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

The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan: A dreamlike travelogue

The GracekeepersThe Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Winner of this year’s Lambda Literary Award in the SF/H/F Category

Beautifully written, with a meandering plot.
The story moved slowly and the dramatic tension was in the doldrums. The lapidary prose and the elegiac mood is what propels this novel forward, rather than a proper plot. The worldbuilding was vague, both a strength and a weakness. (It suffers from the Planet of White People syndrome issue; seriously, where are the POC?) The characters were well drawn but some POVs were unneccesary and didn’t really reveal anything. (Why, for instance, is there a whole chapter from the point of view of the messenger, or from one of the clowns? They add nothing to the story). I feel the author missed opportunities to build suspense; the plot only takes place in the last 20 pages or so. It is better to take this book as a dreamlike travelogue than full-fledged novel. I’m looking forward to Logan’s next book.

Pop Music & Magic in “Signal to Noise” by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Signal to NoiseSignal to Noise by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A charming slice-of-life magical realist book set in Mexico City in the late 80s and in 2009.
Late 80s Mercedes Vega (Meche) is a prickly, sarcastic 15-year old who has developed twin interests in pop music nerdery and spellcasting. She manages to combine the two, and becomes a sorceress who uses vinyl records as a focusing agent for her spells. She press gangs her two friends–bookish Sebastian and girly-girl Daniela–to form a makeshift coven. Mayhem, of the normal teenaged variety, ensues. Flash foward 20-odd years finds Meche, who’s moved to Oslo, is still prickly and sarcastic, still smarting from the fallout of her experiments in sorcery.

Signal to Noise is a gentle, character-driven novel, less about magic and more about the carefully crafted people Moreno-Garcia makes.
Fans of Jonathan Carroll and Mary Rickert would enjoy this book.