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11-20-09: Just the Facts in Fortean Times : All the Weird History Sans the Potboiler Plots

It behooves readers to ask themselves regularly: "Why do I read?"

Let's say for example, you're wandering through the bookstore and a standee filled with copies of a pseudo-historical potboiler collapses under its own weight ... perhaps like the book in question itself. You push out from underneath the avalanche of publicity, the puffy-author interviews and actually touch a copy with your own fingers. What attracts one to such a book? It's not the plot, the prose or the characters. No, it's the historical facts, fictionalized to the point of oblivion that ensnare our attention. Then you ask yourself another question: Do I want to read through 528 pages of badly written P/P/C to tease out a few snippets of history that may or may not bear some remote resemblance to the truth? Oh, you know the answer.

Why bother — why bother, when you can pick up a copy of the Fortean Times, which will offer you an undiluted stream of weird actual history and odd reported history (which may or not be the same thing) in about 1/20th the space? The answer, of course is that you need not wade through the bathos of the latest bestseller. In the first place, enough people around you will read mumble-mumble so that you can absorb the good parts via osmosis while not trudging through umpty-ump pages of .... prose. But since the real plot of these books and those like them is to tease out the so-called facts behind the so-called fiction over the course of 528 turgid pages, hour reading investment is much better spent just going straight for the reportage in the
Fortean Times 255 (Dennis Publishing Ltd ; December 2009 ; $11.99). And not, that I do u\se the word "reportage" for a purpose.

"Reportage" gets to what I really like about the Fortean Times. FT doesn't necessarily report facts and it doesn't always claim to. If you see an article in FT about "The Man-Fish of Tennessee," you might be tempted to conclude that it reports about a half-man, half-fish somewhere in Tennessee. But instead, the excellent Theodore Paijmans writes about the reports of the "man-fish" of Tennessee, not the actual existence of such a creature. This is what I love about FT; it reports on what humans are saying about those frayed edges of the world which we do not know as well as we think. The actuality of the man-fish is less interesting than the fact the actual humans wrote about it.

The cover story, "City of Symbols" by David Hambling, looks at the Masonic history of London in a mere seven pages of well-written, straightforward historical research. Hambling, like Paijmans, writes eloquently of the beliefs of those who architected The Big Smoke, and looks not just at the facts as reported in history, but also in fiction, to wit, Peter Ackroyd's 'Hawksmoor,' and Alan Moore's 'From Hell.' You know, it just struck me as I swrote this that what’s appealing and compelling about Fortean Times is that unlike much badly-written fiction that tries to fashion stories around Fortean events and reports, FT is actually about that most Fortean and inexplicable of phenomena — humans.

11-19-09: Re-Issues and Reasons to Re-Read : Thomas Ligotti's 'Songs of a Dead Dreamer'

Here's a book that I can re-read all the time. The reason for this is simple. The language in Thomas Ligotti's debut collection of stories, coming soon in a re-issue from Subterranean Press, 'Songs of a Dead Dreamer' (Subterranean Press ; March 2010 ; $40/$60) is so beautiful, so precise and ornate and unusual, it's just a pleasure to re-read it aloud. It will give anyone a few moments of feeling like Vincent Price, alone on the set of a Coppola-directed, Corman produced movie set.

Alas, we never did see Coppola direct Price as Dr. Munck in "The Frolic," nor did we get to hear him read "Drink to Me Only with Labyrinthine Eyes," but the language that Ligotti summons for these and every other story in this volume will bring this sort of rich vista to mind. Ligotti's stories have the sort of cant and resonance of poetry, but the storytelling power of prose. When we read, there are loots of reasons to do so, but in the final argument it always comes down to language.

Ligotti has been compared, and to my mind somewhat unfairly, to both Poe and Lovecraft. Now, like both of these writers, he is an absolute innovator. He creates unique visions of using literary tools he seems to invent out of whole cloth; so I'll grant the similarity. His language is also rather ornate, which again is an apparent similarity to the two icons of American horror. But in this regard, he's rather different. Poe was using the language of his time, and while it is more ornate than ours, there's a powerful directness that manages to still seem timeless. Lovecraft, on the other hand, was an antiquarian, and his affected language can often seem clunky, even when he's using it to deliver powerful concepts of terror that undo our world. Lovecraft work best when he, like Poe is speaking closest to the vernacular.

Ligotti, on the other hand, uses modern language, but generally does not speak in the vernacular. He is best when he's in character and his characters are rather operatic, over-the-top, engaged in a surreal netherworld that they connect to with words. Rather than saying that there are echoes of Lovecraft in Poe in Ligotti's work, I would suggest that Poe and Lovecraft seem like echoes of Ligotti's stories. And there is as well, an imaginary literary overlay, a sort of scholarly distance. There are a number of pieces in here of literary criticism that go father than any literary critic should go — into the realm of terror.

