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.

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“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

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.

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.

Books I’ll never write #5: Philosophy of the weird

Philosophy of the weird: Life and beyond according to Lovecraft, Ligotti and co

Are we always acting at the will of something beyond our understanding? Are humans an insignificant part of an indifferent world? Is there always an unnamable, uncontrollable part of us ready to emerge at any time?

In this book that I’ll never write I’d explore the philosophical ideas in the work of weird fiction writers, especially Thomas Ligotti and his predecessor Lovecraft.

What we find, in the end, is a philosophy for our times: a pessimistic one for sure, but also one that recognises that far from the lies of democracy and liberalism and secularism, life is often hard, sometimes pointless and mostly out of your control.

Topics and chapters:

– Freedom, determinism and mannequins

– The nature of power and the political

– The unknown, the Real and beyond

– Anti-humanism and existentialism

– The Nietchzean super human and dark power

– Slipping off life’s margins beyond reality

My work is not yet done – Thomas Ligotti

This is the closest thing to traditional writing that I’ve read by Ligotti, but it doesn’t disappoint in its dose of supernatural horror and, in fact, humour.

Frank Dominio is a supervisor at a large corporate; he tolerates the mundane work but despises his colleagues, especially, six supervisors of other departments and their boss Richard, which he dubs ‘The Seven.’

After making a proposal for a new product to The Seven, they conspire against him and he is sacked. Frank plans revenge by visiting a gun shop and ordering seven guns. All very Falling Down. But then, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, but entail a large black fog and, it seems, a mystical deal, he finds himself in his apartment in possession of supernatural powers.

He uses these to take revenge on each of The Seven, through some bizarre, macabre and disturbing acts. One of the seven finds herself sucked into an oozing substance in a door, for example, while another is trapped inside the body of one of Ligotti’s trademark motifs, a mannequin.

Frank only comes unstuck when it transpires that Richard himself has some supernatural links and that his earlier deal allowed him to kill only seven people; a problem because he had to deal with another office worker during his activities (trapping him in a never-ending series of doors.) To be honest, this results in a slightly weaker ending than I’d have expected, but nevertheless the book remains great regardless.

I love Ligotti’s work – his writing, his ideas, his weirdness – and this book is no exception. In fact, it’s got everything you’d want from a Ligotti story but puts it into a scenario it’s easy to relate to – dissatisfaction with all the bullshit of work – making it in many ways a stronger and perhaps more disturbing read.

The Town Manager – Thomas Ligotti

One of Ligotti’s finest short stories, The Town Manager is a disturbing allegory for urban politics and decay.

In an unnamed town, the protagonist tells of the role of the Town Manager, whose job is to run the town. The last one – the latest in a long line – has disappeared, and a new one comes along.

Their first job is to undo the best work of previous managers, in this case getting residents to destroy the tram service, with the driver found dead. Then they demand everyone in the town change the organisations and businesses they run, creating a bizarre carnivalesque world, in which shop fronts open into distorted or horrific scenes.

The narrator discovers that there are brochures for the town in nearby places, and the town manager has been marketing it as a bizarro-town to visit. It’s a success for a while, but when the tourists die down the town manager disappears.

The narrator leaves the town and travels through nearby no-hope towns until, in a diner, he meets a stranger whose job is to recruit… a town manager.

Like so much of Ligotti’s writing this is a great story and more: an indictment of political power and the willing gullibility of citizens, when there is no hope or wealth in a perhaps once great American city.

Gas Station Carnivals – Thomas Ligotti

I’m not sure this is one of Ligotti’s best stories, but the concept, the image it conjures up, is one that stays with you as much as anything he’s written.

In fact I’ve read this before and the story has been with me for over a year, urging me to have another look, so I did.

An unnamed narrator is in the Crimson Cabaret bar, and meets Stuart Quisser, an art critic he knows. The narrator reminds Quisser that he’s been rash by offending the crimson lady who owns the bar, a powerful women, and Quisser then begins an odd reminisce about when he was younger. He explains he used to go on long journeys with his parents and stop off at gas stations in the middle of nowhere where, hidden round the back, were broken down carnivals with shows by odd performers like the ‘human spider’ and the ‘showman’.

Quisser leaves the narrator to his drink (mint tea to settle his stomach for some reason), but then it transpires first that Quisser was never at the cabaret, then that it was the narrator not Quisser who offended the crimson lady, and then that actually the crimson lady is powerless in the face of a waitress working there.

It’s classic Ligotti: uncanny occurrences, obscurity around everyone’s intentions, odd interactions between characters, a series of unexplained events, and some strange and eerie images all the way through.

“All of us had problems, it seemed, whose sources were untraceable, crossing over like the trajectories of countless raindrops in a storm, blending to create a fog of delusion and counter-delusion. Powerful connections and forces were undoubtedly at play, yet they seemed to have no faces and no names.”

Thomas Ligotti, Gas Station Carnivals

The Glamour – Thomas Ligotti

In classic Ligotti fashion, this short story – just ten pages long – takes us into a dark alternative world that exists within and alongside our own.

