12-01-11:Brian Showers Crafts 'Old Albert: An Epilogue'
Ringing in the Truth
Stories have a natural power, a gravity that draws the reader in, pulls the reader down. Even the most inconsequential-seeming tales catch our attention, and more so if they filter out from the world around us. The issue of veracity, of truth, no matter how slight, increases that gravitational pull tenfold. Stories we think are true, or might be true, or that even feel true command our attention.
Brian J. Showers commands the readers' attention in 'Old Albert: An Eplogue,' a short collection of linked stories that add up to a very nice reading experience. After an Epigraph from Italo Calvino's 'Invisible Cities,' you'll find "A Note to the Reader by Jim Rockhill," which purports to be a sort of introduction, but is, in reality an integral part of the collection. Rockhill sets the scene with letters from Showers, notes on Showers' previous book 'The Bleeding Horse' (which will end up on the must buy list of anyone who reads this book), and notes on storytelling and fiction itself. Rockhill anchors the work that follows with his well-known scholarly prose and reputation.
Showers follows through with six short stories (one of which is the "Prologue") that start out craftily meandering but eventually wind up being intensely powerful. Showers begins with an introduction to Rathmines, a suburb of Dublin that the author makes real for the reader by virtue of extremely smart and engaging writing. Then, in a series of stories that follow, he brings the work to focus on Larkhill, beginning with "Ellis Grimwood of Larkhill," the story of a reclusive eccentric who studies birds, and finishing with "Come Like Shadows, So Depart," in which the author reveals his sources. Each story brings to light a new perspective on Rathmines in general and Larkhill in particular, culminating in a chilling finale.
The prose, and the prose voice in particular are engagingly low-key and academic, but extremely compelling. Showers fills his stories with notes that mimic reality but may or may not be based in reality. There are a series of end-notes that lend credence to the tales being true, and add a sense of veracity. The effect of Showers' incredibly well-crafted prose is to give the tales he tells a ring of truth that is undeniably and very enjoyably compelling.
Equally compelling are the characters he creates in a very offhand manner, from Ellis Grimwood to James Walker and his wife Eva, to the Author himself and his unnamed friend who finish the book. There's a sort of documentary, casual feel to these people; they're introduced as real and they feel that way to the reader. The characters' stories, their definitions, as it were, form the plot of the book, in a powerful cumulative effect that makes for a striking reading experience.
Ex Occidente Press is known for its lovingly-crafted work, and alas, the hardcover editions of this book are sold out. But Showers' vision persists, and his work is clearly worth looking for. If you happen upon a copy of 'Old Albert: An Epilogue' in any form, snap it up, and let it do the same for you. His other book, 'The Bleeding Horse and Other Ghost Stories,' to which 'Old Albert' is the epilogue, is still available at a very reasonable price. Showers is clearly an author of great talent, with an ability not just to describe reality, but create it out of whole cloth.
11-30-11:Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan Unleash 'The Night Eternal'
Finishing the Dread
Editor's Note: 'The Night Eternal' is the final volume of The Strain Trilogy by Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan. The first novel is 'The Strain,' and the second is 'The Fall.' They comprise one long story arc and should be read in order; if you've not read the first two, this review will contain spoilers. The series as a whole is well worth your valuable reading time.
Inspiring a sick feeling of dread may not seem like the most desirable of goals for a novel, but you could cut a swathe through science fiction, fantasy, literary fiction and even non-fiction to create a new genre of stories with exactly that aim in mind. From 'War of the Worlds' to 'On the Beach,' from '1984' to 'The Hot Zone,' stories that unlock the abyss of worries that lay just beneath everyday life are as compelling as they are disturbing.
Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan started mining that mother lode with 'The Strain,' the first book in a trilogy that has ticked off a series of terrors that haunt our seemingly unshakeable modern world, and linked them all to a unified vampire mythology. 'The Strain,' the first book, was an effective portrait of plague played out with aggressive, monsterific vampires. In 'The Fall,' our monsters nuked the world to bring about a one-sided version of World War III. 'The Night Eternal' offers us the sick dread how willingly humans will collaborate with, and thus become, evil. It makes for an effective finish to a trilogy that is taut, smart and graced with just enough poetry to set the sharply-barbed hooks.
Del Toro and Hogan have already proved (in 'The Fall') that they are skilled at bringing readers back into the world they have created, and 'The Night Eternal' is no exception. The plot here is admirably straightforward; with the world under the sway of the Master Vampire, extermination camps are set up to breed and bleed humanity. The throngs necessary to make this happen are allowed to return to lives that might seem normal, were they not at the service of great evil. The heroes of the previous novel are possibly the only ones who can undermine the new ecosystem that is establishing itself.
