An author I greatly admire, the Lambda Literary Award Winning Sandra McDonald, was kind enough to list Skin Deep Magic as her favorite LGBT book of 2014 on Elisa Reviews. I can’t think of a better Christmas gift. Actually, I can: get yourself a copy of Sandra’s Diana Comet and Other Improbable Stories!
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The new Tanith Lee novella combines elements ghost story conventions and zombie apocalypse fiction in an truly unique way. The “twist” is clever, but the short novel is more a contemplative character study. The assembled cast are ghosts from a variety of eras that are all haunting a historic Great House in the moorlands of England. They share their histories in monologues that range from tragic to humorous. The faceted narrative mode shifts from contemporary to gothic and even has a smattering of Old English (Anglo-Saxon). Simultaneously, humanity has been plagued with zombies, which do not affect the undead company. The fantastic contrivances, though crucial to the plot, take a back seat to the leisurely character reveals. In this way, the novel reads more like a play. (“The Ghost Monologues” would also be an apt title). Zircons May Be Mistaken might be the only zombie novel full of pathos and an exploration of the “human condition.”
There’s a song on Autumn’s Grey Solace’s new digital mini-LP (or long EP) called “aelfsciene”, which means “fairy-bright’ in Anglo-Saxon (aka Old English). ‘Fairy bright’ is an apt description for these glittering compositions. Singer Erin Welton’s sweet airy soprano and complex, ethereal melodies are indeed, otherworldly. She’s drifted to a more glossolalia (speaking-in-tongues) style favored by Elizabeth Fraser and Lisa Gerrard; the lyrics themselves might as well be in Old English, since the song titles are all in that language. The music, created by Scott Ferrell, is built up of various guitar textures that form a kind of aural trompe l’oeil. Guitars mimic drones, sighs, pianos, cellos, and harps, held together with gentle rhythms. It’s ambient music using standard rock instrumentation. “Monajjfyllen” is the brighter companion piece to their earlier, and darker post rock album, “Eifelian.”
Beauty standards, when they intersect racism, are something more than shallow aesthetics. The black body, particularly in the European imagination, is othered, and dehumanized. Our skin, the texture of black hair, the shape of bodies and features has been made undesirable. Blackface depends on exaggeration of African-descended features. Saartjie Baartman’s body was presented as a curiosity, and used as a discourse on the primitive strangeness when she was cast in the role as the Hottentot Venus.
There’s a whole slew of products currently that offer to ‘tame’ natural hair and ‘correct’ skin pigments. ‘Lyes’ is a surrealistic, somewhat humorous take on this issue. The protagonist finds herself face to face with the purveyors of the ‘lie’ that that her body is defective. It’s humorous, but there is definitely a sinister undertone.
The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell
Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks tells the story of warring immortals through several different perspectives. On one side, the Horologists, are immortal mind forces, (not unlike Doro in Octavia Butler’s Patternmaster series) that are continuously reborn in various bodies. A nemesis group, Atemporals, live forever by vampiristically ‘decanting’ the life forces of random victims. But if you’re expecting a straightforward fantasy adventure, you will be surprised. Mitchell’s novel is concerned with an ordinary teenage girl in 1980s England and the people she comes across. Holly Sykes is a rebellious girl growing up in Thatcher’s Britain, and her concerns are her boyfriend; her over-protective Irish mum; her weird brother Jacko; and the Talking Heads’ Fear of Music. The story gets in motion when a betrayal by her boyfriend and her best friend spurs her to run away from. Sykes’ life has intersected with with the Horologist/Atemporal in enigmatic episodes that she puts down to dreams or hallucinations. Sykes narrates the story in the breathless present tense of a self-absorbed teenage girl. The fantastic takes a back seat to the High Drama of teen angst. Then, abruptly, her story ends on a suspenseful note. Then we are thrown into the mind-space and narrative of the narcissistic, sociopathic Cambridge student Hugo Lamb. It takes a while before the significance of the character-and-scenery change to take shape, but along way, we get a realistic character study of a privileged cretin. The next character hops are: a war reporter in Iraq, a bad boy British novelist (a kind of roman a clef), and the narrative of one of the Horologists. These different stories, all monologues, operate as linked novellas. Some are more fantastic than others. The war reporter’s piece, for instance, is a journalistic current event reportage. The novelist’s piece is satirical romp of the British literary life, while the Horologist’s tale is pure speculative fiction. Sometimes, The Bone Clocks gets mired down in the mingle-mangle minutiae of its characters life, and the plot comes to a stand still. But there are sparkling scenes and strong characters to pull you through the draggy bits. It might be my favorite Mitchell novel.
