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Top 5 Films of 2012

After all the heavy-handed political stuff lately, I figured it would be fun to do an overview of my top 5 films from 2012.  While I initially thought of doing a top 10, I don’t feel like I’ve seen enough films from this year to accurately make a list that size.  There are a number of films that, once I see them, will probably be included–Amour, Django Unchained, and Holy Motors, for example.  So keeping in mind that I haven’t seen everything for the past year, these are the top five of the films I did see, ranked from least best to most best.

5. Beasts of the Southern Wild

dir. Benh Zeitlin

This movie has a lot of problems.  There are real pacing issues–it feels like either the first two acts of a movie or like an extra couple acts tacked onto a short film.  It lacks focus.  It has one particular special effect that is laughable–if you’ve seen it, you know what I’m referring to.  And unfortunately the trailer completely gives away the ending, although there are still plenty of surprises waiting in the middle of the plot.

With all that said, there’s also a lot going for this movie.  It really is like nothing I’ve ever seen before, and that’s saying something since I go out of my way to see unusual movies.  It’s probably the closest thing I’ve ever seen to a film version of a folktale.  Made on a minuscule budget, it manages to utilize the setting of rural Louisiana to create what may be the most cost-effective ‘epic’ style filming ever.  Those with an ear to the ground may have noticed that epic is returning in a big way, both in the Hollywood blockbuster and as a new voice for the disenfranchised, and that’s what we have here.  The film is also aided by a wonderful performance not just by young Quvenzhané Wallis but by the whole cast.  Overall, while this movie may have more problems than the others on my list, it’s also much more ambitious, and charting genuinely new film territory.  I really want this film to have an influence, to force directors, especially low-budget directors, to consider how to utilize their resources to make films that are very non-Hollywood but very appealing.

4. The Cabin in the Woods

dir. Drew Goddard

I’m lucky I saw this in theaters.  At the time, I hadn’t heard much about it beyond that it was supposedly good, and that it had been written in part by Joss Whedon.  (I’m not as big a Joss Whedon fan as most–I didn’t grow up on Buffy, and while I liked Firefly I recognize that he has some problems to his writing, patterns he tends to fall into, especially with how characters develop.)  I was in the mood to see a good horror movie in theaters though, and decided to check it out.  It was definitely worth it.

It’s hard to talk about this movie without spoilers, because everything that makes it so good is in the last half, but even the first half stands on its own as a parody of horror film in the fine tradition of Scream, Behind the Mask, Tucker and Dale vs Evil, etc.  The whole film stands as, in the creators’ own words (paraphrased) a defense of everything good in horror and an attack of everything bad.  Now, I don’t agree exactly with what is or isn’t good in horror–honestly, I thought the beginning of Scream 4 was a better attack.  But this is a clear labor of love that simultaneously works as a great film and calls out every other horror film on a lot of things they’ve gotten lazy about.  The only reason it’s not ranked higher on my list is that it has those same Joss Whedon problems to it–I know it was directed by Goddard, but either Whedon had a huge influence or Goddard is trying to imitate him.  The main problem is that it feels too sanitized to me.  Anyone who’s seen the film is probably wondering what I mean by this, given what goes down in the last act, but it’s not a matter of lacking gore or nihilism, it’s an approach to the medium of storytelling.  I hesitate to say that these filmmakers are too competent, but it might be better to say that they’re too comfortable.  While it’s a unique and original story, it’s told so smoothly that it lacks the kind of bite or edge that denotes genius.  It takes risks, but not enough or the right kind.  That said, it’s still a great film, well-crafted, and absolutely mandatory viewing for any fan of horror.

3.  Dredd

dir. Pete Travis

This is a bit of an odd one for me.  When I was putting together this list, I struggled with putting it on here at all, and yet somehow it’s in my number three slot.  The thing is, it’s exactly the sort of movie I don’t normally care much for, but I liked it–a lot.  It’s straightforward sci-fi action, with a real emphasis on the action.  The story is incredibly simple: in the near future, two Judges (cop/judge/jury/executioner) enter a housing project to solve a seemingly simple gang murder.  However, something is amiss, as they find out when the leader of the gang locks them in the project and goes on the attack.  That’s basically the whole thing, but it’s executed perfectly.  It made the world feel real, but more importantly it made Dredd feel real, in a way that the Stallone flick didn’t.

The thing about Judge Dredd is that he’s an asshole, a pseudofascist asshole, but he is this way because of the world he’s a part of.  What science fiction (or, potentially, fantasy) can do really well is to show you a fundamentally different way of being, and Dredd is just different enough to be intriguing, but just close enough to be uncomfortable.  The film itself is exactly what you want from an action film–a lot of violence, a lot of explosions, pretty awful villains, but all of them believable in the context.  It goes out of its way to show the tragedy of lost life that accompanies this kind of over-the-top action, but does it without undercutting the adrenaline-pumping thrill.  As a side note, it does a really good job representing female characters who are actually characters, not just cliche villains or paragons of virtue.  I would love to see more action movies like this, or better yet, a couple sequels.  Unfortunately, this film didn’t earn its way at the box office, and as such probably won’t have any sequels, which is a damn shame.  Here’s hoping for some fan support that might at least convince producers to make one more sequel, hopefully with the same cast and crew.

2. The Master

dir. Paul Thomas Anderson

This was a strong competitor for the #1 slot, but it finally loses to the lack of structure, or perhaps to its own peculiar structure.  I appreciate movies that buck the three-act structure, but the long pauses in this long movie were as frustrating as a Tarkovsky film.  However, this is sort of a case of praising with faint damnation, if the worst thing I can say about a movie is that it’s Tarkovsky-esque in pacing.  This isn’t really the story of Scientology that it was billed as; rather it’s a character study of one man who gets involved with a Scientology-esque organization.  It’s an interestingly amoral film in that it asks us to sympathize with deeply flawed individuals, people who may be making the world worse for their presence, and it never disguises that this is what they are.  As such, it’s also a vicious critique of everything post-war America was, even the supposed good.  The final scene and the title of the film are downright chilling once one considers them in depth–personally, it seems to me a much darker film even than There Will Be Blood, albeit in a much more subtle way.  Paul Thomas Anderson may be the best living filmmaker; he’s certainly in the top five.  If there is any justice in the universe of aesthetics, this is a film that will be remembered and talked about for decades, maybe even centuries to come.

Honorable Mentions

Before I get to my number one film, a few noteworthy films this year:

Moonrise Kingdom (dir. Wes Anderson): This is perhaps Wes Anderson’s most Wes-Andersony film, a straight-up trip into a nostalgic fantasy of a past that never really was.  What makes it great is that it’s not sentimentalizing.  Although downright theatrical in its presentation, it deals with real issues, and even talks about some things that big budget films normally stay far away from–like child sexuality.  I also appreciate the effort to reclaim the notion of family values for a liberal perspective.

Your Sister’s Sister (dir. Lynn Shelton): Alright, this is apparently technically a 2011 film, but it came to my theater in summer 2012 so I’m counting it.  Normally a romantic dramedy would not be on my list of interesting movies, but this is exactly how I like to see it executed.  It’s a very minimalist sort of film: only three substantial characters, a lot of dialogue between them.  It almost feels like a stage play.  But this creates a wonderful intensity of emotion.  The characters are flawed, to the point of unlikeability at times, but still relatable, and the film puts them in a very real-seeming, tightly focused dilemma.

Seven Psychopaths (dir. Martin McDonagh): Basically, Adaptation but for action movies.  Full of a lot of great metafiction commentary, and great acting by Christopher Walken and Sam Rockwell (as well as the rest of the cast, but those two compete for the stealing of the show).  Yes, it’s very violent and gory, but that’s the point, kind of, but also not, kind of.  It’s an ideologically confused movie, but worth seeing.

