In an English cottage two old women sit and drink tea. Outside, the modernizing world makes its noisome rumbles and smoke. Inside, the women eat small sandwiches, sip tea, and gossip about the lives they’ve led. One, the sick one, begins to tell a story. It is not a love story but it is a story about love and devotion and a deserted house where something called a “token” lives. If you go to the house and stand outside the door the token will listen and let you take on someone else’s troubles for your own. The woman went there for love, so she might take on all the pain destined to come to her man. It didn’t matter that she could never be with that man. She was his and that was all that mattered. Now, the cancer on her leg grows, and the story ends when the nurse arrives and complains about old ladies and their gossip.
That’s the outline of Rudyard Kipling’s “The Wish House”. A story I like more as an idea than in its written form. It’s all told in a very roundabout way, and by the time the actual Wish House appears it’s easy to have gotten distracted by the why’s why and who’s who in the story. But retelling the story above, the idea becomes visible again and I’m once more interested in the “token”.
Other sites will go into the Christian symbolism Kipling employs in the story. The sick woman’s name is Grace. GRACE! Get it? But all that’s pretty scant sauce on an idea I wish had more exploration.
Now on to a story about a suburban father who fears for his son and what he’ll learn about life down at “The Playground.” This is a Ray Bradbury story, so it’s ripe with what now reads as corny Twilight Zone weirdness, but that’s only because Ray Bradbury was as good as he was and made his legacy ubiquitous.
This is an anti-nostalgia story with an adult remembering their childhood as an era of brutality and powerlessness. The father views the playground in question as a demonic place where children are introduced to the world’s cruelties and it’s now his responsibility to protect his child from those same cruelties. That the playground has the supernatural power to spare the son by sacrificing the father (Get it!?!) pushes this into the fantastic.
“The Playground” has some great descriptive passages in it as Bradbury renders hop-scotch outlines, slides, and swing-sets through a lens that would do Hieronymus Bosch proud. Also when set right after the Kipling story the whole notion of taking on another’s troubles as one’s own becomes much more sinister. Kipling’s a believer in his story, while Bradbury is an agnostic at best. Sure, the playground has a manager and the light is on all the time in their office, but no one’s ever in there and the manager’s never been seen.
I feel like I should read more Ray Bradbury. At the same time I feel like I’ve already read too much Ray Bradbury. Yet, I haven’t really read all that much Ray Bradbury. It’s just that decades of entertainment have absorbed so much Ray Bradbury that we’ve all read Ray Bradbury without having read Ray Bradbury at all.
Next week some more spooky shit!
Today on Black Water Book Club dead lovers once more appear and jealousy rears its ugly head.
First, Edith Wharton’s “Pomegranate Seed” about Charlotte, a newly married woman trying to uncover the truth about the mysterious letters her husband keeps receiving. That the husband’s first wife died tragically lets you know right away where this story is going, and while it delivers few surprises it is a deep dive into an individual’s emotional landscape as they oscillate between jealousy, curiosity, and fear. Wharton’s one of those writers that can have a character walk up the steps to their house then go on for three paragraphs of internal monologue as the character pauses before their door with key in hand. That Charlotte becomes obsessed with finding out the identity of the letter writer leads her to lay a trap for her husband that ultimately has tragic results. Overall, the story’s a bit disappointing. The touch is very light and the haunting raises more questions than it answers. But if you like introspective stories that focus on a character’s emotional landscape, this might be something you enjoy.
Also, a last note about Wharton: I had always associated her with the late 19th century, but she died in the 1930s and was publishing right up until the end of her life. All that’s to say that when the narrator talks about automobiles I did a bit of a double take.
Next we have “Venetian Masks” by Adolfo Bioy Casares, another story about being haunted by the specters of obsession and jealousy, only this time the explanation is scientific as opposed to supernatural. An unnamed narrator describes his love affair to Daniela, a brilliant biologist. As time goes by the affair grows increasingly strained until it ultimately ends, and the narrator tries to move on with his life but fails. Years later he learns his friend married Daniela, and by chance the three encounter each other in Venice during Carnival. Only now it appears that there are at least two Danielas, because of cloning technology and the fact that Daniela’s a brilliant biologist. What she’s done is custom designed cloned versions of herself to give to her former lovers. That’s the reveal, and the narrator’s reaction to this information slams the story shut.
