A disclaimer: I’ve known Liz Hand since we both took a Science Fiction and Fantasy Writing course at the Writers Center in Bethesda, back when she lived in the DC Area.
Another disclaimer: I’ve been into Henry Darger’s work for almost as long. Part of my research for A SPECTRAL HUE included a visit to the Intuit Center for Outsider Art museum in Chicago (which houses a large collection of Darger’s work). Ultimately, my Outsider Artist novel is very different from Liz Hand’s book, with melds together the thriller/crime genre with historical fiction. But my knowledge of Darger marginalia made reading this book extra-pleasurable.
Curious Toys navigates genre modalities deftly, hopping from the viewpoint of a creepy killer of little girls, to the police officer in pursuit, and, scenes with Darger, who suffers from some unidentified mental illness.
But this is ultimately the story of Pin, a fourteen year old girl who dresses as a boy to help her move through the various milieus. Both Pin and her mother live in a cardboard shack at the edge of Riverview, a giant amusement park where Pin’s mother works as a fortune teller named Madame Zanto. Both of them have suffered a fairly recent tragedy: the disappearance of Pin’s special needs younger sibling Abriana. Pin spends the time when her mother working as a drug mule, shuttling marijuana cigarettes between Riverview and the silent film studio, Essanay Studios. During her off time, she wanders the amusement park, which is also frequented by a local oddball—Henry Darger. The two of them—separately—witness a horrific crime, one that shares a similarity to her sister’s disappearance.
The novel is a thriller, but it also operates as a coming-of-age novel. Pin is at least lesbian (if not non-binary) and the crafting of her sexual identity makes for some of the most moving moments in the novel. Curious Toys also is a historical novel, with Ragtime/Zelig-like cameos of historical personages beyond Darger; Charlie Chaplin and Wallace Beery have small roles. There’s an atmosphere of verisimilitude in the novel, rich in description of turn-of-the-century Chicago in all of its grime and glory. The book shines and becomes luminous when Hand describes Darger’s secret magnum opus and explores the relationship between Pin and the famed artist, who are both misfits in their own way.
Valancourt Books has reprinted Philip Ridley’s short fiction collection Flamingoes in Orbit. Ridley wrote a couple of homoerotic magical realist novels back in the 80s (In the Eyes of Mr Fury and Crocodilia) which went out of print. Kudos to Valancourt for bringing the novels back into print!
From the Back Cover Copy:
A teenager stares at his reflection and sees the Milky Way. A motorbike prowls and growls like a wild animal. A whale sings a song to end loneliness.
Philip Ridley’s collection of short stories – like his two adult novels, Crocodilia and In the Eyes of Mr Fury – became an instant cult classic when first published in 1990. Magical, poetic, heartbreaking and humorous, the sequence explores childhood, family life, romantic love in all its aspects – lost, unrequited, obsessional – and does so with a haunting mixture of both the barbaric and the beautiful that has become Ridley’s trademark. In particular, these tales deal with the experience of growing up gay in a world still bristling with prejudice, and they sing and howl with the need for equality and freedom.
This edition includes two new stories, “Alien Heart” and “Wonderful Insect”, and finally completes a seminal and compelling collection first begun over thirty years ago.
In spite of being flawed in its pacing, this debut novel stuck with me. It is a gothic novel given a fantasy makeover. It deals with forbidden passion and is mostly set in a gothic castle in fairyland (here called Arcadia). Ng’s evocation of fairyland is sinister rather than whimsical, full of mists and confusion. The Fae are cruel, capracious creatures, given to mindfuck games and illusions. Their alien morality is tantalizingly disguised behind a thin veil of beauty. One of the central themes of the novel is: do these creatures have souls?
The Waterborn by Greg Keyes
A colorful play on sword and sorcery tropes. Very action-filled with a ‘sensawonda.’ The worldbuilding is non-western even if the tropes (the Chosen one, the princess in peril) are. Bits of Native American and South American (Aztec and Mayan) influence are filtered through this take on the Hero’s Journey. The rich imagery and characterizations (particularly the princess) make this a ‘page-turner.’
I Am the River by T.E. Grau
I’m reading the ARC of this novel (soon to be out the publisher of my first collection Sea, Swallow Me & Other Stories). It’s a Vietnam War novel with supernatural elements, well researched and with a somewhat experimental style. The shifting timelines technique takes a bit to get used to, but it works well with the disorienting narrative. It’s a textual representation of PTSD, very effective, very uncomfortable.
The Devourers by Indra Das is that rarest of creatures: the literary horror novel. The graphic imagery, full of viscera and body horror, aims to reveal deeper truths about love and identity, and, ultimately, what it means to be human.
The novel starts in contemporary Kolkata, when Alok, a history professor estranged from his family, meets an intriguing stranger at a street festival. This alluring stranger gives Alok a task: to type up a series of notebooks the stranger has transcribed from scrolls from the late 1500s. The scrolls describe the travels of a pack of shapeshifters as they make their way across the Mughal Empire. Fenrir, the author of the first scroll is an ancient shifter from Scandinavia. The other members of his tribe include a young French loup garou named Gévaudan and an even older one named Makedon, presumably from the Mediterranean. Fenrir’s scroll is written as a love letter to Cyrah, the human woman with whom he has fallen in love. Since humans are considered prey, romantic or sexual attachments to them is strictly taboo in shifter culture. The second scroll is Cyrah’s letter to her shifter son, whom she likens to the indigenous rakshasas mythology of her land. Cyrah and Fenrir’s epic story, which reminds me of the brutal love-and-hate saga at the center of Octavia Butler’s Patternist series, is interwoven with the erotic chemistry of Alok and the stranger’s contemporary story.
The Devourers is a matryoshka novel, full of dense and lyrical prose. Images of violent transformation, transference and flesh eating abound in the novel, which is also a queer love story and a historical novel. There’s an undercurrent dark of eroticism that shimmers through the novel, evident in the eruptive, transgressive werewolf/rakshasas culture. The Devourers is a werewolf novel that has more in common with works by George Bataille or Samuel Delany than it does with Hammer Horror.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.