Shiva, Open Your Eye,” might also be misplaced, narrated as it is not by the detective, but by the subject he’s investigating. Readers will likely find “Procession of the Black Sloth,” “Bulldozer,” “Hallucigenia,” and “The Imago Sequence,” neatly dispersed throughout the collection, to be the most enjoyable.

The Imago Sequence is a worthy contribution to horror and “weird” literature, and demonstrates that Barron is an author of considerable talent. Readers who can’t get past corrupt characters and dark themes are warned away. Recommended for lovers of Lovecraft and the weird.

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Review: Occult America, Mitch Horowitz

Occult. <Adj.> Not revealed; not easily apprehended or understood; hidden from view; not manifest or detectable by clinical methods alone. (Definition courtesy of Merriam-Webster.)

The occult, in short, is that which is hidden from view. The term is used to refer to the belief that there are powers in the world unknown or undetectable by peoples’ earthly senses. Although unseen, the irony is that the occult is all around us. The pyramid and “all seeing eye” on the back of the dollar bill? You can thank Freemasons FDR and Henry Wallace for that; prior to their administration, paper money tended toward the more mundane eagle. Mitch Horowitz explores the vagaries of the American occult in Occult America: White House Seances, Ouija Circles, Masons, and the Secret Mystic History of Our Nation.

Occult America, Mitch Horowitz

Occult America, Mitch Horowitz

Horowitz defines the occult as “a wide array of mystical philosophies and mythical lore, particularly the belief in an ‘unseen world’ whose forces act upon us and through us.” That’s an ambiguous statement, and, given one’s inclination, could be applied to mainstream religions, which Horowitz assumes exist in contradiction to the occult: “These religious radicals [i.e., practitioners of the occult], acting outside the folds of traditional churches…” The occult, then, may be said to exist in parallel, or in opposition to, mainstream religions, but even that is simplistic: The borders of both the occult and traditional religions are porous, and the two were often in dialogue with one another. Consider Christian Science, Christianity infused with “New Thought,” or the occult notion that, in order to be cured of an illness, a sufferer must change her belief about the illness. It’s easy for readers to see how “thinking makes it so” traversed from a marginal belief to one enshrined in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century’s “prosperity gospel.” It might be said that the occult is that which lacks legitimacy according to the majority of society.

Definition, or lack thereof, assigned, Horowitz sets himself the ambitious task of synthesizing several centuries of religious history in less than 300 pages. Horowitz gives short shrift to the eighteenth century and post-World War II era. In truth, his subject is the American occult in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Readers interested in the “New Age” movement, still developing today, will find a perfunctory chapter at the end of the book.

Horowitz treats his true scope, the nineteenth century American occult, extremely well. He devotes two early chapters, “The Psychic Highway” and “Mystic Americans” to the influential topics of the Burned-Over District (so-called) of upstate New York, and the founding of the Theosophical Society, both of which set the stage for the occult movements of the late 1800s. Some readers may be surprised to know that the Church of Latter Day Saints traces it origins to the Burned-Over District, of which Joseph Smith was a resident, and where he practiced “scrying” with a “peep stone” prior to his religious epiphany. Henry Steel Olcott and Madame Blavatsky founded the Theosophical Society, which primed America for an explosion of occult activity by insisting upon the equality of all religions and introducing Eastern beliefs to the West.

Subsequent chapters vary in quality. Topics range from the aforementioned New Thought, predecessor of The Secret and influence upon Norman Vincent Peale (The Power of Positive Thinking), to various mail order schemes, to the quasi-fascist occult ideologies of the 1920s and ’30s. Of these, the strongest is, perhaps, “Go Tell Pharaoh,” an exploration of African-American occult belief that touches upon hoodoo and the mysticism of Marcus Garvey.

Horowitz employs a certain formula that identifies the main movement of a particular period and sticking to that them, with some variation in terms of his discussion of historic personalities. Horowitz briefly sums up whatever occult system he’s discussing. Some readers may wish for more detail, but Horowitz’s brevity is probably a blessing, given the profound tendency toward minutiae of which all religions, occult or otherwise, are capable.

Horowitz is sympathetic toward his subject, perhaps too much so; he tells readers, halfway through the book, that he has arranged for the publication of various occult volumes long out of print. Still, it’s refreshing to have a perspective that isn’t snide or contemptuous of occult subject matter, and Horowitz seems to recognize that occult seekers are motivated by the quest for meaning and truth. The phonies and charlatans one finds in occult movements have their peers in other human enterprises, from religion, to business, to politics.

