Filler content with monsters from the hippocampus – Part 2

Continuing on from Tuesday’s blog entry, two more reviews comprising the second part of a feature on work from American publisher Hippocampus Press that originally appeared in Black Static #39:-

The same could be said, and possibly with even more justification, about Joseph S. Pulver, Sr. He is a writer about whom I have very mixed feelings. I loved his novel The Orphan Palace when I read it, but the few short stories of his that I’ve encountered haven’t agreed with me at all, and so I approached the substantial collection PORTRAITS OF RUIN (Hippocampus Press paperback, 384pp, $20) with some trepidation. It contains thirty six stories, or thirty eight if you count the three parts of ‘The Russ Meyer Triptych’ separately, and Matt Cardin provides an introduction.

And right away, just looking at the Table of Contents, you realise that this is not going to be your ordinary story collection, with titles like ‘kristamas as an exhibition’,  ‘6…6-’ and ‘Rune Grammofon poem [U.N/umbered}}}})’.  Flipping the pages confirms that impression, as you gaze at different fonts and experiments with layout, some of which bring to mind concrete poetry rather than horror fiction. Reading a section, almost any section, takes us further into the labyrinth with Pulver rattling off words like he’s firing a machine gun, a staccato and slightly breathless delivery where sense seems subordinate to sound and fury, but at the same time you gradually become aware that something is happening here, even if, like Dylan’s Mr. Jones, “you don’t know what it is”.

Cardin in his introduction attempts to provide us with a Rosetta Stone to unlock the lexicon of Pulver and I can see that there is much of truth in his argument that Pulver is an impressionistic writer, that what matters is not so much the sense of his words as the images they create in the mind’s eye, the emotional language and resonance of the text. It’s just that, for a lot of the time, there’s little here that filters through the barriers set up by my rational mind and makes it deeper into the hollow places of my psyche. Too many of the stories simply didn’t make much sense to me, either intellectually or emotionally, which is not to say that they are without meaning, any more than a text in some language that I don’t speak – say Swahili, or Latin, whatever – is nonsense simply because I lack the necessary intellectual attainments  to understand it.

And, at the risk of sounding like a fashion reporter full of praise for the latest developments in imperial couture, I’ll state categorically that I do enjoy Pulver’s work even when I don’t understand it, for the risks he is willing to take with structure and narrative, the unique way in which he uses language, the enthusiasm and excitement he brings to genre literature, and the esoteric nature of much that he writes. He is one of the few writers within the horror genre who I feel may be possessed by genius, but at the same time on the basis of Portraits I think he needs to harness his wild talent and use it more purposely instead of allowing it to use him. Of course, as I’ve already conceded, the flaw may lie with me and there is always the argument that the stories which don’t work are a necessary adjunct to those that work so splendidly well, just as the scientist will conduct many unsuccessful experiments on the road to creating the winning formula that will make a fortune for the pharmaceutical company he is employed by.

It’s past time to stop prevaricating like a politician who doesn’t want to give a straight answer in case it offends the electors or his campaign contributors, and get down to brass tacks. Looking at the stories in Portraits I can divide them into three different types – those that are strikingly original, those that are formulaic but made special by Pulver’s method of writing, and those that I’m going to ignore because there are only so many ways of saying WTF was that all about and/or never mind the content, just admire the prose.

The collection opens with the story of the bereaved Captain Jack for whom there are ‘No Healing Prayers’. The story is laid out on the page like a poem, each paragraph just one sentence long, and sometimes only one word, all of which has a cumulative effect, rather like an avalanche of words sweeping aside everything in their path, with memories of the past and a righteous life filtering through the protagonist’s subconscious as he waits with a gun for the entity that he believes killed his beloved, though there is also the possibility that this is simply a metaphor for suicide. The three parts that make up ‘The Russ Meyer Triptych’ – ‘The Director’s Cut’, ‘Skin Flick sans Money Shot’ and ‘When There’s a Riot Goin’ On’ – find Pulver at his ebullient best and demonstrating a wonderfully jaded wit. Written as a script they detail the making of a commercial movie, with the all-star cast that includes Meyer, Carpenter, Argento, Romero and just about everybody else who has thought about doing a horror movie. Even Godzilla puts in appearance, complaining about the size of his trailer. Or maybe I just imagined that (Pulver is getting inside my head). They kid each other, discuss various options, and just pass the time of day in a tour de force of invention and amiable satire, all of it delivered with a breathless wit and tongue held firmly in cheek. And a character called The Poe Eddie walks off with the girl. It’s great stuff, and one of the most original, off the wall works of fiction I’ve seen in ages.

‘Lonely…and a long way from home’ tackles the old chestnut of a man who picks up a lone female hitchhiker late at night, but here it comes with a twist that I didn’t expect at all, a denouement that more than compensates for the familiarity of the material, with some dark psychology thrown into the mix. Guilt is central to ‘Listen to a Country Song’, when the music on the jukebox brings back unhappy memories to a man and he realises that he will never be free of the woman he murdered. Short, sharp shocker ‘Jolene’ has a man kill his girlfriend when he makes a shocking discovery about her eating habits, though Pulver keeps his options open and puts out there the possibility that he may simply be delusional. In ‘…LIES……Thunder……ashes……………’ a musician is lured into composing the soundtrack for a Lovecraftian film, but in doing so he helps to make the Black Man a reality and bring about an end of days, the story strong on capturing the creative impulse, and the way in which the desire to impress a young woman can lead guys into all sorts of trouble, with enough chills and subtle shudders to make it linger in the memory long after the reading is done.