1. Cosmopolis

dir. David Cronenberg

I’m surprised this ended up at number one, because when I first saw it I was left feeling a little dissatisfied, but in retrospect that dissatisfaction was just because of the odd way the film confronted me.  I mentioned that I thought Paul Thomas Anderson was in the top five living directors, and I think Cronenberg is as well (for the curious, the others would possibly be Gaspar Noe and a couple others I’m not so committed to as to actually list them).  This film does not feel like a movie; it doesn’t really feel like anything.  The cramped, claustrophobic cinematography and eerie lighting combined with Don DeLillo’s inhuman-sounding dialogue and strange pre-Enlightenment style narrative create Brechtian levels of audience alienation, only assisted by the unpleasantness and absurdity of the subject matter.  I saw this at nine in the morning on the day it came out with two friends, and there was one other person in the theater, who walked out just before the ‘climax’.  It did not do well at the box office.  I’m not surprised by this at all; this isn’t a movie most people would want to see.  Several reviewers have compared the film as a whole to the prostate exam which forms such a key component of the plot (not kidding), and I have to agree: it’s a strangely cold, analytical, and unpleasant insight into the structure of capitalism, that bastion of meaningless action.  But it’s also a necessary examination for our health.  The world is headed to strange places, and while Paul Thomas Anderson may be perfect at anatomizing our past, it seems that only Cronenberg has perfected the art of anatomizing the future.  Indeed, reception of his films is often hampered by an inability to understand them because they come from a place in front of us, an ideological position we may not yet have access to–this explains, for example, those who see Shivers as purely an attack on free sexuality, or Videodrome and eXistenZ as Luddite anti-technology films.  Somehow, Cronenberg has tapped into the concerns of the future, and it may be that Cosmopolis will be better appreciated then.  However, I submit the opinion that it is a uniquely disturbing and wonderful film, combining the best of DeLillo’s ability with the best of Cronenberg’s (not to mention great performances by, among others, Pattinson and Giamatti) to create my top pick for 2012.



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Shocktober: Awards and Final Thoughts


Since I spent so much time judging the various authors I read this month I figured I should give some awards.  These awards are based solely on my first impressions of the book I read, although some perspective on the author from other sources necessarily shows up uninvited.  I’ve decided to exempt Edgar Allan Poe, since (1) it was by far the largest body of material that I read, and (2) his writing is so imminent to all writing in the horror genre it really wouldn’t be fair or possible to compare him with the others.  I have allowed authors to win multiple awards because, hey, if you’re the best you’re the best.

Now, without further ado, the awards:

CREEPIEST: The Shadow at the Bottom of the World, by Thomas Ligotti
Another name for this category might be ‘Most Unheimlich‘.  Ligotti undoubtedly captures that alien otherness of dreams, that unsettling sensation that gets under your skin and inside your skull and grows there like some unbidden mold.  I’m pretty inured to the effects of horror after years of exposure, but the night after I read this book I had nightmares about it.  Particularly notable was “The Red Tower”…

SCARIEST:  Collected Stories, by M.R. James
The scary is the opposite of the creepy; it’s the face that jumps out at you from the dark.  I chose James on the basis of the fact that more than any other author, his writing had me looking up at darkened windows while I was reading.  Honorable mentions here are Daphne du Maurier and Clark Ashton Smith, particularly Smith’s story “The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis”…

MOST HORRIFYING:  By Bizarre Hands, by Joe R. Lansdale
Sometimes horror isn’t out to focus on fear or dread; sometimes it wants disgust and revulsion.  An off-maligned element of the genre, it’s also vitally important.  Lansdale makes us aware of the truly disgusting, both in our culture and in our own selves.  Honorable mentions here are Poppy Z. Brite and Clive Barker; it’s clear that this is the domain of the ‘splatterpunk’ subgenre.  Also worth checking out are King and, in particular, Joyce Carol Oates’ short story “Martyrdom”…

MOST WELL-WRITTEN:  The Shadow at the Bottom of the World, by Thomas Ligotti
There was a wide range of writing skills on display this month, but it was pretty clear that a few authors were a cut above the rest.  Elizabeth Gaskell, Joyce Carol Oates, Ambrose Bierce, Italo Calvino, and Daphne du Maurier were all a great pleasure to read, but Ligotti pulls ahead by writing in a manner that is both incredibly talented and perfectly fused to the concept of horror.  That said, in this genre there’s also a place for purple prose, and there are some fantastic examples from Clark Ashton Smith and Poppy Z. Brite, particularly Brite’s “Calcutta, Lord of Nerves”…

FUNNIEST:  Beasts and Super-Beasts, by Saki
This was a surprise for me.  I hadn’t planned this category, but after all the readings it seemed clear to me that it was needed.  There is a place in horror for a special kind of comedy, comedy that makes us aware of our mortality and bestiality, and Saki does this with a subtle touch.  Also notable here are Ambrose Bierce and Italo Calvino, particularly his titular “Numbers in the Dark”…

WORST:  Scared Stiff, by Ramsey Campbell
I enjoyed a lot of the readings this month, but there were a few that horrified me in the wrong way, and among these the worst was Campbell’s clumsy efforts to combine eroticism and horror.  Cardboard characters, tired, sexist clichés, and uninspired writing made this collection a pain to slog through.  Although Chambers’ The King in Yellow was in some ways more poorly written, it at least captured my interest, as did other pulpy authors like Robert E. Howard, Stephen King, and Clive Barker.  A runner-up here is Neil Gaiman, since about half the stories in the collection are atrociously bad; but on the flip side, half are acceptable or even quite good.

MOST UNEXPECTED:  Gothic Tales, by Elizabeth Gaskell
I hadn’t read many of these authors before, but for many of them I had expectations, which were generally fulfilled.  Sure, Ligotti was amazing, but I had suspicion that he would be, which was why I put him at the end of the month.  Gaskell, though, was nothing more than a name that had popped up on a number of lists and therefore a book I had bought, and I was honestly expecting a sort of lesser Dickens or Henry James, a writer perhaps of competent but bland ghost stories.  And while I must admit that the actual horror elements of her writing are none too impressive, the writing itself shocked me with its quality.  This book has singlehandedly ignited in me an interest in social realist fiction, which I had always before thought tedious.  To talk about the honorable mentions here would take a while since each was unexpected for different reasons, but Poppy Z. Brite, Ambrose Bierce, and Daphne du Maurier stand out, particularly her story “Monte Verité”…


Well, this was a lot of reading for one month, that’s for sure.  It’s always difficult to gauge how long it will take to read something, as it depends on number of pages, typography, book size, font size, and, most of all, the writer’s style.  Still, I did manage to get all the reading done by the assigned days, and to put up a review on every weekday, so that’s something.

This was really my first time doing a concerted reading of short stories, since I tend to prefer reading novels.  It was an interesting experience.  The short story is maybe not the best format for speed reading; often after finishing one I have to take a little break before starting the next in order to clear out all the impressions in my head.  These stories also vary incredibly widely in terms of length, from a single page to well over a hundred; a few of these could have been published as independent novellas.  One thing I noticed is that variation in style didn’t seem to be so much a product of size as of authorial decision, which to me seems to put the lie to the whole idea of distinguishing cleanly between, say, flash fiction, short stories, novelettes, novellas, and novels.  There were a lot of first-person narratives, and these were more likely to lapse into ruminations on the state of existence, or particularly on the nature of fear.  I have read a tremendous number of ruminations on the experience of fear and I’m not sure they would have taught me anything had I not already experienced it plenty in life; as such, what I mainly learned about was the effort to write about fear, and the way that people try to talk about trauma.

One thing that surprised me is that I did not get sick of horror stories.  I was fairly certain, going into the month, that by the end of it I would be begging to not read another horror story for a long time, but actually I’m just excited, and looking forward to in the future reading more of certain authors, especially Ligotti, and to reading some of the new authors I’ve heard about but haven’t had a chance to read yet.

