I’m out of the Transfer Towns for better and worse. Better, because after six years dirty ole Pohang has started to feel a bit like home. Worse, because I had a book-reading writing/gaming buddy I could hang out with almost everyday living right up the street. I haven’t had anything like that in years, possibly even decades. It was great!
On to the books…
The Lais of Marie de France by Marie de France: Most summers I get this desire to read Arthurian tinged stuff and that led me to reading Jessie Weston and she got me reading Marie de France. Decent editions of both are available at Gutenberg. In France’s lais we’re dipping into the Chivalric tradition centuries before Mallory with stories of knights and their lady loves, magic oaths and spells, even a noble werewolf (BISCLAVRET!!!) Collected together these make for a series of great words and the like a collection of fairy tales you can dip in, read one or two stories, then put the book aside. Although you can certainly read it straight through. One thing that makes France’s handling of the material so enjoyable is how separate it is from the Christian tradition. That tradition is present but it’s not hitting you ever the head like it would by the time Mallory’s recounting the Grail Quest. I might use this for a yesterweird series of posts.
Jhereg by Steven Brust: Suddenly so many of the D&D characters my friends and I rolled up as teens make sense. Wicked Awesome Super Assassin Wizard does wicked awesome super assassin wizard stuff with his wicked awesome super assassin wizard powers and wicked awesome super assassin wizard friends. Yes, I’m mocking this book a bit, but it was a fun romp and I enjoyed its pace and flippant attitude. I know there are a lot more books in the series, but I’m in no real rush to read them. I’d rather save them as treats between other books.
Laura by Vera Caspary: Of all the books I read last month this one had me running around the most and recommending it to friends. Laura is pitched as a Femme Fatale, but really she is a modern professional woman in the world of 1940s advertising, doing her best to be an independent woman. What results because of that is like a Gothic novel set in the hard-boiled worlds of New York cops and savage murderers. Definitely give this a shot if the hard-boiled tradition is at all a thing you enjoy.
A Lady’s Guide to Ruin by Kathleen Kimmel: I haven’t read a lot of romance novels, but I’ve been told that there are two kinds: the first kind has the love-struck characters boning in the first twenty pages, and the second kind where there’s pages and pages of angsty, yearning, and flushed groin business before the boning happens somewhere in the 3rd act. This book is the latter type. It’s about a lovable thief and con-artist masquerading as a noblewoman in order to escape her criminal past. Of course she falls in love with the Earl who believes she is his cousin. To Kimmel’s credit, by the time the boning happened I was more interested in all the plot machinations and wished the groining would finish quick so the character could go back to resolving the plot.
The Broken Sword by Poul Anderson: If you had handed this grim fantasy ballad to the Viking era to 13 year old me, I would have gobbled this up and thought it was the greatest book ever: a dark brooding antihero, a quest to forge a demonic sword, monsters, war, sexy weird elves… the whole book is a witch’s brew of moody heroics that even though I’m less in love with such beverages now I can remember how much I loved the taste of them back then. If you’re a pulp fantasy fan and you’ve never read this, you owe it to yourself to track down a copy.
The Sisters Brothers by Patrick de Witt: The Sisters Brothers, Eli and Charlie, work for as hired killers for the Commodore and the Commodore wants them to kill a gold miner named Hermann Kermit Warm. So begins a picaresque novel as the two set out from Oregon and make their way to the gold fields of California. Along the way they encounter an assortment of odd characters and circumstances, all of it narrated by Eli Sister the more pensive and over-weight of the two brothers. This was a fun if deceptively easy read and with a level of artful construction that I appreciated. If you like atypical westerns this is worth tracking down.
And special mention goes to…
Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand: This is a delight of a book, and if you have an afternoon to spend and want to spend it with a wry smile plastered to your face this is the book to do it with. How can you not love a play that gives stage directions such as: “A MUSKETEER, superbly mustached, enters”?
North Korea claims to have successfully tested an ICBM, and what if I got incinerated without letting people know what I read and liked in June!?!
So here we are – prepare to have at least one calamity rectified.
Sadly, June was kind of shit for reading. Most of what I read made me shrug at best, while some of it actively annoyed. The high-lights on the other hand were few and far between.
