Monday, March 21, 2016

Autumn in the Abyss: Review/Analysis (Spoilers)

The impossible scenario witnessed by eyes wide with panic and ears praying for silence suggested truths the mad display confirmed. Everything he thought he knew was false or at least altered.

My first experience with the writing of John Claude Smith was his chapbook, Vox Terrae, published by Dunhams Manor Press. It contained classic elements of Weird fiction but written with a fresh voice that took readers on a nightmarish journey through horrifying realms that no human being had any business knowing. In his collection, Autumn in the Abyss, I think Smith took the formula of Vox Terrae, mixed it with some black and abyssal ingredients from the tenebrous depths of places that even angels won't set foot in, and created a new mutant strain of Horror that deftly balances characterization, plot, pacing, and narrative, culminating in an experience that will fill you with disgust, sadness, and even a hint of both optimism and hope.

Published by Omnium Gatherum, Autumn in the Abyss is a collection of five grotesque and disturbing stories that explore a variety themes, such as obsession, desire, humanity, redemption, hope, identity, insignificance, and the power of words, all while traversing through places that make us uncomfortable; places that we tend to stay away from and turn a blind eye to. Smith's writing in this collection possesses a grimy and corrosive quality; it slowly eats away at you, digested by the dregs of life. The atmosphere Smith creates is like a haze of thick smog that chokes and disorients you; it weighs you down and slows your pace, so that you have no choice but to take in Smith's unsettling and horrifying imagery. You have no choice but to witness the worst that life has to offer; a side of humanity that is so revolting, it makes your stomach turn and inevitably numbs you. 

Some of the protagonists in Smith's stories are at the bottom of the barrel of humanity. They are people who are detached from the rest of the world; they are plagued by obsessions and desires and will stop at nothing to pursue and achieve them; they prey on others who they deem as being less than human, but fail to see their own inhumanity. Some of them are so far gone, there is no hope for them; they are beyond reach. Others, though, are still inside the circle of redemption and will take the necessary steps to make things right for not just themselves, but for those they hurt as well.

In the story, La mia immortalità, Samuel Nisi is an artist who has been successful in photography, oil paintings, and now in sculpting, a profession he took up several years ago. Despite his success, however, he is searching for everlasting fame. He wants to create something that will be remembered and revered long after he is gone. He wants immortality, no matter the cost.

His aspirations had grown cunning. He would attain his goals at any cost, which had cost him friends, colleagues, personal relationships- not that they mattered to him. Anything that got in the way of his life's purpose, as whittled to spear sharp intensity as the years tolled, was easily discarded.

Nisi cares not for his current girlfriend Claire. She wants to talk to him but he cannot be bothered. He cannot stand the fact that he is associated with the human race; he sees himself above everyone else. Claire tells him she's pregnant and all he can say to her is to get an abortion; he wants nothing to do with Claire or the baby. So much, in fact, that he's willing to murder Claire and his unborn child. All that matters to Nisi is his quest for immortality; he cares only for himself and what he wants. The story, Broken Teacup, also explores this theme of detachment and viewing other people as being less than human. The story explores the depraved lives of Mr. Rickart, Lemmy, and Elvis. Mr. Rickart and Lemmy prowl the bowels of small towns in Texas, looking for the "lowest of the low" hookers and propositioning them to perform "the most disgusting encounters imaginable". They record their encounters and responses form the hookers and use the footage and sound bits for their sleazy noise band, Texas Chainsaw Erection. 

Lemmy and Mr. Rickart's deplorable acts were turning heads but not bringing in the money. Their particular venture, however, draws a unique fan base and brings them cringe-worthy, nauseating requests, which eventually leads them into the realm of murder. Being offered a lot of money, coupled with this sick idea of taking your act to a whole new level of depravity and inhumanity, is something that cannot be passed up by them. 

The killing was odd in the beginning. No problem for Lemmy, but I only did a couple girls before I realized that wasn't my thing. That said, most of these girls, hell, they haven't been living for a while, so it's not like they was missing anything important. It was not like their missing would be noticed.