This is the kind of SF story you either love or hate. It’s more interested in the scientific idea of cloning than in how that science would work. And the story plays out in a strange setting that’s ambiguous and confused. It’s Carnival! Everyone’s wearing masks of archetypal characters. Is the narrator only playing a part in some timeless farcical love story? Is Daniela the model for a new Columbina? What sort of future will her technology usher in? How creepy is it that she sells off her clones to her former lovers when she has outgrown those lovers? Who cares! The narrator’s an obsessive hypochondriac prone to psychosomatic illnesses and that condition matters more to the story than any exploration of technology or future world distorted by cloning technology. I am absolutely fine with that and so far alongside “The Mysteries of the Joy Rio” this has been one of my favorite stories in the anthology so far.
Next week, Kipling and Bradbury!
Welcome back to the Back Water Book Club or the BWBC as I’m going to call it from now on. This week we hit the stories!
To start off is Julio Cortazar’s “House Taken Over”.
It’s a ghost story. Sort of.
It’s more a metaphor story, but for what I don’t know. This story has ambiguity dripping all over it. A middle-aged brother and sister living in an old house find themselves at odds with a nameless unseen “they” that shows up one they and starts taking over their home. At first it’s only part of the house, and the brother and sister flee behind a sturdy oak door into another part of the house, but before long the unseen “they” take over even this part, and the brother and sister are forced to flee the house entirely.
But who are “they”? It’s uncertain. They simply appear and instead of confronting them, the brother and sister let them take over the house. Is it scary? Are the brother and sister actually ghosts haunting their ancestral home? Is the haunting actually an indictment of the brother and sister, as the intruders appear to have much more life than either of the pair? The story offers no answers. My reading’s that the “they” are metaphorical, a symbol of the unseen majority that will push the marginalized into the streets unless confronted.
Scary? No. Strange? Kinda. Ambiguous? Oh yeah.
Following that, we have a more traditional story in Robert S. Hichens’s “How Love Came to Professor Guildea”. This one features the recognizable Victorian trope of two old educated bachelors of opposing personalties who manage to be great friends despite their differences. Instead of Holmes and Watson, it’s a Father Murchison and a Professor Guildea. Murchison’s the sentimental idealist, while Guildea’s the man of pure intellect and reason. The two meet and get into debates about the human condition. Then Professor Guildea finds himself haunted.
And it’s here where we encounter the “ick factor” I talked about back in the introduction, because whatever the entity is that attaches itself to the Professor, its main characteristic is that it’s mentally disabled and the chill of the story comes from that fact. The entity that haunts the Professor is described as an imbecile (and not so flattering as such), and this makes both men shudder. While the entity seems to mean no harm, the very affection that it shows the Professor is deemed unnatural and a thing to be feared. And so the men set out to rid themselves of the thing with mixed results.
So, is this scary? Sort of. From the entity’s initial appearance as a ragged form on a park bench to the Professor’s slow discovery of its nature, and the dawning realization of what it wants, the story manages to get under one’s skin and linger. But that it relies on ableism to do so can’t be denied.
Next week… a possible hoax and some more ick factor from Tennessee Williams!
Hello, folks. Welcome to the Black Water Book Club.
Today we’re taking a quick look at the book’s forward before next week when we’ll start looking at the stories proper. Fortunately, the forward’s brief and it gets to the point quickly. Manguel gives a good working definition of what he thinks fantastic literature is:
“Unlike tales of fantasy (those chronicles of mundane life in mythical surroundings such as Narnia or Middle Earth) fantastic literature can best be defined as the impossible seeping into the possible, what Wallace Stevens calls “black water breaking into reality”. Fantastic literature never really explains everything.”