Highlight the first:
Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan: Yeah, this was as good as the hype claimed. The focus is on 1st century CE Palestine with attention paid to all the various sects and factions at play in the region. If Iron Age politics are your thing, you definitely should check this out. Also, Aslan’s investigation of how Jesus of Nazareth becomes Jesus Christ and the history that not only shapes Jesus’s message but how we approach it (hint: the destruction of Jerusalem in ~70CE is a HUGE deal) makes for fascinating reading.
Highlight the second:
The Blazing World, and Other Writings by Margaret Cavendish: If you at all like science fiction and fantasy and are interested in its roots, you must read this. Cavendish was a 17th century English noblewoman who was a philosopher and an essayist, and The Blazing World reads like her riff on travel narratives mixed with speculative natural philosophy. A princess finds herself transported to another world where the inhabitants make her the queen and she has adventures. It’s loopy. and you might skim some of it, but there’s enough wondrous stuff in it that you’ll occasionally want to slow down and pay attention.
Last month I was hospitalized. This month I became a university professor. What a crazy few weeks it has been. Here are my favorites out of everything I read.
All Systems Red (The Murder Bot Diaries) by Martha Wells: There’s something to be said for having a light touch – or at least knowing how heavy a touch a book requires. Martha Wells knows just how much and what kind of weight to put on this story of an introspective and rogue security robot doing its best to protect its humans from danger. A bit of the fun is how much the robot comes off as an angsty, emotionally over-wrought teenager (with colossal firepower) who doesn’t care and just wants to be left alone to watch TV.
The Fiery Angel by Valery Bryusov: This is an awful cover to a fun novel. Early 20th century Russian Symbolist poet transforms his f’d up love life into a Gothic novel about witchcraft set in 16th century Germany. If you don’t think I’d be all over something like that, umm… welcome to my blog, and that’s the kind of thing I’d be all over like maple syrup on pancakes. I don’t really care that this might not work well as a novel and the protagonist more or less floats from incident to incident; I was on board from the start. If you like the yesterweird, you should definitely check this out. Bryusov wrote some SF that I’ll now be on the look-out for.
Mars Girls by Mary Turzillo: This is a YA adventure novel set on Mars, and I’ll be reviewing it next week as part of the Mars Girls blog tour. I’ll tell you up front though, it’s good. If you want some fun non-dystopian science fiction, check this out.
Polaris by Ben Lehman: OK. Technically this is a role-playing game, but its premise (tragic Arthurian/Dunsanyian apocalypse) is just so rich that I think of it as a novel. The whole ritualization of the game experience and the poetic sensibility the players are expected to bring to the table make this feel to my mind like what I imagine role-playing would be. Not that anyone in my current gaming group would want to run or play it, but yeah… Actually this reminds me of two things: 1) a highly stylized tabletop version of HG Wells’s Floor Games that a psychiatrist might use to get a sullen teen (or murderbot) to work out their issues, 2) the actual tabletop scenes in Mazes & Monsters.
The Wreckage of Agathon by John Gardner: There’s a whole subgenre of lit books about suburban college profs swapping wives and having affairs while they drink themselves to death. Well, The Wreckage of Agathon is that kind of book except set in BCE Sparta during a Helot rebellion. It’s a fun, if at times aggravating trip as it meanders all over the place. Between this and The Fiery Angel I’m starting to think I might have a thing for autobiography dressed up as a historical novel.
Rosewater by Tade Thomson: I thought this book was a mess, but such an enjoyable and fascinating one that I’m going to blather on about it. In a lot of ways Rosewater is exactly the kind of genre book I want from a small press publisher: a strange mess full of ideas.
The setting is 23rd century Nigeria after the Earth has been visited by extraterrestrial spores that have begun reshaping our habitat to better suit themselves. Kaaro is a former thief turned government agent. He’s also one of the few people made “sensitive” by the alien spores and gifted with a sort of telepathy. While most people see the alien spores as a blessing , Kaaro is less enthusiastic, but when something or someone starts killing off other sensitives Kaaro finds himself getting involved.
On one hand there’s a very cool cyberpunk novel in here as we follow Kaaro’s journey from thief to agent and onward, one made more interesting by the theme of colonization that pushes its way forward in moments. But it’s never didactic and beating you over the head with polemic. It still pitches floating cannibal mutants, weird sex, and weirder fungi at you. Where the problem comes in, in my opinion, is that it’s not simply that there’s too much here, but the order feels off and whenever I felt like I understood the setting and what things were about, Thompson piled on another idea that made everything wobble and tumble down. Not only that, but there were times things felt redundant – like we’d read for pages Kaaro’s journey into the fungi xenosphere, which is kind of like a trippy internet, only to have him come out and log into his 23rd century internet – and I’ll say it, we’re so post-Gibson and Stephenson at this point that describing how people use your super-cool super-futuristic internet is basically eating regurgitated pizza slices from 1997.
So on the other hand, I wish some better editing had happened and reins were tightened just to hone the story down to the essential bits, because those bits are good, very, very good. Anyway, if you’re in the market for some bewildering, but enjoyable near-future weirdness give this a look.
I’m reading CV Wedgwood’s The Thirty Years War. I’m near the start of year three of the war. This is what has happened so far:
Bohemia needed a king but couldn’t decide on one because electoral college/religion. It didn’t help that the two potential kings were more or less identical taciturn, easily manipulated young inbred aristocrats with the names Fred and Ferdinand. No one cared who sat on the throne except some asshole Catholics and some asshole Protestants. What mattered was that Bohemia was in Germany, and Germany was the highway between North Europe and South Europe.
If you wanted to sell British linens in Venice and North Africa, you marched them through Germany and Germans made a lot of money being a superhighway full of beer and inns. So many people wanted to control Germany that it was overseen by something like 2000 minor princes, families, and church holdings. And not just because of beers and inns and linens and markets but to control the road so when the time came, and everyone knew it was coming, and the shit finally hit the fan in Europe, that Austro-Spanish Superpower couldn’t march their soldiers out of Italy (breeding place of strapping young lads with low job prospects and mercenary captains eager to bulk up their CVs) along the German superhighway to Northern Europe where someone else’s Sister’s Father-in-law-Uncle-Cousin has his kingdom and he’s rich/also happens to be their cousin!
Everyone expects the fan shit hit to happen in a few years when a treaty runs out in Flanders, but surprise surprise a bunch of asshole Catholics got thrown out a window in Prague by a bunch of asshole Protestants because they had an electoral college/religious freedom (which totally only applied to Protestants and Catholics anyways*).
So two years ahead of schedule it’s time for proxy war in Germany, and Fred or Ferdinand is like Hey Uncle/Cousin/Father-in-Law can you help me out? And that Uncle-Cousin-Father-in-Law is like okay, and his enemies (the Uncle-Cousin-Father-in-law’s) are like No Fucking Way you Austro-Spanish asshole, you ain’t getting anywhere near that sweet German Superhighway. And they go to Not-Fred nor-Ferdinand and are like, let me help you out, because
no way that asshole gets access to that superhighway religious freedom!
One faction sends an army, the other faction goes to Italy and buys an army, and march march march, let’s have a fight. And if we can’t have a fight let’s just burn and loot shit. And at some point the Hungarians are like Man – we need to get in on all that looting, so here’s an army because Sister-Uncle-Brother-in-law-Treaty and Fred Ferdinand is like “Gee, thanks?” as his own kingdom is looted by his own allies.
And it’s more marching, more looting, and more fighting and then there’s a big fight outside Prague on a white mountain and the rebellious Bohemian side (Fred’s) loses, and Ferdinand’s like that’s all sorted out – by which I mean he has a bunch of protestants executed and their heads put on spikes and cuts up their paper telling them they have religious freedom, and he felt really awful doing it because he’s really just a shy, misunderstood privileged bro aristocrat manipulated by everyone around him but he totally went to confession before signing the death warrants so it’s all good.
Meanwhile Fred’s run off to the King of Sweden and is like Wah wah, my kingdom, and right behind Fred is this Manfred Max mercenary captain character like Wah wah where’s my f—ing money. And Fred’s like I ain’t got it, and the King of Sweden is like Let me help you because
German superhighway RELIGIOUS FREEDOM!, and Manfred Max mercenary captain is like, I’ll stick with you guys because war=money and maybe this time I’ll f—ing make some.**
And that brings us to the end of year two. Not confusing at all, right?
* The book makes no reference to what Germany’s Jewish community thought about all this high-falutin religious freedom talk. It’s accepted as a given that religious freedom was meant only to mean Calvinists and Jesuits shouldn’t be assholes to Lutherans and old fashioned folk Catholics. But the book’s not a series of cross-sections like Purkiss’s The English Civil War. It’s much more straightforward and chronological. From a folklore prospective this would be the eras of the the European witch-hunts, the Golem of Prague, the events depicted in Simplicus Simplicissimus, and the fairy tales the Grimms and Von Schwonwerth would write down two centuries later. Wanting to know how all that mixed into this brew of events is likely another book entirely.
