Monthly Archives: September 2014

Jeff VanderMeer at FLP

Area X penetrated Philadelphia on the evening of Thursday, September 25. Author Jeff VanderMeer ushered in a night of the uncanny at the Free Library of Philadelphia, abetted by Geekadelphia, and an owl (the latter provided courtesy of the Academy of Natural Sciences).

The slideshow included photographs taken by VanderMeer, as well as promotional and fan art.

The slideshow included photographs taken by VanderMeer, as well as promotional and fan art.

I’ve gushed at length about VanderMeer’s recent novels, Annihilation and Authority, going to far as to collect links related to the former. (As of this writing, I’m one-third of the way through the last novel in the trilogy, Acceptance.) I was pleased to have the opportunity to hear VanderMeer speak in person. (And he signed my copy of Annihilation.)

VanderMeer did a short reading from Acceptance, from a portion I have not yet read. I considered bumrushing the podium and knocking the book from his hands, but decided that would be impolite. Fortunately, he read a few pages that weren’t too spoilery (confirmed for me by a friend who was also in attendance). VanderMeer’s tone and the pacing of his speech was flat, without inflection, hypnotic. Combined with his style, heavy with clauses, it reminded me of the surge and retreat of surf beating upon a shore. Hearing VanderMeer read from Acceptance was helpful for me; I’ve been having difficulty “getting into” this last book, and his reading made his style more accessible to me.

Chris Urie and VanderMeer discussed the novels.

Chris Urie and VanderMeer discussed the novels.

VanderMeer noted that the Southern Reach trilogy is his second attempt to write about Florida. He first wrote about the “Sebring Squid Festival,” a faux-journalistic account of a fictional festival set in a real Florida town. This story caused him no end of headaches: Packages of dried squid sent to him in the mail; notes from angry marine biologists; an offer from a BBC representative to talk about the squid for a documentary; and a voicemail from a fisherman who claimed to have caught one of the squid in Louisiana. After that call, unsure how the fisherman got his number, and given that the squid he describes is not real, VanderMeer decided to pursue a more fantastical approach.

VanderMeer discussed the novels at length with a representative from Geekadelphia. It’s clear that nature, and humanity’s relationship to it, is one of VanderMeer’s concerns. He lamented the state of environmental education (in the United States), noting that American children are “developmentally challenged” in regards to their connection with nature. He pointed to his essay “Bear versus Texting Man: Our Spectacular Disconnection,” in which no publisher showed any interest; it was “too depressing.” Much of the novels were informed by his hikes throughout northern Florida, where he encountered the boar (noted in Annihilation). A slideshow running in the background included pictures VanderMeer took during his hikes.

Arizona & I.

Arizona & I.

One of the major themes of the novels is the encounter of individuals with institutions, and the conflict that ensues, “Lord of the Flies with middle management,” he called it. VanderMeer, in his previous work, which he can’t discuss (creepy), actually found a dead mouse and dead plant in a desk drawer, wondering if they were left as some kind of message. Likewise, the smashed mosquito that Control encounters in Authority was drawn from VanderMeer’s own experiences. So, too, was the character of Whitby. One of VanderMeer’s colleagues would, from time to time, approach him and ask, “Do you want to see a strange room?” His answer was always “no,” both because he wanted to continue to be employed, but also because his “writer’s brain” didn’t want to know what was in the room–he wanted to fill it in later. Edit: VanderMeer memorably described the character Whitby as “the Smeagol of the Southern Reach.”

She was spooked, and kept trying to fly away, so I was a *little* nervous.

She was spooked, and kept trying to fly away, so I was a *little* nervous.

Afterwards, there was a question and answer period with the audience. We then headed upstairs to get pictures with the owl! Why the owl, you might wonder. Its presence was informed by the character of the Biologist (“Ghost Bird”), who has an attachment to the creature. Given the novels’ focus on nature, it made sense, once it was suggested, to have the owl (“Arizona”) present. (FYI: Barn owls can live up to 15 years.)

A good evening with an author who is having great success this year.

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Review: Nyctophobia, Christopher Fowler

There are few things as appealing as the prospect of an Iberian idyll. The Spanish sun, the slower pace of life, the food. The isolated mansions built according to occult principles. Interested? Fortunately, readers can spare their wallets (and their sanity) by forgoing the plane tickets and opting instead for Nyctophobia, by Christopher Fowler (Solaris, October 2014).