The narrator is out in the city looking for a late night cinema – something he often does, though whether that’s significant or not, Ligotti doesn’t tell us – when he stumbles across an intriguingly old-fashioned cinema. Suddenly it appears all the streets he’s walking through have become old-fashioned and uncanny, and he is drawn to enter the cinema.

The cinema itself is like something from another world; the screen alive, the dark room occupied by strange sensations and noises, with little life otherwise. It’s a ghost world. When he eventually exits the streets are back to normal, the entrance to the macabre theatre gone.

As is often the case in Ligotti’s stories, there is no explanation to why this happens – it’s because this underworld is simply part of our world, somewhere that you can easily slip into.

The Glamour is part of Ligotti’s story collection, Grimscribe.

Only Begotten Daughter – James Morrow

This is the story of God’s daughter, Julie Katz, born in a test tube to lighthouse-living outsider Murray in twenty first century Atlanta City. It’s a truly original story and a funny, scathing critique of religion.

After his death Julie’s angry because her mother (Gilid) has abandoned her, not to mention made her a deity with divine powers, powers which Murray had warned her not to use because right wing religious zealots will see it as blasphemous – not least Billy Milk and his son Timothy who blew up the clinic where Julie was born right after Murray had visited and picked up Julie in her jar. 

She tries to negotiate a life with her odd ball and eventually alcoholic friend Phoebe, first rejecting her powers and then using them in a newspaper column. Eventually she gives up hiding them and, after revealing herself to the world through a big act, accepts an offer from the devil (called Andrew Wyvern) to go to hell. There she meets her brother, Jesus, who works tirelessly providing hell’s sufferers with a morphine-like drug.

Fed up with hell she gives up her powers in return for life, and finds that a ‘church’ has been established by her former editor – and future husband – Bix, while Billy Milk and his band of zealots are in charge of Atlanta. In the end she tries to help Phoebe fight alcoholism and she is caught and brought for crucifixion…

This really is a good book. Well plotted. Interesting characters. Constant surprises. Full of apt metaphors. It has a religious or parable-like feel to it at times, but it’s so much more than that. It’s literary and weird and sci-fi and fantasy – I don’t know what genre it is.

And it’s a great satire of religion, good and evil are entirely jumbled. Julie’s the daughter of an uncaring God. Julie has powers to do good but doesn’t know if and his to use them. Jesus is in hell. Only three or four people appear to be in heaven. The devil is helping the so-called religious on earth…

Recommended.

The Nightmare Factory, vol. 2 – Thomas Ligotti

The Nightmare Factory is a graphic novel version of four of Thomas Ligotti’s chilling stories, an approach that I think both adds and takes away from their telling.

The four stories are ‘The Gas Station Carnivals,’ ‘The Clown Puppet,’ ‘The Chymist’ and ‘The Sect of the Idiot.’ The strongest of these is the ‘Gas Station Carnivals’, a story I’d read before a couple of times – and had stayed with me – about a man’s *possible* memories of visiting gas stations across the US and finding in the back terrifying shows featuring supernatural creatures.

The graphic style adds to Ligotti’s original short stories by helping them feel more contemporary and giving them a visual flair that helps you to picture some of the most obscure and terrifying parts of the story. The creatures the character (Quisser) sees at the gas stations for example are stranger for seeing them illustrated.

The graphic style does take away a little though, mostly in that Ligotti’s stories are complex and rich with detail, but the comic book necessarily pares it down to a minimum, meaning some of the depth of character or setting, and explanations of the twisting plot, are missing. And part of the appeal of reading horror like Ligotti’s is letting your imagination do the work because so much is left to your mind, and to some extent seeing it illustrated gives you a particular image that you can’t shake afterwards.

“I am an offspring of the dead. I am descended from the deceased. I am the progeny of phantoms. My ancestors are the illustrious multitudes of the defunct, grand and innumerable. My lineage is longer than time. My name is written in embalming fluid in the book of death. A noble race is mine.”

Thomas Ligotti, The Lost Art of Twilight

The Frolic – Thomas Ligotti

In the spirit of Halloween, I’ve re-read one of the most chilling of Ligotti’s stories, The Frolic. It packs a deceptively large amount of peril into its few pages.

David is a psychiatrist who has recently moved his wife, Leslie, and young daughter, Norleen, to a small town where he has become the psychiatrist to what appears to be a prison for the criminally insane. The whole story is set over one evening, when he returns from work and begins to explain to Leslie that he thinks they (or he) made the wrong choice in moving because, he says, the inmates are so terrifying and beyond the help he idealistically thought he could give them.

One inmate with whom he has a long therapy session has him particularly worked up – known only as John Doe, because he refuses to give a single name, he has a long long history of abducting children and doing who-knows-what with them, which he calls frolicking.

As David conveys his worries about the frolicker he admits his fear is that, despite being behind prison walls, the frolicker will somehow do something to Norleen. And as they talk a sense of concern gradually builds. David goes to check on Norleen, finds her asleep with some kind of comforter. They talk some more and agree they should move quickly. David mentions the comforter Norleen was cuddling. Leslie says she’s never heard of it and didn’t have it when she went to bed. David runs upstairs to find Norleen gone and a sinister note from the frolicker.