** All every mercenary captain wanted to do was make enough money to retire to some nice quiet out of the way principality somewhere – and by that I don’t mean as like some dowdy bourgeois merchant, but as The Prince of the place. These guys seem like they come right out of a Jim Thompson crime novel like The Getaway. “Just one more war, baby, then I promise I’ll retire to that valley outside Genoa.”
The Victorian Thriller that out sold Dracula!
And which time then subsequently, and rightfully, forgot!
This is an awful book, written in the Victorian era’s worst style, although this last bit isn’t what makes it awful. It’s awful parts come from its Victorian preoccupations and assumptions (and its habit of dipping into aspirated dialect to provide local color). I read it hoping it would be better than it was, a bit of a lost gem, but really it’s your bog standard Victorian racism and obsessions set down on the page: evil gender ambiguous foreigners and their diabolical rites to ancient gods that sacrifice white English women and sap the vitality from virile young men by loathsome ways.
In it’s day The Beetle was a best-seller and its preoccupations obviously touched upon something warm and throbbing within the Victorian psyche (“gender ambiguity and foreigners are bad”), but reading it now it’s all one long, badly written tease to a hysterical denouement populated by wooden characters, the liveliest of which can’t seem to meet an invalid or a woman without wanting to thrash and shake them.
Lovecraft has rightly earned his epitaph as a racist. There’s no arguing that, but I’ve seen it argued that he unconsciously freed the English horror story from being solely obsessed with racial degradation (scare quotes all over that shit), and gave it something else to be horrified by with stories about humanity’s insignificance on the cosmic scale. If The Beetle is any indication of what the English language horror genre looked like at its widest reaching before Lovecraft, then there’s a debt owed to him for unwittingly shaking it free from its tiresome preoccupations.
Here are twelve weird books to get you through the year until next Halloween. They’re not all horror, but they’re all certainly weird. And if they’re not enough for you, you can always dip into the weird world of old whaling ship logs to hold you over.
This surreal fantasy novel tells the story of an unnamed heroine trapped by her uncle, a magician who rules over a magical island. It features all the opaque density of Peake’s Gormenghast at a 10th of the length. Definitely not for all tastes, as what exists as plot or character owes more to medieval alchemical texts than to formal story-telling structure, but the vignettes are rich and beautiful in their strangeness.
Eiseley writes like Thoreau filtered through Weird Tales. One essay in here “How Natural is “Natural”?” could have been written by Lovecraft in how it explores evolution and eternity.
“I too am aware of the trunk that stretches loathsomely back of me along the floor. I too am a many-visaged thing that has climbed upward out of the dark of endless leaf falls, and has slunk, furred, through the glitter of blue glacial nights. I, the professor, trembling absurdly on the platform with my book and spectacles, am the single philosophical animal. I am the unfolding worm, and mud fish, the weird tree of Igdrasil shaping itself endlessly out of darkness toward the light.
I have said this is not an illusion. It is when one sees in this manner, or a sense of strangeness halts one on a busy street to verify the appearance of one’s fellows, that one knows a terrible new sense has opened a faint crack in the absolute. It is in this way alone that one comes to grip with a great mystery, that life and time bear some curious relationship to each other that is not shared by inanimate things.”
This short novel is a bit like one of those VH1 behind the music specials penned as a ghost story by Arthur Machen. In the early 1970s members of a British acid rock band hole up in mysterious Wylding Hall to record what will turn out to be their greatest album. However while recording their lead singer will disappear into the hall and never be seen or heard from again. Years later the musicians, their friends, and associates meet with a documentary filmmaker to try and solve the mystery.
Hand clearly evokes the late 60s early 70s music scene, and I’ll admit that half way through the book I went on youtube to see if I could listen to any of the fictitious band’s music.
A Gothic fantasy novel from 1908 by noted expressionist illustrator Alfred Kubin that dissolves into decadent surrealism at its end. It’s a book you’re either going to love or hate. I loved it, but I enjoy long slow train rides to oblivion. It’s easy to see that this book influenced both Kafka and Peake, as well as provided a satire of all reactionary, idealistic utopias where one wealthy genius (or man of ego), heaves off to some isolated spot with his followers and impresses his will completely upon them until disaster results.