Nyctophobia, Christopher Fowler

Nyctophobia, Christopher Fowler

Nyctophobia opens as Callie, a young(ish) Englishwoman and recently laid-off architect, tours Hyperion House. Callie has just wed Mateo, a Spaniard involved in the international wine business, and the new couple needs a home that can accommodate not only themselves, but also Roberta, Mateo’s daughter from his previous marriage, and, Mateo hopes, children of their own. Hyperion House is strangely built, symmetrical, with so many windows that no corner of the home is dark during the daytime. There are other oddities: Rosita and Jerardo, the housekeeper and gardener, “come with” the house. (Jerardo, by the way, is mute, his tongue having been cut out during the Spanish Civil War.) Built adjacent to a cliff, the back of the home is devoted to unused “servants’ quarters,” which exist in perpetual darkness. It turns out that the previous owner was “private,” the real estate agent’s euphemism for insane. Readers smile; they know this can’t go well.

Callie, stymied in her career, is taken in by the house, and by Mateo’s suggestion that she write about it. The happy couple moves in. Everything goes well. Until, of course, it doesn’t. Although there are hints that something is wrong with the house, for instance, Rosita’s inability to locate the keys to the servants’ quarters, despite Callie’s repeated demands, as well as the former’s insistence that the doors remain closed at all times, Callie and Mateo are remarkably happy. That changes during Roberta’s birthday party, when one of her friends goes inside to use the bathroom, only to run outside screaming, a scratch down her leg. She was assaulted, but by what? Callie and Rosita check the doors to the servants’ quarters, but they remain locked. The villagers begin to mutter.

Despite what Carrie rationalizes as an “accident,” life goes on. Mateo continues to take business trips; Callie researches the house. She learns that its owner built Hyperion House in the early twentieth century, with the goal of ensuring that his wife was never unhappy. He failed: Half-English, he enlisted when World War I began, and, when he died in battle, his wife was left to care for their children, a son and daughter. The villagers refused the family assistance, the children died, and their mother was removed to an asylum. This is all in the past, of course, until Callie finally enters the closed-off rooms at the back of the house and encounters, well, something that may or may not be related to the previous owners.

Which is, perhaps, an unnecessarily detailed summary of the book’s plot, but it’s as much as you’ll get here; I can’t go into any more detail, lest I drop spoilers. Suffice it to say that Callie’s research into the house’s history has a bearing on her family’s relationship to the house. Callie, alone in Hyperion House much of the time, with the exception of Rosita and Jerardo, is taken in by the house’s charms, but also encounters its more troublesome aspects. And she experiences a resurgence of her nyctophobia (fear of the dark), which can not only manifest without reason, but is also capable of affecting other people.

I confess that I never heard of Christopher Fowler before reading Nyctophobia (on a lark), and I’m confused as to why. Nyctophobia is a well-crafted book, and I mean that in the best sense; Fowler is clearly a storyteller in command of his work. Fowler’s prose is crisp, clean, straightforward, evincing an English diction that suits the first person narrative, told from Callie’s perspective. Of course, locating the story with Carrie serves the purpose of controlling what information is shared with the reader, who must remain ignorant of the twists and secrets that contribute to the plot. And Callie has her own secrets, too, which she shares sparingly as the story proceeds, a clever use of narration that staggers the reader’s sympathy for her.

Christopher Fowler

Christopher Fowler

Fowler employs imagery to great effect. This reader would be surprised if he hasn’t spent extensive time in Spain, which he describes (at least this corner of it) as hot, arid, and sun-baked. The village, painted white, slumbers under the hot sun. Hyperion House is almost a character unto itself, all rich woods and glass. And there is a scene with wasps that is so gruesome I was making faces as I read it. I leave that to other readers to discover and “enjoy.”

If the reader has any complaints, they are minor. The “locals” are almost universally portrayed in a stereotypical way, slightly cracked or superstitious. With the exception of Jordi, the town librarian who has a crush on Callie, and Rosita, the only Spaniard given any extensive attention is Mateo, and he’s absent on business for much of the story. That said, this is really Callie’s story, so the absence of fully-fleshed out Spanish characters is only a quibble.

More problematic, for some readers, will be the book’s end, which is to be expected, I think, with stories such as this. The internal logic of Fowler’s world begins to become fuzzy as the mystery is unveiled. I can’t go into detail here, of course, but several times I experienced a feeling along the lines of, “but, if this…then why not that?” And the fate of the characters will be dissatisfying to a certain stripe of reader. That said, I respected the integrity of Fowler’s vision, his dedication to seeing it out to the very end. I may not have liked all of it, but I was affected by it, and I mean that as praise.

Nyctophobia is, perhaps, not a perfect novel, but then–what novel is? Nyctophobia is a character study, both of Callie and the mansion, and a briskly plotted haunted house story. Fowler’s prose is visual, and he is a master of creepy imagery, for instance, the aforementioned wasp scene, as well as the “costumes” of the spooks that may (or may not) haunt Hyperion House. A successful and highly recommended ghost story.