Monday, 14 January 2013
Laird Barron's two story collections The Imago Sequence and Occultation have made him my favourite horror author next to Lovecraft; However, I hesitated to read his first full-length novel, The Croning, for a while; I felt that in some of Barron's last few stories some of the recurring motives were wearing thin, and I wasn't quite sure if the mythology he has established could carry the weight of a whole novel.
The Croning put these fears at rest (while awakening a few older, darker ones); it is a brillant novel, perhaps Barron's best work to date, even though it is not as relentless as most of his short fiction. It has a much slower pace, but not in the sense that the narrative is stretched out - The Croning is a relatively short novel of about 250 pages -, but in the sense that it really is the story of a sinister truth unfolding over the course of more than 60 years. I think what Barron sets out here to reformulate a fundamental concept of cosmic horror - the notion that the universe is alien to us, and that a true understanding of its alienness can only come at the expense of our humanity - on a very personal level. Lovecraft with his technique of suggesting the unspeakable by a sort of frenetic loquaciousness couldn't do that.
[From here on, beware of spoilers]
The Croning's narrative about the not quite normal, but basically good life of it's protagonist Don Miller, which is peppered with events that hint at abject terror that he either forgots or dismisses - until, in the very end, they coalesce to a fearful picture that undermines everything he ever believed and trusted in. The main storyline concerns octogenarian Don and his wife Michelle, happily married, who live in a house that has belonged to Michelle's family for generations and in which Don has never felt quite at home. Several flashbacks show both of them in their younger, wilder years and suggest that secrecy and violence have played a bigger role in their life than the older Don remembers.
Using a protagonist with a unreliable memory to construct a narrativeabout fearful revelations might seem like a cop-out, but Barron utilizes this device in a very effective and above all, believable way. His short stories are full of moments in which relatively normal situations tilt sideways, and suddenly everything seems to slide towards the abyss of the abject - and, as opposed to Lovecraft, Barron is usually highly economic in describing such moments. Take, for example, a passage from The Croning where Don, who is already slightly off kilter, enters an extremely shady drinking den somewehre in Mexico:
"A yellow dog missing an eye snapped at him, all rotten teeth and lolling tongue, and tore of a chunk of his leg, putting action to the crowd's voiceless intent. People laughed and guitars and horns kicked back to life. He had paid the cover charge of flesh."
The passage manages not only to suggest the danger of sickness and death that are implicit in something that can happen to any of us on the street, namely being bitten by a dog; it also implies that this mortal assault is an exemplification of the hostility of the world around Don, and even in a way part of a ritual.
Due to the hallucinatory character of such moments, it is easy for Don to dismiss the revelation of a hostile universe implicit in them. And while we as readers can easily identify with this dismissal, we also know that we are reading a horror novel and that such moments are in fact relevations of the true nature of the book's reality.
The Croning hops from one of these moments to the next and thereby paints a picture of the dark, repressed underside of Don's life. It skirts the border between the conscious and the unconscious, never quite revealing what is really going on down there in the regions of his life he cannot access. However, a Lovecraftian inversion of psychoanalysis is at work here, for the unconscious is not the internal realm of the protagonist, but the external, objective truth of the universe he is living in. The darkness is outside of Don, while the idea that it is only inside, that it is just an expression of his childish fears (he suffers from an irrational fear of the dark, for example) is the soothing lie he tells himself.
The Croning is also a story about childhood; even as an octogenarian, Don seems very much like a child who is protected, but also dominated by his wife Michelle, who clearly knows more about the dark secrets of his past he can't quite access. His awakening to the dark truth behind the strange occurances throughout his life is also a kind of awakening to the realm of harsh reality. In his mid-eighties, Don is still a child who finally has to learn that one day, he will die; That one day, everyone has to die. It is "the beautiful thing that awaits us all", because death in The Croning is also highly sexualized (the imagery of Don's revelation in the end is basically that of a perverse returning to the womb - a ziggurat with a vaginal abyss that swallos a degenerated humankind). Don is offered a chance to cheat death, but only at the price of sacrificing his "inner child" - which, in the inverted psychoanalytic logic of the novel, is of course an external child. One way of the other, accepting the truth of death means that, in a way, you have already died; your only choice is to cynically embrace this truth or to impotently deny it (there is no option to come to terms with death peacefully in The Croning, for it is, after all, a horror novel).
Finally, The Croning might also be called a misgynist novel, as its horror relies heavily not only on vaginal imagery, but also on the archetype of the witch and on the notion of female sexual power. This is obviously a very conscious decision by the author, and I'm not sure if I would level this as a critque against the book; in the end, the motive of a male protagonist living in a world that is dominated by a dark power conceptualised as female, who not only threatens to obliterate the protagonist but also deeply and sincerely loves him (albeit in a quite horrific way) is just so damn effective. After all, most horror fiction is dependant on gendered archetypes, and The Croning at least knows what it does by employing them to their best effect.
