“34” Tanith Lee ( writing as Esther Garber): Darkly erotic queer fantastika

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Immanion Press has reprinted 34 in an extremely handsome edition that even has illustrations and pictures. 34 was written Lee, who claimed to channel the work of the enigmatic Esther Garber. The novel is a darkly surreal lesbian quest, part Colette, part Angela Carter.

I wrote about 34 when it first came out in 2004.

If you are expecting a straightforward dive into lesbian erotica by Tanith Lee (or Esther Garber), you will be pleasantly disappointed. This brief, dense and somewhat experimental book explores the erotic imagination, the nature of memory and mediates on aging. Sexual obsession is the focal point through which many discursive images and ideas flow.
The plot finds 17-year old Esther fleeing London after her mother’s dramatic death. She absconds on a boat across the Channel, and ends up in drab hotel in rainy Paris slum. The amoral and jaundiced Esther is mistaken for a prostitute by the front desk clerk and her services are bought by a virago named Julie, who poses as a man. The sexual chemistry between them awakes passions in Esther, who leaves after the tryst. Thus begins Esther’s quest, almost mythic in scope, to find Julie.
If “34” is not a fantasy, it does not happen in the real world. Rather than a traditional `other world’, the action takes place in the clouded, magical world of memory and perception, as the first person narrator encounters patently incorrect or wrong things (such as a dog that is part wild boar) or too surreal (such as a Gothic mansion).
The main narrative is interrupted by glimpses into a distant childhood past in Egypt and visions of a future Esther, who is going through menopause in London, and may or may not have a sister (or alter-ego, Anna). Both the future and the past Esthers live in a reality closer to `normality.’ The child faces loss and dislocation; the old woman is trapped by her illnesses and indolence. Both are prone to extensive fantasizing.
All of these disparate threads are held together by hypnotic, feverish prose and a dark, sardonic wit. Mythology intersects reality-Demeter, Persephone and Isis all have cameos here. Female ciphers, villains and strange children cavort on the stage. Eroticism and desire infuse everything, obliterating logic and reason.
This novel isn’t for everyone, though. The vaporous, meandering storyline and the disturbing, politically incorrect sexuality on display here will stop many a reader. But those who like sophisticated erotica and experimental fiction will find this Angela Carter meets George Bataille work entrancing.

Lovecraft Revisionism in “The Dream Quest of Velitt Boe” by Kij Johnson.

It will come as no surprise that I am not the world’s biggest Lovecraft fan. The flagrant racism and xenophobia that fuels and flavors his work is a big turn-off. And the fact that I am of the demographic that HPL saved some of his more hateful descriptions doesn’t help matters. (Sorry, but I can’t overlook the doggrell “On the Creation of Niggers,” to bask in his supposed genius, as some purists insist. In fact, such a suggestion–that I overlook HPL’s racial hatred–are borderline abusive and is a perfect example of racist gaslighting).

However, I am a fan of the recent flood of revisionist Lovecrafian mythos. They make me a Lovecraft fan-by-proxy. I gobbled up Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country and Victor Lavalle’s The Ballad of Black Tom with eagerness. Kij Johnson’s entry into Lovecraftiana examines gender issues where Ruff and Lavalle examined racial ones.

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Velitt Boe is a professor at a women’s college and former explorer of the Dream Lands. When one of her students has left the college in the thrall of a man of the Waking world, Boe tasks herself in bringing the student back. The student’s disappearance has cataclysmic implications, as well as  being a more mundane, university-level scandal.  The novella follows Boe as she travels the perilous Dream Lands as a middle-aged woman.

But the plot of the novella really isn’t the point, in my opinion. It’s a meandering travelogue where Johnson gets to explore Lovecraft’s wonder-filled creation. Johnson is a graceful stylist, and chooses her words with precision. Though there are moments of terror, they are still rendered in a painterly way. As a result, she imbues a bizarre beauty to the various nightmare creatures. The gugs, gaunts, and ghouls aren’t just chattering chaotic evil. They have a hinted hierarchal structure and an alien moral code. In this way, rather than outright polemics, Johnson undermines the incipient xenophobia that’s a feature of Lovecraft’s fiction.

Johnson’s novella has done the nigh-impossible: it makes me interested in reading the source text!

Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff: The horrors of James Corvid(nee Jim Crow).

Lovecraft CountryLovecraft Country by Matt Ruff

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Werewolves don’t scare me. Neither do the walking dead (zombies), Voldemort, body-snatchers, Chuckie, Jason or Freddie.

People who have lost or buried or under-developed their empathy. Who see black and brown and female and trans bodies as things to be used, or scorned or destroyed. Those are the true monsters.

Reading Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country isn’t just a look at the bigotry of the past. Jim Crow isn’t dead. He just got a new suit, had a makeover. Now he wears thousand-dollar suits, has a chic hair cut, and calls himself James Corvid.

Ruff’s novel is loosely structured as a linked short story collection. It follows the Turners, a black middle class family in Chicago and their dealings with a white male sorcerer who wants to control an occult empire. Secret societies, inter-dimensional travel, eidolons, cosmic horrors, possessed dolls and body-thievery all appear in these tales, intertwined with the mundane horrors of life under the heel of racism.

Ruff does imbue the narrative with a sense of wonder. The appearance of Lovecraftian menagerie didn’t terrify me. It was thrilling and exciting and magical. But the big bad, Caleb Braithwaite, he was horrifying. He was a literal personification of Jim Crow–or, rather, James Corvid. Braithwaite, like Corvid, is outwardly handsome and charming. But he is ruthlessly determined to uphold his (white) (male) superiority, and uses (black) as pawns in his narcissistic game. He is the monster.