Some readers have criticized Occult America on the grounds they they expected more out of it, that its subject matter would point toward an enormous occult influence on American history. Horowitz takes pains to demonstrate the beliefs of Henry Wallace, one of FDR’s vice presidents, and their effects both on his support for particular policies and his career: He was turned out of office, in part, because colleagues perceived him as too credulous. Likewise, Ronald Reagan was inaugurated at governor of California several minutes after midnight, a time chosen by his astrologer. And Horowitz cites on numerous occasions the circulations of various occult publications, which are doubtless low estimates, as the believers shared their books and pamphlets with friends and family. One is hard pressed to imagine how Horowitz might have better demonstrated the influence of his subject matter. Perhaps readers expect to learn that Kennedy’s response to the Cuban Missile Crisis was guided by the stars?

Occult America is a fine introduction to subject little explored (until recently) by scholars. Horowitz is a sympathetic chronicler who makes accessible to readers the major themes of American occult history. Although Horowitz gives some topics short shrift, readers will find in Occult America a useful primer and a starting point for further exploration. Recommended for readers of nonfiction with an interest in American religious history.

 

The Monster at the End of the Book: The Thrill is Gone

“When I was a child, I thought as a child and spoke as a child. And when I became a man, I took that child out back and had him shot.” The late Phil Hartman on NewsRadio.

I’m not certain at what point in my life being a “reader” became part and parcel of who I am. I remember rereading There’s a Monster at the End of this Book, despite the fact that the story is only a surprise the first time through. Spoiler: In a twist worthy of Shyamalan, Grover turns out to be the monster. 

Spoiler: It's Grover. Grover is the monster.

Spoiler: It’s Grover. Grover is the monster.

Summer evenings, my body still radiating the heat it absorbed during an afternoon playing in the neighborhood pool, I read books about the Jersey Devil, and ghosts, and sundry other topics of questionable value. I spent one autumn working my way through a series of animal stories, about which I remember very little. They were vaguely folklore-ish, and the animals were named things like “Crow” and “Bear.” Perhaps they were a sanitized version of the Uncle Remus stories.

Contrary to societal expectations, my inclination toward fantasy grew more pronounced the older I got. As what might now be termed a “tween,” I read more and more fantasy, especially books by David Eddings and Raymond E. Feist. I was especially enchanted by Stephen Lawhead’s Pendragon Cycle and Song of Albion, both of which drew heavily on Celtic settings and mythology.

My high school years witnessed a decline in my reading habits. Beset by endless hours of homework, I read less and less for pleasure. When I did read, I tended toward more standard fare: Michael Crichton, Clive Cussler, and so on. Little effort, easily digested. During one snowstorm that knocked out the electricity in my neighborhood, my friends were amazed (and perhaps a little disturbed) to find out that I had spent some time reading. When some of my friends returned back from senior week that summer, they were astonished that, while they were gone, I had read not one, but two books. So perhaps I was always more of a reader than I remember.

I did not attend college directly after high school. I worked menial jobs. My friends all moved on with their lives. Adrift, I killed time with what I knew best: I read. The summer after graduation saw me reading a variety of books, from Norman F. Cantor’s The Civilization of the Middle Ages, to Ivanhoe, to David Herbert Donald’s Lincoln, and short stories by Faulkner. My mind was open. Irritatingly, I absorbed and regurgitated the style of whomever I was reading: A letter to a friend at college was unwittingly written in prose reminiscent of Sir Walter Scott. The transition from Scott to Faulkner was difficult and jarring. I read Orwell, and was in a rotten mood for days after finishing 1984.

I spent a few sunny days that autumn painting the wrought iron railing on my parents’ back porch. I read during breaks. I read Cold Mountain, which remains a favorite of mine. I tiptoed through the creepy monastery at the center of The Name of the Rose. I was amazed. By the springtime I was reading Hemingway for the first time. After that, I started reading Cormac McCarthy. As if by osmosis, the stories became part of my being.

I read more widely during the three years between high school and college than I did at any other time of life. At no time before or since was I more open to the stories writers were telling, to their points of view. Of course, my choices were mainstream and determined by literary “authorities”: Publishers, reviewers, list makers. And my ignorance was vast. I didn’t read in the sciences or much in the humanities. Indeed, one holdover from that time is my amazement at how much there is to know, how little of it I’ve been exposed to, and how ignorant I really am.

College exposed me to new ideas, but not to new literature (fiction or nonfiction). By the time I enrolled, I had exposed myself to “classic” American fiction and a wide swath of history. College, for me, was not about broadening my knowledge of facts, but about disciplining my habits of thought. One result of that process was the synthesis of everything I had absorbed during the previous three years. Context. And so on.

I graduated from college almost 10 years ago now. I’m still a reader. My habits vary: I cycle through periods of preferring nonfiction to fiction, and vice versa. Sometimes I’ll read more, sometimes less. I haven’t stopped. When I was young, my parents had shelves filled with the books my father had read, all hardcovers. By the time I started college, my dad had stopped reading. He was tired. He no longer had the energy. I haven’t reached that point yet.

