The Ghost Rider – Ismail Kadare

A mysterious and beautiful story that uses a classic Albanian folk tale to talk about the supernatural surrounding love, loss and debt.

The heart of this novella is the story, also known as the ‘Lenore Motif’, of a family – a mother, her daughter Doruntine and her nine brothers, including Doruntine’s favourite brother Konstandin.

Set in a pre-industrial time, Doruntine had married far away from the village of her family, but in the three years she’s been away all but her mother died of the plague. After the mother was overheard cursing Konstandin’s grave for failing to keep his promise to return his sister home, something inexplicable happens – Doruntine returns on the back of a horse she says was ridden by Konstandin.

The story then turns to local lawman, Stres, who is intent on discovering what happened, how this could have been. He considers theory after theory, a person is even arrested. But as his investigation continues, and fear and suspicion are whipped up in the village, he eventually accepts that the only explanation is a supernatural one – that the brother did rise from the dead to return his sister home.

Ultimately, what Stres is accepting, I think, is the limits of the rational and the explainable. He doesn’t want to believe it but in the end he accepts that where love, honour and grief are concerned, sometimes things can only be accounted for by things that are beyond empirical verification. And what Stres accepts, too, is that the norms and conventions of the village, which see the return of the sister as an act by the dead Konstandin, are important their own right, more so than the authority of religion or deduction.

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“He now realised that everyone, each in his own way, would take some stand in this affair, and that each person’s attitude would have everything to do with their station in life, their luck in love and marriage, their looks, the measure of good or ill fortune that had been their lot, the events that had marked the course of their life, and their most secret feelings, those that people sometimes hide even from themselves… though they would believe they were passing judgement on someone else’s tragedy, in reality, they would simply be giving expression to their own.”

Ismail Kadare, The Ghost Rider

Annihilation – Jeff Vandermeer

Annihilation is the story of a group of four women investigating an apparently post-apocalyptic part of the world, Area X. It is an expanse of wildness, separated it seems from the rest of world by a man-made border. The area may once have been populated but now the natural and supernatural world is taking it over, it’s history never fully explained.

There have been 11 previous excursions into Area X, to get information we think, although the purpose of the excursions isn’t entirely clear. It’s clear that for at least the last two, if not more, many people died whilst there or made it back but their psyche was shot afterwards.

We experience the 12th expedition through narration by a female biologist who goes into Area X with a psychologist (who has powers of hypnosis), a surveyor and an anthropologist (we never know their names). She signed up for the expedition it transpires, in part because she’s a biologist who’s fascinated by the wildness of nature, and in part because her husband was on the 11th expedition and came back as a shell.

Nature abounds in the abandoned Area X, but beyond the lush wildness it has two significant features – an obscure tower or tunnel, and a lighthouse.

The tunnel is the source of much fascination for the biologist, and they begin exploring it at once. They discover it continues for a long way down and, intriguingly, appears to be an organism – alive, growing, pulsating – with organically growing writing along the walls. In reviews of Annihilation there are frequent references to Lovecraft, Ballard and Poe, and you can see these influences in this mysterious supernatural being.

After things start to go very wrong in the tunnel, the biologist makes her way to the lighthouse where she finds the psychologist and an archive of the previous expeditions’ notes, including her husband’s.

It’s hard to talk about the plot, as the core of Annihilation is less plot and more atmosphere – a disturbing build of tension and uncertainty about the biologist’s co-workers, the secrets behind Area X and most of all the terrifying and uncanny unknown at work in the tunnel and beyond.

And equally interesting, Annihilation is also an excellent character study of the biologist – a woman captivated by nature not people, who longed to sit by a pond and observe, and who struggled in a relationship for years with a man who was extroverted and craved company.

“This premonition of violence made little rational sense, and yet it came to me too easily, almost as if placed in my mind by outside forces.”

Jeff Vander Meer, Annihilation

The Gallows Pole – Benjamin Myers

A vivid and gritty fictionalised account of the hardness of rural life and a band of criminals that were fighting authority and causing misery in equal parts. Absorbing reading.

This is the true story, with some grounded but fantastic fictional embellishments, of the Cragg Vale Coiners, a group of farm workers and rural labours in eighteenth century northern England who made money clipping coins and forging them into counterfeits.

Led by David Hartley, they made money, fought the law and the coming industrialisation, made some people better off and others less so. They were a gang whose activities threatened the authority of the king and the law.