The bottom line is that Ligotti is an absolute original with a powerful command of language, whose stories improve with each re-reading. And here is the volume to re-read. There have been lots of versions of this book. The first and most desirable, which, alas, I do not own, was from Harry Morris's Silver Scarab Press. One of these will set you back some $300-plus. Now, the first edition I saw was from Robinson Publishing in the UK; I couldn’t even find this online, so who knows how much that one is worth. I also have a pristine Carroll & Graf hardcover. The lowest one of these goes is $128; they also range into the $300 range as well. The Subterranean Press version contains versions of the stories revised by the author and described as "definitive." Frankly, to my mind there is only one way to describe these stories. Take a copy of this book and seat yourself comfortably, upright in a nice chair. Wait until twilight. Then begin re-reading them aloud. You will have an audience. The void will hear your words, and whisper to you in the silence that follows.

11-18-09: Patricia T. O'Conner Knows That 'Woe Is I' : 'The Grammarphobe's Guide to Smarter English'

If you write, or read, the chances are you can't have too many guidebooks. The English language is an ever-changing map, a territory that expands even as it is explored. And because that territory expands so must the guidebooks. Welcome to 'Woe Is I,' Rev 3.

It’s not that you need to make sure you adhere to the rules when you write and speak, or that you need to know which rules are being broken when you read. No, it's just more fun to know whereof you speak, to know how to use the language properly. By eliminating the anxiety that surrounds the language, you'll find that your ability to express yourself, to define yourself by using the language is suddenly set free. You may still break all sorts of rules, but at least you'll know what you're doing. And a great place to find these rules clearly expressed is Patricia T. O'Conner's
'Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe's Guide to Better English in Plain English' (Riverhead / Penguin ; September 17, 2009 ; $22.95). The first edition came out thirteen years ago, before the practice of mangling the language online had really taken hold of the entire world. Now that we're used to seeing the crap people spew in blogs and on websites – like this one – we need a whole new line of defense and O'Conner steps up to the plate to deliver.

It's essential that grammar books be written both clearly and with a sense of humor. The words "library dust" hang heavily over books about grammar, the problem being that in order to gain from their insight you actually have to be motivated to read them. There are twelve chapters here, with the book coming in at about 240 pages, which means that, if you can make yourself read a mere 20 pages per night, in two weeks you'll become a better writer and reader. O'Conner makes it easy with a style that partakes of her own advice. If a grammar book is difficult to read, then you've got a problem. The only problem potential readers of this book will have is restricting their reading to twenty pages, but my advice is pace yourself. There's a lot to absorb and you want your brain porous enough to take it all in.

O'Conner is smart enough to know that she no longer needs a chapter on sending email and forwarding. Books like 'Send' have made it redundant, so she focuses back on the basics. This is a stripped down, smart guide to what makes us human. What could be more important?

11-17-09: A. M. Dellamonica Leaves 'Indigo Springs' : Magic Matters

Readers who think of themselves as readers of science or speculative fiction need not be fans of the genre. But understanding the genre gives those readers a better understanding of the current literary toolbox that all writers in the 21st century have at their disposal. No, we're not beyond genre yet, and I doubt that day will ever come. But we are at the point where the fictional devices used at first exclusively by writers of genre fiction have been liberated for use in works that are not, at the end of the day, perceived as genre literature.

Nobody will ever mistake
A. M. Dellamonica's 'Indigo Springs' (Tor Books / Tom Doherty Associates ; October 27, 2009 ; $14.99) for anything but a genre novel, and that's not a bad thing. But she does something very subtle at the core of this book that does speak to the fact that science fiction's literary devices can be jail-broken and used outside the world of science fiction; or rather to take fantasy fiction well in the direction of science fiction. It's very simple really. Magic matters.

That is, magic has to receive the same sort of rigorous extrapolation that speculative science receives to make it matter, to make it a driving and often terrifying force in a novel. 'Indigo Springs' is a great example of well-thought out magic, of magic that is made to seem as real as science by careful use of the literary techniques of science fiction. Dellamonica fires on all cylinders, using careful plotting and characterization to reveal to readers that the world is not as we thought. We are always one discovery away from a world transformed, whether by email in 1969, or as in this novel, by the discovery of vitagua, a blue stream that transforms everyday objects and beings into something quite extraordinary. In Dellamonica's vision, magic is not just a sort of psychic power. It's a transformative force that she uses to rewire our world. And worse — it's transmissible. It's a plague.

