Monday, 30 April 2012

Pre-Beltane special review: The Fairies In Tradition And Literature by Katharine Briggs





This is a superb book!

Briggs surveys the fairy lore and literature of the British Isles with a sympathetic, shrewd eye. She has a strong sense of the aesthetics of wonder - of how the sublime and the uncanny are two sides of a coin that has no room for mere whimsy or easy didactic. This instinct for the aesthetics of the 'true' fairy is reliable - it's the chief reason why Briggs intuits that the Cottingley fairies are inauthentic. That, and the fact that they look suspiciously like sentimental Victorian fairy prints rather than any of the earlier depictions of the fairy folk.

Briggs relates many fairy stores collected by folklorists and surveys the literary fairy genre as well. The stories told range from the charming to the unsettling. Along the way she also points out interesting patterns. It is always the old who are said to have access to fairy lore, and from the earliest times the fairies have been spoken of as an ancient people who are now vanishing. 'The tradition of them burns up and flickers like a candle that is going out, and then perhaps for a time burns up again, but always the fairies are to be seen only between two twinklings of an eye; their gifts must be secret if they are to be enjoyed; they are, and always have been; the Hidden People'.

A stimulating mix of scholarship, critique and storytelling, this book is perfect for anyone looking for an overview that is neither cloying, credulous nor blind to the glimpses of the numinous afforded by folk traditions like this.

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Writing news


I've had two new stories published this month, and an older story has been given a nod by a prominent horror editor.

Having a new story out there fills me with a sensation best summed up as 'gloatcringe'; a combination of pride and shame. Perhaps this is what it feels like to be a parent. I'm not planning to find out.

Dancer of the dying is a story that was inspired by The Music Of Erich Zann by H.P. Lovecraft and by my own experiences as an amateur musician and former advertising copywriter. Here's an excerpt:


At first, it sounded like a very high, pure voice, a child’s perhaps, warbling a wordless tune. Then tone and timbre came into focus and he realised it was a flute or some other wind instrument. It played a long, sinuous melody which was almost cheerful in the bumptious way of folk tunes, but prevented from being so by a scattering of diminished notes that deformed the contours of the tune into something more jagged and dismal. Gradually, he became aware of the sound of cymbals, gently chiming the oddly syncopated rhythm underlying the tune. A sound of energetic footfalls making anklets jangle. He drifted back to sleep and dreamed of a dancer wrapped in a black sari, performing on a desolate stage. accompanied by a man in white who sat cross-legged and played some kind of flute and an old, hunched woman in a ragged red robe who beat out a rhythm with hand-cymbals.
This story is now available in the anthology Urban Cthulhu: Nightmare Cities. Here's the complete table of contents:

“Dancer of the Dying” by Jayaprakash Satyamurthy
“The Neighbors Upstairs” by John Goodrich
“Carcosapunk” by Glynn Owen Barrass
“Architect Eyes” by Thomas Strømsholt
“Slou” by Robert Tangiers
“Ozeelah’s Lake” by Morten Carlsen
“The Statement of Frank Elwood” by Pete Rawlik
“In the Shadow of Bh’Yhlun” by Ian Davey
“The Screamer” by T. E. Grau
“Night Life” by Henrik Sandbeck Harksen
“the guilt of each … at the end…” by Joseph S. Pulver, Sr.
 You're going to have to buy this one if you want to read it. Here's the Lulu link. It will also be available on Amazon soon, so stay tuned. 

The Ouroboros Apocrypha takes my fascination with the eternal serpent (Ouroboros was my online handle for a long time) and plays it out through a story about identity and appropriation. This one has a strong Ligotti influence, if you're into that sort of thing. Here's an excerpt:

‘Relics, are they? Some sort of shrine?’
The voice was a little over-loud, a little startled at itself, as if not used to being heard out loud. I looked around me, startled. Then I saw him. Or her. I’m still not sure; suffice it to say the person speaking to me was a small, slight figure of indeterminate age and gender, wrapped in a motley assemblage of filthy rags, bits of plastic bags and soiled upholstery from long-abandoned furniture. This person had wrapped a remarkable turban composed of police tape, coils of obsolete cabling and more filthy rags around his or her head and inhaled foul-smelling smoke from a makeshift pipe created from plastic tubing.
‘A shrine?’ I asked.
‘Yes, a shrine,’ the strange person replied, hunching over to pick up a sheaf of photographs and quickly compare them with me before squirreling them away somewhere inside its garments. ‘A shrine to yourself? To the self? To the idea of a self?’ With each question, it came nearer to me, fairly enveloping me in waves of rank, salty odour. There was another odour here, too; a sickly-sweet smell of rotting flesh.
This one can be read online, for free, at the excellent Lovecraft eZine alongside stories by Stephen Mark Rainey, Simon Kurt Unsworth, Anna Tambour and Victor Takac, as well as an essay on Ligotti by Brandon H. Bell. 

I'm particularly thrilled that my stories are appearing along with stories by writers I admire, such as the unclassifiable Australian fabulist Anna Tambour and the walrus-moustached punknoirbeat master Joseph Pulver.

When you write short genre fiction, perhaps the most invisible form of writing today outside of poetry and technical manuals (both of which I also write, or try to - do you see a pattern here?), you start caring a lot about the few venues that recognise what you do. Among these are the year's best anthologies. Ellen Datlow compiles an especially well-regarded 'Best Horror Of The Year' series of anthologies (it was earlier combined with Terri Windling's 'Best Fantasy Of The Year'). Only the very best make into the anthology, but Datlow publishes an extended list of honourable mentions on her blog each year. For the second year in a row, one of my stories has made it to this list.

Empty Dreams was first written in the last decade/century/millennium, scribbled down in a college notebook. I finally re-wrote it a few years back. This story has received the most extreme reaction of anything I've written - several accusations of having ripped off Orwell or at least of having added nothing new to his vision - as well as more positive responses from a few kind-hearted people including Ms. Datlow and the good folk at Pratilipi, who published it. Yes, this is another one you can read online, for free.Here, once again, is an excerpt:

I was locked in with a dead man. A very strange dead man: his body had neither stiffened nor begun to rot; instead, it had become light and desiccated, as if the fleshy, wet life-stuff had been sucked out, leaving behind an empty shell. In the past I would have raised my voice, calling for the guards; I would have pounded on the door, scratched at the walls, even leaped at the vent. I no longer had the energy or the spirit for all that. Instead, I crawled under my cot, as far as I could get from the sight of the dead man and huddled there, whimpering softly. To me, his death was not an end in itself, but a token of my approaching dissolution. He would carry on, in some form; the shedding of his body only meant that a new stage had been reached and my own death was now nearer.

Perhaps as a consequence of all of this I have been invited to participate in two very exciting venues for weird and Lovecratian writing. An invitation is not a guarantee and my submissions may still be too odious to accept, but I'm happy to have the chance. Now to tap a vein and find an empty page to start bleeding onto...

Monday, 16 April 2012

LIQUIDATION BY IMRE KERTESZ

This novel alludes to Mann's Doktor Faustus and Roth's The Radetzky March (among others). Those are books that attempt to sum up an entire historical progression, to diagnose it and analyse it in some sort of definitive way, using the age-old method of writing a vast, integral novel.

Kertesz is dealing with some of the same historical sweep here, his novel is about people who have survived the depredations of ideology, of Auschwitz, of life behind the Iron Curtain. Now, as ideology seems to recede in the late 90s, how do they make sense of what has been? Adrian Leverkuhn revoked the Ninth Symphony; can B., Auschwitz survivor, reluctant writer and consummate nihilist revoke Auschwitz?

This is an odd little novel, fragmented, prone to sudden changes of narrator, person and format, inconclusive, sketchy but still vivid, rich with resonance and ideas in a manner akin to those magisterial novels alluded to earlier, with none of their elaborate narrative scaffolding. It's more than a little disturbing, and even a little skimpy at times, but it's a brilliant skimpiness, the gesture of a writer who has been in hell and is unwilling to reduce it to kitsch, even by simply telling it like it was. I'll stack this novel against a raft of boys in pyjamas of any stripe.

I need to get a hold of Fatelessness, which is a far less oblique take on some of this subject matter, apparently, and see how it compares.