I don’t know how much my understanding of horror as a genre has grown; it’s hard to gauge something like that.  Still, I am definitely more aware of what’s going on in horror literature, and how it makes itself distinct from horror film.  There are definite trends and traditions apart from what happens in film, and hopefully these will continue to grow, with authors like Thomas Ligotti opening up the possibilities of the literary medium.

And that’s it, the end of Shocktober!  It’s been a long and difficult trip, but I suppose I’ll do something reasonable now, like not trying to read a book a day for a whole month, right?

Well, that might be hard, since the reading I’ve got lined up for November looks like this:

Still, I won’t be writing a nightly review, thank God.  This was an experiment in blogging, and I think I should consider it a pseudo-success, since I didn’t get to spend as much time with each analysis as I wanted to.  At some point in the future, I’m probably going to take a day to go back and read through / edit all of these posts, because I know some typos, errors, and stupid statements crept in there.  On the other hand, I learned a lot about horror, got to read a lot of great stories (and a few bad ones), and hopefully helped people to discover some new authors for themselves.

Starting next week, I’m planning on having an article out every week, usually on Friday nights.  They might be reviews like you’ve seen so far, or opinion pieces, or writing experiments, or just about anything.  I guarantee that they’ll be better thought-out and better edited than this month has been.

Copyright Kile Marshall Bigbee 2012.

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The Complete Stories and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe

[spoiler warning]

I’m going to do something a little different this time; I’m not going to review a story.  Criticism on Poe more in-depth and well thought-out than I can provide here and now abounds, and it better serves my purposes to ruminate on the experience of reading, after so much horror, the totality of Poe’s writings (well, that I hadn’t already read).


What can I say about Poe?  Popular consciousness has a tendency to boil down the history of literature into a few key names—Homer, Shakespeare, etc—and Poe seems to be one of those names that have survived this process.  While plenty of other important names in the genre—E.T.A. Hoffmann, M.R. James, Arthur Machen—seem to be relatively unknown, pretty much anyone off the street has heard of Poe, and has probably read some key stories like “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.”  He has therefore taken on the position of being the sort of originator of the horror genre, although that’s really a ridiculous idea, since it had its predecessors in the gothic and Romantic literature of the early 1800s, which itself takes classical inspiration—but, on the other hand, something is to be said for the degree to which Poe, as a figure, isolates this horror, makes it a focus unto itself.

Except that in reading the complete works of Poe, that’s not really the impression that I get.  Sure, he has a tendency to focus on the macabre in various form, but he also has a tendency towards social satire, mystery stories, and early science fiction (of a rather tedious sort, in my opinion).  Not only that, but his horror is widely varied, from narratives of insanity like “The Tell-Tale Heart” to the supernatural bizarre like “The Masque of the Red Death” to the speculative like “MS. Found in a Bottle.”  I would like to hazard a suggestion that this image of Poe we’ve been given is something of a construction, a way of trying to pin down to a certain person what was in fact a widespread movement.  Why, look at some of the fiction that appeared from other authors around the same time—before or after—that Poe was writing: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley; “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and “Christabel” by Coleridge; the Elizabeth Gaskell stories we looked at earlier; likewise, E.T.A. Hoffmann’s works; “The Vampyre” by John Polidori; the writings of Nathaniel Hawthorne; The Purcell Papers by Sheridan Le Fanu.  There was a general trend of the gothic and the grotesque in fiction, although most of it does trend toward a certain sort of romanticism that Poe leaves behind, and perhaps this is what we can finally credit him with.

Although plenty of Poe’s writings, especially his poetry, does trend towards romanticism, there’s a vulgar cruelty in a few of his works, generally those that have become well-known, strong enough to affect even readers today.  This isn’t an insult to Poe; rather, it seems to me to be something severely lacking from the majority of these other works (with the exception of the Marquis de Sade, who was quite comfortable with it, but who never had the sort of popular acceptance Poe received).  Indeed, it’s this cruelty that helps tie Poe’s name to Baudelaire, so that so often a dark soul in the literature of the late 1800s can be identified by the volume of Poe and the copy of Les Fleurs du Mal lying open on their desk.  And it ties into the mythology of Poe, the man who mysteriously ended up dying in a gutter in Baltimore at the age of 40, probably from depression and alcoholism.

Of course, one of the strongest impulses for mythologizing Poe is the desire for a beginning, particularly for an American beginning.  Alongside Hawthorne, Melville, and, a little earlier, Washington Irving, Poe represents the origin of the dark side of American literature.  While Whitman was finding himself in the experience of all reality, Poe finds something similar, but it is an experience of revulsion and mania.  Poe writes of horrifying events, but almost always that is secondary; it is primarily of the self, of the experience of consciousness, that he writes, and in some stories, like “The Imp of the Perverse” and “The Premature Burial,” that takes such a center stage that it’s hard to imagine really considering these as being the ‘short stories’ Poe is supposedly a master of.  Not to say they’re not good writing—many of them are wonderful—but they seem to be more a model for current developments of postmodern fiction than most of the horror short stories I’ve been reading, which seem to be derived from cut-and-dried ghost stories like “The Old Nurse’s Story” by Gaskell.  Poe’s satirical writing in particular seems reminiscent of contemporary humor in its abuse of the ludicrous; some stories put me in the mind of early Peter Jackson films, or the grotesque erotic comedy of Shintaro Kago.  So Poe, as this initial American writer of dark experience—of the dark mind—finds his place at the head of the American horror tradition, even as he seems to be in many ways more engaged with literary developments in France and England.  We mythologize him as an original figure of American literary history, ignoring the fact that his writing is littered with untranslated French, Latin, Greek, etc.

It seems, now, impossible to just read Poe; he is too historicized, too bound into our understanding of what and how we read.  Still, an attempt to strip away this perspective finds someone uninterested in narrative, that all-controlling god of twentieth-century literature.  Proof enough of this should be apparent to anyone who has read The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, a wonderful story I shouldn’t like to spoil here, but that has profoundly postmodern tendencies.  I see Poe not alongside figures like Richard Matheson and Stephen King, but alongside Algernon Blackwood (for his interest in the characteristics of mental excitation), Paul Auster, Thomas Ligotti—those for whom horror is not a subject matter but an existential condition to be plumbed by writing.  It is unfortunate that this is the part of his writing that has been neglected by so many supposed imitators, because coming to what seems to me to be a crisis of genre fiction—narrative is all used up, and there’s little more to explore in terms of transgression—I can only hope that writers (and readers) will rekindle the curiosity about the human condition that has been lying dormant all this time.  Poe explores the ridiculousness of our world, the revulsion in it, obsession, fear, torment, grief, guilt, disgust, terror, absurdity, longing, mystification, revelation, horror—  Poe explores a huge topography of human experiences throughout his work, and this is primarily where the interest in it, for me, lies.  “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” is not about solving a specific mystery; it is about the idea of solving mysteries, hence the long introduction.  “The Premature Burial” is about the idea of fear.  “The Cask of Amontillado” is about vengeful mania.  “The Spectacles” is about judging other.  “X-ing a Paragraph” is about egoism.  “The Raven” is about mourning.  These aren’t moral stories or allegories—Poe reportedly hated such techniques (although I quite enjoy them, in the right hands)—but are instead explorations of what it means to be human.  Horror can offer us this exploration just as easily as any other writing, and easier sometimes, because it necessarily strips away a great deal of cultural baggage.  Like a medical student cutting open the corpse and applying the galvanic charge only to discover the body coming back to life, horror exposes to us the gruesome elements of life and revivifies it.  Even the most absurd, most outlandish horror—if it can affect us, then it has touched on something inside us, helped to make us aware of that thing.  For its ability to open up new moments of existence, horror is a vital part of the exploration of the human condition, a vital and necessary part of this grand beast known as Literature.

And lastly, do I recommend Poe?  Is this really a necessary question?  Whether or not he is the father of horror fiction, Poe’s writings have survived the years due to their skill.  Poe is a great writer, and like all great writers he should be read and reread, discussed, disagreed with, lauded, and finally passed on to further readers—and so, now, I pass him on to you.