As with all plagues, there is a patient zero, and a place where all things start. Indigo Springs, a sleepy little town where a daughter returns to inherit her father's house. But we'll not find that out as the novel begins. In the well-drawn opening, the plague has been loosed and the havoc it is wreaking has met up with the United States Government. It's not a happy meeting.

What makes 'Indigo Springs' so powerfully convincing, and such a compelling novel to read, is the logic with which Dellamonica describes the effects of her plague. She writes with a convincing sense of the beauty and the chaos that such a plague would have. She also writes characters who are convincingly quirky and often rather funny ... except when they're melting the world around them. You can get a bit of the sense of the book by looking at her website, which is not to be confused with the Indigo Springs Homeowners Association, even though if you look at the latter you'll see a tab listed "Covenants" in the Documents section. Dellamonica's world creation was so strong, I suspected that she'd created a second website, and that the Covenents in question would be magical rather than ... social. That's some good writing. If you're looking for an offbeat version of the Apocalypse, one you may find quite frightening given Dellamonica's writerly authority, then look no further. But if someone you know starts seeming a bit more mystical than before, maybe it's not the best time for them to come over for a visit. Unless, of course, you welcome the Apocalypse. Just remember; magic matters.

11-16-09: Brian Lumley Infects 'The Plague Bearer' : Begin the Between

Sometimes, reading is like coming home again. Here I am, secure in the 21st century, surrounded by literature and drowning in good books, so overwhelmed that I have no time for anything less-than-stellar. No need to take a chance. But things weren't always this way. I remember back in the dark days of the 1980's when I had the pleasure of shopping for pretty damn good books in drugstores. There was an old-style, privately-owned drugstore on Lincoln Boulevard that I could hit during my lunch hours at Quotron Systems. First the Swedish Smorgasbord, then a cruise down the peculiarly-scented aisles to see what sort of cheese would grab my attention.

One fresh slab that grabbed my attention in that drugstore was the wildly-over-the-top 'Necropscope,' by Brian Lumley, with a ghoulishly, garishly delightful cover by Bob Eggleton. Little did I know that it was the beginning of a reading journey that would last more than 20 years. At the time, I just loved the in-yer-faceness of it all. Psychic spies, talking and walking dead and vampires that were a crazy combination of Alien-esque parasite and utterly evil, blood sucking humans — what more could a young man ask for?

Sequels, and some of them even better than that first entry, and a saga that Lumley would successfully mine for years to come. Lumley was not a fan of my reviews, as I tagged his books as B-movies with bazillion-dollar budgets. Since those have somewhat taken over our culture, I'm not feeling so bad about that call. It was certainly meant as a compliment.

Now, secure in the 21st century, reading quite a bit more literature than I was back in the day, I find myself in possession of an ARC of 'Necroscope: The Plague Bearer' (Subterranean Press ; April 2010 ; $35) with another delightfully grotesque Bob Eggleton cover and all of a sudden, I'm ... much younger, we'll say. This time around, it's a lost fragment that never got included in any of Lumley's follow-ups, and it's just a nice, meaty novella, the kind of book you drink down as if you were a ravenous vampire, draining the blood of a unhappily-struggling human. Yummy!

Yes, Harry Keogh is back and so, thankfully, are the Ferenczy Brothers, now living in a Sicilian aerie as the Francezci's, with a metamorphosing critter down below they still call "Father." They hatch a plot to send Mafia thug Mike Milazzo, infected with a deadly virus to take down Keogh and the friendly werewolves he's cohabiting with in Edinburgh. 178 pages will shoot past your eyes faster than a ravaging plague. You get monsters and the mafia against Harry Keogh and a pack of werewolves. It just does not get any better.

Be assured that Lumley is telling this story in his best evil-uncle prose voice. Be assured that Eggleton's cover and interior illustrations are every bit as classy and disturbing as you want them to be. But don’t be assured that you can suss what's going to happen, because Lumley has a way of upping the ante when you think he's got nothing left to bluff with. This is not a book about world peace, meaningful father-son relationships, or finding your way in a confusing, yes, I'm going to say it post-9/11 world. This here book is going to give you talking slime, friendly werewolves and sympathetic mafia hit-men, then stir-'em all up and the reader as well. Reading can and should be fun. This book is actually more fun than you expect — something that actually matters "in a post 9/11 world!"

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10-03-14: Commentary : Lawrence Wright ' Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp David' : Suspension of Belief

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09-23-14: Commentary : Lauren Beukes Builds 'Broken Monsters' : Dream Reapers

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