Breaking up with Earthquake Weather: a reader's Dear John letter

Dear Earthquake Weather,

I wanted to love you; I really did. Instead I just about like you, and not a lot.

It's not you; it's me. Really.

I loved Last Call, and that's where your whole ethos of transplanting grail myth and ancient gods to modern-day America began. I didn't read Expiration Date, which directly precedes you, and maybe that's why things didn't go well between us. It's my fault for not taking the time to get to know where you're coming from.

I've known and loved books of all sizes - but I found your 600 pages hard to deal with. I just didn't seem to have the time for your 400 pages of build-up or for the over-crowded rush of the last 50 pages; I wasn't willing to make the effort to care about your characters: the alcoholic widower, the split-personality girl, every personality unpleasant and some downright frightening, the self-righteous shrink-turned-bruja and her non-character husband, the adolescent Fisher King in waiting with, again, no character, and the unpleasant, gun-toting martinet - and these were the good guys.

And yet there was so much I wanted to like - I loved the way you wove Greek myth, speculative Shakespeare interpretations, the Mexican loteria cards and more into a frothy, bubbling whole. You're really good with free association and wordplay. There's a lot of eating and drinking and twists in well-known tales, from The Maltese Falcon to The Tale Of Two Cities. Three Latin palindromes at no extra cost! A really creepy villainous shrink with some truly bizarre methods.

Then why didn't it work out between us? Maybe it was just that you took too much for granted, let your bulk turn into flab rather than real heft. Maybe you were so caught up in weaving your strange magical-mythical stew that you lost track of character and plot structure.

Wow, your plot was all over the place; three different sets of people slowly converging, and I mean slowly, to actually reveal the main aim of the damned story - to resurrect the dead King - and then bungling around, making a botch of things just because they randomly won't listen to each other or the ghost guide they've summoned out of no apparent reason other than utter cussedness and wanting the novel to go on and on and on.  I know life is messy; what's fiction's excuse? And it isn't like this some Beckettian novel of the absurdity of literature and language and possibly life; it's an exercise in a deeply plot-driven genre. And you just spent way too much time showing people eating, drinking and bickering. I know Robert Jordan was doing pretty well with novels like that at the time; were you just trying to be like the cool kids? Was that it?

Or no, really, it was me. I know you tried hard; I know I could have tried harder. I shouldn't have expected you to be another Last Call; that was unfair. Every novel can't be Last Call, and why should you? Please don't take this badly. I'm sure you'll find someone else.

This is goodbye,

JP

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Albatross/Vestal Claret split

I've liked all of Philip Swanon's projects (although Hour Of 13 is my favourite of the bands he's associated with) and Albatross' bassist/lyricist/plastic-snouted mascot Riju Dasgupta and Madhav Ravindranath, who runs the label that released this split, are a formidable promotional team, so here I am, absorbing this split CD. Like everyone, I was put off by That Song on Albatross' Myspace, but when Madhav foisted their debut EP, Dinner Is You, on me, I gave it a listen and realised that aside from the unfortunate mannerisms on that one track, Albatross had a pretty good thing going - melodic epic heavy metal with more than a touch of classic US power metal influences. I like my heavy-epic-metal to favour the Manilla Road side of things rather than the King Diamond and Iced Earth vibe Albatross often channels, but I also like metal music that tells stories, has dramatic vocals and spins songs out at epic lengths - so Albatross' sound works rather well for me. It helps that the pint-sized Riju refuses to induct band members who are taller than him, so the band looks a lot like a tribe of hobbit-minstrels, miles away from Middle-Earth.

The guitarists in the new line-up heard on this album are a great power duo, alternating between fluid legato runs and scorching shred fests. The riffs have thrashy elements and a certain slightly modern vibe at times rather than the out-and-out old school vibe you'd expect from Riju's frequent online poncing on the topic of educational institutions and senescence, but that isn't a bad thing, the mix of elements keeps the sound fresh and original.

Albatross' contribution to this split is a 4-song mini-concept album, something about a town called Raptorsville that is being destroyed by a plague of flesh-eating flies. This is the band that kicked their career off with a concept EP about a cannibal cult, after all.