There is something quite conventional about this story, compared to others of Ligotti’s, but I think he does three things brilliantly in it.

First, he builds tension, claustrophobia and fear all the way through – from the stilted dialogue to the small town where Leslie feels trapped. He gradually reveals the sinister ending, surprising us despite it being the only way the story could end in retrospect.

Second, he paints an excellent picture of a conventional and difficult family scenario – the traditional family roles, the husband moving his wife and child for a job, the wife supporting his career and moral aspirations, the wife’s unspoken sense that they shouldn’t have moved, the evidence (that he didn’t put Norleen to bed, that he didn’t know what she takes to bed) that he is at work more than home, his gradual realisation he’s put his family in danger….

And third, what makes this story – as with all of Ligotti’s writing – so much more than one about a nuclear family threatened by an external threat, is that he puts ambiguity everywhere.

The frolicker is in the prison, but he denies his past and any names, and appears to be ageless, timeless, supernatural, such that the prison walls ultimately mean nothing. What the frolicker does with the children is never said, leaving that knowledge unknown, tantalisingly unresolved. David has the feeling that the frolicker knows his daughter’s name but this is always dressed up in riddles and it’s quite unclear as to whether he does or how he could. And, indeed, there is ambiguity about where culpability lies – with the frolicker or with David who brought the situation upon them.

Horror works well when it plants seeds of fear in the most normal of situations – what Ligotti does brilliantly here is take a traditional family set up and inject the fear of a sinister, unknowable and supernatural threat that is both inside and outside the family.

The Last Feast of Harlequin – Thomas Ligotti

Classic Ligotti, this short story is an eerie and macabre comment on contemporary society, told through a supernatural town and terrifying clowns.

The plot is relatively simple. The narrator, an academic fascinated with traditional clown festivals visits the town of Mirocaw to experience its annual festival. On arrival the place is unnatural and the festival, far from a celebration, seems to be an opportunity for the established part of the town to attack an underclass who are forced to dress up as clowns and endure jeering, abuse and violence.

Nothing in the story is clear, not the festival, not even the motives of the protagonist.
There’s a striking moment when he gets swept up by the festival’s atmosphere and pushes a clown to the ground, but his actions are ignored and he instantly feels he has violated a code he didn’t know existed. And we never find out. 

Equally there’s a moment when the protagonist is told that the clowns are chosen for the festival from across the town’s population so it could be anyone next. But this again isn’t clarified and elsewhere the clowns are described as picked from the underclass.

It ends with a mysterious and underground ritual, in which the protagonist is spared, and he drives away leaving the terrifying figures behind.

Apart from the sense of dread the story conjures up – like a cross between Stephen King and Kafka – what is striking about this story is the comment on the symbiotic relationship between a group and its other,  where one can only exist because of the suppression of the second:

Towards the end of the story the protagonist reflects in his journal on what he’s seeing, where this is made clear: 

“One thing that seems certain, however, is the division of Mirocaw into two very distinctive types of citizenry, resulting in two festivals and the appearance of similar clowns – a term now used in an extremely loose sense. But there is a connection, and I believe I have some idea of what it is. I said before that the normal residents of the town regard those from the ghetto, and especially the clown figures, with superstition. Yet it’s more than that: there is fear, perhaps hatred – the particular kind of hatred resulting from some powerful and irrational memory.”

“As I wobbled from street to street tonight, watching those oval-mouthed clowns, I could not help feeling that all the merrymaking in Mirocaw was somehow allowed by their sufferance.”

Teatro Grottesco – Thomas Ligotti

I don’t read a lot of horror which may or may not explain why I was captivated by Ligotti’s book of short stories.

There are around twenty stories, each telling an eerie and disconcerting tale of strange occurrences in a world devoid of hope. It is horror (or perhaps what seems to be referred to as speculative or weird fiction) with a focus on creating an atmosphere or creeping terror rather than any recourse to violence or gore. Each story is written in a flowing but formal matter of fact tone, which adds to the distance the reader feels.

Take The Town Manager, which tells the odd story of a town which has a manager who runs it. There has been a succession of managers, each bringing in new and stranger decisions, with the latest boosting tourism by forcing all the shopkeepers to turn their stores into bizarre carnival-like attractions. As always the town manager eventually disappears. The protagonist leaves the town, only to be approached and asked to be the next town manager.

Our Temporary Supervisor is perhaps the most powerful in the collection. Written in the first person it describes a factory where the supervisor is replaced by a dark phantom like presence and, more strangely still, where a new worker appears who is faster and works harder than everyone else. Not to be seen to be lazy or inefficient, everyone else starts to work longer and longer hours until their lives are spent working in the factory, rarely leaving or stopping.

Many of the stories are driven by themes of determinism, of dark forces – both supernatural and the very material power of capital – driving everyone’s behaviour, of our lives being the plaything of others. The books are full of despair and almost entirely lacking in warmth or character. Yet they are absolutely compelling reading, as if you are being forced to read on by powers beyond your control ….