The characters we know have grown and changed, particularly Zach Goodweather, who is being brought up under the not-so-tender mercies of the Master. Ephraim Goodweather has grown even more desperate and extreme, while Vasily Fet and Nora Martinez are searching for ways to undermine the New Order.
Beyond the depressing and compelling scenes of normalcy and collaboration, Del Toro and Hogan take us to the origin of vampires in a rather unexpected manner. Even this well-seasoned reader was caught unaware; and this origin story brings us a new, entertaining and pivotal character, Mr. Quinlan. In a world of rot and terror, both moral and physical, Quinlan is a breath of fresh air, which is an accomplishment, considering his origin.
'The Night Eternal' is the polar opposite of the typical trilogy-finishing tome. It's sparse, action-packed and almost hallucinatory in its brevity. Del Toro's visual signature is rippled through pages and scenes with Hogan's relentless pacing; but that's a guess, as the book is seamless in terms of narrative voice. It's pretty close to a one-sitting reading experience, and for some tastes, it may even be too brief.
Del Toro and Hogan have, with The Strain trilogy, mined a variety of our fears, created some indelible characters and plumbed the depths of dread with narrative vigor and literary visual flair. The real accomplishment of 'The Night Eternal' is that it provides both an effective beginning to the series, by giving us the origin of vampires, and an excellent ending that actually acknowledges that victory has its own costs. The Strain trilogy is gripping, complicated and thoroughly enjoyable, proving that books are just as effective an abyss as dread. Think of them as an external form of mental illness, one that can be picked up, but if they are well-crafted, not so easily put down, and difficult to forget.
11-29-11:Win Blevins Chases 'So Wild a Dream'
The Simple Joys of Life
Editor's Note Another novel this one set in the 19th century, that I really enjoyed, as well as my conversation with the writer, Win Blevins, and his wife Meredith, which you can find by following this link.
In a time when you can cross the country faster than some people can drive to work, the idea of the American Frontier seems almost inconceivable. Here in the 21st century, we feel even farther removed. The last frontier we attempted to bridge has thus far defeated our own expectations for ourselves. We thought we'd be living in space by now, and we thought we could do so pretty easily. That was the indication given by the earliest space flights, all successful.
But recent events have made us justly more cautious. It's hard to imagine a time when death was common, and when exploration of the frontier was regarded with fear but nonetheless common as well. Win Blevins' 'So Wild A Dream' is a novel set in mid-America of the 1820's. Mid-America wasn't a repository of bland safety, but rather an authentic wild frontier. Exploration isn't safe in Blevins' novel; it's filled with danger, from hostile native Indians to treacherous comrades to hostile weather. Blevins makes the American frontier of the 1820's everything it was and one thing more -- accessible to the modern reader.
Sam is the youngest brother in the Morgan family. While his brother Owen, has a head for business and is turning their family mill and storefront into the center of Morgantown, Pennsylvania, Sam is more interested in wandering about the wilderness. A chance meeting with an Indian inspires him to follow his "wild hair" and head west into trapping country. His journey takes him down the Missouri River, through territories filled with dangers familiar and new. He starts the journey as a callow, uneducated youth and finishes as a more experienced but still uneducated man.
Blevins' prose trends towards the lyrical. He loves the landscape that Sam explores and all the things that Sam sees. He's excellent at scene-setting, which is important in a novel that takes place in an environment largely unfamiliar to the reader, especially an adventure novel. That's where Blevins really manages to win over the reader; this is an unabashed adventure novel, and it plugs in to the lower-brain-stem, bypassing the cynicism so common today. Blevins ability to describe both the country and the people of the 1820's enables him to connect on a personal level with the reader. He peppers his prose with the authentic, well-researched language of the time, and provides a glossary for the curious reader. Not that the glossary is necessary; Blevins is smart enough to ensure that everything he writes is understandable within the context of his story.
Blevins story is nothing supremely new, but it is supremely enjoyable. He loves all his characters and he's able to bring in the readers' sympathies without getting saccharine. Particularly noteworthy is his ability to garner respect and admiration for not only the protagonists, but every character, no matter how ill-intentioned that character turns out to be. There's no character in this novel that the reader does not look forward to seeing. This makes the novel a lot of fun to read; there's always a sense of anticipation.
Blevins is also skilled at telling a story that has the appeal of children's adventures but is thoroughly adult in terms of language, content and complexity. Morgan meets up with prostitutes, dull-but-cunning killers, con-men and misfits of all types. One second we see the beauty of nature and the next second we experience the ugliness of raw violence. But it's never too ugly. Blevins is careful to tread the borders and not wallow on the wrong side of repulsive.
Interesting as well is Blevins' ability to convey the folkloric perspective of his characters. Sam and those around him believe in hexes, curses, and wards, while the native Americans have their own and very different sets of supernatural beliefs. All of these are carefully differentiated and used sparingly, naturally. There's a tinge of magic-realism to this novel, but it's not the point; it's part of the environment that Blevins' is so carefully constructing.
Blevins' plot is straightforward adventure. Sam sets off and experiences riverboat life, life on the trail, life on the frontier and a harrowing man-in-the-wilderness walk to civilization. His pacing is excellent, balancing between lush descriptions, well-choreographed scenes of action and almost surreal experiences on the frontier. I found it to be something of a page-turner, with an extremely satisfying emotional backwash.
In these times of wild prose and over-the-top adventures, Blevins is actually taking a chance with his traditional adventure and straightforward presentation, but he pulls it off admirably. 'So Wild a Dream' is only the first of a projected six-volume series, but it's exciting and complete enough to satisfy the reader as a singleton, while creating a compelling foundation for what is surely to follow. I have to admit that I wasn't exactly drawn to this novel based on the subject. But the proof is in the reading, and even if you think that an adventure story set in the world of 1820's fur trapping isn't your thing, you'd be well advised to give this novel a try. It's definitely worth the risk to explore Blevins' fine novel; and much safer than walking home from the Rockies.
11-28-11:Scott Wallace Encounters 'The Unconquered: In Search of the Amazon's Last Uncontacted Tribes'
Conflicted Hearts of Darkness
We will never know our world. For every path cleared, every exploration, every satellite photo of every square inch of land and sea and even what lies beneath both, there will always be some place that we cannot see, some one we cannot know. And those places, those people, we will fill with stories, and one story in particular: Here be monsters.
Every age believes that it has witnessed the final conquest of all that there is to be known, only to be held ignorant by the age that follows. The stories each age tells of its conquests of the unknown, of victory over monsters, of expeditions into the last frontier prove to be much more informative about the explorers than the explored. In this age, of technological triumph, Scott Wallace's 'The Unconquered: In Search of the Amazon's Last Uncontacted Tribes' is not just a thrilling example of storytelling. It's a look into our own unconquered hearts of darkness.
Wallace's book certainly comes with lots of thrills. He's selected at the last minute to join an expedition led by Sydney Posuelo, head of Brazil's Department of Isolated Indians to gather information on an uncontacted tribe known only as the "Arrow People," without actually contacting them. Between the contradiction built into the mission, the significant hazards of the Amazonian jungle and the Posuelo's obsessive, eccentric mood swings, just getting from the beginning to the end of the trail is fraught with danger. But with great skill, Wallace tells this story as he weaves in the historical back story that informs the men and their mission. It's not a happy history, but it makes for great reading.
'The Unconquered' reads very much like a novel, and in this regard, Wallace does a great job with a wild and diverse cast of characters, himself included. As our storyteller, Wallace is as steady as he can be, but he does not spare himself when he's in the thick of bullet ants on a monkey meat diet. Posuelo is the main character, a larger-than-life explorer out of Joseph Conrad, frightening, changeable, but also, effective. Wallace realizes that he needs Posuelo, as well as the combustible crew of mixed-breeds and Indians in order to get him out of the jungle. Their web of interactions, grumbles, quarrels, threats and promises is a fascinating, real-life portrait of men in peril on the latest frontier.
Carrying all this is Wallace's effective prose, propulsive when it needs to be, descriptive when it needs to be and never in the way. 'The Unconquered' is a gripping, fast-paced story of exploration, obsession and the conflict not just with other civilizations, but within our own. We are very busy creatures, always trying to understand the other. 'The Unconquered' suggests that our explorations into the unknown reveal how little we know about ourselves. You might read this book, then look in the mirror and realize: Here be monsters.
New to the Agony Column
09-05-15: Commentary : Susan Casey Listens to 'Voices in the Ocean' : Science, Empathy and Self
08-21-15: Agony Column Podcast News Report : Senator Claire McCaskill is 'Plenty Ladylike' : Internalizing Determination to Overcome Sexism [Incudes Time to Read EP 211: Claire McCaskill, Plenty Ladylike, plus A 2015 Interview with Senator Claire McCaskill]
Agony Column Podcast News Report : Emily Schultz Unleashes 'The Blondes' : A Cure by Color [Incudes Time to Read EP 210: Emily Schultz, The Blondes, plus A 2015 Interview with Emily Schultz]