Poe’s writings can be found just about anywhere, for any price.  I read most of this in the large Doubleday collection pictured, but some of it in an Oxford World’s Classics edition I had purchased for a class, and others on my phone (including the entirety of Pym) with the aid of a very handy complete works of Poe app that I believe is still available for free.  For uncertain readers, I recommend starting with the more well-known writings and moving on to other works, although you would do well to check out some of his often skipped-over satirical writings as well.


Copyright Kile Marshall Bigbee 2012.

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“Dr. Locrian’s Asylum” by Thomas Ligotti

[spoiler warning]


I’m calling it: Ligotti is the best contemporary horror writer.

Sure, there’s a lot of horror I haven’t read, including some authors that are supposed to be very good.  But I’m going to just say that Ligotti is the best, because, to be frank, Ligotti is possessed with a very rare genius.  Most people write horror fiction, but Ligotti writes horror.  He evokes it, evokes the very sensation of the mind revolting at what it has encountered.  It’s a scandal that his works aren’t held up alongside the very best that contemporary American literature has produced.  It’s an abomination that his writing is so hard to get one’s hand on that I’ve only ever seen, in person, two different books by him, one of which is the one I’m reviewing.  Someone contact the Dalkey Archive or some similar entity to get Ligotti’s works republished, because he belongs on the shelf of every lover of weird fiction next to Borges and Kafka.

Okay, wait a minute, you might be saying.  Isn’t this a little extreme?  Well, maybe, and I suppose that others might differ in their opinions from me . . . but, to be frank, I’ve never heard a negative review of Ligotti’s fiction (his nonfiction book The Conspiracy Against the Human Race is a different story, but that might be just because it is an unabashed defense of nihilism).  His writing is hard to discuss, because it isn’t very similar to other authors.  It’s most often called Lovecraftian, but that doesn’t quite capture it, because Lovecraft writes about the encounter between the world we know and the world of cosmic horrors, and Ligotti just writes about cosmic horrors—or, perhaps, existential horrors.  His writing is perhaps closest to a nightmare narrative, following the surrealistic logic of a sleepy horror that haunts all through the waking day after, that strange inversion of the world of known things where what we know is not true, but what we fear, the strange patterns and connections of fear, is.

Of course, this is an ideal Ligotti reaches for, and does not always achieve.  I do not mean to unduly sanctify him; some stories are much more successful than others.  At times his prose is a little unnecessarily weighty, making the story boring, and at other times he focuses too heavily on narrative.  Ligotti’s greatest skill is in introspection and description.  In fact, my favorite story in this collection, “The Red Tower”, is hardly a story at all; rather, it is a description of a place, framed like an urban legend—or the account of a horrific dream.  This may detract a little from his writing.  If I have one major complaint, it’s how depoliticized he is.  His characters and locations are often inexact because he is focused on existential conditions, but Beckett, Kafka, Borges, and Calvino, among others, have shown us that this isn’t necessary, and that the abstinence from any political content just becomes a lack in the story.  Of course, the absence is not absolute—”Teatro Grottesco” and the final story, “Purity”, point toward something else Ligotti’s writing could become.  But even with this minor complaint, I genuinely believe that Ligotti’s name will go down in the history of writing as one of the great visionaries of darkness.  Rather than holding a candle up to the dark, he snuffs out the light.


“Years passed and no one in our town, no one I could name, allotted a single word to that great ruin which marred the evenness of the horizon.”  Like a dream, we are thrust into a situation already with logic but without common sense.  The town has observed the asylum and its old burial ground on the horizon for years, occasionally desiring to be done with it, but no one acts, until one day after an overnight conversation, a sort of mob is formed, and the town acts to demolish the place.

They feel that the asylum is an abomination, but “more disturbing than our own view of the asylum was the idiotic gaze that it seemed to cast back at us, and through the years certain shamefully superstitious persons actually claimed to have seen mad-eyed and immobile figures staring out from the asylum’s windows” at night.  In other words, this story begins with the usual end of the horror story, the destruction of the haunted locale.

We get a description of the asylum and of the group unmaking it, and with it is “Mr. Harkness Locrian, a thin and large-eyed old gentleman whose silence was not like that of the others,” the grandson of the director of the building.  A little time after the whole affair is completed, Locrian visits the narrator at his bookshop to pick up some of his special orders (their content unclear, but definitely unseemly).  He asks “But what has been achieved, what has really changed?”  Change is a key word in Ligotti’s works, often a sign of fear.  Ligotti apparently sees the mutability of flesh and even moreso of the world as a key component of horror, not something I would agree with, but something that makes for an interesting philosophical component of his writing.  The fact that here change would initially seem to be a positive thing is interesting, or is rather the idea Locrian is challenging, as we soon find out.

The narrator replies that all that has happened is the removal of an eyesore, but Locrian replies, “We must be walking different streets, Mr. Crane, and seeing quite different faces, hearing different voices in this town.  Tell me … did you ever hear those stories about the sanitarium?  What some people saw in its windows? … And isn’t there much the same feeling now, in this town, as there was in those stories?  Can you admit that the days and nights are much worse now than they were . . . before?”

Crane admits no such thing but it is clear he at least acknowledges the possibility.  Locrian then goes on to talk about his grandfather, the director.  Locrian explains that he “felt at home with his lunatics.”  So the assumptions of cruelty are seemingly replaced with a new narrative: the director was sympathetic, thought that the patients had wisdom, that in “the wandering words of those lunatics … the ancient mysteries were restored.”  Here we get the old problem of secularism: how to restore the sense of the sacred.  But Ligotti quickly takes the questions of Bataille and Deleuze and Foucault to an extreme, perverse praxis, and again inverts our understanding of the situation.  The director was “never a philanthropist of the mind, not a restorer of wounded psyches.  In no way did he take a therapeutic approach with the inmates at the sanitarium. … Thus, his ambition led him not to relieve his patients’ madness, but to exasperate it … putting them through a battery of hellish ordeals intended to loosen their attachment to the world of humanity and to project them further into the absolute … And somehow, in his last days, my grandfather used this same procedure on himself, reaching into spaces beyond death.”

Locrian explains that he learned all this from his father, who also explained that this was why the sanitarium must never be disturbed.  He had hoped the town would just fade away, and the asylum with it.  “How long has it been since a new building was added to all the old ones?  This place would have crumbled in time. … But when all of you took up those implements and marched toward the old ruin, I felt no desire to interfere.  You have brought it on yourselves … You know that something is very wrong in this town, that you should never have done what you did, but still you cannot draw any conclusion from what I have told you.”  Locrian seems angry, claiming that of all people Crane should understand.

Soon, things begin to appear.  “Like figures quietly emerging from the depths of memory, they struggled in the shadows and slowly became visible. … By nightfall they were distractingly conspicuous throughout the town, always framed in some high window of the structures they occupied: the rooms above the shops in the heart of the town, the highest story of the old hotel, the empty towers of civic buildings … Their forms were as softly luminous as the autumn constellations in the black sky above, their faces glowing with the same fixed expression of placid vacuity.  And the attire of these apparitions was grotesquely suited to their surroundings.  Buried many years before in antiquated clothes of a formal and funereal cut, they seemed to belong to the dying town in a manner its living members could not emulate.”

The figures cannot be seen from within the houses, “nothing was ever found … save a tenantless room which no light would illuminate and which sooner or later inspired any living occupant with a demented dread.”  The townspeople feel rejected by the town, alienated from each other—but they remember Locrian.

“It was undoubtedly in his house that the fire began which mindlessly consumed every corner of the town. … Ultimately these demons were exorcised, their windows left empty.  But only after the town had been annulled by the holocaust.”  There is nothing but the wreckage, and a single corpse—Locrian.  “But now, after the passing of so many years, it is not the ashen rubble of that town which haunts each of my hours; it is that one great ruin in whose shadow my mind has been interned.