For this reason local lawman William Deighton and wealthy solicitor Robert Parker, with the aid of James Broadbent, a dim and unlikable mole in the Coiners gang, go after them. It doesn’t end well for Deighton, but Hartley is arrested, sent to prison and hung in York, and the Coiners are disbanded.

It’s a gripping story, but perhaps the most remarkable feature of this book is the writing style. Vividly written, the descriptions of the wildness, the untamed, nature of rural life make this book stand apart. I wonder if Myers’ writing is one of a new approach to writing about the countryside, one which focuses on the hardness and wildness of the land, rather than it’s beauty. I’m thinking, too, of others writers, most notably Fiona Mozley, author of Elmet. For them the countryside isn’t twee or privileged but rough and lawless and hard.

Unlike historical fiction, the book’s written in a very modern tone, in the way that farm folk might speak then and now. This is interweaved regularly with extracts from David Hartley’s prison dairies, which are written in a phonetic English dialect, with words that are spelled as they sound, something which is initially off-putting but soon becomes accessible and amusing. His semi-poetic ramblings offer a different perspective to that of the narrator too, which raises questions of reliability – of narrators and of historical records.

David Hartley himself is presented as an ambiguous character: occasionally Robin Hood like, occasionally someone to admire for their enterprise, but often mean and greedy and crude and dangerous, rather like a modern day gang boss might be portrayed. In fact, he comes across not unlike the kind of man that Nietzsche praises in his work – someone beyond conventional morals, who is unconstrained by norms and laws, who strives to live a remarkable life, who isn’t resentful even after being caught. As Hartley puts it in one of his diary entries:

“These are not the werds of a man turned sower with regret and if I had another chance id do it all the same again but bigger and better.”

“James Broadbent said this and then began to chuckle quietly to himself. But it was laughter without a smile… it disguised something ugly and damaged; a harlequin’s mask worn askance.”

Ben Myers, The Gallows Pole

Marshland – Gareth E Rees

This book is many things – it’s place writing, its memoir, it’s local history, it’s weird fiction, it’s psychogeography, it’s political. It’s the kind of book I’d like to write.

It begins on a personal note (though whether this is a fiction I’m not sure about now) with the author wanting some space away from his family, and so he explores the marshes near Hackney and Walthamstow with his dog. He walks, he occasionally talks to people, and gets inspired and starts to learn more about the area, digging out local stories and histories.

There’s no set pattern, but what Rees does often in this book is give us a chapter of walking mixed in with history, followed by a piece of fiction, often of a weird or speculative nature, that has come from that bit of history.

There’s a brilliant bit about a couple of nineteenth century industrialists based in the marshes, Hazlehust and Whipple, which he then takes forward in time to the twenty first century marshes where they are confused and then confronted by a group of east London teenagers who are amused at these anachronistic dandies in front of them.

In another section, Rees talks about how during the Second World War people would, contrary to the popular myth of bravery, run from their houses to the marshes to evade German bombing raids, and then follows his imagination to a story about a whole class of people living out in the marshes, rebelling against a technology-run London, to whom people would come to touch and see tangible, non-electronic items from the not-too-distant past.

There are some strong political themes to the book – land ownership and the commons, the city and its edges, technology and nature, dystopia and the always unfinished nature of the world. But there’s so much more than this too.

It’s in the tradition of JG Ballard interspersed with John Gray and Ian Sinclair and Benjamin Myers and so many others. I can’t speak highly enough of this original, fun and thought-provoking book.

“This is the way of the city. London is a palimpsest. Industrial sites overlay agricultural ones. Sites of commerce replace those of industry. Private regency gardens become public parks. Public spaces become privatised. Abandoned factories, power plants and sewerage systems are transformed into museums, galleries and recreation zones. Schools become mezzanine apartment blocks. High street banks become betting shops. Pubs become flats. Churches become pubs. Everything is overwritten, eventually. There is no final draft of London.”

Marshland, Gareth E Rees

The Call of Cthulhu – H P Lovecraft

Brilliant supernatural horror that evokes an unnamable darkness at the heart of human being.

It’s written as an excerpt from the journals of Francis Thurston who himself is learning of a terrifying revelation through the papers and journals of his recently deceased uncle. The uncle had come across reports of an unsettling incident and set out to uncover what was going on.

Through information from an artist, Wilcox, he had discovered that for a period of three weeks or so artists all over were tormented by twisted dreams and visions. And from information from other sources, a police inspector, Legrasse, who reports of a cult who worship unnamed beings and a sea voyage at the same time as the artists lost their minds that resulted in the death of nearly all the crew members after stumbling across unspeakable and indescribable creatures on a hidden island.

Through his investigations, Thurston finds that these unconnected incidents may have been caused by the emergence of The Great Old Ones , powerful supernatural beings that appear to have been been worshipped by cults for millennia and were in the world long before humans. They are dangerous, shapeless, only part matter; they are monsters that have been largely buried, but through shifts in the earth re-emerged causing torment to some.

The tense and formalistic style is incredibly powerful in this story; it makes it all the more compelling because it implies the narrator is straight, educated, that everything in him wills not to believe, and yet be begins to.

Interestingly, I’ve done it the wrong way round and read Thomas Ligotti before Lovecraft, but the similarity is so strong: the formal writing style, the focus on description, the gradual and subtle unravelling of a truth that is worse than gore.

Whet stands out most, though, is the idea of the Cthulhu that animates this – a dark, unnamable, unspeakable, monstrous power that has been hidden from most humans save a few cults for most of our existence. It’s perfect supernatural horror.

There is in fact a long tradition in European philosophical thought of an unspeakable and horrifying other inside, that Lovecraft’s Cthulhu might be said to embody. From the fear and trembling that Kierkegaard documents when confronted with life to the Real in Lacan, an indescribable part of our psyche beyond our comprehension and language which occasionally bubbles up and affects us.

On a societal level thinkers like Arendt and Freud have pointed to the founding violence on which civilisation and modern states are built, with the remainders that didn’t fit made invisible and unnamable, but with their presence occasionally making itself felt in surprising and uncontrollable ways. One way to interpret the Cthulhu is precisely this – the hidden partially suppressed other on which human civilisation depends.

“Mayakovsky could never have retired to the country to write poetry about raising cucumbers… he needed literature to be a form of action or work, just like fighting in a war or building a railroad.”

Elif Batuman, The Possessed. Adventures with Russian books and the people whole read them

At the Existentialist Cafe – Sarah Bakewell

A fantastic, readable and brilliantly explained history of the radical ideas of French existentialists that have shaped so much of modern thought and social change.

This wonderful book is a history of the lives and ideas of the originators of existentialism: Satre, de Beauvoir, Heidegger, Merleau Ponty, Husserl, Camus. It’s traces the way their lives and ideas interact; or, especially, the way in which their ideas influence their and others’ lives.

From the early 1930s when they were founding their thinking, through the war, occupation and liberation of France, to the protests of 1968, Bakewell traces how their thought developed and how they put in into practice, both in artistically and academically, personally and politically.

She begins, after briefly introducing us to Satre and de Beauvoir, by talking at length about Husserl’s development of the philosophical practice of phenomenology, which so influenced Satre. The sense that the role of philosophy is to cut through the appearance of things, through the perspectives and ideologies that attach to things, and to describe the phenomena itself, in its essence, was she says, revolutionary. And it’s this sense of cutting through to the essence of what it is to be human, the being or ‘Daisen’ for Heidegger, that is central to existentialism, and it’s view that people are unencumbered by convention or history or ideology and are in fact radically free.

We get chapters on Heidegger, both because his philosophy was influential for existentialism, and because he is an interesting but flawed character because of his attraction to and refusal to denounce Nazism. And we get lots on Satre and de Beauvoir – their lives, their commitment to writing, their absolutely engagement in politics, and of course their massive influence. Bakewell is particularly good on why de Beauvoir’s Second Sex was such a revolutionary and important book for feminism and women’s liberation.

Bakewell, at a late point in the book, says she used to be naive and think what matters most in the world are ideas, that a focus on people’s lives is a distraction, but she has since come to see that people’s lives are the thing that matter. In fact, she is truly excellent at explaining the complex and highly abstract ideas of phenomenology and existentialism, and more than anything in this book she shows how lives and ideas interact.

Satre and de Beauvoir, for example, lived in ways considered quite shocking for their time – working constantly, an open relationship all their lives, childless, fervently committed to Soviet communism. Whether this radical freedom of their lives influenced their ideas or vice versa, who knows, but the connection of life and philosophy is clear.

