Three short, grisly stories from Black Water this week and I’m starting to feel like this anthology is the mix-tape Alberto Manguel made to impress Jorge Borges.
The first story, “An Injustice Revealed” by Anonymous, comes from 6th century China and I feel that Manguel really missed an opportunity to talk about P’u Songling here. For anyone that doesn’t know, P’u Songling was an 18th century collector of strange tales from China and those stories, like this one, have a tone that’s simultaneously desolate churchyard and cosmopolitan city (with a good bit of the bawdy and scatological thrown in). The weirdness comes across in how commonplace the supernatural seems. “An Injustice Revealed” is typical of the style and shifts from the previous stories in the anthology by the fact that the ghost here is treated like any other welcome visitor.
Ye Ning-Fei, a government inspector, has come to the province to uncover the local Governor’s corruption. Ye’s friend, Wang Li, was the previous inspector to the province and died while investigating the same Governor. One night as Ye sits going over the books Wang appears and asks Ye to do him a favor. Basically, a bureaucratic snafu has caused his soul to get separated from his corpse and now he can’t pay the spirit-money necessary to cross from one spirit-province to the other. Would Ye be so good as to burn some spirit money for him so he can pay the tolls? Ye agrees, but wants to hear more about the afterlife. Wang tells him about his trial in the Court of Hell and the mistake that saw his soul locked up there. This mistake points to the Governor’s corruption and from it Ye gets the name of a person wronged by the Governor. But it doesn’t matter much because the Governor dies and goes to Hell, which Wang knew all about because he heard the details of the case while trapped down there.
It’s a good story, but reads more like a treatment than an actual story. Again, if you want to read more stuff like it I recommend you track down a P’u Songling collection. It’s like a collection of News of the Weird that’s a thousand years old.
“A Little Place Off the Edgeware Road” by Graham Greene continues this mix of the supernatural and the commonplace. In a throw back to an earlier story we get treated to another dilapidated movie house and the sad clientele drawn to such places. Only Craven, the story’s main character, is no Pablo Gonzales hoping to find love. Instead, Craven is your typical young male depressive out wandering in the rain beneath the burden of their own intrusive thoughts. To take his mind off his particular fixation, which involves graves and the fact that “under the ground the world was littered with masses of dead flesh ready to rise again”, Craven decides to stop by a rundown theater and watch a movie. Midway through a man sits down beside him, and as murder gets done on screen this man starts whispering to Craven how different actual murder is from the one depicted. At a few points this man even takes Craven’s hand and occasionally coughs on him. All told Craven’s utterly repulsed by the guy. When the movie ends the man leaves as the house lights come up but he doesn’t get away before Craven sees he’s covered in blood. Being a law-abiding sort Craven calls the cops, saying he’s found a wanted murderer. But the cops say it’s not the murderer that’s missing, but the victim’s corpse. At that moment Craven catches sight of himself reflected in the phone booth’s window and his face is covered in blood as if it had been sprayed with a fine mist. With this revelation he promptly has a nervous breakdown. The End.
The MR James piece is from “A School Story” and it’s a snippet of a conversation between two horror story connoisseurs one-upping each other with scary stories. Coming where it does, I can’t help but see it as a critique on Manguel’s project as a whole, warning us that the wondrous can become dull when we indulge in it too often.
Next week, a Signalman and a Tall Woman.
I got lazy. Then I decided to move. Then I moved. Now I’m getting back to it. So here are the books I read and liked.
The Comedians by Graham Greene: A novel about morally compromised people making bad decisions as the world falls apart around them. Here we have Mr. Brown, a jerk of a hotel operator, obsessing over his affair with a diplomat’s wife in Papa Doc’s Haiti and the friendship he strikes up with two other dubious characters, Mr. Jones and Mr. Smith. Their nondescriptness is what draws them together. Overall the whole thing comes off as a farcical tragedy. Somehow through a series of awful events characters’ patheticness and pettiness manages to get twisted into something almost virtuous. I can think of plenty of reasons why someone would hate this book. It’s about privileged people being petty and awful in the face of suffering. And yet, or maybe because I am an awful person too, I love it.
The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie: A self-contained fantasy novel!?! Who would’ve thunk it possible!?! The thing I really liked is that Leckie manages to write a bottle story where the characters are confined to a single place and time, yet she still manages to make the scope wide and far-ranging. This is a world full of politics and gods, but also individuals and their day to day problems. I feel like this book is one that could serve to welcome people back into the fantasy genre.
Be Like the Fox: Machiavelli In His World by Erica Benner: I loved, loved, loved this book. And blathered about it on my Patreon. Did you know I have a Patreon? This is my Patreon. Why not support my Patreon? SuPpOrT mY pAtReOn. Support me and my writing, and receive my gratitude in return!
Capitalist Realism by Mark Fisher: This book depressed me. You should read it.
Far North by Marcel Theroux: A grim post-apocalyptic road novel that’s as stripped down and lean as The Road but a bit more interesting because the narrator has a richer backstory. She’s the descendant of a religious back-to-the-land commune that sought to escape the impending collapse by settling in Siberia. The book nods heavily at the Western genre and its utopian yearning for some promised land that must exist just out of reach over the horizon.
Edges by Linda Nagata: Far future SF with downloadable minds, lives lived on various layers of virtual reality, and sentient alien artifacts that outlive their creators. The characters are a bit broad strokes, but the world and technology are fascinating. In particular I love the ideas that humanity’s great knack is our ability to subvert technology and merge with it no matter how alien it might be, and the universe is less populated by aliens than it is by the systems and devices they left behind. Fun stuff and while it stands alone it brings back characters from Nagata’s Nanotech series.
Mammoths of the Great Plains by Eleanor Arnason: This is an alternate history novella of the quiet sort (as opposed to the Rommel-and-Patton-team-up-to-fight-Hitler-and-Stalin-oh-my-god-I’m-so-hard-right-now sort) that posits the existence of wooly mammoths in the American West during the era of Thomas Jefferson and the Lewis & Clark expedition, and what their continued existence means in relationship to and as metaphor for the coming struggle between Native Americans and European settlers. Not much happens and it’s very much a told story, but I was caught in it and enjoyed the ride.