“And if they have kept me in this room because I speak to faces that appear at my window, then let them protect this same room from violations after I am gone.  For Mr. Locrian has been true to his promise; he has told me of certain things when I was ready to hear them.  And he has other things to tell me, secrets surpassing all insanity.  Commending me to an absolute cure, he will have immured another soul within the black and boundless walls of that eternal asylum where stars dance forever like bright puppets in the silent, staring void.”

This was a very difficult story to talk about, because I didn’t want to cut anything out.  Even with how much of the text I left in, there are many little details missing which add to the sensation of horror and unreality.  Nonetheless, there is a lot going on in this discussion of insanity, knowledge, and memory, of what is meant by the idea of insanity.  Of course, it is practically kitsch to say, ‘what if the insane actually have access to a greater knowledge?’, particularly in the world after Lovecraft, but Ligotti has pushed this cliché in a new direction, taking it very seriously as an examination of the human desire for knowledge, and the fear of knowledge.  It also functions as a nice deconstruction of the trope that the old castle/asylum/house/hotel/etc must be torn down to make room for renewal.  There is no renewal here, there is only the strange void; either way, the town seems to be doomed, and all that rises from the ashes is the fears of the past reincarnated.

I think it should be clear that I recommend Ligotti.  I heavily recommend Ligotti.  The local UC library has no books by Ligotti; this is ridiculous.  We need a re-release of Ligotti, a republication of early books like Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe that run $200 a copy, something I’ll never be able to afford.  There is a work of academic criticism out on Ligotti, but it skews very heavily toward a certain type of criticism that, to be frank, I don’t think is the most productive type (although I haven’t actually read it) and we need to see more of an awareness of his work, more of an engagement with it.  Ligotti makes the reader uncomfortable, but that’s as it should be; he is the perfect complement to the contemporary fiction of writers like Paul Auster.  Reading this book is the kind of experience that, as a writer, makes me both exhilarated to see that new wonderful things can still be done with the medium, and despairing that I didn’t write it.

Tomorrow, we finish up the month of Shocktober.  And how could we end but with the forefather of horror literature, the shadow that has loomed over every book I’ve read this entire month (yes, even those written earlier, nachträglich): Edgar Allan Poe.

All quotations from The Shadow at the Bottom of the World copyright 2005 Thomas Ligotti.
Everything else copyright Kile Marshall Bigbee 2012.

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“The Double Shadow” by Clark Ashton Smith

[spoiler warning]


All over this book (and various places on the internet) it’s advertised that Clark Ashton Smith was one of the Big Three contributors to Weird Tales, along with H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard.  Specifically, there was a short period from 1930 to 1936 when these three constituted to primary material of weird fiction.  You already know what I think of Robert E. Howard, and I think that my admiration for Lovecraft, and his particular ability to blend a nihilistic view of man’s relation to the cosmos (or more precisely, the reverse) with the furniture of gothic fiction, has been made apparent.  So how does the third member of the trifecta measure up?


First of all, he’s not an imitator of Howard or Lovecraft.  Although all these authors have influence on each other, as should be expected, Smith is definitely carving out his own territory.  And where is that territory?  Well, it seems to fit comfortably between Lovecraft, Howard, and a third writer I haven’t had the opportunity to talk about called Lord Dunsany.  Ever since I first read him, I’ve felt that Lord Dunsany is one of those authors who have been tragically neglected by the popular consciousness.  Sure, he’s well-known among the fantasy crowd, but in my opinion he’s the kind of writer people should be reading and talking about all the time—I honestly find his work much more interesting than Lewis Carroll, and much, much more interesting than C.S. Lewis.  Writing fantasy at the turn of the century, his works feel their heritage in Romantic poetry in that they continually seem to be trying to evoke, or even create, new worlds.  For those very familiar with Lovecraft, his early work, and anything in what is sometimes referred to as his ‘Dream Cycle’, is heavily influenced by Dunsany.  Dunsany’s impressionistic, surreal evocations of the unknown have had a tremendous influence on fantasy as a genre, continually serving, alongside Carroll, as a sort of counterpoint to the rigidly constructed worlds of Tolkien, his many imitators, and the many RPGs based off of these.

It’s important to talk about Dunsany before talking about Smith, because it is Dunsany’s way of painting fantasy that Smith often brings to the table.  Reading through his collection is a sort of exhilarating time travel; one minute one may be at an abbey in France in the late middle ages, and the next in Oakland in the early 1900s, or in ancient times coexistent with Robert E. Howard’s Conan, or in the distant future, on “Zothique, the last continent, beneath a dim sun and sad heavens where the stars come out in terrible brightness before eventide.”  Yes, the prose is purple, but it is the prose of evocative dream poetry, and it works as such.  The reason some purple prose (Barker, for example) bothers me is that it’s out of place in the universe the writer is trying to create, usually a gritty one that would be better served by a more minimalist or psychological approach.  Clark Ashton Smith, who was better known during his lifetime as a poet, writes his descriptive passages like prose poems.

But there’s one thing that distinctly separates Clark Ashton Smith from Dunsany and other fantasy writers, and that’s the horror element.  Smith writes horror fantasy, often with a healthy balance between the two, but when he emphasizes the horror he does a fantastic job of it.  There are some moments from several of his stories—”The Return of the Sorcerer”, “The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis”, “The Isle of the Torturers”—that will stick in my mind forever, moments just as horrifying as the worst visions conjured up by Lovecraft.  Even when he doesn’t explicitly evoke horror in this manner, there are elements of horror in his fiction; tales with happy endings often involve monstrosity, manipulation, necromancers, and death.  They tend to have ambiguous endings, happy for some characters and not for others.  They are, in short, much more complex and nuanced than a great deal of the other pulp—Howard, Chambers, etc—that I’ve read.

There’s one more point I’d like to make before we get to the story.  Feminist readings have been haunting a lot of these reviews, as they must necessarily do of pretty much anything relating to the horrible, which tends, for better or worse, to gravitate to issues of gender, sex, and bodies.  As before, I’ll say that I have not performed close readings of these texts, but in my initial reaction, I’m impressed with how Smith approaches the issue of sexuality.  Sure, these stories are almost exclusively written from the male perspective with women sometimes not even appearing, but they show an awareness of and an engagement with the lives of women that I haven’t seen in other texts from this period and genre.  Stories like “The Monster of the Prophecy” and “The Enchantress of Sylaire” play off of old stereotypical stories about women, deconstructing certain assumptions.  Other stories are willing to treat the pain caused to women as equal to the pain caused to men, a very rare thing in pulp.  Sure, some uncomfortable tropes pop up, but these stories seem light-decades ahead of the simplistic views on sexuality offered by writers like Robert E. Howard and Edgar Rice Burroughs, and they have an awareness of women completely lacking from Lovecraft’s grim world.  The very suggestion, popping up in several places, that there may be individual happiness or even salvation in a dark and ultimately doomed world opens up vast heterotopic possibilities that hopefully someone has explored more in depth—or if not, that I may return to in the future, as Smith’s fiction certainly warrants deeper reading than I am prepared to give here.

Now with all that said, onto a quick summary of a story that will relate very little to any of these things.  Why this one then?  Because there’s quite a few I don’t want to give away the ending to, and I feel this is sufficiently good to convey Smith’s skill.


First of all, the story starts out with this: “My name is Pharpetron”.  I know it’s juvenile, but I couldn’t help laughing at this name.  The purpose is to tell us that we’re now in the times of ancient Greece, but when spoken aloud (as I sometimes do when reading) this name is just hilarious.

That aside, Pharpetron is studying under the aged necromancer Avyctes.  “For six years, I have dwelt apart with the aged master, forgetting youth and its wonted desires in the study of arcanic things.”  We get a lush description of the mansion and the history of Avyctes, enough to evidence that he is a skilled summoner and a master of darkness.  “But Avyctes thirsted for a darker knowledge, a deeper empery; and into his hands, in the third year of my novitiate, there came the mirror-bright tablet of the lost serpent-people.”  The tablet was found in the sand the morning after a great storm.  Made of “some nameless metal, like never-rusting iron, but heavier” the triangular tablet is covered in uninterpretable marks.

