Wednesday, December 6, 2017

The Visitor: Review (Spoilers)

  Their faces--no longer marred by the horror of Dream transfiguration--were still intact. What she had been afforded was a glimpse into the future world. Of the fate that the song would condemn them to, as it had done to her over time. Rook knew at last what would become of all things. 

My first introduction to the work of Farah Rose Smith, and it did not disappoint. A chapbook published by Ulthar Press, The Visitor is about Rook, a musician in a goth rock band, who longs for fame and fortune. Her desire for wealth is so great, that she allows herself to be seduced by a being known only as the Visitor, from a place called the Afterworld. Rook travels to the Afterworld in her sleep, and receives lessons from the Visitor. Unfortunately, she cannot remember the sounds in her waking hours. One song, in particular, captures the ear of Rook; she says it would change the Rock 'n' Roll landscape. In exchange for bringing him to the realm of Earth, the Visitor tells Rook he'll give her the song. It's a Faustian bargain that will not only end badly for Rook, but the entire world.

What really stands out in The Visitor is Smith's prose. She deftly merges the beautiful with the grotesque, creating a vibrant, surreal world; reality and fantasy are blurred, as if you are experiencing a fever dream. The atmosphere is simultaneously ethereal and dreadful, possessing a dizzying effect. You wonder if Rook is in a sort of liminal state, caught between the real world and the Afterworld. Smith's language flows in and around you, smooth, exotic, and rotting. With such a level of quality and care, you can't put it down. 

At the heart of Smith's tale is not just Rook's bargain with the Visitor, but the power of music, as well. Rook is desperate for a change; she wants to get out of her trailer; she wants a life of wealth and luxury. Without giving any thought to possible consequences, Rook is all too eager to make a bargain with the Visitor, even at the expense of her secret lover, and fellow band mate, Miller, which does eat away at her, after the deed is done. Rook takes the life of Miller, allowing the Visitor to use his body as a vessel, giving him free reign over thie human world. It's terrifying scenarios like this that remind us of the mutability of our flesh; they remind us of our vulnerability to beings that far surpass us in every aspect, and are capable of using us as vessels, tools, puppets, playthings, and much more. Rook soon becomes aware of what she has let into her world, and the horror that is to follow. 

The Visitor touches on the power and lasting effects of music. Smith vividly describes the Visitor's music as being otherworldly; it's not meant for human ears, and it has a maddening effect on Rook and the rest of her band mates, during their practice. This being the first time the Visitor plays while in Miller's body:

The overture was a quiet orchestration. One of abysmal melancholy, growing ever stronger with each passing whir of the strange, ethereal guitar. It grew shriller, louder, until the rapturous pounding of rhythmic muscle overcame the subtleties of the beginning. It had theatre, poise--an erotic tension so powerful that one would feel as if a serrated wheel ran back and forth over the genitals, ever-satisfied with a cosmic teasing. Every second thrust the listeners into a seemingly orgasmic fury. A lustful thirst unquenchable in the land of men. 
The outro commenced. An exhaustive depression hovered over Rook--an omnipresent cloud. The others struggled to recover, overcome by the mad genius of the composition.

Music being used in such a manner brings to mind stories like Lovecraft's The Music of Eric Zann, which, I believe, is similar in the use of music never before heard by human ears. The vibrancy of the story is akin to Anya Martin's tale, Sensoria, featured in the anthology, Giallo Fantastique, published by Word Horde. Both Martin and Smith's tale touch on the power and lasting effects that music can have on us; how it can change not just us, but the landscape, as well. 

In the case of the music played by the Visitor, Rook doesn't realize what it's true purpose is until it's far too late. At the beginning of the story, Rook is in the Afterworld with the Visitor; however, it is in ruin. It is merely a husk of what it used to be. Vegetation is gone, dusk is eternal, forests destroyed. It is a land in peril. Through his music, the Visitor plans to restore the Afterworld to what it used to be, by sacrificing the inhabitants of earth. It starts with Rook. After the band's first practice, essentially, Rook's body begins to break down; and that is what will happen to everyone else, as Rook sees in a vision at the concert they are playing at, towards the end of the story:

The swaying of limbs, the flashes of flesh. Women and men alike removed their clothes and took to pressing their bodies together in a hypnotic rhythm; a new and obscene ritual that only the sound of Rookie Swallows could incite. The thrashing of arms, waggling of tongues, the clattering of genitals. And then, a single face was illuminated--a harbinger to a devil's denouement. A melted face of flesh, indecipherable amidst the muck and mortar. A frozen form so like Rook in the land of dreams, in the throes of flesh-melt; the highest form of dream transfiguration.

