You going somewhere? Chances are that Joe R. Lansdale has been there first. I remember my first encounter with 'Dead in the West,' Lansdale's "weird western."
I found this slim trade paperback from Gordon Lint's Space and Time publishing at Aladdin books in Fullerton, California. I had no idea what to expect, but I liked the look of it. It was like finding a dime paperback, a collaboration between Zane Grey and H. P. Lovecraft. That Lansdale guy, he delivered the monsters, straight, no chaser.
It wasn't quite 30 years ago that Lansdale's novel alerted me to a new sort of writing and new writer to watch. Close enough, though. Lansdale managed to walk a very fine line with 'Dead in the West.' He managed to combine the dirt and grit of a dime western with the dirt and grit of zombie and vampire novel. He liked his characters, and so did I. Most importantly, he could do all this, shock you, engage, gross you out now and again, and still find a few laughs. Real laughs. The kind of barking-at-death sounds you make when the world really takes you by surprise.
Over the years, he revisited Reverend Jedediah Mercer, and the rest of the world followed Lansdale down that dusty trail. The weird western became a staple, but Lansdale never left it behind. Leave it to Subterranean Press to cook up 'Deadman's Road' (Subterranean Press ; November 30, 2010 ; $40), which collects all the Reverend's adventures into one gorgeous hardcover. It's almost as if we're back in the midst of the glorious 1980's horror boom again.
For forty bucks you get a really good deal. First and foremost, you get Lansdale's fantastic writing. 'Dead in the West' has a reputation by now and it more than delivers. Here we are in the 21st century, practically drowning in vampires and zombies, but nobody beats Lansdale's 'Dead in the West.' The Reverend's further adventures find him facing a bee-ridden corpse, staying at the shape-shifter's hotel, putting down an existential horror from beyond, and digging for kobolds. It's all nasty work but somebody's got to do it. Lansdale's work — to keep the reader engaged with his character, and thrilled with unexpected gouts of terror, horror and gore, occasionally laughing because, well death is funny — is handled with utter aplomb. You can tell this is a writer having fun because you the reader are having fun. Plain and simple, this is the kind of reading you pick up to treat yourself.
Subterranean Press takes matters further for you, though. 'Deadman's Road' is generously illustrated by the incredibly talented Glen Chadbourne with lots of his ultra-detailed pen-and-ink drawings. Chadbourne's style is perfectly matched to Lansdale's prose. There's a real sense of class and detail and craft combined with truly disturbing horror and, ever present, Lansdale's unmatched sense of fun. Stepping into this book is like stepping into an old theater, running a black and white film you've never seen before. Death itself flickers on the screen. It's disturbing. It's funny. And bark as you may, Death will not leave until it shows you the door.
08-19-10:Gary Shteyngart Tells a 'Super Sad True Love Story'
Humor and pain are well known to consist of the same ingredients. Mix up one, and you're laughing; the other and you're crying. Sometimes it is very difficult to tell the difference, if there is a difference. The pain of life can only be met, it seems, with humor. And as the pace of life increases, as the pace of change increases, so to does the fluctuation rate of the humor/pain quantum existence.
Gary Shteyngart is a man who is quite well tuned to this frequency. It is as if it is his own private radio station, broadcasting a program only he can hear. But once he's heard it, he's able to write the novel that is unfolding with a command of language that makes for an unforgettable reading experience.
Shteyngart has been dipping into Raymond Kurzweil, among other non-fiction reading, and he tunes into the future in 'Super Sad True Love Story' (Random House ; July 27, 2010 ; $26). Channeling Lenny Abramov, Shteyngart creates a novel that is painfully hilarious with language that seems destined to dribble from our televisions tomorrow. From the moment we are introduced to Lenny by Lenny, in his diary — such a quaint term! — we get the feeling that the future in which Lenny finds himself is no more than our present, even as he describes pieces and people in a manner that seems prescient.
'Super Sad True Love Story' is drenched in imaginary fashions and projected technologies, but it's not about them. It's about us. This future is wrapped in the present. Many of the predictions have already come to pass. We're looking at what seems like a new sort of novel, but it has ample precedent. Not surprisingly, our literary experience of the novel itself is a demonstration of what the novel itself does. 'Super Sad True Love Story' is a prefect example of retro-prescience.