This collection knocked my socks off largely because it was an impulse buy, I liked the cover, and being the ignoramus I am I’d never heard of the author. What I expected was some quaint “English” ghost stories. What I got was startlingly different.
Lee was the pseudonym for Violet Paget a Victorian writer in the circle of Henry James and Walter Pater. She wrote poetry and travel essays, but she’s now mostly known for her supernatural stories like those collected here. Favorites include the titular “Virgin of the Seven Daggers”, “Amour Dure”, and “Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady”. If you happen to see this on the remainder table definitely grab a copy.
McDowell’s probably best known as the screenwriter for Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice and The Nightmare Before Christmas. He was also one of the highlights of the 70s/80s paperback horror boom and an advocate for taking delight in all aspects of trash culture.
The Elementals reads like a weird cocktail mixing Capote, Salinger, and Stephen King at his goriest as two Alabama families decide to spend the summer at their isolated beach houses, doing their best to forget the empty third house nearby that’s slowly being swallowed by a mountain of sand. Unfortunately, things in the third house won’t forget about them.
Both trashy and creepy, and hats off to Valancourt Books for bringing McDowell back into print again.
Eleven horror stories by seven authors written in the early decades of Soviet Russia, a time of civil war, strife, and untold hardship. None of these stories have been printed before and with the exception of Bulgakov (and maybe Krzhizhanovsky) I suspect most people don’t even know the authors, but damn… these stories are great, Chayanov’s and Krzhizhanovsky’s being my favorites with doubles, duels, and medical specimens run amok. Definitely a collection worth tracking down.
The year is 1689. The place is Cold Marsh, a village on the border of civilization fourteen years after King Philip’s War ended when the village men slaughtered the inhabitants of a nearby native village. Now a series of disappearances have occurred and the men set out once more into the wilderness to confront whatever evil they can find. This novel captures that awe that exists close beside our fear of the unknown.
What makes these stories stand out is how firmly they’re grounded in the world of the marketplace and the ties between masters, servants, craftspeople, and… ghosts. Taken as a whole you get this sense of the supernatural sharing mundane qualities with the everyday world. If you’ve ever had a temp job where you stepped into a place and instantly your skin crawled and you thought “some bad shit’s going on that I can’t see here”, then you’ll enjoy this book.
So imagine Dead Poets Society at an all women’s college circa 1975, except swap out Robin William and replace him with Charles Manson. That’s this book.
A student falls under the spell of her charismatic English professor and his wife. Moral degradation, debauchery, and revulsion ensue. It’s a Gothic horror novella without any supernatural elements in it. I recommend it, but it’s a f’d up book. Not for everyone.
Near the end of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House there’s a chapter or two where the haunted house takes over the protagonist and warps all her perceptions. This entire book is like those chapters as a young woman with an eating disorder slowly gets taken over by the ghosts of her mother and grandmother lurking in the house. Meanwhile her brother may be making the whole story up and a refugee crisis is brewing. So if you ever wanted to read a stylish, but weird, haunted house story from multiple POVs this is your book.
This is a twofer as it collects both of Sloane’s mystery-horror novels from the 1930s, To Walk the Night and The Edge of Running Water. I’d wanted to read them since seeing the old Boris Karloff movie The Devil Commands, which was based on Edge of Running Water and gives you sights like this one.
By far Edge is my favorite of the two novels collected here, but both are curious in that they suggest an alternate horror genre that never quite emerged. If mad scientists, unsolvable murders, and explorations beyond space and time float your boat, then track this down and give it a shot.
Here’s a link to the Nicholson Whaling Collection at the Providence Public Library. It has a huge archive of whaling vessel logbooks full of squirrelly handwriting and cryptic doodles.
I’ve only poked at the thing haphazardly, but one of my favorites is the log of the Levanter out of Boston, MA from 1861. It’s reel #397 if you scroll down. The ship’s master is listed as simply “Clifford”. The picture above comes from that log as do the following doodles, including a ship board obituary:
The files are big and take a while to load. I suggest if you want to peruse them that you view the PDFs at 25% their size. It makes scrolling easier.
This is one of those things I have no idea what use I have for it, but take great joy in knowing exists.