Saturday, October 24, 2015

after: review/analysis (spoilers)

Sandy had made a shambles of conventional cause and effect. Strange synchronicities, unexpected conjunctions...sorrows that could only be suffered in silence. 

There are some stories you read; you enjoy them, have positive things to say about them, memorize certain passages, and you may even read them again somewhere down the road. Then there are stories you experience. These stories touch you so deeply, personally, and profoundly that, once you finish them, they are forever etched in your mind, and you are changed. Maybe your thinking on a certain matter has changed, or maybe your are more aware of current events; maybe your entire outlook on life has been altered. Either way, something about you is different, and it's because of that one story you read. One such story is after, a novella written by Scott Nicolay. 

Published by Dim Shores, after tells the story of Colleen, a woman living a stagnant, toxic life in Sourland Hills, New Jersey, with her abusive husband Derrick. In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, Colleen decides to travel via bus to Seaside Heights, at the Jersey Shore, so that she may assess the damage done to their summer home. When it's time to take the bus back home, however, Colleen suddenly decides she would rather stay behind, than go home. Violating curfew and dodging the police, along with having no power and running water, she holes up in their summer home, but soon discovers that she is not the only one seeking shelter there. Something very large, something unknown to man, is also staying there, and Colleen will soon have no choice but to confront not only it, but her own lonely existence. 

Aesthetically, the cover art by Michael Bukowski is not only beautiful, but both haunting and gripping. The summer home has one window lit by a flashlight; the sky is dark and somewhat cloudy; the moon is visible, and you see this bizarre, scary looking creature, named the "Creeper" by Colleen, partially inside the home. It instills an element of instant dread; it's pulse-pounding, inching you ever so closer to the edge of your seat. Your only source of security is a single room, a flashlight, and whatever else you may have, but is it enough? Do you even know the Creeper is there? The cover succeeds on every level in drawing you into the nightmare that awaits. Please, proceed with caution. 

Nicolay excels at slowly building up the suspense and dread in after. From the moment Colleen arrives at the Jersey Shore and steps off the bus, you immediately feel something brewing around you, a tension at first, and then it slowly forms into suspense; it burrows its way inside you, attaching itself to you, mind, body, and soul. Then, that suspense transforms into dread, your heart pounding, palms sweaty, hands shaking. By this point, Nicolay has you, in the sense that, you want to keep going, despite the terror and dread that is permeating everything you are. There is also a heaviness to the writing. Nicolay gives an in-depth exploration of Colleen, revealing every nook and cranny of her life. You begin to realize you are building a relationship with Colleen. You care about her, you are concerned about her horrible marriage with Derrick, her terror-filled nights with the Creeper, and her overall survival. The story becomes very personal. You feel the weight of Colleen's life heaped upon you, devastating and gnawing away at you. You are being hit from all directions, experiencing a variety of feelings to the point of mental lassitude. Born and raised in New Jersey, you can sense the level of emotion that Nicolay put into this story, it's personal for him, and you can feel it emanating from the pages. Nicolay always writes stories that are nothing short of phenomenal (Do yourself a favor: read Nicolay's debut collection, Ana Kai Tangata. You won't regret it, I promise!), but after is on a different level altogether. 

Colleen comes to Seaside Heights to assess the damage done to her and Derrick's summer home, bringing with her an empty to suitcase to pack up things that weren't damaged by Hurricane Sandy's wrath. Walking north on Boulevard, Colleen immediately takes notice of a couple things:

Right away, she noticed a couple things strange. First, no birds. There were never not gulls over Seaside, gulls and a few terns, the gulls ever ready to pounce on the least scrap of dropped food, not only on the beach but for several blocks inland.

Colleen also notices that Boulevard has no sand on it, when it normally has a thin coating of sand. Not even traces of sand in the cracks could be found, yet she sees sand coating the side streets.

Yet she saw sand coating the side streets despite the tracks of plows. Sand there rose up around road signs and heaped against house fronts in drifts like low snowbanks a foot deep or more. Why not Boulevard as well? Why was that one road so clear? Had Sandy done this, was there some pattern in her chaos, her fury?

Additionally, there are no other animals of any kind, no wildlife, no cars; the town is completely silent. Seaside Heights is completely different now. It's a place that is out of the ordinary; it's separated from the rest of the world, quarantined. Colleen is in a place where nothing makes sense. Hurricane Sandy turned the town inside out, and upside down; there is no logic, it exists outside rational thought, and strange, unnatural things now take place. Seaside Heights is now home to the unknown. And while the unknown can be fascinating, drawing you in, it's also dangerous, and Colleen will soon discover just how dangerous. 

Colleen and a number of other people are sitting on a curb, waiting for the bus to arrive and take them home. Meanwhile, Red Cross volunteers are handing out takeout boxes of food. Chunks of canned pineapple, cubes of unrecognizable meat, some kind of dark orange paste, and the bottom half of a burger bun. Something about this scene, this moment, makes Colleen decide to stay. She couldn't be "one of these people, couldn't eat their food or get on their bus." It's almost as if Colleen feels like someone living in a shelter, maybe for abused women. Maybe she feels like a special needs case. It's like she is receiving pity, or feels like a charity case, someone who cannot help herself. She does not like how the whole thing makes her feel. 

Rather than getting back on the bus with everyone to go home, Colleen decides to stay. Why on earth would anyone want to stay in such a dangerous, desolate place? Police are out on patrol; there is a curfew, and violating it leads to being arrested; there's no power, no running water; all businesses are closed. Why does Colleen stay behind? For all of its risks and dangers, Seaside Heights is a better option than going back to an abusive husband; it's better than going back to a life that cannot even be *called* a life. 

Colleen's decision to stay in Seaside Heights greatly reveals the nature of her life at home with Derrick. Basically, she knows nothing else. Derrick made her quit her teaching job, which pretty much left her at home all the time. She spent nights wondering if Derrick was going to lash out at her, physically or verbally. She tried to create some sort of schedule that could help her predict when Derrick might become violent, whether from drinking, or even just being sober. Her life consists of tip-toeing, wearing drab clothes, not talking, and accepting the rut she is in. Now, in Seaside Heights, Colleen is on her own, basically; in a sense, starting over. She knows she doesn't have much in the way of food and drink at the summer home, so she must resort to looting other homes if she is going to stay there for the foreseeable future. She has a maglite, and a hammer that she works through her belt, thinking of it as a utility belt, and herself as Batman or Batgirl. This playful nature puts an emphasis on just how little she knows about surviving on her own; this is all new to her, and somewhat exciting. 

More emphasis is put on Colleen's child-like nature through the various memories she has of her and her father, and all the things they did when she was a child. Thinking back to all those times is also a clear indicator, that her childhood was the best time of her life, and are the only memories worth remembering. After that, what else is there? Meeting Derrick, marriage, and all the horrible things that ensued throughout, that's what. Those childhood memories of spending time with her father are all she has to fall back on. Well, those and her memories of Paul, a man who rented out the basement apartment for two summers. It wasn't uncommon for Colleen to visit Paul in the basement apartment while Derrick was upstairs, passed out from a day of heavy drinking. Paul filled the void inside Colleen, and she did the same for him (his wife died of cancer). "They lived in the moment as the old phrase went. But those were the moments the lights came back on inside," never making plans to run away and be together. Paul made Colleen feel alive and secure; he made her feel like she mattered, that she was something other than the walking dead, and Derrick's punching bag.

Not only did Hurricane Sandy destroy the place that held her childhood memories, she took Paul from her, too. You can imagine the pain Colleen felt, when she found out Paul died, crushed by a tree while attempting to save a husband and wife trapped inside their car. Paul was a first responder, killed in the line of duty. He's a true hero, and Nicolay reveals the all too painful reality of first responders, like Paul, being nothing more than a statistic added to the death toll, unworthy of news headlines that are reserved for crappy and insulting television shows like The Jersey Shore, which Nicolay is not afraid to address, weaving in the uncaring and backwards nature of the media.

The Creeper itself is a long, monstrous being, around thirty feet in length At first glance, Colleen thinks she is looking at a fence, but quickly realizes just how mistaken she is.

But as the fence rippled and she watched, she realized it wasn't either a fence--nor was it anything she recognized in form. Neither men nor fence slats but rows of bowed staves or spears or...spines, all shifting and bristling in suspect motion.

Colleen tries to process what she is seeing, thinking that it's some kind of new, innovative security system,  even telling herself that it's an oarfish, but she knows it's neither of those things.

Jointless, squat and thick, the maybe legs still appeared to support the horizontal central trunk. It was all one creature. It was nothing she knew. And she knew right then it was nothing known.