Acceptance, by Jeff VanderMeer
The Southern Reach Trilogy (comprising of the alliterative titles Annihilation, Authority and Acceptance) tells the story of a ‘soft’ apocalypse and/or an enigmatic invasion using a variety of narrative techniques that give the work deeply personal feel. The opening Annihilation is a first person account of an expedition into a transformed landscape. It’s psychedelic/trippy nature reads more Leary than Lovecraft. It’s a kind of speculative guidebook, filtered through a biologist’s awe (in both the spooky and the amazed connotations) at Nature. Authority takes the third person-limited perspective of an interim director, sent to clean up an off-the-rails organization. It’s a kind of Kafka-esque workplace drama, full of alienation, anomie, and paranoia. The tone in Authority expands to (dark) comedy to fill out the otherworldly ambience. The concluding novel, Acceptance, ends the trilogy on a haunting note, rather than a pat and dry Hollywood ending. It’s the most character driven novel of the three, and the sections, both within and outside of Area X, are underscored with an elegiac quality. The result is speculative fiction that has real emotional resonance.
It’s available in a variety of formats, here.
For some people, unseeing is believing.
Earlier this morning, one of my Facebook friends was trying to convince a woman on her FB wall about the failure to indict the officers in both the Garner and Brown cases. The person she was arguing with is incapable of seeing any wrongdoing by the officers involved. To this woman’s mind, what Brown allegedly did (stealing cigarillos, roughing up a store owner and sucker punching an officer) and Garner’s crime—of selling loose cigarettes—were worthy of the death penalty—immediately. She can’t see that these misdemeanors become, when the perpetrator has dark skin, high crimes, akin to murder. She believes that having a badge renders any decision enacted against black and brown skin to be free of accountability. What is monstrously unfair, what preys on poor, black and other marginalized people is good, just, right and proper.
The recent infuriating events in Black America (Brown, Rice, Garner) are a stark reminder that we live in two very different nations. The two nations occupy the same space, but the dominant one can’t see—or chooses to unsee—the subordinate one. I’ve talked about the subject of gas lighting racism before: the phenomenon of (mostly) white people seeking to rationalize racial micro-aggressions (e.g, “Taxicabs always pass me by, too!”; “Maybe the store clerk is just over eager”; “Racism is over because of Oprah!”). It’s a way of unseeing the struggles that people of color face, even when they are right there, out in the open.
This inability to see injustice, even when it’s right there in your face, reminds me of an episode in Season 5 of the X-Files called Folie A Dieux. In the episode, Mulder becomes a negotiator in a tense hostage situation, where a seemingly mad man at a telemarketing company has held his co-workers at gunpoint . He is convinced that his boss is a monster who has vampiristically dehumanized some of his co-workers. Mulder initially thinks the man is mad, and shoots him. As the mad man is dying, he implores Mulder to look, really look at situation through the mad man’s eyes. Mulder, full of empathy, does see. The boss is, indeed, monstrous, insectoid and some of the employees are zombies, with chalk-white zombie skin and pure black eyes. Mulder sees behind the dominant narrative after he empathizes with the seemingly “mad” man. He sees behind the facade, the distraction and is witness to a terrible truth. His life depends on Scully being able to see behind the facade—to share his “madness”— as well.
For some people, injustice against black and brown bodies is the status quo. Even when the proof of injustice is on video. Even when the victim is a child. Blue=always correct. Black = the mark of criminality. To them, we are the mad people seeing invisible monsters.