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 fl├Ęche 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.