The opening track, 'Wither' is a short piece with vocals intoned over a roiling bed of weird atmospheric sounds,by way of a prelude. Things get off to a proper start with the groovy, metallic opening riffs of 'Uncle Sunny At The Tavern', quickly segueing into some very catchy verses that showcase vocalist Bipro's keening, energetic style and a chorus that has him reaching for some impressive high notes. Some great solos and effective tempo shifts propel the rest of this song - I really like the vibe in the second, mid-tempo section and even made out some interesting subsonic rumbling from PlasticSnout's fretless - but the real high points are Bipro's screams later on and an epic solo by Nishith, the shredder you can't buy a beer for. The title track follows - a nice meaty track at just over 10 minutes, pushed along by a simple but very catchy recurring guitar motif and some great solo breaks where Vignesh shows that his flowing solos are every bit as effective as Nishith's more speedy work. There's an atavistic thrill in hearing a band where two excellent lead guitarists play off each other - it takes me back to classic Judas Priest or Megadeth moments, and this song brings a bit of that rush. Actually, it brings a lot of that rush. Parts of this song feel a bit repetitive to me - I can take this sort of iterative arrangement at the more measured pace of doom metal, but at this speed I could do with less bars of repeated passagework. In the balance this song is a most effective center-point to Albatross' segment, and it's a great live song as well. I'm not in love with Sahil Makhija's growly guest spot on this song - it's just too squared-off and monotonous pitted against some of Bipro's most epic vocals. I called 'Kissing Flies' the center-piece of this sequence of songs, but the closing track, 'From ashes comes life' might just be its apex. A slightly shorter track at 8 minutes and change, it moves from an eerie, vaguely dissonant opening into a great arena-ready riff that makes way for some very doomy verses. Man, this band could be a kickass Candlemass cover act if Riju ever gets over his childish obsession with writing original songs. The verses move into a chugging, mid-tempo groove then circle back. It's really effective, like a collaboration between Tony Martin-era Black Sabbath and Mercyful Fate. The song builds up to a very effective finale, paralleling the macabre final twist that the narrative takes.

In short, good, clean headbanging fun. It's like the aural equivalent of a classic Hammer horror film - and that's high praise from me, so high that it's probably flown right over Riju's head. The production is really crisp and clear, I just wish they'd been able to record the drums, that would have give this EP a much more powerful rhythmic bedrock.

Now we come to the Vestal Claret song - a 17-minute slab of classic British doom called Black Priest. The bar has been set rather high for this sort of thing this year by who-thought-they-still-had-it-in-them scene vetrans My Dying Bride's EP, 'The Barghest O' Whitby'. To Vestal Claret's credit they rise to the challenge admirably, with a suite that builds slowly from an Eternal Idol/Born Again title track-style opening to a hint of heavier, but equally slow-paced riffing before providing the song's first solo. The slow build resumes again, consummated in a more extended solo, meandering and lyrical. A chuggy classic doom riff rings the changes next, heralding the second sequence of this song, with Swanson's dark preaching taking on a more overtly sinister tenor. The riffs are all of comet vintage and Simon Tuozzoli seals the deal with another great solo after which the music moves, Ouroboros like, to nuzzle its own tail with a return to the eerily shimmering chords of the opening. Some rifing in the tempo I like to think of as 'monumental' brings this immorality play to a close.

If Albatross' segment was like a Hammer film, then 'Black Priest' reminds me of the film which rebuked a later Hammer, drifiting into self-parodic bosom-heaving territory with a take on its own costume-drama techniques, shot through with a brutal intensity that Hammer had in its first Dracula and Frankenstein films but gradually moved away from - 'Witchfinder General'. The sound is again most effective.

Albatross' songs tread into doom territory here and there while remaining epic/power metal for the most part. Vestal Claret's track is traditional doom, with the shadings into heavy metal territory that implies. It's a combination that works rather well and I hope it finds the audience it deserves - metalheads of every stripe who like a good melody, a great solo and a chilling storyline.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

hip today

This anthology is finally done:

You can order it from Lulu.com. It will also be available from Amazon in a while.