In the revealing dialogue towards the end of the book, Barron admits a certain triteness within the concept of cosmic horror, an inherent inability to live up to its promise; it shows how well he knows what he does, and maybe he knows it a little too well, because without this confession, the immediate effect of the novel might have been even more powerful. However, it is also an invitation to re-think the concepts of cosmic horror. I think this thorough re-thinking is what Barron has been doing since The Imago Sequence.
Sunday, 26 August 2012
Beyond that, translating Marusek also has been a door-opener - at the moment, I'm translating Kim Stanley Robinson' 2312 into German for Heyne. So basically, I'm getting paid for reading (and corresponding with) one of my favourite authors! That one will be followed by Brom's new novel Krampus, and if his The Child Thief is anything to go by, I'll have a blast translating it.
If life keeps treating me so well, I'll probably get spoiled ...
Saturday, 7 January 2012
Sunday, 1 January 2012
Further entries will (probably) be about Walter Moers, Gero Reimann, Karla Schmidt, Marcus Hammerschmitt and Jasper Nicolaisen.
I would like to say that I am a longtime fan of Markolf Hoffmanns books, but I actually only discovered him two or three years ago. His first Quadrilogy of fantasy novels is Das Zeitalter der Wandlung (The Age of Transformation), which comes across as one of many pseudo-medieval fantasies about a Chosen One who has to save the world from an Invasion of fearsome lizard creatures, but quickly becomes a complex tale about politics (think Game of Thrones), about the authoritarian core of the myth of the chosen (think China Mieville), about the malleability of mythological truth and about the double-edged human capacity to dominate nature. Even though The Age of Transformation is flawed (it is a first novel, or a first four novels, after all), I would still rate it the best work of post-tolkienesque High Fantasy written in the German language. Due to a somewhat troubled publishing history, however, the later volumes went pretty much unnoticed. It probably didn't help these are "difficult" books with complex and not always smpathetic main characters.
A few years ago, I got to know Markolf Hoffmann and 2011, I had the opportunity to publish a collection of his fantasy short fiction, Das Flüstern zwischen den Zweigen (The Whispering Between the Twigs). Most of these stories are about the problematic relationship between man and nature, and at the same time quite romantic as they are critical of pastoral romanticism. They are post-Tolkien in the truest sense, respectfully picking up Tolkiens ecological argument and turning it from it's head to it's feet. Their protagonists tend to end up in pretty gruesome moral dilemmas. Most of the stories are set in pseudo-medieval fantasy worlds with subtle, but noticeable elements of magic, with something bizarre bubbling up here and there and a good helping of dark and occassionally grisly humor. The best comparision might be Witcher stories by Andrzej Sapkowski.
Hoffmann's new novel, Ines öffnet die Tür (Ines Opens the Door), is a YA book about a girl that inherits a secret room from her grandmother, the door of which, unseen by others, follows her everywhere. Once appropriated, the room grants certain types of wishes. However, not only is it situated within an impenetrable fog which is said to hide dangerous secrets, there's also an old magician who has been collecting rooms like this for centuries and who is now on Ines heels ...
Ines öffnet die Tür is an old-fashioned YA-book: There is an element of suspense, but it does not have the frantic pace or over-the-top violence and action elements of The Hunger Games or The Knife of Never Letting Go (the latter of which I consider one of the best YA books in recent years). There also is a teenage romance, but it has nothing in common with the hystericism of Twilight - it is firmly situated within the mundane world and has nothing to do with Ines' discovery of the magical room beyond the door, and when romance and magic finally intermingle, it means nothing but trouble and disappointment. The romance aspect is handled quite believable, because first love plays an important role in the life of 13-years old Ines, but certainly not the most important role. Her relationship to her parents, the sudden disappearance of her grandmother, her best friend Sonja - in the end, all of this means much more to Ines than one good-looking guy.
While all of this gives Hoffmann's characters a pleasant sense of authenticity and believability, it also makes the book feel a little tame. The story and the mystery of Ines öffnet die Tür are well thought-through, the characters easy to grasp and yet not flat, and there is a good dose of quirky humor, but in the end, it feels as if Hoffmann was holding back. Maybe there will be a sequel (the ending would allow for it) that delivers that little something that seems to be missing.
Monday, 4 July 2011
My story 'Auslese', published last year in the anthology Die Audienz, is among the 12 stories nominated for the DSFP (German Science Fiction Award). The DSFP is one of the two major SF awards in Germany, the other one being the KLP (Kurd Lasswitz Award). Also nominated are a number of stories from the excellent Anthology Hinterland edited by Karla Schmidt.
Auslese has previously been translated into Hungarian, so I guess I did something right with that story ...
Saturday, 5 March 2011
I was stoked with anticipation for Paolo Bacigalupi's foray into fantasy, the novella The Alchemist. Not only did I love most of his short fiction (strangely enough with the exception of „The Calorie Man“) and his novel The Windup Girl. Also, The Alchemist was to be published by Subterranean Press, and therefore became associated in my mind with another fantasy novella from that publisher, the excellent Purple and Black by K.J. Parker. It didn't hurt that The Alchemist comes paired with The Executioness, a novella by Tobias S. Buckell, an author I'd been planning to check out for some time.