Once they decide that these women have nothing to live for; that they have no family that miss them and are looking for them; that they are somehow less than human... it is they who crossed over into the realm of inhumanity. It's almost as if there is this sort of predatory hierarchy. This is how genocide begins: the moment you begin to view the other as being beneath you; as being sub-human and not worthy of life. Broken Teacup is not an easy read, but Smith is exploring a side of our existence that is all too real and horrifying. Becoming Human is also in the same vein. In this story, we have two men who are on opposite sides of the human spectrum, but both have lost touch with humanity and the world around them. 

Before his years of spiraling into physical and emotional decline chasing Corbin Andrew Krell--also known as Krell the Destroyer, Krell the Creator--Detective Roberto Vera was an idealist. He was strong in both motivation and spirit. 

He'd believed in justice, in right and wrong. Black and white. Rather patented and predictable  and sounding like the spiel from some cigar chewing TV detective, yet he believed it to his core. He knew and understood there would be many sullied signposts along the way, showing him scenes and situations that measured darkness in blood and power, in minds gone to rot and obsessions mired in immortality. His resolve was stalwart.

Many of us are like Vera, or have been Vera, or even want to be Vera. Yet, we all have that one encounter; that one experience that tips the scales and changes us for the worse. For Vera, his tipping point was his experience with Krell. Krell is the Joker to Vera's Batman. Krell is viewed by Vera as being an evil monster who represents the worst of our kind. What started as killing his victims soon turned to rape, torture, and mutilation. Krell saw himself as changing, and he was changing his victims, too, reducing them in nature, humanity, and identity, while he saw himself as ascending. Through his crimes, he's transforming. He wants to "not be". In his self-perceived transformation, Krell is moving beyond evil. In a face-to-face with Vera, Krell says this:

I strive for something else, beyond evil's claustrophobic clutches. I strive to transcend evil by becoming pure nothing. I strive as my followers strived. I am, yet I strive to not be. 

Krell and his ultimate goal are beyond Vera's comprehension. Yet, Krell is Vera's whole life. Vera is consumed by his obsession to try and understand Krell, along with putting him away for life. Vera's partner, Derek Sommers, ended up taking his own life because of the horrible things committed by Krell. Derek witnesses true evil and cannot bear to live. Vera loses his marriage, his ideals, humanity... everything. Smith does a rather skillful job of reflecting the horrors we experience in real life and on an almost daily basis. Many of us cannot help but wonder why some people do the things they do. Why would someone leave a helpless baby out in the cold to die? Why would one group of people commit genocide against another group? We try to comprehend why we commit such horrifying acts against one another. We ourselves are consumed by these thoughts, and sometimes are reduced to Vera's state: we are left numb. 

There is an interesting twist to Becoming Human, though; a twist that adds tremendous depth, power, and emotion. In the present parts of the story, Krell is in prison, and Vera is tracking down a Krell copycat killer. Once Vera is face-to-face with the copycat, he discovers that it's Krell. How can that be?? Vera's next discovery is that the copycat Krell is, in fact, an alien from the darkest depths of the cosmos. Vera asks it, "What are you?" The alien responds with:

I am nothing, in search of something. In search of... being. I... I and my others, fragments splintered off the deep shroud... out there. We fled to the farthest reaches of... infinity. We are connected by thoughts. We hear each other's thoughts. Our aim is to fit in. To... assimilate into the society of those whose planet we choose to... be on. To be. We find a random figure of the primary race of the planet we've chosen and follow it, learning the ways of the beings we wish to... live with. It takes time to get all the nuances... precise. From nothing to something takes time.

This is what makes Becoming Human easily the most powerful, gut-punching story in the collection. Here is an alien being that is nothing, but wants to become something. Of all the people it chooses to help with its assimilation, it chooses Krell, a monster who is something, but wants to become nothing. The irony is so palpable. The innocence of the alien makes the story even more effective. It knows nothing about right or wrong, or what is good and what is evil. It simply wanted to fit in with humanity, but it ended up choosing the worst example of humanity and continued Krell's awful crimes. It is through this experience, though, that Vera rediscovers his own humanity, as he explains to the alien the kind of human Krell is, and goes on to explain the other side of humanity, the side that works together for the betterment of mankind; the side that is capable of displaying compassion and empathy; the side that is capable of love and kindness. 