He then outlines the main themes common to all the stories selected for the anthology:
– Time warps
– Unreal creatures, transformations
– Mimesis (seemingly unrelated acts which secretly dramatize each other)
– Dealings with God and the Devil
“The truly good fantastic story will echo that which escapes explanation in life; it will prove _in fact_ that life is fantastic. It will point to that which lies beyond our dreams and fears and delights; it will deal with the invisible, with the unspoken, it will not shirk from the uncanny, the absurd, the impossible; in short, it has the courage of total freedom.”
One thing I’ll note is that while no story has been steeped in the complete bigotry of, say, an HP Lovecraft story, a few so far have relied on certain prejudices to achieve their impact. That this would be the case in stories that rely on dreams, fears, the absurd, and the uncanny should surprise no one. But this “ick factor” when it occurs can leave a bad taste behind it. The fantastic as Manguel approaches it is not to be mistaken for a clean place at all.
If you want to read more about Alberto Manguel, here’s the link to his wikipedia page. His Dictionary of Imaginary Places is a fun book to spend a few hours with.
Alberto Manguel’s Black Water: The Book of the Fantastic is an anthology of world literature from 1983 that’s considered a pioneering book for the weird genre. It’s cited as influential by others, in particular Ann and Jeff VanderMeer who put together their own anthology of weird literature. While Black Water‘s still leans Eurocentric, Manguel succeeded in pulling heavily from outside the English language, paying particular attention to the South American writers who formed his own background. At close to a thousand pages long Black Water does an admirable job at providing an overview of the fantastic as written around the world. Certainly its seventy-two stories excel in scope beyond other omnibus anthologies of weird stories from earlier eras. Used copies go for around ten dollars on Amazon, but I found my copy for half that back in 2017 at a used bookstore in Provincetown, Massachusetts. I bring all this up because one project I will work on this 2020 is a read through of the book over the course of the entire year, writing capsule reviews of the stories here at a rate of six stories per month.
I hope you’ll join me, or at least follow along.
Close Your Eyes is a hallucinatory space opera, well, a nominal space opera at least. It reprints the 2009 novella Open Your Eyes and adds a continuation on to it as the misfit salvage crew find themselves in an alien world.
In this book language is a virus, but you likely heard that one before. What might be news is love is a virus too. It consumes and destroys as efficiently as any microbe-borne fever could.
A woman impregnated by a supernova, a man obsessed with an imaginary woman, a woman held captive by her love for her abuser, and another woman trying to resurrect her dead lover. These individuals compose the ship’s love-doomed crew as they scavenge across the stars and ultimately encounter an apocalyptic brain-melting alien language virus.
Things happen. Events spiral into chaos. Dooms are averted or not to catastrophic results.
One trope of space opera is that there are galaxy spanning hegemonies or polities, Federations, Empires, Cultures, and what not. In Close Your Eyes there’s none of that. There’s no there there. The galaxy is so big and the populations so distant that it’s like no one lives there at all. The technology too is at once familiar and incomprehensible. Characters walk the ship’s eiga armed with betadurs while their patueks back-up their brains in case of emergencies. None of these get described, but a lever on the wall does.
It’s jarring, but it also might be the point.
When setting is more atmosphere and mood than concrete details, the reader’s invited to take an active part in the story’s creation and fill in the gaps. But this also means the reader might make some leaps the author wouldn’t intend. The world depicted in Close Your Eyes is a world where predation abounds. The big fish always eats the little fish. And this applies to AI computer systems, alien language viruses, as well as simple interpersonal relationships.
And while all this is recognizable as space opera, the latter portions of Close Your Mouth are straight from Lewis Carroll. Just when you think you’ve figured out the rules, the novel pulls the rug out from under you and changes the rules, and we the reader emerge from one hallucinatory setting to another with suddenly different rules and different relationships. Where before you were on an awful space ship now you’re in a malevolent wonderland where the predation continues but events remain just as incomprehensible.
Is that a problem? I don’t know. Maybe for some, but others might find the weird, jarring imagistic stuff refreshing. I did. You might too.
Close Your Eyes is available from Apex Books and your usual monolithic internet retailers.