Knowing nothing of the tablet’s history or purpose, it becomes an object of frustration for Avyctes over the months.  “At last, by the use of a chance formula, in idle experiment, he summoned up the dime, tenuous ghost of a sorcerer from prehistoric years [which wouldn’t be nearly as long if this is really ancient Greece, but anyway]; and the ghost, in a thin whisper of uncouth, forgotten speech, informed us that the letters on the tablet were those of a language of the serpent-men, whose primordial continent had sunk aeons before the lifting of Hyperborea from the ooze.”  Unable to summon the ghosts of serpent-people, Avyctes instead sends the prehistoric ghost further into the past, and finally conjures it back and thus learns the secret of the language, and therefore that the tablet is the formula for an evocation.

Avyctes is certain he can master whatever he summons, and soon they perform the ritual.  At the end, “Avyctes uttered a single word whose sense was obscure to us; and Oigos [their resurrected undead servant], being animated by sorcery and subject to our will, repeated the word after a given interval, in tones that were hollow as a tomb-born echo; and I in my turn also repeated it.”  But after the ritual is complete, nothing happens or arrives, and they deem the summoning a failure.  They give up, and as time goes by they forget about it.

Then, one day walking “I saw the blue shadow of Avyctes and my own shadow on the marble; and between them, an adumbration that was not wrought by any of the cedars.”  The strangely-colored shadow seems to be following Avyctes, and, as time goes by, closing in on him.  Finally, Pharpetron informs Avyctes of the shadow and Avyctes says,

“This thing is a mystery beyond my lore; but never, in all the practice of my art, has any shadow come to me unbidden.  And since all others of our evocations have found answer ere this, I must deem that the shadow is a veritable entity, or the sign of an entity, that has come in belated response to the formula of the serpent-sorcerers.”

They try to communicate with or command the shadow, but nothing works.  Avyctes is not even able to keep the shadow at bay with a barrier that should repel everything.  “Now, on the face of Avyctes, horror had graven new wrinkles; and his brow was beaded with a deathly sweat.  For he knew, even as I, that this was a thing beyond all laws, and foreboding naught but disaster and evil.  And he cried to me in a shaken voice, and said:

“‘I have no knowledge of this thing nor its intention toward me and no power to stay its progress.  Go forth and leave me now; for I would not that any man should witness the defeat of my sorcery and the doom that may follow thereupon.  Also, it were well to depart while there is time, lest you too should become the quarry of the shadow and be compelled to share its menace.'”

Pharpetron follows his command, but as he leaves he sees “that the alien umbrage, creeping like a noisome blotch on the floor, had touched the shadow of Avyctes.  And at that moment the master shrieked aloud like one in nightmare; and his face was no longer the face of Avyctes but was contorted and convulsed like that of some helpless madman who wrestles with an unseen incubus.”  Pharpetron flees but finds that he cannot escape; as he nears the edge of the terrace it lengthens before him, keeping him trapped with unknown magic.  So he returns to the house.  “And climbing the white stairs in the low, level beams of the crag-caught moon, I saw a figure that awaited me in the portals.  And I knew by the trailing robe of sea-purple, but by no other token, that the figure was Acyvtes.  For the face was no longer in its entirety the face of a man, but was become a loathly fluid amalgam of human features with a  thing not to be identified on earth.  The transfiguration was ghastlier than death or the changes of decay; and the face was already hued with the nameless, corrupt, and purulent color of the strange shadow, and had taken on, in respect to its outlines, a partial likeness to the squat profile of the shadow.  The hands of the figure were not those of any terrene being; and the shape beneath the robe had lengthened with a nauseous undulant pliancy; and the face and fingers seemed to drip in the moonlight with a deliquescent corruption.  And the pursuing umbrage, like a thickly flowing blight, had corroded and distorted the very shadow of Avyctes, which was now double in a manner not to be narrated here.”

The thing grabs hold of Pharpetron and leads him to Oigos, the resurrected mummy who had assisted in the ritual.  By the lamp-light Pharpetron can see that the shadow of Oigos is followed by a shadow like the one that had followed Avyctes, “and so I knew that the horror had come to Oigos in turn, and would wreak itself upon the dead even as on the living.  For the foul, anonymous thing that we had called in our presumption could manifest itself to mortal ken in no other way than this.”  It is now a day later, and Pharpetron sees that there is a shadow following his own.  The monstrous forms of Avyctes and Oigos watch him, waiting.  He has taken the tablet and thrown it into the sea.  “And now I must make an end, and enclose this writing in the sealed cylinder of orichalchum, and fling it forth to drift upon the wave.  For the space between my shadow and the shadow of the horror is straitened momentarily . . . and the space is no wider than the thickness of a wizard’s pen.”

Obviously, Smith’s prose relies on an unnecessarily vast vocabulary, not unlike Lovecraft.  But this doesn’t detract from the story for me; Smith is himself involved in an evocation, and the world he brings forward with his writing is distinctly alien but nonetheless terrifying.  Many of these tales are familiar stories—indeed, this, the mad scientist/wizard story, is one of the oldest and most familiar archetypes in horror—but they feel fresh in Smith’s hand because of his focus on creating a new world.  I don’t know the historical accuracy of a lot of Smith’s period pieces, although I have suspicions that they range far away from truth, but they work well to create a sense of transhistorical horror, of dark forces looming beyond the known world through all of time.  As you can probably guess, I’m going to give a big recommendation for Clark Ashton Smith, for fans of both fantasy and horror.  His writing might be too pulpy and too verbose for some, but if you can enjoy or look past that his ideas are often quite intelligent and interesting, particular his concern for the subjugated figures in history—women in some cases, but also the undead servants used as slaves by many of the necromancers in various stories.  The book I’m reading in particular is The Return of the Sorcerer: The Best of Clark Ashton Smith.  The selection of stories is great, but it could have done with some more editing; there are several typos and errors, the most obvious being that the header for “The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis” reads “Vaunts” instead of “Vaults”.  Still, it’s hard to get hold of any Smith volumes right now—I  could only get this one by buying it off Amazon, despite searching several well-stocked used bookstores for years—so I’m grateful for this effort to make Smith available in print again.

As a final side note, Clark Ashton Smith also happens to be just about the most well-known author to come out of Auburn, California, my hometown.  I didn’t actually find this out until now, living away from Auburn, but it’s bizarre to see my little town popping up in the pages of a book, particularly one spanning such wide vistas of history as this.

Tomorrow we take a look at a modern master of nightmares, Thomas Ligotti.

All quotations from The Return of the Sorcerer by Clark Ashton Smith copyright Prime Books 2009.
Everything else copyright Kile Marshall Bigbee 2012.

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“The Old Nurse’s Story” by Elizabeth Gaskell

[spoiler warning]


When a lot of people think of literature in general, what comes to mind is the traditional English novel.  Jane Austen, Charlotte and Emily Brontë, Charles Dickens—  these are, anecdotally, the instinctive figures of literature for most people.  To be honest, I was never that much a fan.  Sure, I enjoyed reading them, but I just couldn’t understand the appeal of this expansive novelistic form, which seems so strongly loved that many prefer it over the frenzied, marvelous, schizogenic constructions of Modernism, or the studied neurotic flailings of Postmodernism.  But I have to say, I may now have been made a convert.  Sure, Gaskell’s writing is still that tremendous literary molasses, flowing over everything with expansive narrative networks of genealogies and tangential histories, ridden with dialectical renderings (though mercifully much more readable than James’, Chambers’, or Lovecraft’s attempts), and lacking distinctive stylistic flourish, but something about her writing has seduced me.  It might be how, despite having largely been written in the 1850s, sections of this book read like an Angela Carter-esque feminist revision circa 1980.  It might be the characters that are almost always more than just caricatures of ideas—no Gradgrinds here.  Or it might just be some subtle skill, some ability to breathe vivacity into even the longest of stories.