Much to her horror, Rook understands what will happen to everyone, and there is nothing she can do to stop it. Everyone will be used as fodder to bring life back to the Afterworld. "This was the song in its proper form--an indelicate means of melting man into feast, into fertilizer. It was terrible. It was magnificent. It was... over." That last bit about the proper form of the song as being terrible and magnificent at the same time is a great way of displaying human thought in the face of something way beyond our comprehension. How do we respond to such sites? How do we perceive them? It's also interesting to ponder the character of the Visitor. It can be argued that there is a level of ambiguity to him, concerning him being bad or good. As in, good intentions with horrifying consequences. He saves one world, but destroys another. And Rook is the one responsible for the fate of everyone; she let the Visitor into her world because she wanted wealth, even though she came to greatly regret her decision. 

 With The Visitor, Smith has weaved a tale of how we let our desires and obsessions cloud our judgment and ability to make rational decisions, often ending with terrible results. It's about music and the language it produces; how it impacts and changes us and the world. It's a haunting, grotesque, beautiful work of literature born in the dark recesses of some unholy world.  If this is what is to be expected from the rest of what Farah Rose Smith has to offer, you can call me an instant fan who eagerly desires to devour more of her work. 

Palladium at Night: Review (Spoilers)

What could no longer be called time passed nonetheless, replaced by a cold, lightless void with no activity save for perpetual dilapidation, existence dwindled into inert useless particles. All Irepani could do was witness this reverse of Creation. 

In a short amount of time, Christopher Slatsky has established himself as a credible force in the realm of Weird fiction. Starting off with a few chapbooks published by Dunhams Manor Press, followed by his debut collection Alectryomancer and Other Weird Tales, also published by Dunhams Manor Press, Slatsky's work has been devoured by many readers, garnering much--and rightly so--praise. Since the release of his debut collection, Slatsky has been featured in periodicals such as Strange Aeons, and numerous anthologies, which include Year's Best Weird Fiction vol. 3, published by Undertow Publications. With so much quality Horror and Weird fiction work being put out, it's difficult to keep pace with all of it, but I do try and make it a point to keep up with anything of Slatsky's that is published, which brings me to his novelette, Palladium at Night, brought to you by Dim Shores. 

PAN centers on Irepani, a recovering alcoholic who lives with his cousin, Lorena, in Portland, Oregon. Formerly homeless, and undocumented, Irepani spent a long time living on the streets of California, and in a bottle. After successfully making his way over the California border and into Oregon, Irepani has been living with Lorena for the last six years. He made great strides in turning his life around; he got sober, and found himself a part-time job at a diner. Wanting a break from the hustle and bustle of the city, Irepani decides to venture out into the wilderness with his dog, Cadejo the Third, and stay at the abandoned Leman fire lookout tower, where he believes he can find some much needed peace and solitude. What Irepani doesn't know, however, is that his little trip will turn into a nightmare of cosmic proportions.

In the majority of his fiction, Slatsky incorporates big concepts that are epic in scope, and PAN is no different. There are many components to the story: alcoholism/recovery, military intervention in the name of security, the occult fused with science, god/god-like/the divine as terror, and the concept of time. While there is so much packed into the story, Slatsky balances all of it rather magnificently; you don't feel overwhelmed or bogged down with what's being explored and communicated, even as the story goes back and forth between Irepani, and a group of scientists and military personnel, which helps add depth and tension to the story. Helping to move the story along is the feeling of dread and unease that slowly builds with each turn of the page. The atmosphere brings about a certain awareness that something is not right; nothing is what it seems, as Irepani soon discovers.

While Irepnai is all about seeking solitude at the lookout tower, many of his companions do not think it's a safe place to stay. The tower is something of an urban legend; it's a source of various stories and strange things, and Irepani's companions believe the city is much safer, offering relative safety, warmth, and sustenance. Driving Lorena's jeep, Irepani turns down a gravel road that leads to the lookout tower, and it doesn't take long for him to begin feeling a sense of fear. Cadejo whines and paws at the passenger window. Pulling over to let her out and go to the bathroom, Irepani notices the dashboard clock is dim, showing only dashes instead of numbers. Cadejo is gone longer than Irepani is comfortable with and finally calls her back; she returns, but Irepani is already on edge:

His heart hammered in his chest. Why was he so riled up? Cadejo had never been in any danger. The hustle and bustle of the city was comforting; the vastness of the wild held too many unexplored regions, places dimly lit where only cloven hoof and paw had disturbed the carpets of moss. Too many places for Cadejo to get hurt or lost. That must be why he was so on edge. 

During other parts of the story, Irepani feels exposed and vulnerable; he feels a sense of menace in the woods surrounding him. Slatsky does well in establishing a dichotomy between the wilderness and the city; a sort of wilderness vs. civilization. Over the centuries, perceptions of the wilderness have changed from being a dreadful place full of monsters and terror, to a place where people go to get away from city life; they desire the beauty and tranquility of the forest, so that they can forget about their life in the city for a while. In the case of Irepani, he very much wanted to get away from the city, much to the dismay of his companions, who view the woods surrounding the lookout tower as a cursed place where strange things take place. It's safer to stay in the city, the pinnacle of civilization. What I think Slatsky is delving into here is--at least to me--are the flawed and changing perceptions we have of what the wilderness is to us. An interesting essay that discusses this topic at length is by William Cronon, called The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature. Give it a read, if you are interested. 

Some major themes that Slatsky explores in PAN are time, alcoholism, and what we would probably call religious experience. The core of the story is how human perceptions of time differ at a cultural and individual level. Some cultures have no concept of time at all, while others may measure time by the changing of the seasons. Western culture lives and dies by the clock. At the individual level, one person could perceive an event as dragging on, happening in slow motion, while another person perceives the same event as happening so fast, they aren't exactly sure what happened. You could perceive a certain memory as happening a couple months ago, when it actually happened two years ago. Out in the wilderness, the clock in the jeep doesn't work, and Irepani's watch and phone are dead, so he has no way of keeping track of time, and he's basically guessing how long it takes him to get from the lookout tower to the Leman Observatory, and back again. In addition, the second narrative in PAN is the group of scientists who have been able to weaponize time; they can change the course of history by altering years, hours, minutes, even seconds. 

Of great interest is how the feat of weaponizing time is achieved through fusing mysticism with science. It's no coincidence, either, that Irepani says prayers to give him strength concerning his recovery from alcoholism, and the scientists and military personnel make mentions of God, and beings that would be considered god-like. More specifically, a Quasi-Temporal Eternality:

Sorry. A QTE is a being that experiences its entire life all at once, the past present and future simultaneously. With that in mind, an eternally existing God must experience everything that has ever been or will be. 

This is deliberate, I believe, on Slatsky's part. Some of the steps in recovery involve believing in something greater than yourself, and giving yourself over to that power, to help you recover. What Irepani experiences towards the end of the story, could be considered a religious experience. In the presence of the alien, QTE, whatever you want to call it, Irepani experiences the birth, death, and rebirth, of the entire world; he's reliving his past over and over again. He's experiencing the past, present, and future, simultaneously. In the face of something so powerful and far beyond human comprehension, how do we view such a thing? Is it divinity? Is the divine actually terrifying? Is this what Matt Cardin refers to as "Holy terror"? Does Irepani feel safe in such a presence? These are powerful questions that we may not want answered. Slatsky also creates a relationship with time and alcoholism; they parallel each other. When Irepani drank, it helped him:

But he wanted a drink. This wasn't just a craving, but something far more primal, addiction stained into his very soul. It was a cliche to say alcohol numbed him from the realities of life, but there was that and something more--drinking helped retain those rare moments when he'd felt happy about being alive, slowed everything down, prolonged the good times, the joyful memories moving as if sinking in molasses. Blotted out the anger and loneliness. Everything else was pushed aside, speeding by so quickly drunken brain couldn't acknowledge the struggles and pain.

We see how alcohol altered Irepani's perception of time. Drinking slowed everything down for him, allowing him to savor and enjoy the good times. Everything outside of that whizzed by him in a flash of light; he forgot about everything else. Another aspect is the loss of time. It can be interpreted that Irepani drank the bottles of vodka he found in the lookout tower, which could explain why he wasn't sure if the form he sees on path moved or not, or why some experiences seemed to last longer than others, or the opposite. Can Irepani account for everything that happened? Slatsky does so well in pairing an epic concept with the humane, weaving a powerful tale with multiple layers. 

We also see military intervention in the form of using time in the name of national security. Major General Targ wants to see that the security of the United States is not in any way threatened, but also wants to cultivate weapons out of time to "send enemy soil back 1.5 billion years when their land was at the bottom of the ocean." Such an amazing discovery and all we can think to do is use it for weapons. On the other hand, is it wise for us to traverse uncharted realms? Are we being careless with science? Just because we can, does that mean we should? By delving into the unknown, are we risking ourselves and the entire planet? 

Once again, Christopher Slatsky does well in solidifying his place in the contemporary Weird fiction landscape. He has crafted a tale that truly embodies what Weird fiction is. PAN is more than just about exploring the unknown and our place in the world and universe; it explores our perceptions and how they differ from culture to culture, and from person to person. It's about how we try and make life better for ourselves, no matter where we are from and what our circumstances may be. It's about understanding, and showing compassion for those who are suffering and in need.