Of course, once you open the book and start reading, you're going to forget all the categories and get caught up, as is proper, in the story, which is aptly summed up in the title. Lenny Abramov is a dorky, aging and apparently talentless guy who indeed has a great gift for language on offer to a world that does not want to listen. When he meets and falls in love with much-younger Eunice Park, he finds himself forced to engage with a reality that seems to be sprinting away from him. There are complications that involve his employer, and the utter and complete destruction of not just the American economy, but also the idea-as-ideal.
Shteyngart's prose voice in this novel is an endlessly entertaining high-wire act. He smartly splits the novel into two soliloquies; half the book consists of his diaries, and the other half, Eunice's "GlobalTeens" account. Of course, Lenny's prose is peerless, but as well, Eunice's passages shine and demand to be read aloud, preferably by the snobbiest twenty-something woman you know.
Shteyngart has perhaps too much fun with his neologistic frenzy, spinning off new words and acronyms so fast that many readers won't be able to keep track of them, which might be more of a problem if they didn't just whip by faster than a speeding one-hit pop star.
For all the futuristic foofaraw, 'Super Sad True Love Story' is a pretty simple, character-driven romantic comedy. The characters are superbly drawn, including the large but easily-tracked supporting cast of friends and family. Shteyngart isn't afraid to steer things into darker, sterner territory when the story calls for it, but is able to avoid ickiness in favor of bracing honesty. There's a measure of redemption and a measure (or two) of randomly-directed unhappiness. If something threatens not to work it whips by before it outlives its unwelcome.
'Super Sad True Love Story' uses the tropes of genre fiction well, but is crafty enough to gather an audience well beyond genre readers -- though they should enjoy the novel as well. Here's a novel born in the past, but not bored with it, that manages to have fun in the future without getting stuck there. This is retro-prescience at its finest, a cream pie in the face of a tomorrow that we trust will fall flat on its face. The best part is that when it does, we can all laugh, as we leave behind the past, sneak through the present and stumble into the future.
08-18-10:Mark Pilkington Unleashes Weapons of Mass Deception
There are lots of reasons to subscribe to Fortean Times, and I've written about them often enough for this column. They offer an utterly unique perspective on today's noisy news, and most importantly, an imaginative vision of life on this planet. This is not to say that they make this stuff up, but rather, that they present their stories with a certain unique combination of verve, scholarship and courage.
This is actual history, well-written, with the sort of digging-in-the-trash feel that's actually fun to read. This month's FT is all that, and just to make it worth picking up at the newsstand even if you don't subscribe, there's more, in the form of a fascinatingly researched and presented article by Mark Pilkington of Strange Attractor.
Strange Attractor and Further are their own sort of oddball journals, and via the links provided you can find out all you need to know about them. They're definitely worth your valuable time. Thus, by picking up the latest Fortean Times at your local news stand, you're getting a bit of a taste of both, in a wildly interesting article on something that today seems almost unimaginable, and yet terrifyingly familiar; UFOs over the White House, in Washington DC.
If this sounds like a movie, that's because it was; in September of 1952, Robert Wise's The Day the Earth Stood Still brought that vision to the movie theaters in a story that crystallized Cold War-era fears about nuclear annihilation — no matter who started World War III, there was not going to be a winning side. Pilkington provides a wealth of background material on the original sightings of flying saucers, the Air Force's first efforts to dismiss them — Project Grudge, which was largely successful, and the bizarre internecine conflicts within the US Armed Forces that would lead the way to July, 1952.
Today, we don't need UFOs to be terrified of planes over the White House. We've already seen what clearly identified civilian planes can do. But just around midnight of July 19-20, 1952, seven objects moving at what Pilkington describes as "a not particularly impressive 100mph" were tracked on radar for nearly three hours and seen by other eyewitnesses, until a scrambled interceptor jet tried to get a closer look, and sent them packing. The Air Force seemed uninterested in what the radar experts had to say about it. On the 26th of July, the UFOs returned, and were once again seen both by jet pilots and on radar.
Such an event today would be no less than world-changing. Whether the objects proved to be piloted by ETs or the result of a heretofore-unseen advanced technology developed humans, either friendly or unfriendly to the United States, the reactions would be extreme. We'd be lucky to avoid the launch of some sort of nuclear weapon. As Pilkington replays this bit of downplayed-history for readers in a 21st century that even the science fiction writers of 1952 could not imagine, it's impossible not to experience the reading as science-fictional alternate history. Alas, it is the sad truth about our particularly troubled planet.