And what’s more, Bakewell shows how their existentialist ideas were so influential in a period of social change – civil rights, student protests, anti war demonstrations, the Beat poets, sexual liberation, feminism… all of these movements were founded on ideas of personal freedom, of living consciously chosen and free lives, that were at the core of their existentialist philosophy.

“a phenomenologist’s job is to describe. This is the activity that Husserl kept reminding his students to do. It meant stripping away distractions, habits, cliches of thought, presumptions and received ideas, in order to return our attention to what he called the ‘things themselves’. We must fix our beady gaze on them and capture them exactly as they appear, rather than as we think they are supposed to be.”

Sarah Bakewell describing phenomenology in The Existentialist Cafe

“The worst readers are those who proceed like plundering soldiers: they pick up a few things they can use, soil and confuse the rest, and blaspheme the whole.”

Nietzsche in Mixed Opinions and Maxims – characterising me on more than a few occasions.

Wild Fire – Ann Cleeves

This is a classic piece of detective fiction, but one that tackles some interesting and quite political issues along the way.

It’s the story of detective Jimmy Perez tracking down the killer of Emma Shearer, who is a live-in help to Robert and Belle Moncrieff and their four kids. She is found hanging in the home of new comers to the island, Helena and Daniel.

It transpires that they have a relationship with her; Daniel had fallen for Emma because Helena is busy with her career as a successful clothes designer, to whom Bella works as a publicist.

There are plenty of other characters – Emma’s sometimes boyfriend Magnie, his bitter Mum Margaret, Christopher the autistic son of Helena and Daniel.

It’s a satisfying page turner but must interestingly, at the heart of the book are some interesting themes:

– Parenting and its impact on children is most central. From Emma Shearer’s abuse as a child to [spoiler alert] the treatment of the teenage killers Charlie and Martha, there’s a moral theme that bad parenting has a clear and detrimental impact on kids. It’s made all the more poignant with the news that Willow is pregnant with Perez’s child, and he is racked with indecision about how to respond throughout the novel.

– The divide between locals and newcomers. Much of Cleeves’ Shetland series teases out the tensions – sometimes explicit, often implicit – between born Shetlanders and English or mainlanders moving in. In this case it’s really clear that local Margaret is resentful of the wealthy incomers who transform the croft of her old lover into a swanky home.

– And I think it’s reasonable to think that Cleeves is sympathetic to the locals’ antipathy, with both sets of incomers wealthy families who treat people with disdain, particularly the snobbish Robert Moncrieff. In many parts of Wild Fire she’s portraying the arrogance of the rich, in particular with Emma treated as a skivy and her death seen by the Moncrieffs as an inconvenience to their otherwise successful lives.

Hans my hedgehog – Brothers Grimm

This is a bizarre and unsettling story, what you might call an amorality tale in the fine tradition of Grimm fairy tales.

A man and his wife are desperate for a child, the man saying he’d be happy even if it were a hedgehog.  The wife gives birth to a half boy-half hedgehog and they wish it would die, treating him badly until after years they force it to leave on the back of a rooster with just a cow and pig for company.

Hans the hedgehog breeds his animals until he has farm running through the forest, which he eventually offers to the town to butcher where he came from.

He is visited by two lost kings in succession who promise him their daughter’s hand in marriage if he guides them back to their kingdoms – the first lies but the second is forced to honour the promise, and the princess is to marry Hans the hedgehog. But on their marriage he is transformed into a handsome man, no longer part animal, and is reacquainted with his family, bringing his farming success and fortune with him.

What the hell is this about? If there’s anything it’s about it’s being careful what you wish for. The father wanted a child even it if were a hedgehog and so… The first king lied and so missed out on the chance of a successful farmer and entrepreneur having his daughter’s hand in marriage…

It’s also perhaps about purity – that the absolutely pure is not possible. Hans’s parents want a perfect child and are disappointed with Hans, the kings want something better and find that, in fact, Hans is more than he seems.

And it’s about survival, the lengths that people might need to go to in order to survive if they are thrown into the world on their own. The farming, the butchering, the deals, the trades.

But it’s not a morality tale. It’s more complex and intriguing and far less simple than that. It’s amorality maybe.

Under the Rock: The Poetry of Place – Benjamin Myers

This is a fantastic book. It’s beautifully written and, most importantly, is maybe the first psychogeography of a rural area that I’ve read.