No explanation as to where the Creeper came from is ever given. It's just there. Colleen speculates on a number of possibilities, but none of them are ever substantiated. It also just so happens to spend its nights in the basement apartment of Colleen's home. When she first sees it in its full form, it begins moving in her direction. She runs and runs, dodging and ducking, until she returns to her summer home, only to have the Creeper return there, as well. She could not tell if it was after her, or if it just went there to sleep. Rather than leave Seaside Heights, Colleen remains there, knowing full well that a thirty foot monster is in her basement, wheezing away. Why does she stay? I would have gotten the hell out of dodge. Why not alert anyone to the presence of this monster? On the surface, Colleen makes all these justifications in her head. No one will believe her; she'll get arrested; even so far as to think the police will taser her and dump her body somewhere. She doesn't leave, and she doesn't tell anyone. Instead, Colleen chooses to work around the monster's patterns. What? Is she crazy? Well, it's because that is all she knows. She falls into a routine with the Creeper that mirrors exactly what she does with Derrick.

During the day, Colleen is out and about, but at night, when the Creeper returns to the basement, Colleen secures herself in the upstairs bathroom, sleeping in the bathtub, which is reminiscent of her sleeping in her kids' room, barricading herself from a drunk, pissed off Derrick. Even the wheezing of the Creeper can viewed as Derrick in a drunken slumber. Everything about the Creeper reflects Colleen's life at home. It's a manifestation of sorts, her horrible life, her monstrous marriage made tangible, into this gargantuan monster, and she's married to a monster. Colleen does achieve a level of comfortability with the Creeper, though. She knows the Creeper's schedule, much more predictable than Derrick's erratic behavior. That eventually changes, though, and Colleen is now faced with unpredictability. Again, why stay? Concerning Colleen's marriage, she pretty much accepts that she is in a rut; it's been that way for so long, she's used to it. Sure, she comes up with all these reasons as to why she stays, but she's just stuck in this rut, in this routine, and Colleen even acknowledges that she no longer loves Derrick, possessing no feelings of any kind for him. Below the surface, though, there is another reason: fear. It's not just fear of Derrick and his abusiveness, but it's the fear of leaving, of what happens next. If Colleen left Derrick, where would she go? What would she do? Would he find her? If he did, would he kill her? If she went to the police, would they be able to arrest Derrick and convict him? Would the case fall through? There are too many 'ifs' for Colleen, and she's just too afraid to make any kind of change that would improve her life, or even save her. Making the decision to stay in Seaside Heights is the first major change for Colleen, even though it doesn't last long.

At one point in the story, Derrick's friend Jordan, who owns a house in Seaside Heights, comes to the summer home, under the guise of checking on her. He knows she's there because he saw her leave the line of people waiting for the bus to take them back to their homes. Colleen knows better, though. Jordan is there for other, more terrible reasons. Armed with butane and hairspray, Colleen decides enough is enough, and is finally, for a change, going to fight back. The Creeper takes care of Jordan, however, making short work of him. The Creeper then turns its attention to the bathroom Colleen is in, and slides a tongue, or appendage of some sort, under the door. Colleen doesn't hesitate, spraying a flame at the creature, sizzling it, resulting in its retreat. Colleen never sees it again, after that. Now, at this point, it seems that Colleen did what she needed to do all along: she fought back. She needed this experience to face her monster of a husband, to show him that she will not take his abuse anymore; however, when Derrick finally shows up to get Colleen and bring her back home, rather than showing any kind of resistance, she says, "Okay. Let's go." She acquiesces and goes home with him. It's angering to read, but it's another painful reality that Nicolay addresses. Sadly, this is an outcome that happens all too often with women in abusive relationships.

In after, Nicolay explores the harsh reality of abuse, using Weird Fiction as a backdrop, and painfully making the reader aware of that reality. He also reveals the negativity of the media, and the ridiculous subjects that pass for headlines. The important issues are cast aside for television shows, and which celebrity was seen at an ATM. Nicolay explores the tragedy of Seaside Heights in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. All the memories that were destroyed, the lives lost, the first responders no one will ever know about, the people with childhood ties to the town, and to certain attractions it once had. after is a memorable piece of fiction, powerful and resonating. Heartfelt, painful, sad, and intense...Nicolay reached a whole new plateau with this one, and it deserves the highest praise. 

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Ghosts in Amber: Review/Analysis (Spoilers)

Or, had it been an ill-conceived shortcut in evolution...a noble but failed attempt to aspire to something greater than was within this primitive life form's capacity to attain?

It is an exciting time to be a fan of Weird Fiction. Without a doubt, we are in the midst of a Weird Renaissance. New and talented writers are emerging from the dark recesses of nature, changing the Weird landscape as we know it. There are some writers, though, who are already established voices in the Realm of the Weird; they are firmly rooted in the primal dirt of the Earth, and are forging dark, evocative, powerful stories from the aether. Jeffrey Thomas is one such writer. A high ranking member of the Weird Elite, Jeffrey Thomas has been synonymous with all things Weird and beyond. A prolific and profound author who writes short stories and novels that span galaxies, traverse post-apocalyptic America, explore monsters and myths, dissect the human psyche, and even illuminate the crushing weight of failed economies in small towns. He's a Renaissance Man in the Weird Renaissance; hell, he helped usher in the Weird Renaissance. Known for such notable works as his short story collections all revolving around Punktown, novels such as Boneland, and a panopoly of other collections and novels, Thomas isn't just rooted in the primal dirt of the Earth, he's entrenched in its core. 

Ghosts in Amber is the product of an unholy union between Jeffrey Thomas, artist Serhiy Krykun, and Sam Cowan, under Cowan's new publishing imprint, Dim Shores. You want to make a strong, impressive debut with your new publishing imprint? You bring in the big guns, and this triumvirate did not disappoint. Krykun's eerily beautiful cover takes hold of your mind and forces you to venture further into Thomas's tome of unsettling horrors. The success of this first chapbook has solidified the position of Dim Shores among the dark, vast cosmos of the Weird Fiction landscape. Now, let's delve into the story itself. 

Ghosts in Amber takes place in the failing town of Gosston, and centers around a man simply referred to as "he."  He is a lowly factory worker in Gosston. He and his wife live in one part of a house that was converted into an apartment. They get by, living day to day, and I use "living" very loosely. One early evening, arriving home from work and grabbing the mail, he looks across the street at an old, abandoned factory across the street, nestled against a pond. His curiosity, combined with his desire to find new places to go to before coming home from work, prompt him to explore the factory the very next day. He will do more than just explore an abandoned factory, though. He will be entering a repository of his past, gazing upon museum-like pieces frozen in time. Here, he will be confronted by loss and regret, and a life that passed him by. 

As stated in the above paragraph, the protagonist of the story is referred to as "he." This serves to drive home the point that he is just your average person, a garden variety citizen. He is you, me, your friend, your dad...any one of us. He gets up in the morning, goes to work, comes home, and repeats the cycle five days a week, and probably works some weekends for overtime, just to help keep up with the bills that he and his wife are mired in. He merely exists, rather than live. His life is a reflection of the town of Gosston itself. He represents a class of citizen affected by the crumbling economy of Gosston. Gosston is a town that probably once thrived, but is now in the grip of the cold, merciless, greedy hands of several banks. In fact, there are nineteen banks in Gosston, and he couldn't tell you which one he and his wife took their home loan through, and he certainly couldn't tell you which one now owns his home, hence the apartment they now live in. 

Akin to S.P. Miskowski's town of Skillute, Gosston is the kind of town that most people probably never leave, and if they do, they most likely find themselves back in its confining boundaries. It's a character all its own; alive, haunting, decadent, and cognizant. Gosston's atmosphere is redolent of oppression, and will beat you down to your knees and keep you there. He has lived in Gosston all his life, and has held various factory jobs since he was young. Not once has he ever been out of Gosston, and he may even be too afraid to leave. Despite the shackles it casts on you, Gosston probably provides some sense of security for people like him, because it's all they know. 

Gosston isn't the only thing weighing him down. His marriage with his wife has been stagnant for what appears to be some time now:

As it was they had never fought badly enough for either of them to have even uttered the word divorce. They didn't seem to possess the passion to become that angry or discontented. Sometimes she criticized him for remaining in the same relatively low-paying job for these many years, for lacking ambition to the point of apathy, but he supposed it was this quality of acceptance that had kept them united.

They are in what I would call a comfortable rut. They are so used to the way things are, that they do not bother with divorce, counseling, or anything that would drastically change their current life, which is in the doldrums. Their marriage may have reached its current state after they lost their house, but it's not certain. She worked nights, and he loved spending time alone on his front porch, reading a book. It was his "little piece of the universe." Just before they made the move after losing their house, his wife switched to a day shift like him. Now, he doesn't like coming home right after work. He looks for places to go hang out, such as the library, or the market to pick up a few things, or even the cemetery where his mother used to take him on picnics. There is a sense of regret in him. You get the feeling that he thinks he should have, perhaps, married someone else, or should not have married at all. If he wasn't married, would his life be better? He and his wife also live above a horrible woman who hears every bit of movement they make, to the point where she pounds and screams hysterically, and tells them, "I hear you moving around up there," as if they are rodents or insects, perhaps indicating their station on the human hierarchy. 