Pulver’s comedic side is to the fore again in ‘Mrs. Spriggs’ Easter Attire’, with a nest of vampires and/or ghouls fighting over the possession of an Easter bonnet. The story could so easily have been silly or slight, but the strong characterisation helps it work as a demonstration of how given immortality of a very restricted kind small things, such as a fancy hat, can come to assume importance out of all proportion to their actual value. Near as I can make out, the two page ‘How I Survived the Cowboy Movie [or When the Barron Opened His Eye]’ is a tribute to Pulver’s fellow writer Laird Barron, who here takes the genre by the scruff of its neck, the story amusing for the gung ho over the top quality that permeates the chain of events, albeit also rather slight. ‘My Mirage’ sees a writer enlisted by David Lynch to help make a movie about the King in Yellow, an intriguing concept and one that goes off into true terra incognito in a collision of the surreal and noir.

Finally we have the best piece in the book, ‘And this is where I go down into the darkness’, which starts as the account of a childhood in which books were vital to the development of a young mind, segues into a romance based on a shared love of fantastic literature and ideas, after which the woman disappears leaving the man a copy of Ligotti’s non-fiction work The Conspiracy Against the Human Race as the only clue to her future whereabouts. In an audacious reversal of values, Pulver reifies this book as a forbidden text, a text to capsize the mind and unravel the very fabric of society, becoming an object of cult worship, a Necronomicon for the new millennium. The story is a magnificent feat of invention, one that keeps the reader off balance with all the manic energy of a metal ball bearing jumping from one flipper to another on a pinball table. And I suspect many will identify with Pulver’s portrait of a young boy growing up and finding that new worlds open up to him through the medium of reading, that others will, as did I, look at the writers he name checks and tick them off on some long cherished list of their own. It’s a piece of fiction that feels very personal in its descriptions of the life of a mind, as if the writer is giving something of himself, but ultimately manifests a nihilism of cosmic proportions, feelings of awe, while inviting the inference that art is a means to frame and understand our existence, the only consolation we have in the face of an uncaring universe. I loved it and, with the reservations stated above, I loved this collection.

THE WIDE CARNIVOROUS SKY& OTHER MONSTROUS GEOGRAPHIES (Hippocampus Press paperback, 324pp, $20) contains ten stories by John Langan, a writer who is one of my favourites currently working in the genre. Most of them are of novella length, and several I’ve seen before in places such as The Best Horror of the Year and The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror, which speaks as to their quality. Jeffrey Ford writes an introduction and Laird Barron provides an afterword.

This collection leads off with the short ‘Kids’, probably the least substantial of what’s on offer but still fun as a teacher discovers that the children in his class truly are little monsters. Based on Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, the superb ‘How the Day Goes Down’ is presented in the form of a play, in which small town America copes with the zombie apocalypse. The laconic stage manager acts as our master of ceremonies, filling in the gaps in the narrative, which is fleshed out by various individual accounts from concerned citizens, the whole presented to an audience of zombies with a metaphysical backdrop. It’s a powerful and original work of fiction, compelling in the dramas that are shown, causing us to care about the characters even while underlining the fact that this is all fiction.

‘Technicolor’ plays mind games with Poe classic ‘Masque of the Red Death’, as an academic unveils to his students the dark truth behind the colour scheme in that story, and the background in occult history, his delivery inducing a hypnotic state and launching his own experiment in reviving the dead, the story wonderfully told and completely gripping. Title story ‘The Wide, Carnivorous Sky’ has Iraq veterans remembering and plotting to destroy the monster that attacked their squad, a creature that falls from the sky and feeds on blood. With echoes of Predator and Space Vampires, this is a powerful and original variation on the vampire theme, the story coming alive thanks to the wealth of detail Langan brings to drawing his characters on the page, showing their warts and all, so that we come to believe even as we recognise the very preposterousness of what is being presented. To add another frisson, the story ends with a note of ambiguity, almost as if written with the idea of a film franchise lurking at the back of the writer’s head.

In ‘City of the Dog’ a man discovers the existence of a tribe of ghouls in the city of Albany, but the real thrust of the story lies in what he learns about himself, how shallow his feelings are for the woman he claims to love, so that he will allow others to sacrifice themselves for her safety. It’s this personal element that makes the story special, something more than just another tale of those who live among us, as the self-pitying protagonist lays it all out, apparently oblivious to how bad it all makes him seem. Memories of the past play counterpoint to a nightmarish present in ‘The Shallows’, with a man telling us of his wife’s attempt to rescue a dog, as outside the window creatures of a Cthulhuesque provenance pass by, while the possession of a pet crab underlines the essential strangeness of it all. I have mixed feelings, with the human drama of the dog capturing my interest, but the rest of it not quite hitting the spot, seeming all a little strange for the sake of being strange. A quibble, and no more than that.

‘The Revel’ is a joyous romp of a werewolf story, the narrative broken down into scenes and a metafictional element intruding as the reader is co-opted into the story, Langan delighting not just with his invention but also for the way in which the story asks questions about the nature of horror fiction, examining the tropes of the genre from the inside. ‘June, 1987. Hitchhiking. Mr. Norris’ is a strange little story in which a young man is picked up by a driver who wishes to kill him as a sacrifice to arcane powers, captive deftly turning the tables on the captor in a slight but fun piece. The identity of the young man makes the story.

Lastly we have the wonderful novella ‘Mother of Stones’, the tale of the discovery of a buried statue of a headless woman and what happened after, as told by various witnesses and concerned parties, with a female academic piecing it all together. This was simply brilliant, with each part of the jigsaw slotting into the whole, so that a story of a haunting/cursed object, is slowly transformed into an assault by pagan values on the present day, Langan’s delivery perfect, raising the stakes with each revelation and allowing the reader time to become acclimatised to his story’s reality and the events behind it before delivering the next shock to the system. This was possibly the finest novella I read in 2013, and a stunning end to a collection that, hopefully, should be in contention for any number of awards.

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