Interestingly, Gaskell is most well-known for her social realist novels like North and South, which carries over into these, as Penguin has chosen to title it, Gothic Tales (this is the second collection I’ve read with that exact title, the first being by the Marquis de Sade, and I have to wonder by the end of my life just how many sets of Gothic Tales will I read?).  They show an awareness of cultural differences and the difficulties that arise thereof, as well as at least a little more awareness of and sympathy for the working class than is normally encountered in the ghost stories from that century.  But in addition to that, they’re very well-written and well-structured, and as such Gaskell has been very influential on the traditional ghost story.  This is a very well-known story, often anthologized and often imitated, and even if you haven’t heard of it I’m betting you’re very familiar with the tropes.


The story is framed as a narrative told to a group of children concerning a time when their mother, an orphan, was a little girl, and the nurse was young as well.  The nurse has been hired on in care of the mother, named Miss Rosamond, before she was born.  When Rosamond is still a little girl, both her parents die suddenly due to illness, and Rosamond and the nurse find themselves living with the old aunt Miss Furnivall in the Manor House at the foot of Cumberland Fells, the ancestral home of the family (whereas the girl’s guardian lives comfortably elsewhere and presumably doesn’t want a little girl around cramping his style, so packs her off into the old place).  Miss Furnivall and her servant and childhood friend, Miss Stark, are very old and spend most of their time in the west drawing-room, doing very little.

While spending time in the house, among the old portraits they find an exceptionally beautiful one, which Dorothy [I honestly can’t figure out her direct relationship to the family despite scouring the text; she and her husband James seem something between servants and family members] explains was Miss Furnivall when young.  Then she says that the older sister of Miss Furnivall—in this context called Miss Grace because Furnivall is the last name so the older sister would be Miss Furnivall if that makes any sense—was even more beautiful, and affords the nurse a brief look at a portrait of her that is normally turned toward the wall.

Meanwhile the nurse begins to hear organ music, although James insists it’s just the wind.  Dorothy tells her that some “folks did say it was the old lord playing on the great organ in the hall, just as he used to do when he was alive” and the nurse “one day when I was in the hall by myself, I opened the organ and peeped all about it and around it … and I saw it was all broken and destroyed inside, though it looked so brave and fine; and then, though it was noonday, my flesh began to creep a little, and I shut it up, and run away pretty quickly to my own bright nursery; and I did not like hearing the music for some time after that, any more than James and Dorothy did.”

Then one snowy day the nurse has gone away to church, and when she returns Rosamond is nowhere to be found.  She sees a single set of tiny footprints running off up to the Fells.  On her path following them she runs across a shepherd carrying a bundled package: it is Rosamond, near dead from the cold.  The nurse hurries her inside and when Rosamond is revived she explains that she was following a little girl who was luring her up to a beautiful lady by a holly-tree, although the nurse contradicts her by pointing out that there was only one set of tracks.

The old ladies demand an explanation of what has been happening, but when the nurse repeats the story, expecting to get into trouble, Miss Furnivall calls out “Oh! Heaven forgive!  Have mercy! … keep her from that child!  It will lure her to her death!  That evil child! … Wilt Thou never forgive!”

Not long before Christmas, they are playing in the nursery when Rosamond suddenly calls out about a girl in the window and sure enough there is a girl there.  The nurse restrains Rosamond, and realizes that though she is calling out and pounding on the window, the girl makes no sound.

“‘What is the matter with my sweet one?’ cried Dorothy, as I bore in Miss Rosamond, who was sobbing as if her heart would break.

“‘She won’t let me open the door for my little girl to come in; and she’ll die if she is out on the Fells all night.  Cruel, naughty Hester,’ she said, slapping me; but she might have struck harder, for I had seen a look of ghastly terror on Dorothy’s face, which made my very blood run cold.”

They shut Rosamond in and Dorothy finally tells the story.  The two young ladies Furnivall, Miss Maude and Miss Grace, both began courting a mysterious foreigner who taught the old lord organ playing, but Miss Maude finally gained his attention, and they were secretly married.  However, under the conditions of the secret marriage and the foreigner’s continued courting of Miss Grace, supposedly as subterfuge, Miss Maude became increasingly unpleasant to be around, and the foreigner began spending more time away and then finally deserted the family, leaving Miss Maude illegitimately wed, and with a little girl.  Apparently at some point in the desperation of her situation she mocked Miss Grace and told her that she had won the foreigner’s attentions, and soon the old lord in all his fury appeared and cast out Miss Maude and her child for disgracing the family, Miss Grace by his side all the time.  “But the old lord never touched his organ again, and died within the year; and no wonder! for, on the morrow of that wild and fearful night, the shepherds, coming down the Fell side, found Miss Maude sitting, all crazy and smiling, under the holly-trees, nursing a dead child, with a terrible mark on its right shoulder.  ‘But that was not what killed it,’ said Dorothy: ‘it was the frost and the cold.'”

As the winter progresses, the haunting gets worse, and they are forced to pretty much completely lock Rosamond in to prevent her trying to follow the little girl.  One night the nurse is summoned by the bell down to the drawing-room and brings Rosamond so that she will not be tempted when there is a great commotion, and then, suddenly, the whole drama appears before them in ghostly form—the raging old lord striking the little girl with his crutch, the terrified Miss Maude, the stolid Miss Grace watching everything—and “Miss Furnivall, the old woman by my side, cried out, ‘Oh, father! father! spare the little innocent child!'”  The lights go out “and Miss Furnivall lay at our feet stricken down by the palsy—death-stricken.

“Yes!  she was carried to her bed that night never to rise again.  She lay with her face to the wall, muttering low, but muttering always: ‘Alas! alas! what is done in youth can never be undone in age! What is done in youth can never be undone in age!'”

For me, this is pretty much just the perfect ghost story.  It’s very cliché of course, but such is to be expected of an early influential work.  It is creepy, but like many great ghost stories the final horror is not the supernatural, it is the evil that people do to each other, and the feeling of dread and horror comes from the sensation that we cannot ever revise the past.  This, I think, is one of the most successful deployments of that idea of haunting, comparable with Toni Morrison’s Beloved (which I know is more famously considered as a masterful commentary on slavery, but should also be recognized as an accomplished horror novel in its own right).

The great thing about Gaskell’s work is that she is very multi-talented.  This is really the only traditional ghost story in collection; others run the gambit from a dramatization of the Salem Witch Trials to stories of witch’s curses to proto-crime fiction to what is practically a Greek tragedy.  She has a fantastic grasp of how to use narrative and drama to make social commentary, but she approaches this with subtlety and without pedantry.  I am fully comfortable recommending not just this collection, but all of Gaskell’s works, gothic and otherwise, to anyone who likes good literature.

Well, this is the last post for this week, and next week is the final run.  Three more days, three more authors, but a whole lot of reading for me to do (you’ll see why on the final day).  Monday we look at supposedly the best writer of Lovecraftian horror next to Lovecraft himself: Clark Ashton Smith.

All quotations from Gothic Tales by Elizabeth Gaskell, published by Penguin Classics in 2004.
Everything else copyright Kile Marshall Bigbee 2012.

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“The Skins of the Fathers” by Clive Barker

[spoiler alert]


In terms of the popular consciousness, Stephen King is the face of contemporary horror.  In terms of the genre’s subculture, in my opinion, it’s all Clive Barker.  He may have been part of a larger movement, but he became a symbol for all the kinds of changes that were happening in horror literature at the same time as the horror film renaissance.  In terms of film, his most influential contribution is probably Hellraiser, adapted from his novella The Hellbound Heart, but in terms of literature it’s all about the Books of Blood.  This is a series of six collections published in 1984 and 1985, each running about 200 pages with around five stories.  Having now read the first two, I can say that there’s a lot of variety here—in terms of tone, subject matter, and quality.  Some of the stories are very good; unfortunately these were pretty much all in the first collection, which isn’t the one I’m looking at today.

