There's always some true story out there that's stranger than fiction. The question facing a writer is whether or not to tell the story as fiction, or simply write a work of non-fiction. If you choose the latter, you can be limited by what we know of the subject; if that adds up to "not much," then your book is going to end up being mostly conjecture. But if you choose to fictionalize a real-life "stranger than fiction" story, you run the risk of writing a novel less interesting than reality.
It's a matter of balance with this sort of material and Karen Kondazian gets the balance right with 'The Whip,' a slim, smart western based on the story of Charlotte "Charley" Parkhurst. Here's the backstory; Charley Parkhurst, brought up as an orphan, was a renowned stagecoach driver in California for Wells Fargo (called a "whip," thus the title) who had runs from Watsonville to Santa Cruz and from San Francisco to Sacramento. When he died in 1879, it was revealed that he had been a woman living as a man for the last 30 years; moreover, evidence showed that Charlotte had at one time borne a child. A small dress was tucked away in a chest. That's pretty much what we know.
Karen Kondazian has done a fine job taking the bones of this life and turning Charlotte / Charley into a recognizable human being. The novel has a frame-within-a-frame structure; at the outset, we meet Charley, who thinks of himself as a "he." Then we whip back and meet young Charlotte, and Kondazian gives us a back story that explains why Charlotte took the path that led her to become a man. Kondazian's speculation as to Charlotte's motivations are not lightweight. There's a lot of drama behind the change, but as the character is played out, it works.
The other problem that can crop up with "based on a true story" novels is that there tends to be more truth than story in most lives. But as she creates Parkhurst, Kondazian supplies herself with a perfectly fine plot arc of revenge, and she plays this out across the known facts of Parkhurst's life with ease. The prose is crisp and clear, setting up scenes of action and emotion that build a fascinating vision of the west. Kondazian cuts no corners with regards to language or violence. 'The Whip' is brutal and upsetting when it needs to be, and it's often rather funny.
Kondazian did not have an easy job turning Parkhurst's "stranger than fiction" story into fiction, but the 'The Whip' proves to be an entertaining, rather intense and well-wrought piece of western world building. It's a closely focused novel that knows what it wants to do and does it well. This is the life of a woman who lived as a man; how she lived and why she lived that way. Kondazian never even needs to remind us of our own ability to accommodate terror, tragedy and heartbreak. A quick look in the mirror might remind anyone that the face revealed is indeed living a life stranger than fiction.
08-30-12:Tales of Nebulous Terror
Aickman, Bell, Oliver, Valentine & Howard
The horror genre tends to be associated with tales of violence and carnage, but there's a growing number of writers telling stories of terror that are beautiful, awesome, and yes, even frightening, without resorting to scenes of vivid brutality and gore. These are stories of the surreal, the unreal, the supernatural and ambiguity in which what happens is often left to the readers' imaginations. This does not make them less disturbing; it merely ensnares the readers into either creating or sharing the fates of the characters whose lives they have brought to life as they read the stories.
Right now, it seems that you're going to have to go to your specialty press and the independent booksellers to find these titles. In the fullness of time, you'll be doing the same thing, only paying four times as much on the used and out-of-print market. The call as always is to sweep these titles up now, before they're gone and you regret not buying them. But most importantly, these are books that are going to supply you with the sort of reading experience you won't find in other titles.
It should seem obvious by now; run, don't walk and pick up every Tartarus Press re-print of the Robert Aickman catalogue. We'll start with the obvious reason, and there are 8 to be found in 'Tales of Love and Death' (July 2012 ; £32.50); that's seven stories from a ferociously mature Aickman and an informative, delightful introduction from no less than Michael Dirda. Aickman here demonstrates not just his ability to conjure scenes of terror, but to do so with a low-key wit and style that heightens, rather than undercuts the fear.
But Aickman is a writer who transcends genre. His work is not about observations of genre conventions. He uses them to create the sort of ambiguity that, though it may seem counterintuitive, more accurately describes both the world we live in and our experience of that world. This ambiguity makes his work extremely re-readable; you read for the experience of immersing yourself in his prose and vision. Dirda's introduction is smart, informative and entertaining. Tartarus Press makes beautiful books that are more than worth what they cost — and their value tends to skyrocket. But chances are you won't want to let go of these books at any price. If you start here, and hurry, you might be able to pick up the rest of this series before they go out of print. But even if that's not the case, Aickman's work is always outstanding.
Not everything is ambiguous is Aickman's worlds here; "Growing Boys" presents the problems of parents to a pair of boys who are literally giants. In "Marriage" a man with the Christian name of Laming goes lame. "Le Miroir" reflects the main character's unwillingness to age, while "Residents Only" clearly draws on Aickman's well-known penchant for public service. Still, in all of these stories, and in others such as "Wood," "Raising the Wind" and "Compulsory Games," there are subtle undercurrents present. Inner visions and outer worlds no longer have clear boundaries. Aickman's stories use psychology to explore the supernatural, only to discover the truly grotesque hearts of the men and women he writes about. His prose is gorgeously re-readable and his characters have the delicate feel of people you might know, if only you, or they, were not so shy or insecure. 'Tales of Love and Death' lives up to its title.
Peter Bell's collection 'Strange Epiphanies' was fine enough to spur me to buy 'A Certain Slant of Light,' (Sarob Press ; June 2012) which is equally good but definitely different. Here, Bell is working in a deliberately M. R. Jamesian mode; think scholars and ghosts and you have the right idea. In these eight stories, Bells applies some light touches of humor, some light touches of horror, and readers come out ahead on all counts. As for the humor, it's very light indeed, generally ironic and a nice counterweight for the lovely atmospherics that Bell specializes in. Readers who enjoyed his Iona island location in 'Strange Epiphanies' will be glad to know that he journeys to the Hebrides in "Millennium Ball." "Conservation" and "Lamia" speak directly to lovers of M. R. James, and they will not be disappointed in the horror or the humor. Illustrations by Paul Lowe add to the atmosphere, and Robert Morgan of Sarob Press always makes a fine book.
Two trade paperbacks from Tartarus Press round out the selection. 'The Dreams of Cardinal Vittorini & Other Strange Stories' by Reggie Oliver and 'The Collected Connoisseur' by Mark Valentine and John Howard clock in at £14.95 each but are worth much more. Each volume reprints collections that are now mind-bogglingly expensive and rare (one with much with additional material) in a sturdy, classy package. More importantly, they are both superb, if rather different collections of supernatural fiction.
I've never read Reggie Oliver before, but he's made a quick ascent onto my must-buy list with 'The Dreams of Cardinal Vittorini & Other Strange Stories.' The signed title page suggests that there are only 200 copies of this, and I suspect that they will sell quickly; they should. Oliver delivers classic, classy ghost stories and supernatural tales that are imaginative and entertaining by making sure that the underpinnings are all pitch perfect. His prose is clean and tight, while his characters and storytellers have just the right heft of reality and mordant humor to make readers want to hear what they have to say no matter what the subject may be. That the stories revolve around the surreal, the unreal and the supernatural is almost secondary to the fact that Oliver gives us great characters and prose. That said, he's nicely inventive when he needs to be ("In Arcadia" takes readers into a painting, while "Evil Eye" involves the downside of high-technology) and reassuringly realistic in his more classic explorations of the supernatural, such as "Mrs. Marchant's Cause." He does his own outstanding illustrations as well. This collection actually leaves one story out from the original, which the author in the introduction tells us he feels has outlived its charm; that's something of a shame to my mind, but the quality of what is included is such that one tends to trust Oliver. If you like reading supernatural fiction, do yourself a favor and pick up this collection. Chances are you'll buy another for your friends.
'The Collected Connoisseur' by Mark Valentine and John Howard offers a rather different version of the classic supernatural tale. The Connoisseur is the sort of fellow who always has a new adventure to relate to Our Gentle Narrator, who as a guest in The Connoisseur's genteel lodgings, partakes of some fine refreshments while the titular teller of the tale regales both the Narrator and the reader with stories of unhappy hauntings and the serendipitously surreal. Valentine and Howard ratchet back the clock to a time when stories and prose and every damn thing seemed so much more polite, far wittier and the dead were much less quiet. The appeal here is the prose voice that the duo mange to strike. It is endlessly appealing and very engaging; a sort of low-key, British Rod Serling as supernatural detective, the Connoisseur is really great fun to be around. 'The Collected Connoisseur' lives up to its title, including the content of two previously published Tartarus Press collections, and more. In 'Secret Europe,' an Ex Occidente collection, Valentine and Howard managed a similar triumph with a very different tone. This book shows these two to be as versatile as they are talented.