As it turned out, neither of the two novellas did anything for me – I found both of them pretty uninspired and conventional, even irritating. While, on the surface, they seem to be ambitious and eager to broaden the scope of the fantasy genre, if you scratch that surface, you'll find little but well-worn tropes beneath it. That's not to say that either of the two novellas is bad – the stories are both more or less well-told and well-constructed. They are just not very good, and certainly not what one would have expected by an author like Bacigalupi (I can't say anything about Buckell, because I haven't read anything else by him yet), and they are certainly not on par with fantasy works by authors like R. Scott Bakker, K.J. Parker or Jeff VanderMeer.
Here's the specifics on what bugged me about the novellas:
Paolo Bacigalupi - The Alchemist
In a world were each use of magic feeds the deadly bramble encroaching on the land, the executioner's axe awaits all unsanctioned sorcerers. But Jeoz, the title character of the novella, has found a non-magical way to kill the hardy bramble by using alchemy. However, when he presents his invention to the lords of the city of Khaim, they decide to put it to use in a perverse way …
The concept behind the world devised by Buckell and Bacigalupi actually has merit (although it is vaguely reminiscent of the Dungeons&Dragons RPG setting Dark Sun), especially insofar as neither of them is using it to shove any platitudes along the lines of „magic (i.e. Technology) is bald because it disturbs the balance of nature“ down the reader's throats. Instead we get the next-best platitude, namely that inventors may have the best intentions, but they can't control the use that powermongers will put their inventions to. There's nothing wrong about this concept, but it is pretty tiresome if it is presented as shocking twist about halfway into a story, when you actually can see it coming from page one.
There's a more interesting conflict in The Alchemist, about taking part in some greater evil by committing small and necessary sins, and about the injustice of of punishing the small sinner when the great sinner is the one dealing out the punishment. However, Bacigalupi makes little of this concepts except trying to convince us that the people in power are evil and sadistic.
All this would be forgiveable, if The Alechemist was not an exceedingly melodramatic novella. Bacigalupi gives Jeoz a terminally ill but heart-warmingly couragous littel daughter, whose suffering is clearly a blunt device to choke the reader up, but provides no sense of the ugly reality of sickness and fear of death. Add the fact that Jeoz, while commiting a few small sins, is clearly a blameless man pushed around by evil powermongers, and the character of his loyal housekeeper who also happens to love him unconditionally, and you have to ask yourself how so much mawkishness can come from the author of The Windup Girl.
As a fantasy reader, I feel vaguely insulted by The Alchemist. It feels as if Bacugalupi is slumming, as if he thinks that in fantasy, he can get away with lazy characterisations, half-baked world-building and cheap melodramatics. I'm pretty sure that I'm overreacting and that that was not Bacigalupi's intention at all, but at the very least I have to say that The Alchemist is by far his weakest work yet.
Tobias S. Buckell - The Executioness
My reaction to the second novella set in the same world as The Alchemist wasn't that strong. The Executioness is an ironic take on classical fantasy notions of heroism, but it's notions about the nature of heroism as something imposed from the outside are pretty conventional. Tana, the protagonist, is a simple women who dons the axe and the cloak of her father, an executioner, and leaves her home to save her children who have been abducted by raiders. Reluctantly, she takes on the role of a symbol of courage in the fight against an enemy who kidnaps children to reeducate them, even though she accomplishes most of her heroic deeds by accident. Buckell goes through the standard motions of de- and reconstructing heroism - Tana is not a great warrior at all, but it is her reluctance to accept her role that marks her as a true hero of the people. In the end, she finds out that the enemy might not be that wicked after all and that being a symbol might put her in a position that keeps her from fulfilling her personal goals. It's all pretty much by the numbers and occasionally preachy. What's worse is that, while the foreword implies that Buckell was trying to write a vaguely feminist fantasy novella by choosing a middle-aged female protagonist, there's actually a pretty disturbing kind of sexism at work in it, implying that while men fight for money and glory, women fight for their families.
Finally, Buckell's prose style is serviceable but just not very interesting or engaging. In the end, The Executioness is only slightly more successful than The Alechemist because it aims a little lower.
By the way, Subterranean Press made up for these two novellas by publishing K.J. Parkers new novella Blue & Gold, which is thematically similar to The Alchemist, but much more complex, surprising, engaging, funny and well-written. Maybe part of the reason that I'm coming down so hard on Bacigalupi and Buckell is that I've read a lot of Parker's stuff in the last few weeks (The Folding Knife, The Hammer, Blue & Gold and "Amor Vincit Omnia"). It's hard to top Parker when it comes to writing about scientific genius, accidental heroism and good intentions paving the road to hell. Bacigalupi and Buckell are obviously not up to it, at least not when they're writing fantasy.
Sunday, 20 February 2011
The Fourth Tribe
One of the commentors also provided a link regarding "The Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy", a concept that, among other things, provides a very handy argument against all kinds of conspiracy theory crap:
Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy