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- Weird Fiction Review
Speculative Fiction Junkie is a product of my love for fantasy, science fiction, horror, and weird fiction.
As someone who loves to collect first edition/first printing books myself, I'll do my best to identify the true first for each of the books reviewed.
- The Absence
- Act of Will
- Beneath the Surface
- Beyond the Door
- The Bleeding Horse and Other Ghost Stories
- Bloody Baudelaire
- The Boats of the "Glen Carrig" and Other Nautical Adventures
- Box Nine
- City of Bohane
- City of Saints and Madmen
- Cold to the Touch
- The Company
- The Court of the Air
- The Crown Conspiracy
- Curfew and Other Eerie Tales
- The Darkly Splendid Realm
- Dark Eden
- The Dreaming Void
- Feesters in the Lake
- Horrible Imaginings
- The Horrifying Presence and Other Tales
- The Infinite Instant
- Judas Unchained
- The Kill Crew
- The King of Deadtown
- The Last Book
- The Lies of Locke Lamora
- Literary Remains
- The Manual of Detection
- The Man Who Collected Machen and Other Stories
- Mars Life
- The Midnight Charter
- Mistborn: The Final Empire
- Mr. Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters
- My Own Private Spectres
- The Mysterious Flame
- Nightingale Songs
- Nyphron Rising
- The Oblivion Society
- Old Albert - An Epilogue
- Old Man's War
- On the Hill of Roses
- Pieces for Puppets and Other Cadavers
- Pump Six and Other Stories
- Putting the Pieces in Place
- The Quantum Thief
- Red Planet Noir
- Remember You're A One-Ball!
- The Resurrectionist
- The Road
- The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart
- The Saint Perpetuus Club of Buenos Aires
- Saturn's Children
- Scar Night
- Shadows & Tall Trees - Issue 1
- Snow Crash
- Song of Time
- Sourdough and Other Stories
- Southern Gods
- Strange Epiphanies
- Strange Tales: Volume III
- The Third Sign
- This Hermetic Legislature
- Those Who Went Remain There Still
- Through A Glass, Darkly
- Witchfinder: Dawn of the Demontide
- The Windup Girl
- Worse Than Myself
Like so much great fiction, City of Bohane is difficult to summarize. While it is many things, at its heart it is the story of a singular town in western Ireland roughly fifty years from now and of its singular inhabitants.
Bohane is a gritty, drug saturated, unforgivingly violent place that is divided into various quarters, each of which has its own mini-culture and is dominated by one strong personality or another along with the gangs that do these individuals' bidding. Geographically, the city is dominated by the presence of the Bohane River and by the Big Nothin' wastes that surround it.
As the novel begins, Logan Hartnett, leader of the gang that more or less runs the show in Bohane, has a lot to worry about. In addition to increasing unrest among the inhabitants of the tower blocks known as the Northside Rises, rumor has it that the Gant Broderick, a former lover of Hartnett's wife, has, for reasons unknown, returned to the city after an absence of more than twenty-five years. These developments portend imminent violence and it's clear from the start that bloodshed is inevitable. Other major players in the unfolding drama include Jenni Ching, young and ambitious owner of the Ho Pee Ching Oh-Kay Koffee Shop and Girly, Logan's ninety year old mother who lives at the top of a hotel and spends her time drinking Jameson, watching old movies, and plotting.
The very first thing that confronts a person who picks up this book is the unique dialect of its characters. Take this, for example, from Page 5:
'Cusacks gonna sulk up a welt o' vengeance by 'n' by and if yer askin' me, like? A rake o' them tossers bullin' down off the Rises is the las' thing Smoketown need.'I confess that I groaned when I first read passages like this one and that it took me several days to get through fifteen pages of the book, but it didn't take long for it to grow on me and I actually found myself appreciating it after a time. Interesting as it is, however, the real story about the language in this book is the author's prose, which while pointedly brusque at times maintains a sort of soothing musicality throughout much of the book. Consider this passage:
'Cusacks are always great for the old talk, Jenni.'
'More'n talk's what I gots a fear on, H. Is said they gots three flatblocks marked Cusack 'bove on the Rises this las' while an' that's three flatblocks fulla headjobs with a gra on 'em for rowin', y'check me?'
You might see Wolfie Stanners pass through those doors, or Fucker Burke with his prize Alsatian bitch, Angelina, or - swoon of swoons - the killer-gal Ching from the Ho Pee.Passages like this one make clear what Mr. Barry meant when he said in a recent interview that he is an author who primarily "works from the ear." His prose's musicality lends even the more mundane aspects of his tale a sense that they are part of an artistic whole.
These were the legend names on the lips of the young ones in Bohane as the spring of '54 came through.
And the spirit of the humid night at a particular moment caught the boys, and the badness (the taint) was passed down, and they broke into an old tune that worked off a doo-wop chorus - it fit nicely up top of the calypso beat - and they sang so hoarsely, so sweetly, and their young faces were menacingly tranquil.
Yes and the song carried to the old dears hanging out washing on the rooftops of the Trace, and they paused a mo', and smiled sadly, and sang croakily the words also: 'It's a bomp it's a stomp it's a doo-wop dit-eee...it's comin' from the boys down in Bohane cit-eee...'
And a whisper of change traveled on the April air with the song, it went deeper and on and into the Trace, and the ancient wynds came alive with the season.
Dogs inched their snouts out of tenement hallways and onto the warming stoops.
Upon the stoical civic trees in the Trace squares a strange and smoke-streaked blossom appeared, its flowers a journey from sea grey to soot black, and the blossom was held to work as a charm against our many evils.
Beyond the city, the sea eased after the viciousness of springtide and softly, now, it drew on its cables - its rhythms a soft throb beneath the skin of the Bohane people.
The second thing one notices about City of Bohane is how odd and yet strangely compelling its inhabitants are. On the one hand, many of them appear to be preoccupied with power and violence in a sort of Gangs of New York way. But on the other hand, they are also obsessed with fashion, prone to bouts of over sensitivity, and susceptible to episodes of overwhelming nostalgia for the lost times of both their own lives and the life of their city.
City of Bohane contains no great moral lessons. As the novel ends, there is no great sense of accomplishment or closure. Rather, the reader is left with a sense that he or she has simply witnessed the passage of events and time in the life of a particularly interesting town and its particularly interesting inhabitants.
The True First
City of Bohane was first published in the U.K. by Jonathan Cape in March of 2011. Unforgivably, this true first edition was only released as a paperback. The first hardcover edition was published in the United States by Graywolf Press in March of 2012.
The latest small press to draw my attention is Hieroglyphic Press, whose web page states that it is "a small imprint primarily dedicated to publishing works of an eclectic and rarefied nature: to use a quote from elsewhere we wish for spiritual art - Decadence, Esoterica and Symbolism."
This sounded right up my alley and, combined with the fact that the press will also be publishing a biannual journal to be co-edited by Mark Samuels, made me extremely eager to get my hands on the press's first effort. In retrospect, I should have realized that it was completely unfair of me to expect that any press could do what none before has managed to do. That is, I should have realized that there is in all likelihood no press on Earth capable of getting me to finally appreciate the work of Stefan Grabinski.
On the Hill of Roses reproduces in its entirety the first collection to be published by Mr. Grabinski under his own name in 1919 and throws in an additional story for good measure.
Much is made of the place that Mr. Grabinski's work occupies in the history of weird fiction. On its website, for example, the publisher says "[w]e at Hieroglyphic believe that his work forms an important thematic bridge between European Symbolists such [as] De L'Isle-Adam and English language writers of metaphysical fiction such as Algernon Blackwood and Arthur Machen." This is all well and good, but we here are at Speculative Fiction Junkie are in the business of reviewing stories for their quality as stories, not for their historical or academic significance per se.
So how do the stories that make up On the Hill of Roses stand up as stories? Not so well, to be honest. In a recent interview, author Simon Strantzas was asked what draws him most frequently to weird fiction. He answered in part that "[g]ood fiction needs to express its themes and characters and plot in a way in which each are balanced, each revealing themselves in a strange and bizarre way." I agree with him and think that the greatest shortcoming in Mr. Grabinski's fiction is that it fails in this respect.