The factory is not just the epicenter of the story, but of his banal and completely unfulfilling existence. Up until the day he took notice of it, the factory never really caught his attention. Running out of places to hide out in before coming home from work, he figures the factory--never having explored it--is the next best place to spend an hour in before coming home. It makes one wonder, though: has the factory always been there? If it has always been there, why did he suddenly decide to explore it? I think it goes much deeper than him wanting to go to new places before coming home. Perhaps this is the work of Gosston itself. Maybe the town wants to show him something, manifesting the factory into existence. It's also quite possible that the factory became tangible through him. All the apathy and dissatisfaction that he had accumulated over the years, they created the factory, a sort of emergent property. It's also possible that this all happened in his head. At the very end of the story, he does not recall ever leaving the factory and coming back to his house. He doesn't see his car, and he realizes that his wife is not home, and the horrible neighbor below them has been gone for a while now. He may have had something do with her being gone. At one point, he told his wife that he is going to have to do something about her. Maybe he did something to his wife, too. There is an undetermined amount of time that cannot be accounted for. It's all open for interpretation, which makes the story all the more engaging. Let's look at the factory more closely.

The factory is delineated by the Gosston Canal and the pond, which serves in emphasizing its unreal nature:

He faced forward again and continued downward until the ground leveled out and he stood before the pond, with the factory on the other side of a stream that disgorged into the body of water. He realized this stream must be the Gosston Canal. It separated him from the factory like a castle's moat.

He is now entering an area that is not governed by the laws we have placed on our planet, and the universe overall. The clock tower is another indication of the sort of limbo he is entering.

A clock tower rose above the rest of the factory's flat roof and was twinned in the obsidian pond as if painted on glass, but where it's face should have been there was only an empty black skull socket now as though the clock itself had dropped out and been lost under the water. His imagination still stimulated, he pictured the clock lying on black muck at the bottom of the pond with its arms even now turning unseen as the years passed.

In this area where the factory sits, time does not exist, or the area and the factory are frozen in time. Yet, outside the designated boundary, time will continue to pass. I think it could also symbolize how time has passed him by, and will not wait up for him. The universe doesn't care what he has/hasn't done with his life. 

The inside of the factory is like a decayed museum of his past. Everything inside is a piece from his past, frozen in time. Even the smells are reminders of his earlier days. He recognized the varied and putrid smells from his early days of working as a leather cutter for a boot manufacturer, and, at a later date, working in a pocketbook factory. Both factories were located in Gosston, and the oppressive, pervasive smells are just one way of reminding him of his long, meager existence in Gosston. The majority of the rooms in the factory are empty, just as his life is. He finds a rather mysterious photo album that just so happens to be from his wedding, though he didn't realize it at the time. He decides to pull up an old chair and flip through it:

He was charmed by these photos and especially by the bride, a youthful beauty whose white dress and veil set off all the more her dark hair and dark eyes. Her fresh face and petite figure had struck him from the first image. The groom was similarly young and attractive and he was jealous of this man though he couldn't be bitterly resentful, because the groom's smiling face conveyed how happy he was and how lucky he knew himself to be. 

There was once a time when he and his wife were happy. They were young, attractive, and invulnerable. They had their whole lives ahead of them; they were going to grab life by the horns and make it theirs. Somewhere along the way, however, the opposite happened. Life grabbed them, especially him, and held them down. Time flew by, and, one day, he woke up and was much, much older. It makes one wonder what happened all this time; when did things turn around for them? Later on, at home, his wife brings the album to him; she found it in one of his drawers. This made her happy. "Wasn't that just the best day of your life?" she said. A long time ago, maybe. She chooses to view their life a bit differently than he does. There is still some spark left in her, where he is becoming more and more of an empty husk. 

Among the other pieces of history in the factory, he finds wooden lasts for shoes and boots to be formed around. He couldn't wrap his mind around lasts being left behind unless they were rendered obsolete, which is a reflection of him being obsolete. He sees leather cutter's clicker machines, just like the ones he used to operate back in the day. The most disturbing thing he finds in the factory, however, is a human form made entirely out of amber, completely still. In fact, there is hardened amber hanging from the ceiling of the factory, as if the entire factory was made out of it. The figure is on a raised platform that supports a clicker machine, as if it was once operating the machine a long time ago. 

The figure was that of a slender young man though of course the matter's uniformly honey-like color prevented one from telling the model's hair or eye color, the effigy's eyes just blank golden orbs in a glassy golden head that seemed to glow inside with the mellow light that angled in through the window behind.

While being an amazing, mysterious creation of something beyond us, the figure, and its lack of features, are a reflection of him. He is a nobody; he's nothing special. There is nothing exceptional about him, and he is the same as any other person like him, and is just like his fellow factory co-workers. He is the product of a failing town that is suffering from a depression. He even talks to it, asking if it is working overtime, and how, even though he worked overtime, he still lost his house; his little piece of the universe. Any aspirations or dreams of achieving something greater than himself were gone.

There is yet another figure he encounters that is also made out of amber. Earlier in the story, he peeked into a room that housed a web orb containing hundreds of spiders, something that he was greatly afraid of. Later on, after hearing a piercing shriek that brought him back to that very same room, he found an amber figure curled on the floor. It was a nude woman, and her appearance was that of being pregnant. He saw a figure moving in the belly: 

No sooner had he recognized the shadowy outline in her abdomen for what it was than he thought he saw it move, kicking out with both of its feet at once as if to pound them against the constraining wall of her womb. 

He suddenly realizes that the child is alive, and must be saved. He uses a hatchet to hack away at the amber belly of the female figure. He hacks and hacks until the belly breaks apart. He thinks he can bring the baby home with him, so he and his wife can raise it; however, the black mass breaks apart into thousands of tiny spiders, causing him to scuttle backwards. One may wonder how a baby fits into all of this. Well, earlier in the story, he wonders what life would have been like for he and is wife, if they had a child. Would they be happier, or would they collapse from mental and financial stress? It can be interpreted that his wife may have, at one point, been pregnant, and they lost the baby, and it has haunted them all this time, hence his eagerness to bring a baby home with him. The loss of a child is something that never fully goes away. 

The use of amber in this story is an interesting one. The human forms are made out of it, and there are hardened amber droplets hanging from the ceiling. Scientists often study insects that have been preserved in amber for millions of years. Amber is a time capsule, a window into the past. In his case, his past, youth, history, loss, regret, they are all preserved in amber, allowing him to explore, study, and ruminate. He is in a museum of his past.

Ghosts in Amber is a strong debut for Dim Shores, and a testament to Jeffrey Thomas's ability to write Weird Fiction of varying degrees. Thomas wrote a story that hits close to  home for a lot of people. He crafted a crushing, haunting, and oppressive atmosphere that seeps through your skin and permeates your entire being. He cleverly creeps ambiguity into the story, making it all the more mysterious and engaging, leaving much room for interpretation and discourse. Thomas brilliantly explores failed towns and the human psyche, giving us a look into a world that many live in, and one that others hope to never be in. 

Monday, May 25, 2015

The Pulse Between Dimensions and the Desert: Review

We are specks in this mess. We are so miniscule, but we express ourselves with the magnitude of an entire galaxy.

More often than not, I will purchase a book based on what I hear from others, mainly authors and avid readers such as myself. It's uncommon for me to make an impulse buy. Rios de la Luz's collection of stories, The Pulse Between Dimensions and the Desert, was one such impulse buy. With the exception of a couple blurbs on the back cover, there wasn't much else to go by, but it was the beautiful and enticing cover that ultimately made the decision for me, and I'm quite happy with my decision. Matthew Revert's cover gave off a vibe akin to something along the lines of the universe reaching out to me, wanting to show me something, and through Rios de la Luz, it totally did. 

Published by Ladybox Books, an imprint of Broken River Press, TPBDATD is a powerful work of literature, resonating on a variety of levels. At only 102 pages, the stories within pack hard-hitting truths, evoking a wide range of feelings, from sadness, anger, laughter, to joy. De la Luz is not afraid to explore the brutal aspects of human nature; she's not afraid to explore the harsh realities people regularly face; and she's certainly not afraid to explore the ridiculous stereotypes and ignorance that many experience on a daily basis. She brilliantly utilizes speculative elements, such as time travel, in order to place a greater emphasis on her various explorations of the layered landscapes of life. De la Luz writes of femininity, xenophobia, alienation, prejudice, abuse, racial stereotypes, broken families, adolescence, sexuality, and the simple things we find solace in, such as Xena, X-Files, Power Rangers, and Killer Instinct. Basically, she leaves no stone unturned. 

Some of de la Luz's stories, such as Hammer, and Lady Mescaline, are told in the second person. Considering the nature of her stories, the second person had a rather personal effect on me. It felt like I was experiencing memories that were tucked away in the darkness situated in the back of my mind. Or, the universe was showing me the memories of others; it felt like I experienced all the good and bad through their eyes, making the stories all the more impactful and resonating; my emotions went through the roof, shedding tears and feeling intense anger at the injustices suffered by those who were doing nothing more than trying to live a life free of harassment and prejudice. 

In some stories, time travel plays a rather integral role. In Esmai (also the name of the protagonist), a version of her, named Maribel, from another world, travels to Esmai's world to save her. Maribel tells Esmai that she's a time travel agent from portal Q2786, and saves lost children from other portals and dimensions that began on Esmai's version of earth. If the children are found alive, they would undergo rehabilitation and be sent to a foster family from another earth. Maribel is now a fugitive, though. She tells Esmai there is a political campaign against multidimensional travel. "They are marketing through xenophobia, claiming the kids my department has rescued should be left for dead. They claim the kids should not be allowed on an earth from which they were not born." Sounds crazy and absurd, right? Why would anyone campaign for such a thing? Yet it echos many problems we face today. I think de la Luz's use of time travel in this story is convey the message that, if we don't address and fight racism and xenophobia here and now, in the present, then the future is doomed; the problem will only amplify and multiply. In the case of Lupe, an abuela (grandmother) from the story, Lupe and Her Time Machine, time travel is means to show us how are children can often suffer the same pitfalls we did when we were their age. Lupe sees her daughter, Alma, suffering many of the same fates she did at such a young age. All she can do is protect her daughter and her grandchildren from any outside threats, mainly Alma's current boyfriend. Lupe builds a time machine and goes back to certain points in her past, viewing repeats of her younger life. Time travel truly illuminates these themes, bound to make anyone acknowledge the issues that threaten our lives, within and without.

De la Luz also highlights adolescence, womanhood, and sexuality. In Church Busch, a girl is made to feel like an object through the church she attends. Virginity oaths are signed, and pamphlets on sexual defiance refer to young women as "tape," or a "piece of candy." At church, you are told that two virgins waiting to have sex on your wedding night is a magical experience, but all "odors and fart noises" are never discussed. Neither are the malfunctions and messiness. What the girls are told does not accurately reflect the reality of it. Throughout the story, the protagonist is also experiencing puberty, creating a wide range of emotions and problems for her. At church, she feels like an alien; however, it's because of the church, she meets Laura, her first love. I found it to be a fantastic turn of events. The one place that always made her feel like an object, that made her feel alienated and uncomfortable, is where she meets someone she likes, and actually feels safe for a change. The theme of alienation is also explored in Martian Matters; how we are made to feel alienated, or how we sometimes choose to alienate ourselves because of sexual orientation or other things. We fear what others, especially family, will think of you. In Marigolds, the power and safety of family is expressed; how, even in death, a family member can reach out to you and let you know that everything will be okay. It also shows us that death is inevitable, and we must live our lives to the fullest. 

Some of de la Luz's stories do a rather excellent job of depicting humans as miniscule in the grand scheme of things. We are often referred to as "specks," or we live on a rock floating through space. We step inside a crater and instantly feel "heavy." The universe is very much portrayed as a frontier, and the earth is just one tiny, tiny, tiny piece of that frontier. On this rock we live on, we are struggling to survive; struggling to eek out an existence that ultimately means nothing, yet we strive to make the best of what we have. "We are specks in this mess. We are so miniscule, but we express ourselves with the magnitude of an entire galaxy." This is all we have, and we will do what ever it takes to make the earth, our lives, and the societies found all over, worth living and fighting for. 

Rios de la Luz's debut collection is nothing short of powerful and resonating. She knows all aspects of human nature. She knows the goodness that can be found in us; she knows we are capable of kindness and good deeds. On the flip side, she also knows the vile and terrible things we are capable of doing to one another. De la Luz shows us that somewhere, in some part of the world, a child is taking care of him/herself because their father is long gone, and their mother is out on the streets. She shows us that someone is living in fear because of who they are; they are afraid to open because of what society will do to them. She knows that somewhere, someone is being stereotyped because of the color of their skin. A man tells a woman, "I'm really a nice guy," or "I'm just trying to compliment you." "Where are you from?" Unfortunately, ignorance, labeling, and stereotyping happen far too often, and de la Luz cleverly and brutally addresses this in many of the stories found within TPBDATD. Anyone who reads this collection of stories will be left with an unforgettable experience. The truth rings free in de la Luz's stories, and sometimes the truth is harsh, but it must be acknowledged, addressed, and faced. 

Monday, May 4, 2015

The Queen in Green: Review/Analysis

Everything-trees, rocks, sun, wind-all of it speaks its own language at its own pace. But being human means we are too self-involved to even consider the notion.

Of all the terrestrial ecosystems found on our beautiful planet, forests (generally speaking), are my favorite. They evoke fear, wonder, beauty, and are home to myths and legends from cultures all over the world. Throughout time, people have associated forests with goodness, nostalgia, reverence, relaxation, sanctuary, and even fear and terror, said to never be traversed because of evil beings that lurk within them. We love spending time in forests, whether it's for hiking, hunting, bird watching, or even to get away from the hustle and bustle of city life. With forests being home to all manner of wildlife, rivers, waterfalls, thick canopies, massive trees, and being so prominent in folklore, myths, and legends, it's no surprise they are settings in fiction of all genres. Gina Ranalli's short story, The Queen in Green, is one such story. A Weird tale that would make anyone think twice about going into the woods. 

Until I read The Queen in Green, I was not familiar with Gina Ranalli; however, after reading it, I fully intend to delve into her other works of literature. If they are of the same quality as this story, then I will be writing more reviews and analyses on her works. In this story, I found she can craft an inviting, enchanting, and deceiving atmosphere, and can shift from playfulness to terror at the drop of a dime. 

A chapbook published by Dunhams Manor Press, The Queen in Green is about a boy named Charlie, who is on a camping trip with his parents. He is sent into the woods to find kindling to make a fire back at the campsite. He spots a squirrel and sets down his bundle of sticks by a huge boulder so that he may pursue it. After the squirrel scurries up a tree, Charlie loses interest and begins collecting more sticks. When he returns to the boulder, he is startled by a small Dwarf sitting on it. The Dwarf greets Charlie, and, knowing Charlie's curiosity and "flights of fancy," the Dwarf convinces Charlie to follow him, with the hopes of seeing something really interesting. Charlie soon discovers that there is more to the forest than meets the eye; he is an outsider in a world he only thinks he knows. And his curiosity will cost him. 

As the last sentence in the previous paragraph states, Charlie's curiosity gets the better of him. He's a kid who is, as his mother says, "given to flights of fancy." In the forest, his imagination is running in several different directions. He's collecting kindling, chasing animals, not taking into consideration of where he's at. He's completely caught off guard by the appearance of the Dwarf. Being smaller than Charlie, the Dwarf is not so much alarming, but is more of a curiosity to Charlie, which somewhat relaxes him and loosens his guard. I initially somewhat suspected the Dwarf's nature when he referred to Charlie's kindling as "loot," indicating that Charlie is stealing from the woods, rendering him an unwelcome visitor. It conveys this theme of humans acting as intruders and thieves in a place that has been around far longer than we have. This goes hand-in-hand with the Dwarf's lecture to Charlie on sentience. The Dwarf leads Charlie to what appears to be a dying tree named Mungforgotta, the Queen in Green, and he wants Charlie to give the tree a little "pick-me-up," a "boost of youth." Charlie thinks the whole thing is crazy, commenting on Mungforgotta being nothing but a tree. The Dwarf says:

So? She's still a sentient being. She still knows what's happening around her. She still has feelings. She and all the trees you see around you-just move at a different pace than the rest of us. They speak on a different frequency. 

The sentience of Mungforgotta and all the other trees puts an even greater emphasis on Charlie and other humans as trespassers, violating and tainting the sacred grounds of a world within our world; a world that, like an iceberg, has much more beneath its surface. Charlie incredulously responds to the Dwarf with, "Speak?" The Dwarf says:

Oh, yes. Speak. They're conversing with each other right now, just as we are. But they speak too slowly for us to hear them. It's one of those wonders of the world. Everything-trees, rocks, sun, wind-all of it speaks its own language at its own pace. But being human means we are too self-involved to even consider the notion. But once you've been made aware of it, as you've just been, the hum of the earth will be  impossible to ignore in those moments when you find yourself alone in an otherwise quiet place.

Being so self-centered and concerned with matters pertaining only to ourselves, we rarely see what's outside our periphery. We rarely catch a glimpse of what lies beneath our surface level perceptions of the world we inhabit. Once we do, though, as the Dwarf says, we can never ignore it. Our simple perceptions are forever altered, once we are revealed hidden truths. More often than not, however, these truths can spell our ultimate doom in a variety of ways. 

The mention of sentience and frequencies outside the meager range of humans is often explored in Weird Fiction. Christopher Slatsky's stories often involve sentience as a result of emergent properties, such as mega-cities. Ambrose Bierce touched on frequencies in his story, The Damned Thing. In it, there is some sort of monster that lies outside our spectrum of vision. The only way the characters know it's there is because when it walks by trees, the trees can no longer be seen, yet the creature also cannot be seen. So, not only are there things we cannot comprehend, but there are things that are out of range of our senses. In the case of The Queen in Green, the voices of the forest are on a frequency outside the range of human hearing. Sentience in organisms such as trees gives way to the notion that the entire earth is sentient, and our destructive ways give us a parasitic, viral nature. Ranalli takes this grand concept and effectively shrinks it down to a micro incident involving a boy, a Dwarf, and Mungforgotta.

The Dwarf tells Charlie that Mungforgotta is old, sad, tired, and sickly. He wants Charlie to introduce himself to Mungforgotta, but Charlie begins to think that the Dwarf is a loon, and is ready to leave, until the Dwarf asks him, "Don't you believe in magic?" This causes Charlie to purse his lips, and in an impatient manner, raises his right hand and introduces himself to Mungforgotta, the Queen in Green. Suddenly, the trees "gnarled branches twitched," beginning to grown longer and droop towards the ground. Charlie is amazed at the sight, "Holy shit," the only words he could think of. The tree limbs begin to "bristle along their lengths with short, fine hairs while simultaneously bending in peculiar ways, as if the wood had secret joints within it. Charlie is witnessing those hidden truths coming to light. The surface appearance of the forest is all deception, and Charlie is unfortunate enough to see what lies beyond the illusion. Keeping his focus on the tree, the Dwarf is now next to Charlie, and wants him to get a closer look at Mungforgotta, and it's here that things suddenly shift to the terrifying, for Charlie soon realizes that Mungforgotta is not a tree:

The limbs no longer looked like limbs at all-more like enormous, long, black, multi-jointed spider legs, all of them pawning at the ground as if blindly searching for something.

The Dwarf has Charlie in his grip, and is surprisingly strong; Charlie cannot break free. The Dwarf reveals that he and Mungforgotta are one, he lives inside her, but is free to roam the forest. He is "pollen on a fishing line." He attracts bait to the pole that is Mungforgotta. I somewhat see the Dwarf as some sort of guardian of the forest, or perhaps he's an executioner. He disposes of those who come barging into a place they have no business being. Or, he is simply an appendage of a predatory creature, like the dangling tongue of a snapping turtle. Either way, those who lose themselves in the forest, they become prey, as Charlie horrifyingly discovers. 

I was actually caught off guard with this, because I was expecting Charlie to leave the forest, but with his view of the world forever altered, but that wasn't the case. The Queen in Green has a fairy tale quality to it, a parable to keep little boys and girls in check, and to show respect to the environment. What also makes the story so effective is Ranalli's depiction of Charlie. She achieves a perfect balance in making Charlie a believable kid, to the point where I was reminiscing on my own childhood, and my many excursions into wooded areas. Charlie's not a stupid kid, but he is curious, and has quite the imagination. He's well aware of all the possible outcomes that could happen with the Dwarf, making him somewhat on guard, but he can't help but give in to his child-like whims, and the possibility of seeing magic. Ranalli crafted an excellent tale full of atmosphere and terror. She not only made me believe in magic, but her tale will serve as a reminder to be more aware and cautious the next time I find myself in the woods. 

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

No One is Sleeping in this World: Review/Analysis

If one were to accept that sentience was predicated on matter, and cities were some of the most complicated structures ever built, emergent properties were the inevitable consequence.

When I wrote on Christopher Slatsky's short story, Alectryomancer, I said if you aren't reading his work, you are doing yourself a huge disservice. Well, his short story, No One is Sleeping in this World, buttresses my statement. Slatsky is soaring higher and higher in the realm of Weird Fiction. He's a giant, casting a shadow over the literary landscape, quickly becoming synonymous with all things Weird and Horror. Slatsky writes truly unique and original stories, refreshing to anyone who has read their share of Weird Fiction. He is a gargantuan cornucopia of knowledge, consisting of archaeology, architecture, physics, biology, geology, mythology, religion, folklore, and so much more. He takes his broad depth of knowledge and infuses it with his writing, producing stories that leave you in awe, terrify you, turn the gears in your head, and chill you to the marrow.

A chapbook published by the consistently fantastic Dunhams Manor Press, No One is Sleeping in this World tells the story of Julia and Carla, two friends who are in the process of making a documentary titled, Landscape of Open Eyes. They are driving to a building that was designed by an architect named Alexei, whose designs were drawn from his dreams and knowledge of the occult. By no means a prolific architect, the majority of Alexei's buildings, following his mysterious disappearance, were demolished, rendering any existing building a highly rare find. Being labeled a decadent artist steeped in controversy amplifies the reward and excitement of being able to lay eyes on one of his buildings. As Julia and Carla get closer to their destination, things slowly spiral into the Weird and unknown, and their obsession and curiosity will open them up to things no one should have any business knowing.

Slatsky's story should be required reading for aspiring Megapolisomancers, and would make for a great companion piece to Thibaut de Castries' book, Megapolisomancy: A New Science of Cities. It's quite possible that Fritz Leiber was guiding Slatsky's hand in writing No One is Sleeping in this World, but it's all Slatsky's voice and uniqueness. A variety of themes and concepts are explored, creating a deep, complex, ambiguous tale that deserves to be read multiple times.

Obsession and curiosity, especially in Weird Fiction, have a tendency to get even the most intelligent protagonist into trouble, or, in some cases, much worse. Carla has been obsessed with architecture since her college days. Julia's obsession is film making. Their obsessions, coupled with their search for the Alexei building, lead them into dark, unknown territory, ultimately resulting in being subsumed by architectural integration.

Carla first begins to realize that all is not what it seems when she isn't sure if they are in the Central Industrial area:

The street was dominated by rows of corrugated metal warehouses, the pavement strewn with burst trash bags and discarded clothing. A woman pounded her palm against the car as we drove by, her face contorted with rage. Everything felt wrong- I knew the homeless weren't feral animals squatting in waste, I was certain the city hadn't always been so tainted or misaligned. Exhaustion whipped up my anxiety.

Carla and Julia have entered an alien landscape, unrecognizable especially to Carla. She knows this isn't right, something is way off, but they can't stop now; they've come to far to just turn around and give up. They need footage of what is possibly the only building left that was designed by Alexei. To help figure out where they are, Carla checked the map on her phone, but all it did was load something that looked like a "stain grasping for air." Additionally, all the street signs had plastic trash bags over them, duct taped to keep them there. They are on the outskirts of the unknown, about to cross the threshold into another world; a world they will find inside the Alexei building. Eventually, they find the Alexei building. Carla is disappointed at her initial viewing of it, but soon sees the tented roof and "ornamental mascarons on the cornice like the faces of the dead crawling through the structure itself." Now, no one is allowed inside this building, it's condemned; however, Carla and Julia's disappointment with the exterior of the building prompts them to find a way inside. Their determination to capture footage of Alexei's designs takes the further and further into the unknown. They find a rusty sliding shutter, and, strangely enough, it's the only surface on the whole building that's not covered in graffiti. Seems rather inviting, don't you think? As if the building wants them to enter. 

Opening the shutter and entering, Carla detects the faint sound of singing, somewhere off in the distance. Singing? In a condemned building? Curiosity may tell you that you want to know who is singing, and where in the building it's coming from. Carla and Julia try numerous doors, all locked. The main corridor takes them to a room with a huge sliding metal door, locked with chains, and the faint smell of incense that reminds Carla of Mass. There also is a stack of pallets against the wall. Crestfallen, Carla believes there is nothing here in the way of Alexei's touch. Before calling it quits, though, they see a "wide lintel that ran the length of the room and ended at an Oeil-de-boeuf window above the imposing doors." Their determination renewed, they drag the pallets closer to the window, uncovering a hole in the wall. From the opening, they hear the singing and smell the incense. The opening appears to connect to the other room. Carla tells Julia she is not turning back. Would you turn back? I like to think I would, but I'm not so sure. Curiosity and obsession can get the better of us. Julia says, "Down the rabbit hole?" This isn't just an ordinary opening in some wall; This is the threshold that delineates the known from the unknown. Carla and Julia are entering a world that very few have seen; a world that, perhaps, shouldn't be seen. There are some things better left unknown.

Getting on their hands and knees and bringing a camera, Carla and Julia enter the opening, taking a sharp right that leads them all the way to grate, separating them from another room. What they see gives them pause:

At least thirty people kneeled in the center, chanting something that sounded vaguely Gregorian if not for an undertone of gasping. I was shocked to see they all wore torn yellow raincoats and plastic trash bags over their heads like a parody of Mantilla.

At this point, how can you turn back? Carla even says, "What the fuck?" Julia wants to make sure Carla is filming the whole thing. How many people can honestly say they have seen something like this? If this congregation of bag-heads isn't weird enough, what comes next is truly frightening, and Carla is the only one with enough sense to get out of there. A bag-head narrator says, "I offer you the prisca sapienta (rediscovering ancient knowledge that had been lost over the ages) of the Architect! I offer you the GREAT WORK!" Then, the truly unfathomable happens:

Shadows in the corner of the room closed in. Black tendrils dripped from the ceiling, from the chaotic architecture, across the cement floor to the center of the warehouse where muscular strands danced in anticipation of great things.

Carla could not comprehend what she was seeing. The black tendrils congealed into something ineffable. The best way to describe it: 

A giant, its head a mass of billowing trash bags, each malformed bubble expanding and deflating repeatedly. Its arms were thick sheets of glass crudely cut into half moon shapes like scimitars, the surface stained and milky as slag glass. The head moved in such a manner it blotted out the space it occupied.

The monster feeds off the chanting of the bag-heads, and Carla finally decides it's time to leave, but Julia is fixated on the grotesque, disturbing scene. She's already lost, and even grabs Carla's arm with a "fanatics strength," indicating she is already one of them. Having no other thought but to leave, Carla elbows Julia and breaks her grip, fleeing from the awful scene. Julia's escape would prove to be futile, however. Slatsky does an excellent job of exploring what our obsessions and curiosities can do to us. How we have this innate ability to see something to the end, no matter the risks and consequences that may be involved, even if, in the end, they prove horrific. It's one of those instances where death is a much better fate than what Julia and Carla experience. 

Slatsky also tackles the monumental concept of sentient cities. Cities that are god-minds; conscious, gigantic beings. Now, the story is told as Carla's recollection of how her soul was subsumed by architectural integration, but the beginning--the second paragraph--gives us a glimpse of the present:

An infinite array of cities swim through a sea of stars, megalopoli pass overhead adorned in streets and inhabitants and sputtering lights that inevitably blink into darkness. Klaxon horns scream with the enormous shriek of rusting metal, groan with the voice of split concrete. Ophanim wheels grind, propel existence into infinity.

Slatsky's clever introduction is enough to immediately suck you in. You wonder to yourself, how did it come to be this way? Sentient cities? What are we? Throughout the story, Slatsky slowly pieces together fragments of the how and why. Carla describes the idea of her and Julia's documentary as such:

We proposed that architecture was a brain template, cities neurons in the caudate. If one were to accept that sentience was predicated on matter, and cities were some of the most complicated structures ever built, emergent properties were the inevitable consequence. Aqueducts, avenues, sewers and axons; dendrite slopes, every street a glial cell. Infrastructure was just another ghost swarming with parasitic denizens, humanity a pack of animals dancing on the head of a flèche in the dreams of cities.

What we have here is a role reversal, of sorts. Humans dominate the earth, its landscapes and geography; however, our very structures, the mega-cities we created--complex systems--gained consciousness, becoming an organism and rendering us as parasites. Or, at the very least, we are simply part of its anatomy. It's another way of hitting on this whole idea of our insignificance. We are insects; tiny pinholes of consciousnesses engulfed by a greater consciousness. Julia also says (one of my favorite quotes from the story), "Ghosts are just how a city dreams about what it used to be." To even think that we are experiencing, LIVING, the dreams of a city, it's enough to shatter the most stable mind. Julia's quote is also key, because there is some debate as to whether or not the things that Carla sees are the result of her unstable mind, due to years of drug use and therapy, or is she really experiencing the dreams of the city. Throughout the story, Carla thinks she sees different faces floating down the streets, but then turn out to be bags, carried by the wind. Another scene that calls into question whether or not any of this is real, is when Carla and Julia are peering through the grate at the bag-head worshipers. From a dark corner, a movie projector is projecting images of various civilizations, maps, cuneiform tablets, and other images. Suddenly, a bag-head stands up from the crowd, book in hand, opens it and begins to read from it. One of passages reads:

Not only has this biological change been conclusively shown, the evidence also suggests that the bigger the city the greater risk for schizophrenia. The demiurge that constructed this architectural universe is intentionally altering the species to become conduits for dreams.

Not only does this passage seem familiar to Carla, but she suddenly sees footage of herself projected on the wall. Footage of her at five years old, standing at the foot of her bed. Now, I will tell you, I was convinced that this was all in Carla's head; however, it dawned on me: if the city is a god-mind, a colossal consciousness, then it is aware of the thoughts, ideas, and feelings of humans. More to the point, it's aware of Carla's thoughts and feelings. The city is aware of its body, its entire being. Carla is experiencing the dreams of the city. To further drive this home, when she flees Julia and the disturbing scene with the giant, she makes it outside, but witnesses an incredible change:

The street was no longer asphalt and traffic signs but an expanse of wet gavel stretching off into a horizon the color of a blood clot. Rivulets trickled through the rocks where crosswalks used to be. The stifling atmosphere felt like a sheet of clear plastic had been stretched across the sky.

By the time Carla comes to this startling, mind-shattering revelation, it's too late. Architectural subsumption is inevitable, and the only fate. This nicely leads into the next topic to be explored. The bag-head worshipers practice a sort of neo-religion. Sacred Geometry is referenced a couple times in the story. It's used in the design and construction of religious structures. Anything from temples, mosques, churches, to altars. It's even utilized in sacred spaces. Symbolic and sacred meanings are ascribed to the geometry and proportions of these structures. The Alexei building is a church for the bag-heads. A new church for a new age; a sanctuary. Was this Alexei's intention all along? To design a new church for an age he foresaw? The room the bag-heads are worshiping in, it has the Alexei touches, but it's also reminiscent of Piranesi's Carceri prints. Giovanni Battista Piranesi was an Italian artist from the 18th century. His Carceri prints depict enormous subterranean, labyrinthine structures, consisting of stairways and walkways that lead to nowhere, they dead end; distortions and chaos. The room serves as a place of worship, and to communicate with the demiurge, which is frequently mentioned in the story. The demiurge is the artisan--the architect--responsible for designing and constructing the physical universe. It's not the same as the monotheistic god. A quote I used above says the demiurge is altering the human species to become conduits for dreams. This would be the dreams of the city. Through worship, the bag-heads are conduits, making the city's dreams manifest. The amount of worshipers in the building also explain why Carla never saw anyone, especially homeless people, in a city block radius of the Alexei building; they have all been subsumed. Now, the demiurge may just be the only explanation humans use to explain these grand workings. To use Slatsky's other story Alectryomancer as an example, Rey and other people in the story have their belief in god, to some degree or another, but it's too simplistic when faced with the complexities of Phainothropus, the real puppet master in the story. There is something highly complex at work in No One is Sleeping in this World, and humans explain it to the best of their ability; the only way their feeble minds can express it. The cities are the real puppet masters of the humans; the god-minds that sail through oceans of stars. We are merely a fraction of their make-up. 

There is yet another theme to be found in Slatsky's stories. You see, the majority of Weird Fiction places great emphasis on cosmic indifference. We experience the indifference of the cold, unforgiving cosmos. We look up to the stars and feel our insignificance. Slatsky, on the other hand, has us look inward, to the earth. Insignificance and indifference is right in front of us, or right beneath our feet. It also emphasizes the unknown and alien on our very own planet, the planet we think we have mastery over. It's one more reason why Slatsky's tales are so original and unique, and another reason why I cannot stress enough how amazing his stories are. I'm a full-fledged advocate of Christopher Slatsky. He is a name that should be on everyone's radar. He's a force of nature that cannot be stopped, nor should he be. He is shaking the foundation of the Weird Fiction world, making waves and dropping jaws. Slatsky is the future of Weird Fiction, and the future is now. 

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

The Fishing Hut: Review/Analysis

Some of my fondest memories are of the weekend fishing excursions I went on with my father and grandfather. We would dedicate an entire Saturday or Sunday to fishing. We enjoyed laughs, good conversation, the outdoors, and the thrill of having a potentially monstrous fish on the end of our lines. More than that, though, we enjoyed spending time with one another. Fishing was the one thing we all loved to do together, so whenever we did go, we cherished every minute of it. Knowing this about me, it should come as no surprise that I take to Weird tales involving fishing. One such tale is Steve Rasnic Tem's short story, The Fishing Hut, from the pages of Black Static #45.

Steve Rasnic Tem is a name that every horror fan should know. He is a legend in the field, revered and respected by his contemporaries. He is synonymous with exemplary writing, creating haunting landscapes, eerie atmospheres, and fantastic character relationships. I loved his novel, Deadfall Hotel, an odd, creepy novel that pulled at my heartstrings; filled with loss, rites of passage, emotional pain, liminality, transition, and much more. The Fishing Hut is yet another example of Tem's ghostly and superb writing.