The book reflects about a decade of exploring the woods, rocks and moors around the author’s West Yorkshire home, Mytholmroyd. It’s focused on a large piece of rock – Scout Rock – which looms above the author’s house, and that he explores every which way. But it covers more than that: wildlife, people, history, landmarks, events and issues of the local countryside.

My liking of it is probably helped by the fact that I live nearby and so know the places he’s talking about – but that said I’ve read similar explorations of particular places that I don’t know (like parts of east London by Ian Sinclair) and loved them too.

The writing style is poetic throughout, his descriptions of the landscape so accurate. He manages to encapsulate the wildness of the countryside at the same time as depicting its connectedness with the people.

What I love about this book most, though, is that it’s the first bit of rural psychogeography I’ve read. There are countless urban examples, especially in London – not surprising given its origins in Paris – but nature and rural writing tends to be very mono, tracing everything back to a history or naturalness, rather than roaming around a locale’s history, geography, philosophy and oral history, as psychogeographers like Ian Sinclair do.

Station Eleven – Emily St John Mandel

This is a beautifully written tapestry of a novel with a host of characters‘ lives intersecting in the story of the end of modern civilisation and the beginning of a new one, after a flu epidemic wipes out almost the entire world’s population and everything we associate with modern life.

The core character that ties all the others together is Arthur, a famous actor who in fact dies on stage just hours before the ‘Georgian flu’ begins to affect people.

We meet a woman who acted with him as a girl, Kirsten, who two decades later travels the devastated world in a travelling symphony playing Shakespeare and classical music to the scattered townships that have emerged.

We meet Clarke, his friend, who finds himself trapped with a couple of hundred others in an airport on the way to Arthur’s funeral, and makes his post-apocalypse home there, eventually setting up the Museum of Civilisation that collects objects from the old world – iPhones, laptops, medicines, magazines etc.

We meet his ex-wife Elizabeth and son Tyler who are initially at the airport but leave, with Tyler becoming part of a religious cult, one of many, which claim they have answers, that the flu happened for a purpose, and attempt to wrestle control or at least take power, wherever they can.

And we meet Miranda, Arthur’s ex-wife too, who dies early on in the flu epidemic but whose hobby is creating a comic, Station Eleven, which Kirsten has a copy of and which finds its way to the Museum of Civilisation.

What’s the book about? Mostly, I think, the distinction between the contingent and the vital. What we think of as essential are really just the trappings of modern civilisation – air travel, nations, technology, healthcare… yes, no doubt they make life more comfortable – mostly anyway – but they can disappear, and when they’ve gone life is stripped to back to what is vital: human relationships, co-operation, selfishness and selflessness, art, and of course the flourishing of non-human life like animals and flora and fauna. It’s complex and difficult, and the book offers no simple solutions about what matters in our existing civilisation or afterwards, but it’s thought-provoking and haunting in equal measure – and, it’s worth saying, a highly readable if exploratory plot, with characters that you want to know more about even whilst you might not fully like them. Ambiguous and interesting to the last.

“Since I was young I have always wanted to be in the landscape. Not passing through, skirting over or observing it from a distance, but in it. A part of it. Immersed so totally that it scratches the skin and stains the pores. Fills the lungs, the veins, the bowels.”

Benjamin Myers, Under the Rock

“Most writers lead double lives. They earn good money at legitimate professions and carve out time for their writing as best they can: early in the morning, late at night, weekends, vacations…

“My problem was that I had no interest in leading a double life. It’s not that I wasn’t willing to work, but the idea of punching a clock at some nine-to-five job left me cold, utterly devoid of enthusiasm. I was in my early twenties, too young to settle down, too full of other plans to waste my time earning more money than I either wanted or needed.”

Paul Auster, Hand to Mouth

“Fat Charlie was thirsty.

Fat Charlie was thirsty and his head hurt.

Fat Charlie was thirsty and his head hurt and his mouth tasted evil and his eyes were too tight in his head and all his teeth twinged and his stomach burned and his back was aching in a way that started around his knees and went up to his forehead and his brains had been removed and replaced with cotton balls and needles and pins which was why it hurt to try and think, and his eyes were not just too tight in his head but they must have rolled out in the night and been reattached with roofing nails; and now he noticed that anything louder than the gentle Brownian motion of air molecules drifting softly past each other was above his pain threshold. Also, he wished he were dead.”

Neil Gaiman’s brilliant hangover description in Anansi Boys