Far from balancing themes, characters, and plots, the stories in On the Hill of Roses often contain almost no plot to speak of. One tale, for example, is essentially about a man who takes a nap on a hill against a four-sided brick wall and what he discovers when he decides to climb it one day. In another, the first half describes how the protagonist is followed and tormented by another man every where he goes and the other half is devoted to what happens to the protagonist psychologically once the man is killed. While wonderful works of weird fiction have been constructed from much less, in Mr. Grabinski's case, the prose is so inartfully sparse and the development of atmosphere so completely absent, that in the final analysis there just isn't enough of a foundation from which to build quality stories.
What these stories do contain is a surfeit of tiresome chatter about various psychological and physiological phenomena. Consider this passage from the story that gave this collection it's name:
Every point of a body sends out a scent of a special and, to a certain extent, individualized tinge that calls forth a corresponding stimulation in my olfactory center. If we conceive a fragrance to be a movement of particles of ether, similar to the motion of a light or heat wave, and the like, then the affair becomes clear. The sum of these stimulations, arranged at the cerebral cortex according to their source, gives an overall impression and through this underground path is transformed into a sum of visual stimulations heading to the optical center and producing mental pictures. In a special circumstance, there probably existed a very close relationship between my sensitivity in my centers of smell and sight. The slightest change in one elicited an immediate response in the other: these centers seemed to share mutually reciprocal sensations. To be sure, another element also involved in this was an intensification of an unusually fine memory, which having had a history of experiencing various stimulating smells in the air would elicit a corresponding series of visuals of every possible association and combination. Perhaps just as a brilliant musical scholar is able to play to the end an entire symphony based on a few notes, I was able to surmise from not much its entirety.Whatever other purpose this sort of thing might serve, it irretrievably destroys the stories' pacing along with any sense of atmosphere that they might otherwise possess. Perhaps the best clue to what is going on here is found in translator Miroslaw Lipinski's statement in the introduction that:
The overwhelming majority of his stories have a sincere investigatory basis. He was not writing stories to simply elicit a frisson or capture a mood, or to top other writers in bizarre situations and effects....In his stories, Grabinski was attempting to address and explore the mysteries of life and the varied, intricate dynamics of the human mind. Yes, one can read a Grabinski story and just enjoy its form, plotting, and intellectual sharpness, but if one approaches the story from Grabinski's investigatory perspective, it can become atypically confrontational, even psychologically frightening.I think Mr. Lipinski has identified the heart of my problem with these stories: they aren't stories in the conventional sense. Mr. Grabinski is less concerned with writing tales composed of the elements that have defined the best stories for thousands of years; form, plotting, atmosphere and the like. He is more interested in investigating the mysteries of life in a more direct way. His work may be valuable in that sense, but the resulting tales don't hold up in my opinion as stories per se.
Attempting to rescue an author from obscurity is almost always a worthwhile and noble endeavor, and this is certainly true of the work of those who have labored for years to elevate Mr. Grabinski's reputation to what they feel is its rightful place. Mr. Lipinski in particular deserves the greatest respect for his tireless work on Mr. Grabinski's behalf. Regrettably, though, I cannot number myself among the growing ranks of Stefan Grabinski's admirers. As for Hieroglyphic Press, I am eagerly looking forward to their future output, and I'll note here that many of Speculative Fiction Junkie's favorite independent presses have had books reviewed here that have received relatively low scores, including Cemetery Dance, Midnight House, Night Shade Books, PS Publishing, Tartarus Press, and The Swan River Press.
The True First
The Hieroglyphic Press edition of On the Hill of Roses was first published in 2012 in a limited edition of 300 unnumbered copies.
[This review was not based on a review copy]
Dan Ghetu & D.P. Watt (Editors)
If short stories in general are under appreciated by the reading public, then I think short stories written and collected as an homage to a particular author are even more so. I have no real proof to support this suspicion, but if you search the Internet for reviews of such collections, I suspect that you'll find that there are far fewer out there than there are for single author collections.
This Hermetic Legislature: A Homage to Bruno Schulz is the third homage volume from Ex Occidente Press. The first, Cinnabar's Gnosis, was an homage to Gustav Meyrink, and as I am not a huge Meyrink fan I gave it a rather cursory read at best. The second homage volume, The Master in Cafe Morphine, was a tribute to Mikhail Bulgakov, and as I have never read anything by Mr. Bulgakov before, I passed this one up completely. Bruno Schulz, by contrast, is a writer I am more familiar with and as such, I thought it was time to finally see what these Ex Occidente homages are really all about.
I am by no means a Schulz scholar, but I have read and enjoyed his two major works and am of course familiar with his infamous murder by a Nazi officer. And while I am sure that many of the nuances and references contained within the stories contained in This Hermetic Legislature escaped me, I grasped enough to really appreciate what a wonderful job the editors and authors have done of paying tribute to the vision and style of Schulz. Some of these tales pay tribute to Schulz by including him as a character or reworking events in his life; others do so by telling stories in what one might call Schulzian prose. All of them, though, contribute in one way or another to the formation of a picture of the regrettably absent man and his work.
To me, the two main characteristics that distinguish Schulz's work from the work of others are its extreme nostalgia for lost days and its intense playfulness with the laws of time and nature. While these two facets are separate in a sense and are each fully mature in their own right, they also work together in a way that is almost magical. Nostalgic tales of lost youth are not simply retold but are instead transformed through Schulz's willingness to tinker with time and natural laws into myths. And this playfulness with reality often works to transcend the inescapable sadness that is inevitably at the heart of much of Schulz's work.
As I mentioned above, each of the stories in this collection contributes in some measure to the overall project, but four stories in particular are worth singling out. Surprisingly, none of the four was written by Speculative Fiction Junkie favorites Mark Samuels, D.P. Watt, or R.B. Russell even though all three contributed pieces to the collection. Instead, all four were penned by authors whose work has never been reviewed here before. These four stories are among the best short stories I have ever read.
The first is the extremely nostalgic "Letters in Black Wood" by Joel Lane. In it, a man recalls the time spent with his father in his youth, and the hole left when not only the father but the whole world that the family inhabited together is gone. Mr. Lane's prose is so poetically evocative and beautiful that my eyes nearly burned out when I read this story. I will definitely be reviewing more work by Mr. Lane in the future and can't really explain why I haven't done so yet.
On the more playful end of the Schulzian spectrum is the marvelously imaginative "The Messiah of the Mannequins" by Rhys Hughes. It is the story of a clockmaker in a town populated by deformed individuals who decides to animate all of the town's mannequins because he is convinced that the imminent return of a comet means that the mannequins' Messiah will soon make an appearance. The vibrancy of the town is reminiscent of the locales that appear in Schulz's work, as is the playfulness of the plot and the way that Mr. Hughes bends the conventions of normality. Statements like "Unlike so many fanatics, Barabas had a conscience; but he kept it in a jar at home and never took it out with him on a mission" are found throughout.
Another story that will forever be one of my favorites is "With Shadow All the Marble Steps" by Oliver Smith, who I have never heard of before. While it addresses some very weighty matters at points, it is on the whole a playful tale and has absolutely hilarious moments. It takes place in Argentina and opens with a government spy enjoying breakfast with the man he has been assigned to spy on and explaining to the man's servant that he has been tasked with spying on this particular individual because the latter's tangoing is a grave threat to the Republic. One of its main characters is the still conscious brain of Adolph Hitler, which has been preserved in a pickle jar that it shares with other cucumbers. This leads to one of the most hilarious passages I've read in some time:
Adele was propelled before Dr Fausto's Panzerfaust. Through the glass, Senor Adolpho was shouting in German. From what I could make out, he was demanding a larger jar. The cucumbers tumbled and dived like frenzied lampreys. I was disturbed to see his eye bulging towards my own temporarily vacated vessel and under Senor Adolpho's direction the pickles were charging at the thankfully impenetrable glass barrier. He was shouting about being keen to see our living room. He seemed to think it would make a nice new home for his cucumber people.The final of the four standout stories in this collection is "A Calendar of Cherries" by Colin Insole. Seven years after most of the town's men left to fight in the Great War and were captured, they unexpectedly return to their home town. But instead of arriving at the town's modern train station, they arrive on a track of the old empire that has been unused for years. During the men's captivity, the entire world has changed, including their own town, which is now dominated by the poster board people. Instead of reintegrating into this new world, the men increasingly retreat to the rooms at the top of their houses and there attempt to hang onto the world that they knew. I will definitely be reading more by Mr. Insole if I can get my hands on his other works.
Adele was staggering beneath the weight. They emerged from their circumnavigation of the orchestra and at last Dr Fausto spied Father. Through her hand Adele could feel the strengthening vibrations of 'Deutschland Uber Alles" rising from the glass.
These four stories are absolute masterpieces, and while understanding their connection with Schulz gives them an added dimension, one can fully enjoy them without ever having read any of Schulz's work at all.
The True First
This Hermetic Legislature: A Homage to Bruno Schulz was first published by Ex Occidente Press in June of 2012. It is limited to 122 hand-numbered copies.
[This review was not based on a review copy]
Brian J. Showers, the man behind Swan River Press, has said that while the latter collection focuses on Mr. Bell's ghost stories, Strange Epiphanies focuses on his mystical tales. While I haven't yet read A Certain Slant of Light, it is definitely true to say that Strange Epiphanies contains predominantly mystical tales.
A majority of Bell's protagonists are lonely individuals dealing with personal loss on such a scale that it threatens their very existence. Many have lost partners under tragic circumstances. The resulting tales are melancholy in the extreme and often involve these listless individuals coming face to face with a mystical reality whose intensity overpowers and ultimately annihilates them.
One of the finest tales in the collection in my opinion is "M.E.F." It is the story of a man who returns to the Hebrides every year to mark the anniversary of the death of his partner on one of the islands and, in a parallel vein, attempts to locate the cairn that marks the spot where another young woman died under mysterious circumstances decades earlier. He soon finds that his passage to Iona has been more than just a physical one:
To arrive on Iona is to cross a series of borderlines: England to Scotland; Glasgow City, through the Highlands, to the Argyll glens; over the Firth of Lorne to Mull; twenty miles across the mountains, beneath Ben More, along the Ross, then the passage of the Sound of Iona. And there is a spiritual borderline too. At times, these past few days, I have felt I could remain here forever, that I belonged on Iona. I am not sure it is a wholesome thought; but if this journal is a record of anything, it is a record of borderlines, and the transgression thereof.The Hebrides prove to be a place of violently inconsistent weather: rain that lasts all day and howling wind that blows from all directions through the night give way to occasional moments of calm and beauty. And this physical tumult is accompanied by a spiritual one, as the protagonist vacillates violently between gray melancholy and religiously-tinged euphoria, to the point that we soon begin to doubt his sanity. It soon becomes clear that in coming to Iona, he has left whatever protections were afforded by daily life and entered a realm where he is exposed to a disorientingly intense reality.
Perhaps my favorite tale in the collection is the truly remarkable "An American Writer's Cottage," which appears in this collection for the first time. It is the tale of an intellectual who comes to the Hebrides seeking escape from her personal and professional obligations for a time. The same theme of crossed boundaries is present in this story from the very beginning, as the protagonist waits to be ferried to the island:
Emerging indistinctly from the gloom, his hunched spectacle called to mind Charon crossing the Styx....It was, she reflected, a threshold; and it made her ponder, not for the first time here in the isles, on the frailty of civilisation and our craven dependence on its trappings.Here, though, the annihilating reality she encounters is more overtly terrifying than in the other two stories discussed thus far. Through an increasingly thick haze of alcohol and cigarettes, what begins as a vague sense of personal loss and Hebridean gloom, steadily becomes something more ominous as she starts questioning the island's mysteries and as the nighttime darkness and isolation oppress her more and more.
The other tales in the collection, are good but are not in my opinion nearly as good as these three. Nonetheless, if the others don't seem quite as impressive it is only because these three are so fantastic.
Mr. Bell writes about an area of experience that seems to be almost wholly neglected by other writers. I'm not sure what to call it exactly. He writes about people whose experiences and dispositions have rendered them uniquely susceptible to the power that certain places can exert over the properly attuned. These people seem drawn to such places and experience a stunning combination of awe, fear, and melancholy once they arrive. It is a testament to Mr. Bell's abilities that their ultimate annihilation seems to be a completely natural consequence of their entrance into this more intense reality. I keep returning again and again to the image of a man walking stoically into a rough ocean and simply letting the waves crash over him until they finally carry him away. I can't wait to read his next collection.
The True First
Strange Epiphanies was first published by the Swan River Press in April of 2012 in an edition of 350 copies. Stunningly, as of the time of this review, there are still copies available for purchase from the publisher.
[This review was based on a review copy]