Pilkington's research is impressive and his writing is very engaging, without ever going over the top; difficult given the nature of his subject. The follow-through on this is probably not what you expect, unless you can decode that equation; two of the values are familiar to us, but I'll help with the odd man out, and note that it's the title of an essay by a scientist named Leon Davidson, who was quite familiar with the state of a technology then called "Electronic Counter Measures."
Elsewhere in the magazine, there's another great science-fact article that offers a vision of science fiction as Matt Salusbury reminds us that meteorites were not always known to be chunks of rock (or discarded tools from the ISS) that have fallen to earth. Peter Hassall follows it up with the second in a series about things that fall from the sky, "Meteorites and Meteorwrongs." If the Fortean Times has not fallen into your mailbox, make a trip to the local independent bookseller you know and pick up a copy. Even if it's a new level of CIA PsyOp, it's entertaining and thought-provoking.
08-16-10:Howard Norman Asks 'What is Left the Daughter'
The Past Always Rises
What can we tell those who follow us? How do we address the future — to explain the past? Why do we reach back to the past to inform the present?
Some words simply take over our minds and leave us of their own will. It almost seems as if these words have existed outside our lives, and have simply found a voice as a means to enter the world. When we experience these voices as we read a novel, the lives that gave them birth seem real, seem right. When we journey to the past to address the future, we end up in the present.
Howard Norman's 'What Is Left The Daughter' (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; July 6, 2010 ; $25) captures such a voice. In a single letter, a past, a future and the present offer a vision of the human heart, beset by tragedy.
You can, and should, pick up 'What is Left the Daughter' by Howard Norman in your local independent bookseller and simply read the beginning passage. You cannot help but hear the voice, and having heard the voice, you will want to read the story. Norman's new novel is a beautifully crafted low-key noir. We know how it starts: In that opening passage, Wyatt Hillyer, now aged, now looking back at his life in the year of Our Lord 1967, is finally telling his daughter his story, which is, of course, hers as well. There is tragedy, but there is also joy to be found here, and not just the joy of immersing in the finest reading literature has to offer. Wyatt is a man whose life may have been circumscribed by tragedy, but the very existence of the novel, itself a single, long letter to his daughter, offers the promise the hope of joy.
Norman's novel is set in Nova Scotia during World War Two, and at its heart is the sinking of ships and submarines. It's hard to fathom, given what we're told about the Second World War, which most entertainment show us as happening elsewhere. But Norman reminds us that the War came to us, as well. German U-boats sank ferries off the east coast of Canada, and there was suspicion aplenty in those remote towns that some of those living there might be collaborators. These days, we'd call them terrorists, but the concept at the heart of this fear is eternal. It is the fear that some among us may not be what they seem.
Tragedy does not follow Wyatt so much as precede him. The deaths of his parents, and then the slow-burning madness of his uncle, consumed by the radio reports of war fatalities, lead Wyatt to create and confront more tragedy.
Yes, the voice reigns, in 'What Is Left The Daughter.' Wyatt is not an educated young man, nor is he emotive. He's closed off, and Howard's great feat in this novel is to create an almost unbearable tension and anxiety, and we follow Wyatt though his story. The superb prose and the powerful voice are a joy to read.
But Howard also pulls off a very crafty novel of suspense here as well. Though this is not genre fiction it is very much crime fiction, as we watch the ripples of one crime flow outward through Wyatt's life. After the deaths of his parents, he ends up with his aunt and uncle and a gorgeous cousin who is an adopted child. But Wyatt's love cannot save her or his uncle from the ripples of war. Each will bear the scars of battles they neither choose to fight nor really know that they are fighting.
'What Is Left the Daughter' is emotionally captivating and quite compelling to read. There are all sorts of well-wrought undercurrents that tug at the reader, pulling us into this clear prose that offers a vision of the murky human heart. All those things that live in the past will rise to the surface. Every shadow of darkness is cast by a ray of light.
New to the Agony Column
12-11-13: Commentary : KQED: Best Books of 2013 : Our Top Ten Literary Mind Melds