After much discussion between the two, the alien wants Vera to take it to Krell. It wants to give Krell what he most desires: to become nothing. I think Vera is somewhat baffled as to why the alien wants to do this for Krell, but I believe the alien is displaying a small amount of compassion for Krell, despite his monstrous nature, and, perhaps, as a way of saying, "After all I've done through copying Krell, let me make it right by doing this." It also clicks in Vera's mind that Krell will cease to exist; the alien would be doing the entire human race a favor by "taking out the garbage". It's the scene between Krell, Vera, and the alien that makes the title of the story so appropriate. After all of his philosophical talk of transcending evil and becoming nothing, when Krell discovers what is happening, he experiences a common human emotion: fear. He breaks down and becomes the very  human he doesn't want to be. He's granted his wish but is scared to death, reduced to a child being left alone in the dark and calling for help. As for Vera, he realizes there is still hope for himself; he can turn his life around for the better, and he starts by reconnecting with his wife. 

Smith's stories also explore themes of balance and insignificance. Four out of the five stories have one thing in common: Mr. Liu, an enigmatic figure who traverses a realm between humanity and something other. This also creates something of a shared universe, adding an element of connectivity. The characters in the tales exist together but in different places, yet they all have doomed and unpleasant encounters with Mr. Liu. He acts as a messenger for what he calls "caretakers of the universe", and all we know is that they, according to Mr. Liu, maintain balance. 

In the case of Lemmy, Mr. Rickart, and Elvis, they are commissioned to do a rape, torture, mutilation and murder piece; however, it's a means to set them up and make them pay for swinging the pendulum too far in one direction. They have a woman they call "Broken Teacup" and are ready to perform their end of the deal, when Mr. Liu appears and Broken Teacup makes short work of Lemmy and Elvis. Believing that some people are salvageable, Mr. Liu offers Mr. Rickart and opportunity "attain a kind of dignity amidst the chaos, within what is left of your existence". Broken Teacup wants to be shown love. It's an opportunity that cannot be fulfilled though. You see, how can a person like Mr. Rickart possibly know what love is? He's so far gone from humanity, considering the horrible things he has done with his now dead cohorts, he's never felt, let alone shown, love. Not wanting to end up like Lemmy and Elvis, he better learn fast. 

Samuel Nisi also encounters Mr. Liu. Not knowing who Liu is, he accepts a commission from him to sculpt a piece that he is given free reign over; however, it's all a ruse, as Nisi must not be allowed to end the life of Julie and the baby inside her, for the baby is to have, according to Mr. Liu, an incredible future, and Nisi is just to awful to exist, so he inevitably experiences the horrors of the caretakers. In the case of Derek Jenner in the story, Where the Light Won't Find You, his curiosity causes him to encounter Mr. Liu purely by accident. Liu set the stage for another person to be disposed of; someone who outlived their usefulness, and Jenner was there to see the whole thing, much to the dismay of Mr. Liu, who sees no choice but to dispose of Jenner as well. After much discussion with Jenner and the higher beings, Mr. Liu agrees to let Jenner go, but makes him swear that he is never to speak of this event. It's an ending that is similar to how Becoming Human ends. Jenner isn't quite in the same boat as Vera, but he's not perfect. After what he witnesses, though, he decides to try and live a better life, starting with his girlfriend Daisy. He promises himself that he's going to love her right. These two endings help highlight that it's possible for us to turn things around in our lives. Sometimes, we are not beyond hope and redemption; we have a chance to makes things better for ourselves and the ones we love. We no longer take certain things for granted. They're not happy endings, but, rather, nice reminders of the kind of people we can be, and of what we have and should appreciate and be thankful for.  

The first story, Autumn in the Abyss, is the longest out of the five and also explores themes of identity, balance, obsession, and how words have the power to change the world around us, for better or for worse. Mr. Liu appears only briefly, but the caretakers are in full effect. The story revolves around a man who is obsessed with finding a poet named Henry Coronado and a poem he read, called Autumn in the Abyss He suffers from a rather severe case of agoraphobia, coupled with a weight problem. His days are spent eating Ramen noodles and looking under every rock and in every nook and cranny searching for Coronado. The man eventually learns the truth about Coronado, himself, and his place in the hierarchy of the universe. 

Smith's collection is packed with grotesque imagery and disturbing situations that, on the surface, makes you want to turn your head, but the stories do well in addressing how people let themselves be consumed by their obsessions and desires, and the terrible consequences that often follow. These stories emphasize that to be human is to be flawed. We are not perfect. We are capable of doing good things, and we are also capable of doing bad things. We can be selfish one day, and altruistic the next. Sometimes, however, we find ourselves crossing over that line of no return, and the farther we walk, the more difficult it is to come back. We can be afforded opportunities to make things right, though; we can turn around and walk in the other direction and back over the line. Then, there are some who walk so far they can never return. Smith's stories have a duel effect of painting a gruesome picture of how awful our kind can be. And they also make you thankful for what you have; appreciate the things we take for granted.

Monday, March 7, 2016

The Incoming Tide: Review

Fishing isn't only about catching fish. One of the things it's about is how a fish fights -- and just as importantly, how you fight a fish.

I've known of Cameron Pierce for some time. I've seen his name mentioned on many Facebook updates and passed around in various literary circles. When I read that he was an avid fisherman whose stories heavily revolved around fishing, I said to myself that I would purchase one of his books and give it a read. I noted before in my review of Steve Rasnic Tem's story, The Fishing Hut, that I have loved fishing ever since I was a kid. And while I don't get to do it as often as I used to, I still enjoy the occasional fishing day, whether it's with my family or by myself. Now having a son, I look forward to taking him fishing when he is old enough. 

Published by Broken River Books, The Incoming Tide is a pocket-sized book that is less than a hundred pages, consisting of flash fiction and poetry. While fishing is at the heart of Pierce's writing, it's used as a means to explore themes of life, death, parenthood, man and nature, maturation, memories, the simple things in life, and even the strange and alien. The stories and poems are also broken up with passages titled Beer Commerical, serving as a sort of brief intermission for the reader, where the joys and sorrows of life are reflected through having a beer. 

Reading the passages within The Incoming Tide, you can feel the warmth and passion that Pierce writes with. The writing blanketed me with a sense of tranquility, and, at other times, nostalgia and even mystery. Pierce also does well in exploring the unknown, and emphasizes that we do not just find horror and the grotesque in it, but we can also find beauty and wonder. In the story, Ragged-Tooths, a few fisherman hike out to the sea to catch some sharks. Pierce sets the mood by having the story take place at night, wording it in such a way that conveys mystery and darkness:

What I am saying is there were four of us in the nighttime, miles from anyone else, except for the hermit who lives in a cave at the river mouth. His cave was dark this night.

Just four men and the night, fishing for one of the most feared predators in the sea. Yet, when the narrator finally catches one and releases it back into the dark waters, it's described as "the most beautiful sight I'd ever seen." We may fear the dark and wonder what lurks just beneath the surface, but that doesn't always equate to horror; sometimes the most beautiful things can emerge and stay with us forever. In Winter Rainbow, beauty in the form of rainbow trout are pursued on a chill December morning. The narrator and his wife, K, catch rainbow trout and bring them home to make trout sandwiches:

There's nothing better than waking before first light in December, then returning home in the afternoon for hot coffee and a fresh trout sandwich. That's why in the darkest part of the year, you'll find me pursuing rainbows.