The Fishing Hut begins with a man named Bishop, who, on the suggestion of his doctor, is driving to a campsite to go fishing. Bishop is a rather irritable, impatient individual, and his doctor tells him that fishing is a form of meditation, and will help him relax. Despite having no desire to go fishing, Bishop goes anyway. He purchases a brand new fishing vest that has several pouches, putting an old boy scout compass in one, and leaving the rest empty, making him stand out as the goofy looking, stereotypical fisherman. Stuck in a line of traffic leading into the campsite, Bishop loses his patience and pulls into the opposite lane, speeding ahead of all the other cars. He ends up driving past the designated camping and fishing areas and winds up on a gravel road leading away from the river. Well past the hustle and bustle of campers and fishermen, Bishop comes across and old man who directs him to a fishing hut, a place where he will find peace and quiet, if that's what he's looking for. What transpires is an unsettling, haunting experience that offers Bishop a chance to let go of who he is and change. It's an experience he will never forget.

 The character of Bishop is an impatient individual, treated like a child by his wife Irene, yet his lack of patience makes him childlike. There seems to be a lack of control over his life, as well. Irene wants Bishop to see doctors that will directly tell him he needs to lose weight and exercise more, and it's clear that Bishop isn't too fond of being told what he shouldn't or shouldn't do, which is why he likes the doctor he is currently seeing. Rather than express concern over Bishop's weight and prescribe exercise, the doctor simply suggests a bit of peace and relaxation will do wonders for him; however, Bishop's doctor brings his childlike behavior to his attention, when he informs Bishop that he stares at the secretary "a bit too long," telling him that he doesn't have to check back until six months. What that really means is, don't come back.

Bishop is clearly an outsider in this story; he's out of his element amongst the camping and fishing grounds, wearing a brand new fishing vest for the occasion, along with new gear. He even practices putting worms on hooks at home, so as not to embarrass himself, which is something he is quite concerned with throughout the story. When Bishop meets the old man who directs him to the fishing hut, his eyes are described as "strained, watery, as if he were about to cry." The look of the old man is one Bishop saw in the mirror almost every morning, perhaps to indicate an unhappy life; a life that constantly irritates him to no end, greatly adding to his impatience.

When Bishop asks the old man he meets on the road if there is some place quieter to fish, away from all the other campers and fishermen, the old man says, "I guess there's the old fishing hut. Some still use it, I reckon. It's quiet, and it's shady enough, if that's what you're looking for." Now, that seems like a normal enough response, but when Bishop says it sounds perfect and asks where it's located, the old man says "perfect," as if he's examining the word, and follows with, "I don't know. Good enough for some. Depends on what you're looking for." The old man's second response indicates there is more to the fishing hut than meets the eye, which Bishop doesn't pick up on. The old man makes the fishing hut sound as if it is beneficial to some people, if beneficial is a word we can use to describe what it does. Others may spend ample amounts of time in there and have nothing happen to them at all.

The fishing hut itself, like many other locales in Weird tales, is a place where the impossible happens. It's a place that tears down the barriers and constructs we have each created through our individual perceptions of the world we live in, and how we view it. I can't stress enough that locales, such as buildings (down to their architecture), villages, houses, cities, forests, caves, and the like, are just as important as the characters themselves, and, more often than not, are characters themselves; place as character. They often *are* the story. Those who enter these locations find themselves in a liminal state; they undergo an initiation process, or rite of passage, having many truths revealed to them. Those who survive are reintegrated into the world with new knowledge that has transmutated their conception of the world around them. The fishing hut puts Bishop through some sort of test or initiation. It's appearance is somewhat deceptive to Bishop, especially when he walks inside. The outside of the hut is described as such:

He caught his first glimpse of the roof of the hut as he descended the slope: a broad expanse of shiny tin with significant areas of furry rust. He didn't see the walls until he was almost at water's edge: they were gray, streaked green and a dull, damp black. The structure looked solid enough, except some of the boards going into the water had warped. The building had been erected in the near half of the stream. Square openings at each end allowed the river to run through.

Looking through a black opening on the side of the hut, Bishop could see "deep shadow inside scarred with brilliant slashes of light." At this opening, Bishop hesitated, emphasizing his outsiderhood and overall being out of his element. Bishop will be walking into a place that sits between light and dark; between two worlds, a nexus of sorts. When Bishop walks in, he is greeted by an old man. 

The hut was longer inside than Bishop would have guessed. Now that his eyes had grown accustomed to the light he could see that there was no floor; the man was sitting on a shelf two planks wide stretching the length of the interior and supported by triangular brackets of blackish two-by-fours. There appeared to be a matching shelf on the other side, but he could see only part of it - the rest fell into murky shadow and confusing reflection.

Once inside the fishing hut, things progressively get weirder and weirder. The old man greets Bishop, yet Bishop isn't sure where he should sit; he's nervous and reticent, afraid something may be lurking in the water. You can see the dichotomy between the two: Bishop with his pristine vest, carrying only a compass, and the old man, weathered by time, wearing a flannel shirt and paint-stained jeans. The conversation between the two, to say the least, is odd and uneven. When Bishop asks the old man if fishing in their family is a tradition, the old man says, "Tradition, obligation, obsession - it's all shades of psychology, I suppose. We're all onions." What? Bishop doesn't know how to respond. Us being onions obviously denotes we are comprised of many layers of characteristics, quirks, qualities (both positive and negative) etc. But the vibe I got from the old man is that we are too caught up in all of it. So concerned about such things, when we shouldn't be. 

From there, things continue to spiral into the weird. Bishop asks the old man if any of the fish have taken an interest in his bait, and the old man says, "The fish here like to defy expectation." Next, he says, "Oh, they're there. If you look closely, you can find their shadows." Are we fish? Do people  come to the fishing hut unknowingly to defy the expectations of life? Of the universe? Bishop stares into the water, acclimating his eyes. He thinks he sees a fish and tells the old man, who says, "A commitment of patience is required. This life is not meant for everyone." Which life? Is the life Bishop and others live not for all of them? Or is the old man talking about another life, a life lived somewhere else? The shadows, perhaps? The next scene warrants this question. By this time, Bishop is slowly losing his patience. He didn't want to be here in the first place, but being here now, he wanted what he came for. The old man asks, "How about you? Are they biting any better where you are?" Only, the old man didn't ask Bishop, he asked someone was in the "deeper darkness on the other side." The old man glances at Bishop and says, "We always think it's better over there. But apparently it's not No, wait...apparently there have been some recent nibbles." The old man clearly possesses knowledge beyond someone the likes of Bishop, or anyone akin to him. It occurred to me that, perhaps, the old man has been on the other side. Maybe he is from the other side. Perhaps he wanted to see what our side was like. I can't be certain. Or, maybe he's known about the other side for some time. It may be that he has been attempting to cross over, but hasn't met the requirements to do so. Thinking about it, I'm sure he has seen others come and go. Some made it over to the other side, while others failed and left, continuing on with live their normal, complex, onion-layered lives. 

By mid-afternoon, Bishop is fed up, and is ready to grab his gear and leave. Suddenly, though, it begins to rain. At first, it is rather pleasant; however, a breeze begins to stir, and things are lightly falling onto the tin roof: leaves, seeds, and other debris. It then begins to downpour. Things really take a turn for the surreal, when the fisherman fixes his gaze on the rain:

The fisherman turned his head to gaze directly into the rain, his silhouette back-dropped by water blended seamlessly into sky, a curtain of shimmering pewter scored with thousands of shallow parallel scratches. Now and then the scratches would shift and ripple, pushed sideways by the wind, and sometimes a needle would pierce through the thinner bits, and Bishop had to avert his eyes. And sometimes there would be wind and rain and sun and lightning all, a blend Bishop had never known possible.

To me, it seems Bishop is not only experiencing the otherworldly qualities of the fishing hut, but the chaotic nature of life; symbolizing the vicissitudes we experience on an almost daily basis. The downpour causes the river to run more swiftly, carrying all manner of debris: leaves, twigs, vines, feathers, nesting material, and even trash. The last thing to flow into the hut is the corpse of some animal, missing some of its fur. The claws on its outstretched paw caught on the opening leading into the hut, making it spin and drift further into the hut, hide spinning. Bishop fears it will become trapped in the hut with them, and he has no desire to look at it. Going back to what the old man said to Bishop earlier, "This life isn't meant for everyone. At least not for very long," I imagine the animal corpse represents the inevitable trip we must all take: death. All the debris and rapidly changing weather could serve to act as the passage of time, and Bishop sees that we all have the same fate; we all have our day. It could possibly serve as a message that tells us we only live once, and we have to live our lives to the fullest, and if Bishop wants to do so, he must take the next step.