These four books; 'Tales of Love and Death' by Robert Aickman, 'A Certain Slant of Light' by Peter Bell, 'The Dreams of Cardinal Vittorini & Other Strange Stories' by Reggie Oliver and 'The Collected Connoisseur' by Mark Valentine and John Howard are all excellent candidates for round robin reading, the sort of work that will get you through a hard day of work. If there's a power outage when you arrive home, all the better. These are books that are perhaps best read by candlelight.
08-28-12:Quentin S. Crisp Warns 'All God's Angels, Beware!'
A Review by Mario Guslandi
Editor's Note: Mario Guslandi is a perfect harbinger of great reading. Trust him, trust Chomu, buy this book now. I'm just getting round to Reggie Oliver, and regretting now jumping on that one much sooner. Does it get better than "downright weird"? Thanks Mario!
The fourth collection of the surreal, bizarre fiction by British author Quentin S. Crisp still defies categorization. Crisp's introspective, elegant prose now verges supernatural horror, now takes the shape of comedy, now gets downright weird. The narrative is usually carried out in the first person, the narrator being a loner, an outcast, or a man unable to fit in the everyday world.
Previously published in a limited, pricey hardcover edition by Ex Occidente Press, 'All God's Angels, Beware!' is now available as an affordable paperback by Crisp's own Chomu Press. As customary with this writer's s work, the book features excellent material as well as questionable stuff.
Among the latter "A Cup of Tea" is the elegant but pointless report of a jobless man's feelings about the futility of life. "Karakasa" is an overlong piece, a bit on the SF side, where Crisp's imagination is completely on the loose, much to the dismay of the unlucky reader.
But, cheer up, most of the stories are worthy and more than rewarding.
In the intriguing "Troubled Joe," the ghost of a suicide desperately seeks contact with the living. In the enticing "Asking For It," we enjoy a fine psychological game where a lonesome young man is stalking a pretty girl on a subway train in Tokyo.
"Italiannetto" revolves around the affectionate, nostalgic memories of a young Italian boy's crush for a relative of his, the actress and singer Annette Funicello. (At first I was taken aback by the double "n" in the title, but then I've realized that the non-existent Italian word is inspired to one of Funicello's album from the 60's entitled 'Italiannette', that is Italian Annette...)
"The Fox Wedding" is a labyrinthine story continuously shifting from reality to imagination, probing the secrets of Japanese eroticism and revisiting ancient, horrific supernatural myths.
"The Were-Sheep of Abercrave" is a truly superlative tale of surrealistic horror displaying in full Crisp's dark imaginative power.
"Ynis-Y-Plag" is the paradigm of the author's incredible talent and of his irritant flaws. The novelette has a very slow, tedious start lingering for about twenty-five pages on the character and the thoughts of a photographer visiting a Welsh village; then, finally, Crisp gets in control of the plot and produces a real gem — the core of the story — by telling a dark, atmospheric, utterly creepy tale taking place by a river at twilight. If properly shortened, this would be a veritable masterpiece, but even in its present form remains a quite remarkable example of what Crisp, at his best, can create.
Readers unfamiliar with this unique author of weird fiction are strongly advised to take advantage of the opportunity offered by this unusual collection.
08-27-12:Tim Powers Asks 'Hide Me Among the Graves'
Worlds Between Lines of Poetry
There are worlds to be found between the words. The symbolic ambiguity of language leaves the door open for all sorts of creatures and creations, the problem being that they needs must be invoked with language and story. It is one thing to read the words of writers from the past and re-interpret them; it is entirely another to find stories and worlds there. Tim Powers, apparently at the height of his powers, has managed just that in 'Hide Me Among the Graves,' a superb novel that evokes the supernatural powers behind the Pre-Raphaelite poets and painters. It's a rich, evocative, atmospheric novel that is also a compelling work of page-turning delight. It's the reading experience at its most rewarding.
The novel begins with young Christina Rossetti and a small statue held by her father. There's something more to this piece of rock than one can see, as Powers' descriptions immerse readers in the Victorian world of London and the supernatural world he has created in the shadows. As the cast grows and the world grows and the shadows lengthen, Christine, her brother Dante and her sister Maria, will join John Crawford and Adelaide McKee as they search for a means to contain a virulent, many-formed species of supernatural being that has been unwittingly unleashed on the world.
The base with which Powers builds his work is a prose style that finely detailed and descriptive, but, most importantly, knows what to leave to the readers' imagination. Powers has a unique feel for suggesting just enough creepiness and decay, and hinting at science-fictional notions behind his various species of vampires and ghosts. But he never goes overboard, and in 'Hide Me Among the Graves,' he manages to write his fastest-paced book yet. 'Hide Me Among the Graves' is easily read, but feels substantial and intense without ever being overwrought.
With a historical novel of the supernatural, Powers has two world-building chores, and he manages them both with perfect ease, carefully filling in the missing bits of history with supernatural explanations. He re-defines the lore we know, and adds bits of new lore that slot in perfectly; for example, we learn that ghosts are ashamed of being dead. These tiny fillips go long way towards making his supernatural world perfectly plausible. His visual re-creations of London and beyond have a depth and dimensionality that make them particularly immersive. Even without the supernatural aspects, 'Hide Me Among The Graves' is a superb historical novel.
The driving force for 'Hide Me Among the Graves; is Powers' cast of compelling characters. Those taken from history, led by Christina Rosetti and a utterly engaging Algernon Swineburn, always feel comfortable and lived-in. We never get a "walk on appearance" feel in Powers' historical characters. They are and they feel integral to the story he is telling and the narrative as it unfolds. The created characters, primarily Adelaide McKee and John Crawford are very nicely weighted and drawn; they fit perfectly with the real characters and seem just as real. By virtue of his steady prose presence, Powers keeps his cast consistent. You'll enjoy the story no matter who is on stage at the time.
'Hide Me Among the Graves' is powered by a terse and intense plot that plays out across years — a plot dictated by the reality of the poets' and painters' lives, but laid out by Powers in manner so as to keep the tension high until the last page is turned. This is of course where Powers finds his story and his worlds. By filling in the gaps between historical events with well-crafted supernatural back story, Powers manages to make real events seem numinous while grounding his supernatural and science fictional speculations in reality. The delicate feedback loop between the two is sustained by his prose and the intensity of the characters he creates.
While 'Hide Me Among the Graves' works fine all by itself, readers new to Powers might want to step back and pick up his earlier novel, 'The Stress of Her Regard,' and his recent short story collection, 'The Bible Repairman,' for the novella "A Time to Cast Away Stones." While neither is necessary for completely understanding and enjoying 'Hide Me Among the Graves,' both inform the novel and involve characters who appear here. You really cannot go wrong reading more Powers.
'Hide Me Among the Graves' is quite possibly Tim Powers best novel; a statement that begs qualification in that all of Powers' work is essential and enjoyable reading. Here, however, he finds a sense of urgency that matches the rich nature of the worlds and characters he creates. 'Hide Me Among the Graves' is a book that demands to be re-read as it re-writes the world.
New to the Agony Column
09-18-15: Commentary : William T. Vollman Amidst 'The Dying Grass' : An Epic Exploration of Simultaneity
08-21-15: Agony Column Podcast News Report : Senator Claire McCaskill is 'Plenty Ladylike' : Internalizing Determination to Overcome Sexism [Incudes Time to Read EP 211: Claire McCaskill, Plenty Ladylike, plus A 2015 Interview with Senator Claire McCaskill]
Agony Column Podcast News Report : Emily Schultz Unleashes 'The Blondes' : A Cure by Color [Incudes Time to Read EP 210: Emily Schultz, The Blondes, plus A 2015 Interview with Emily Schultz]