Like The Ballad of Black Tom (LaValle), LC directly challenges the undercurrent of white supremacy that undergrids H.P.’s fiction.

BOOK REVIEW: The Incarnations by Susan Barker. An interstitial epic set in China

The IncarnationsThe Incarnations by Susan Barker

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Spanning over 1000 years, The Incarnations starts in contemporary China and follows the life of a young taxi driver and his family. Wang Jun is the son of a former Maoist official whose mental illness and bisexuality estranges him from his already cold father and his manipulative stepmother. Wang Jun is married to a massage therapist and has a 10 year old daughter who aspires to be a comic book artist. The family lives in abject poverty, a stark contrast from the relative opulence of his upbringing. Wang Jun begins receiving anonymous letters addressed to him that recount in vivid detail the past lives he and the letter writer have lived, starting from the Bronze Age and up to and including the Cultural Revolution. The appearance of the letters begins to intrude into his family life in unexpected ways.
The prose style of the anonymous letters, addressed in the second person, are rich, (homo)erotic and flavored with folklore as well as historical accuracy. The contemporary scenes are beautiful rendered, full of carefully crafted characters and emotionally resonant vignettes. There is a wonderful tension between the modes of storytelling —psychologically acute portraiture and the epic, tall-tale style of the letters. This is an uncategorizable novel—historical and contemporary, magical and mundane.

Elizabeth Hand’s “Hard Light” and “Wylding Hall”: Art, Crime, Madness and Magic

While Hard Light and Wylding Hall are in different genres—respectively, crime fiction and ghost story—they both engage with the same source material. Both texts engage with the folklore of Britain and subcultures/underground artistic movements.

Hard Light
Hard Light is the third installment of the Cass Neary crime series. Neary is/was a photographer, an chronicler of New York’s punk scene. She is manipulative, a kleptomaniac, and  a drug addict. Her first person narrative is utterly charming, full of deadpan snark, and the lump of coal that is her heart has a vein or two of gold. The Cass Neary series aren’t traditional mysteries; they are more “why-dunits” than “whodunits,” and as such, examine subcultures and their criminal elements. This time, she stumbles into the milleu of refugees from the British Acid Rock and underground film scene. Neary discovers that someone has been killing off members of a hippie commune for an unknown reason. The players in her novel are all arty bohemian eccentrics, from crooked art dealers to burnt out cult singers. (They all have wonderfully odd names: Poppy, Morven and Tamsin). While there is no overt supernatural element in Hard Light, Neary has an uncanny ability to insert herself into shady dealings:

“Ever since that night, I can sense damage, smell it like an acrid pheromone seeping from the pores of people around me. The wrong kind of street, the wrong kind of light, and the stink of my own terror floods my throat and nostrils. It’s why I can read photos the way I do, like they’re tarot cards or the I Ching. Because that’s what photography is—or was before the advent of digital—damage, the corrosive effect sunlight has on chemicals and prepared surfaces.”

Wylding Hall
Wylding Hall is a haunted house novella set in the British Acid Folk scene. It takes the unique form of a “Behind the Music” style documentary—i.e., a series of monologues about the creation of the fictional folk rock band Windhollow Faire’s lone album. In the early 70s, the band rents out the allegedly haunted Wylding Hall to record its debut. To say more would spoil the plot. The recording sessions are mired in drug use and band tensions, all set against the backdrop of mysterious Wylding Hall, which is as menacing as Shirley Jackson’s Hill House.
While unrelated by genre, both books share thematic DNA. A Celtic mysticism informs both works. It is not the fey “Celtic Twilight” kind favored by many fantasy writers. The folklore here is primal and chthonian, more “Rawhead and Bloodybones” than Enya and the Sidhe. Both books also deal with the fallout from drug-fueled subcultures. Hard Light and Wylding Hall mine similar territory with wildly different outcomes.

Cthulhu vs. Bigger Thomas: “The Ballad of Black Tom” by Victor LaValle

The Ballad of Black TomThe Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Last week I went to a panel hosted by the National Academies of Sciences called “Identity, Race, and Genetics.”*  It featured an author/editor, a PhD Candiate who wrote on the History of Science, a NIH geneticist and a law professor. The law professor–who was also an artist. The lawyer-scholar-artist mentioned the virulent racism of H.P. Lovecraft and suggested that black people lived in Cthulhuscene Period, due to the past and ongoing history of (pseudo)science and the black body. Lovecraftian mythos shows mankind as the inevitable victim of a hostile universe; existing while black (in a hostile/racialized universe) is part and parcel of the Black Experience.

I immediately thought about LaValle’s novella. The book is dedicated to Lovecraft (and H.P. even has a cameo). The Ballad of Black Tom is kind of an answer/re-positioning of the notorious Horror at Red Hook. It’s written from the perspective of a black first generation immigrant grifter and concerns his unfortunate dabbling in the occult. Imagine a collaboration between Richard Wright’s social realist fiction with Lovecraft at his lurid best, and you would have this novel. In place of Lovecraft’s rampant eugenical musing, LaValle shows what it was like to be of African descent in 1920s New York, complete with run ins with the police and racists. The novel compares and contrasts the horror of White Supremacy with the horror of Elder Gods. The reader is left to decide which is worse.

*DC Art Science Evening Rendezvous (DASER) Participants:

Sheree Renee Thomas, World Fantasy Award-winning editor and author

J. Cecilia  Cardenas-Navia, Ph.D., History of Science and Medicine, Yale University

Bill Pavan, Senior Investigator, National Genome Research Institute

Michael Bennett, Associate Research Professor, School for the Future of Innovation in Society + Center for Science and the Imagination, Arizona State University