Barker’s skill lies in the scenarios he conjures.  He has a genuine creativity, which is one of the things that allowed him to revitalize a very self-referential genre.  While no one, including Barker, is free from derivative stories, some of his best pieces (“The Book of Blood”, “In the Hills, the Cities”) remind me of nothing else I’ve encountered earlier—although the influence is definitely felt in later works by others.  This does occasionally lead to sub-par pieces as well, particularly his more flippant pieces and those that rely on a sort of presumption of Christian theology—he has a lot of comedic treatments of demons that just strike an odd chord between his bizarre stories and genuinely dark, Lansdale-esque material like “Dread” and “Pig Blood Blues”.

His style isn’t particularly notable, beyond being occasionally subject to some very purple prose, but his content has some oddly objectionable material.  Suffice to say, there’s been a lot of stuff that I’ve uncomfortably suggested might be misogynist; I’m pretty comfortable saying that some elements of certain stories, particularly “Sex, Death, and Starshine” and “Jacqueline Ess”, are sexist.  More than that, his stories are incredibly heteronormative, often taking essentialist views about sex—although we’ll get to that in the review.  I have no problem with portraying horrific acts of sexual and racial violence in literature (although Barker doesn’t get much into race; that’s more Lansdale’s territory) but it needs to be treated with care, and the sexual violence in Barker seems too often flippantly treated.  His female characters are often stereotypes of femininity, more often Juliette than Justine but never moving beyond the dichotomy, limited by a complete lack of verisimilitude, which isn’t true of his male characters.  It makes his fiction very difficult to read, because good ideas are hamstrung by this continual problem.


He also has a taste for horrible puns, but a lot of horror authors seem to.  Can we take a moment to address this, as a general problem of horror literature?  I open up the book and see this: “Everybody is a book of blood; wherever we’re opened, we’re red.”

Alright, so our story starts out with city man Davidson’s car breaking down in the middle of the Arizona desert.  He hears music and, needing help, starts toward it.  It appears to be some sort of parade through the desert, and he has come upon the back end of it.  “It was, he began to believe, a carnival of some sort, extraordinary as that seemed out here in the middle of God’s nowhere.  The last dancers in the parade were definitely costumed, however.  They wore headdresses and masks that tottered well above human height—there was the flutter of brightly-colored feathers, and streamers coiling in the air behind them.”

He calls out to them for help, and walks up to them.  However, as he gets close, within a half a mile, he can clearly see that they aren’t costumed—they are “monsters whose appearance beggared the nightmares of insanity”.  A whole variety of Boschian monstrosities makes up the parade.  One in the back comes after him and he runs away, but instead of attacking him it goes for his car, pulverizing it before accidentally starting a fire in the process.

In the nearby town of Welcome, the sheriff and other people confront this creature—one eye, mouths in its hands—when it appears as a burning, smoldering wreck and collapses in the middle of the town.  The sheriff is attacked by one of the hand-mouths, his fingers bitten off, and another local, Eleanor Kooker, shoots the creature and kills it.

Meanwhile, we encounter a family living in the nearby desert, consisting of Eugene, an abusive drunk, Lucy, his fancifully-minded wife, and Aaron, his young son, who he seems to irrationally hate.  It’s the stereotypical abusive household that we’ve seen a million times, and while it may be true to reality in many cases, Barker doesn’t write it with the verisimilitude of King.  We find out that six years previous, the couple was in the desert when suddenly a swarm of the monsters came upon them during sex and Lucy was repeatedly raped by them.  She apparently thinks back fondly on this experience.  It’s pretty clear that Aaron was conceived in this moment, and from here you can probably guess the direction the rest of the story is going to take.  Since it’s a fairly long story compared to what we’ve been looking at (all those in the collection are), I’m just going to breeze through a summary of the next little bits:

Davidson appears in town, tells them what he saw, and they decide to form up a posse.  Eugene is horrified when his son is ‘abducted’ by the monsters, which is to say that they show up and he runs to them calling out ‘papa!’  Eugene, heading to town, meets up with and joins the posse, and Lucy runs off into the desert.

We find out the history of these things.  “The creatures who were his fathers were also men’s fathers; and the marriage of semen in Lucy’s body was the same mix that made the first males.  Women had always existed: they had lived, a species to themselves, with the demons.  But they had wanted playmates: and together they had made men.”  Then of course they realized their error, when “women were made slaves, the demons killed or driven underground, leaving only a few pockets of survivors to attempt again that first experiment, and make men, like Aaron, who would be wiser to their histories.”  Barker, let me be clear: this is not how you do feminism.  It may seem like you’re celebrating femininity, but reducing half the human race to this sort of primordial essentialism is really just another way of disregarding individual agency.  Yes, I get that it’s an attempt at rewriting Genesis with a gender switch, but in doing that it just repeats the mistake.  It also denies the possibility of a Utopian future by implying that violence is a necessary part of masculinity rather than a historically contingent part.  At best, this is the kind of Earth-mother misandry that constitutes the ideology of a straw man feminist.

The posse attacks the demons, there’s a lot of chasing, fighting, and dying, pretty well written in a pulpy action style.  Eugene encounters Aaron, but when Aaron begins a transformation into a demonic form, Eugene kills him.  The ground around the posse becomes like mud and everyone sinks into it to varying degrees, Eugene and several others being completely engulfed.  Then, suddenly, the mud solidifies.  “From the lips of every face that still took air came a fresh cry of terror, as they felt the desert floor stiffen around their struggling limbs.”

Everyone is totally trapped, most of them beneath the surface.  “Only Eleanor Kooker, Davidson and two other men survived.  One was locked in the earth up to his chin, Ealeanor was buried so that her breasts sat on the ground, her arms were free to beat uselessly at the ground that held her fact.  Davidson himself was held from his hips down.  And most horribly, one pathetic victim was seen only by his nose and mouth.  His head was tipped back into the ground, blinded by rock.  Still he breathed, still he screamed.”

The only person outside the rock is Lucy, and Eleanor and Davidson call out to her for help.  Lucy wanders off, not sure how she can get help.  The sun is rising.  “The air would soon be blistering.  In Welcome, three hours walk away, she would find only old men, hysterical women and children.  She could have to summon help from perhaps fifty miles distance.”  Yes, because of course old people, young people, and ‘hysterical’ women are incapable of doing anything.

Basically she decides there’s no way she can help them.  She runs away.

This story, like most of Barker’s stories, had so much potential.  It’s a great idea: inhuman creatures from the Earth that humans hate based on appearance and are clearly a metaphor for the way that Native Americans were portrayed in early westerns.  That ending moment, everyone trapped in the ground, is really disturbing to me.  It’s a horrific idea to imagine being still alive, but unable to move—particularly the one who is buried except for his mouth and nose.  But there’s problems here, and the biggest one is the way that Barker writes people.  The only character who is far enough from a cardboard cliché to be interesting is Davidson.  The character in the most interesting position her, Lucy, is instead given no character at all, literally just being a vessel for the machinations of the two male races.  And there’s all that junky sexist backstory which has no need to be there; there’s no reason Barker had to explain what was happening beyond what we could easily see of it.

And that’s the general state of things with Barker’s fiction: a lot of great ideas, but poor execution.  I wish Barker would team up with Poppy Z. Brite, because with Brite’s powerful decadent writing and Barker’s original plots, some really great works have the potential to exist here.  As it is, you should probably read Barker, and you’ll be interested in and amused by his ideas, but it lacks the quality it could have; I’m continually haunted, when reading, by what could have been.

Tomorrow we look at some gothic literature from the very beginning of the British ghost story tradition: Elizabeth Gaskell.

All quotations from Books of Blood Volume Two, copyright Clive Barker 1984.
Everything else copyright Kile Marshall Bigbee 2012.

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