Suddenly, the old man says, "I've been sitting in this same spot for years. The same view, the same attitude, the same luck." With that, he gets up, faces the darkened part of the hut, stretches his leg to the other side, and then falls headlong completely across and into the shadows. Bishop, confused, isn't sure if he should do something, move, or leave. He thinks maybe he should just do what he came here to do, but is even sure what that is anymore? He hears the old fisherman from the other side: "You're not ready." Bishop doesn't quite understand. He says, "I lack the skill? What's so special about sitting over there? What do you mean?" Bishop heard nothing else from the fisherman. He waited for a rather long time, but eventually left. I'm thinking the old fisherman had completed some kind of process, initiation, rite of passage, whatever you want to call it, that allowed him to cross to the other side. Perhaps he realized he was ready to change something about himself. His view? His attitude? Or maybe his whole outlook altogether. He got rid of all the layers, no longer an onion, and became liberated. It would seem that Bishop was not ready for such a change, as he never went back to the fishing hut, and even avoided the entire county. He went back to his...I'll call it a comfortable rut. The fishing hut is a sort of way station. It's a place where one goes to change some aspect of their life, or even their life as a whole, to cast off the meaningless layers that comprise us, but you must be ready and willing to make the change, and it requires great patience. Bishop just wasn't ready; he failed his trial.

The Fishing Hut is a beautifully written, eerie, and ambiguous tale. It can be viewed from multiple angles and viewpoints, and neither one will be wrong. It's the kind of story you can come back to numerous times and find something new you didn't see before. It evoked in me a sense of nostalgia, thinking of times past and cherished. Tem's fluid writing and use of language transfers right off the page and into you. You experience Bishop's awkwardness and uncomfortability. And Tem's vivid details put you right inside the fishing hut, surrounded by light and shadow, and murky green waters. He created a masterful tale that centers around change, life, initiation, the readiness and willingness to acknowledge who and what you are. The Fishing Hut has left me with a lasting impression. 

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

When it's Time for Dead Things to Die: Review

Alexis had provided scant, agitating hazy details, but those were enough to reshape Lowe's perception of reality and the things that subsisted on the fringes

My body is chilled, my soul engulfed in shadows. Why? Because I read Clint Smith's novella, When it's Time for Dead Things to Die. I was in the grip of Smith's ice cold, tenebrous prose; immersed in a labyrinthine, stygian landscape filled with shadows, empty streets, and abandoned, dilapidated buildings. My abyssal experience didn't happen in another world; it didn't happen in some fairy tale realm; and it didn't happen in a city hidden beneath the surface of the earth. No, it happened in a small town on the outskirts of Chicago. Smith brings otherness--he brings the alien--to urban streets in the form of a man (I use that term loosely) who has been around for centuries. A sinister man who was bestowed a dark gift. 

Published by the leader of Weird Fiction, Dunhams Manor Press, When it's Time for Dead Things to Die revolves around Joseph Lowe, a street-smart man who has been in and out of foster homes since he was eight. Now, in his mid-twenties, Lowe works as a line cook at a private club called The Tudor Quoin, owned by Gregory Bath, a Godfather (Krestnii Otets, крестный отец) in the Russian mafia. Lowe didn't get the job on his own, however; it was given to him by Bath because Lowe is in his debt, in the form of an undetermined term of servitude. Lowe got himself into this mess because he had been sleeping with Alexis, Bath's granddaughter, and got her pregnant. Rather than kill him, Bath spared him, making him part of the family,  which, in some sense, is worse. While cleaning the dishes one night at Gregory's house, Lowe is approached by Arthur Bath, Gregory's son. Arthur offers Lowe a proposition, one that puts Lowe in conflict with himself. He has to make a choice; he has to make the right choice that will ensure his survival.

Smith's novella is a dark, soul-chilling tale about survival, family, and loyalty. Since the death of his parents, Lowe has been in and out of orphanages and foster families since the age of eight. He had to endure an endless barrage of "cold-blooded counselors, useless church organizations, and the conveyor belt of flaky foster families." These unfortunate, harrowing experiences shaped him, at an early age, into a survivor; someone who grew to depend on himself and no one else. He alone is the master of his own destiny. The only thing he actually relies on are his cooking recipes. Growing up, he had become a kitchen apprentice, and honed his skills over the years. While life can be chaotic and unpredictable, Lowe's recipes never changed or let him down. Once Lowe finds himself in the grip of Gregory Bath and his family, he loses all control he had over his life; it was now in the hands of Gregory. He was "fortunate, he supposed, that he was still among the living. More or less." He really wasn't among the living, in a sense, though. His life no longer being his, he never knew if he would live to see the next day. Each time Bath approaches him for something, he immediately thinks this is it, he's done. He constantly contemplates running away, but knows he won't make it very far, for Bath's power extends far and wide. Lowe sees his life as an "existential cul de sac." His life is at a dead end, and having no control over it is a fate worse than death.

On the surface, the Bath family seems like your typical mafia family. Everyone has their place, and their unquestioning obedience to Gregory, the pakhan, is tacitly expected. What sets the Bath's apart from every other mafia family is Gregory being over six hundred years old, and Arthur, Gregory's son, is ready for a regime change. The relationship between the two is shown as Arthur expecting to do what he is told, and Gregory will not tolerate anything less than obedience. He does not hesitate to cut Arthur off from speaking. Arthur is incredibly ambitious; he has the ability to "achieve and possess anything he wishes." Gregory, at his frighteningly old age, is on the precipice, and Arthur is prepared to give him that extra nudge to push him over; he wants what he feels is rightfully his, and is tired of waiting for the old man to die. When Arthur informs Lowe of his plan, and his wanting Lowe to be a part of it, Lowe considers the benefits of Arthur's betrayal to his own father. Lowe thinks he'll be safe under Arthur's "venal wing." He sees himself as no longer merely surviving, but thriving. Arthur's takeover will gave way to a more "tranquil period," dispensing with the old, and bringing in the new. Lowe, however, comes to a swift revelation. Gregory spared his life, instead of taking it. Despite the near nine months of servitude, Lowe has--I feel, at least--come to view Gregory as his family, of sorts. No orphanage or foster family ever "spared" Lowe. He has been a loyal member of Gregory's family, and here his own flesh and blood, Arthur, is ready to do away with him, and Lowe must quickly decide where his loyalty lies.

Smith infuses his craftily weaved tale of family and loyalty with elements of the Weird. As stated in the previous paragraph, Gregory Bath is far from normal, and Lowe clearly knows this. Speaking with Alexis about her grandfather, he is provided with "scant, agitating hazy details, but those were enough to reshape Lowe's perception of reality and the things that subsisted on the fringes." This is key, because Lowe now knows that there are things that exist outside his periphery; things that shatter the perceptions and barriers he has created for himself. The world is not as it seems. This makes Bath ten times more terrifying than he would be, if he were a regular person. Arthur is not exactly like his father, but is still not your average human being. Smith's use of atmosphere and language paint a dark and sinister portrait of both Gregory and Arthur. Gregory is never fully seen, always obscured by shadow, dim street lights, or moonlight. The lights in Gregory's Cadillac are disconnected, so Lowe never gets a clear look at him, except when thin streaks of light come streaming through the windows. "Bars of industrially bloodless light bloomed and faded, bloomed and faded, as Gregory, with those spidery-maestro movements, narrated a route back to Highland." Other instances when Lowe does get a look at Bath, are of a nebulous nature. He sees Gregory's angled face, vultured head, distracting long fingers, and beak nose. He catches a scarecrow silhouette of him. It can be said that Bath walks between light and dark, life and death, which makes sense when considering how old he is, and the gift he received centuries ago. He is in a "homeostatic extension." Perhaps, the dim light shone on him represents his fading humanity, as he is always vaguely described as being more animalistic, his human side fading more and more as the centuries come and go. Even though Gregory is far older than him, Arthur is the more savage and feral of the two. A confrontation between Arthur and Lowe depicts Arthur as such:

Arthur weakly pushes himself up on from the concrete, up onto all fours; he is still on the verge of where the paltry curtain of light gives into the darker recesses of the basement, and in this in-between space Arthur's face is the carnivorous mask of a feral thing--his eyes catching the light with silver-flash iridescence, the pale flesh, where not glistening with dark fluid, is wrinkled around the folds of a sneer. Teeth. Though, in the gloom, Lowe cannot discern if Arthur's teeth have shifted to an unnatural sharpness or if they've simply broken unevenly as a result of the violent fall. Arthur lifts a hand, his long fingers forming into shivering claw

This paragraph not only exemplifies Smith's dark, fluid prose and bone-chilling atmosphere, but, in an obscuring manner, depicts Arthur as something less than human, whether it is because he's Gregory's son, or because his ambitions, desires, and greed reduced him to such a state. Vagueness and obfuscation are key elements in Weird Fiction, and Smith utilizes those elements masterfully. 

Clint Smith has written a truly dark and terrifying tale that takes you into the seedy underworld of mob affairs. It also illuminates family matters and themes of betrayal, loyalty, and survival. It's an exemplary work of Weird Fiction, showing us that we don't have to be taken to other realms to be terrified, but to the very streets we live on. We have no idea what's in the house next to us.