Even the the coldest, darkest parts of the year hide beauty in its depths. It's also about the simple joys that can be found in sitting down with a loved one over a cup of coffee and a trout sandwich. These are things that should be cherished the most, yet we sometimes take them for granted; we get caught up in the stresses and chaos of life, causing us to miss out on what's right in front of us; causing us to overlook the little things. In Even if the Earth Floods, you get the sense that Pierce is conveying to us to enjoy the good things we have:

                    Someday the dead sailors may rise up.
                    Someday we may even drown.
                    For now, let me hold you.
                    Even if the dead sailors flood the earth,
                    let me hold you

                    Let's dig one more clam before dark.
                    Let's drink one more beer before dawn.
                    We can always climb onto the roof
                    if the earth floods.

You get the feeling that we need to enjoy the here and now. You never know what's going to happen tomorrow. Go ahead and have one more beer with that special someone. Go ahead and meet your friend for a late night cup of coffee. Enjoy the times with your friends and family. Life can be crushing, but we mustn't allow ourselves to be weighed down all the time. You can really glean that from the story, Fishing Derbies, where the narrator says, "Fishing isn't only about catching fish. One of the things it's about is a how a fish fights -- and just as importantly, how you fight a fish." I take this as a meditation on how we go through life; it will sometimes put up a great fight, and how you fight back will dictate the outcome. 

Elements of spirituality can be detected in some of the writing. My favorite poem in the book, The Promise of Water, puts an emphasis on man and nature; being alone outside, just you,  your thoughts, a cup of coffee, and your fishing rod:

                    Some mornings I wake before the sun rises
                    to fish the Willamette.
                    I fish on cold winter mornings, alone.
                    Coffee thaws the frost on my lips
                    as I walk the desolate downtown streets.
                    I cross the river to the Eastside
                    to fish under Burnside Bridge
                    where sturgeon lurk in the deep water.
                    I bask in the frozen glow of Old Town's neon sign
                    as I make my first cast,
                    heaving squid-on-hook into the dark.
                    And yet I don't wake early just to fight with dinosaurs.
                    I wake because the promise of water
                    isn't a thing a man can hold for long,
                    like a love song from another world.

My interpretation is that there is a hint of spiritual oneness here, being outside, alone, on a cold winter morning. The day promising to bring water. Just being there, at the water, is enough to uplift your spirits and make you feel truly at peace. It's a true appreciation for nature and the privilege to experience it in that manner. It may, perhaps, be akin to a religious experience, but not quite. Although I think spirituality is more appropriate here. The water being older and more primal than the dinosaurs you are fishing for. This theme of fishing alone, and that spiritual feeling, can be found in other stories and poems in the book as well. Alone Among the Driftwood projects that same theme, along with the give and take nature of the seas, as the narrator watches a dog jump in the water and under the channel, only to never surface. A similar incident happens in Fishing on the Jetty After Midnight, where the narrator witnesses a man scuttling "like a crab across the rocks and splashed with the roiling dusk." Rather ambiguous, as you know nothing about the man except that he went into the water. It's enough to make you wonder why he did it, and exuding an element of strangeness to it all. The things you see (or think you see) while fishing at night. 

Stories and poems explored are but a fraction of what can be found in The Incoming Tide. The poem, Mother Steel involves a pregnant woman having a mother-to-mother moment with a pregnant fish on a wooden dock, telling the silver hen that her children will be all right. It's a short, yet powerful piece on the universality of motherhood, and the caring, nurturing nature of one mother to another. Blood for Blood is another short poem that revolves around fishing to feed your family; you're trading your blood for the blood of another. Pierce even charts a course for our absurd little rituals that are unique to each of us, in the story, Cooking Shellfish in My Underpants. Or how we all have that one special fishing spot that you can't divulge to just anyone, as told in XXX Creek. Through fishing, beer, rituals, haunted lawnmowers, Pierce has written an evocative, reflecting and though-provoking book that can be appreciated by anyone who has ever stopped to take the time to enjoy the little things. Anyone who has taken the time to savor that beer with your friends; anyone who has taken the time to stop and tell that special someone that you love them. It's for anyone who has endured the hardships of life and came out stronger. This is a book that appreciates life for it's beauty, mystery, strangeness, and all the stuff that happens to us in between.