Tuesday, April 29, 2014


"Long ago, when we all lived in the forest..."

                And Peter Straub Month is brought to a smashing close with Shadowland. There is one sentence I can use to describe this book, one that I'm surprised I'm using, but one that makes perfect sense:

Shadowland is what would happen if Lev Grossman hadn't failed when he wrote The Magicians

                  Now, that's a bold statement. And as a bold statement, it deserves some backing up, so here goes: With Shadowland, Peter Straub takes a few traditional concepts-- children growing up, an elderly magician teaching young people real magic, an enchanted forest visited by the young where the rules of reality don't exactly apply, and all the other conventions of things young adult fantasy novels love to use-- and he twists them around. Where he succeeds is that he never once condescends to the reader or blatantly disrespects them. He just shows them a new perspective on what they know, almost as if having a discussion of it. Shadowland begins pretty dark, that's a certainty, but most of the novels it's riffing on do as well. The difference is that the other novels do get somewhat lighter. The danger seems like it comes from outside the world, not from within. And that is where Shadowland differs. Because in Shadowland, the danger seems like it might come from within, too. Even the rules of magic sound fairly sinister, including such items as "The physical world is a bauble". But just why is it worth reading Shadowland, and why does it stand tall against all comers? 

Well, read on...

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Ghost Story

     "What's the worst thing you've ever done?"
"Well, I won't tell you that-- but I will tell you the worst thing that's ever happened to me...The most dreadful thing..."

                      Imagine a glass of water. Now imagine someone comes by every half-minute or so and drops a marble into that glass of water. Now, because we're imagining, imagine the lights in wherever you are are timed to drop lower as the glass fills with marbles, and when it overfills, you have the feeling something very bad is going to happen. Plink. Plink. Plink. Each marble driving you closer to some kind of unnerving, unsettling catharsis.

This is what it's like reading Ghost Story

                     I could talk about how it pays homage to the tradition of Gothic novels, how the unsettling nature of sexuality and guilt play a part in the work, but honestly, that's where I want to start. The marbles. The catharsis. Because that's the elegant part. Ghost Story is a brilliant book, a one-of-a-kind book, because it above so many other novels of its type understands subtlety and atmosphere. The book is permeated by it, but offers certain enticing and readable qualities that set it slightly above its drier predecessors. It's not a tight story, but what it lacks in tightness and tension it more than makes up in sheer atmospheric dread and richness of setting. Ghost Story nests its stories, adds stories to the overall framework, and all of it is a brilliant, if unsettling and chilling read. If ever there were a book worth tracking down, worth finding and reading voraciously, this is it

More, as always, below. 

Sunday, April 13, 2014


"So what's it like to kill someone?"
"I can't tell you."
- Unnamed Cabbie and Michael Poole

                   Koko is brutal. It is, perhaps, the most disturbing and uncomfortable book I have ever had the "pleasure" of reading. I phrase it that way because I can acknowledge that the book is well-written, that Peter Straub has an amazing turn of phrase, and that there is a brilliant thread at work here. But what Straub manages to do with Koko is to explore the feelings of trauma, guilt, and psychological suffering felt by its protagonists, to take you inside their heads, and to allow you to identify with them. You yourself may never know the trauma or never know what trauma does to people, but for the time it will take you to read this book, this uncompromising and singleminded work of fiction, the feelings will at least be right. I could not read this book all at once. I may never read it ever again. But hopefully, if you find this and read it, and if you find in it the same things I did, it will leave its mark on you. And that, above all else, is what defines a successful work of literature. If you're never able to shake the feelings it gives you, it's won. It's done its job. 

                I admit when I first started reading Koko, I was turned off by it. The copy on the dust jacket was utterly ridiculous to me after reading so many books that made the same claims. I knew off the bat that this would probably be more psychological thriller than horror novel and started looking for the proper cues to tell me who the murderer truly was. I even complained about how the characters missed an obvious clue about the villain a third of the way through the book. But as I read, I started to see where it was going. I wondered where it would all end up and how. And then when I figured out what the book was really about, the pieces suddenly clicked into place and what I saw as disparate, offhand elements suddenly came together and clicked. Koko, you see, is not a book about four men, or a book about a serial killer, or even a book about the frightening underbelly of urban legends in southeast Asia. It's a book about trauma, guilt, pain, and exactly how far you can push the human psyche until it snaps. 

And it is brilliant.

More, as always, below

Saturday, April 5, 2014


"It's turned out nice again"
-George Formby

                     Robert Rankin is a hard author to review. Not for any textual reasons, he's not like a William Gaddis or a Mark Z. Danielewski who keeps things willfully obtuse, no, everything is right there in the open for your perusal should you wish to peruse it. No, Rankin is a hard author to review because of what I call the "Rankin Metaverse". You see, in the tradition of many other authors of weird fiction (and Rankin is weird, to be sure), many of Rankin's books connect to each other in sometimes small, sometimes rather huge ways. The way everyone has knowledge of the phrase "Taking Tea With The Parson" and the odd sexual position it represents. The ubiquity of Lazlo Woodbine, PI and Hugo Rune. The constant fourth-wall asides to both Robert Rankin and his work, which all the main characters (sometimes inexplicably) read.  So, much like with Tim Dorsey a few weeks ago, how best to approach something when you're not sure whether or not the person you're recommending it to is in on all the jokes? Especially when someone such as your not-quite-humble reviewer harbors a certain grudge against reviewing single books as single books when they fit into a larger work?

                       By saying it like this: Necrophenia is not Robert Rankin's most accessible work-- for the non-metaverse entries that would be The Hollow Chocolate Bunnies of the Apocalypse and for the metaverse works that would beyond a doubt be the twelve-part six-hour radio adaptation of The Brightonomicon, where they had to make it an accessible entry into Rankin's work while preserving the strangeness and some of the characters who make repeat appearances throughout (The ending of the series even caps off with an advertisement for the nine-volume Brentford Trilogy). But despite being not as accessible as the works I've just mentioned, Necrophenia is a damn fine read in and of itself, one that ties itself into the universe nicely while still leaving enough points of entry that newer readers can get right into it and pick up on the absurdity of Robert Rankin's novels. It's also a touching meditation on age and the passage of time, and the only novel I can think of where not having the slightest idea of what's actually going on in the story does nothing to affect the enjoyment of it. It's a strange, at times boldly absurd book with a lot of heart, and well worth the read.

More, as always, below.