Still, reading is not for me the exciting thing it once was. It is accompanied by anxiety: Should I be reading fiction? Am I wasting my time? Is there a better book on my shelf right now? Should I be doing something “productive”? Worse, it is rarely the mind-expanding process I enjoyed as a younger man. In fact, it’s often a chore, a compulsion that demands satisfaction. There are endless trips to used bookstores, hunting and gathering missions for those titles that have eluded me. There  is staying on top of the latest news and reviews. There is list making, endless list making, lists grown swollen with titles I’ll never get around to reading.

I’m rarely surprised now when I read a book. My mind isn’t blown. My perspective doesn’t change. Maybe it’s a side effect of getting older, of having figured out who you are and where you stand. Settled, comfortable, I’m better able to shrug off anything that challenges my staid point of view. During my very first college class, the professor said, “Most people don’t read books that challenge them. They read books with which they agree.” I vowed to myself that I would be one of those people. But here I am, reading the same things over and over again.

Is there a monster at the end of the book?

Review: The Land Across, Gene Wolfe

I finished Gene Wolfe’s novel The Land Across several days ago and since then have been mulling how best to approach reviewing it. I’m still unsure how to begin, perhaps because Wolfe confused me, a reaction, I suspect, shared by other readers. Absent a plan of action, I’ll just dive in.

The Land Across, Gene Wolfe

The Land Across, Gene Wolfe

The Land Across is, superficially, at least, an account of an American travel writer’s trip to an unnamed Eastern European country. Grafton, the narrator, intended to visit the country and write about it in his next book. Grafton’s experiences result instead in The Land Across. It is clear from the beginning that something isn’t right: Grafton’s flights to the country are canceled three times. He opts instead to fly to Germany and to travel by train to his destination. Grafton is still on the train when he is taken prisoner by the country’s border guards. Tellingly, Grafton is asleep when the guards accost him. Much of The Land Across is strange, pastiche, dreamlike: Did it really happen?

Grafton’s captors spirit him to a village, Paraustays, confiscate his passport, and, in a puzzling twist, make him the prisoner of a citizen. Grafton may wander Paraustays at will, but he must sleep in the villager’s house, lest his guard be shot. Grafton eventually escapes Paraustays for the capital, and is briefly involved with a revolutionary group, the Legion of Light, before the state captures him again. After a period (a few months, a year?) as a prisoner, Grafton begins collaborating with the state security apparatus, the JAKA. Grafton’s search for an escaped prisoner (his previous cellmate) points to an organization devoted to demon worship, the Unholy Way. Oh, and there’s an undead severed hand with a mind of its own.

That’s as much of the plot as I can share here without really giving anything away.

Again, The Land Across is like a dream. Wolfe creates an atmosphere both of meandering circularity and inevitability. Paraustays, for instance, is laid out in uneven blocks, some lots the size of a house and others enormous. The streets are unnamed. Traveling anywhere involves a great deal of walking, an inconvenience on which Grafton comments more than once.

The dreamlike nature of the story is further emphasized by Grafton’s character. Grafton is the narrator, and his writing is conversational, almost as if he is speaking instead of writing. Grafton’s language is awkward, stilted, shifting from the oddly formal (“I will not say any more about that.”) to the informal (“Well, you know what I mean.”). Grafton speech is anachronistic. Although the book takes place sometime after the fall of communism, Grafton often lapses into aged colloquialisms: An attractive woman, for instance, might be a “looker.” Wolfe is an older man, in his eighties, but, given his reputation as a writer, I think this was a deliberate choice. How old is Grafton, anyway?

Readers will wonder just how a reliable a narrator Grafton really is. Although he is up front about when he won’t share information with the reader, for instance, to protect a character’s identity, he doesn’t seem very trustworthy. Grafton sleeps around, both with his captor’s wife and with Naala, the JAKA agent who is his handler. Indeed, Grafton cooperates with the JAKA, eventually becoming an agent, a status he clearly enjoys: He receives a badge and a gun and a certain prestige, which he uses to procure rides and, at one point, to rob someone with impunity. And revelations in the final chapter may surprise some readers.

The plot of The Land Across is convoluted and, occasionally, illogical, but I suspect that’s part of the point. The country that is the setting of the book isn’t supposed to make sense, so why should the story, involving, as it does, revolutionaries, devil worshipers, prisoners, priests, and intelligence agencies? All, or most, is made clear by the end of the novel. Readers should be prepared to set aside their desire for neatly wrapped packages and instead keep moving forward, much like Grafton himself.

The Land Across is a puzzle not easily solved; it’s both delightful and frustrating. Wolfe is clearly an experienced and skilled author, capturing Grafton’s character and the strange logic of foreign dictatorships. Recommended for readers who appreciate the strange and the surreal, with just a touch of the supernatural.

Some Resources

Gene Wolfe’s The Land Across is Lonely Planet Meets the Necronomicon.

A Travel Writer, Lost In An Undiscovered Country In ‘Land Across.’

Don’t expect to figure out Gene Wolfe’s new novel on a first reading.

Gene Wolfe: No Comparison.