Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Dark Descent: The Evolution of Horror edited by David Hartwell

The Dark Descent is a peculiarly difficult anthology to review because if it had a different title and reason-to-be, I'd be a lot less judgmental about it. Let's say the title is '60 Horror Short Stories and Novellas that David Hartwell Really Enjoyed.' Fine. I can get fully behind that anthology. So if that anthology were this anthology, contents unchanged, I give it a solid A- and request that in subsequent printings of this enormous trade paperback, TPTB print it on lighter paper.

This is, quite seriously, the heaviest 950-page book I have ever read. My forearms grew three sizes from reading it. It's so big and heavy, it was broken up into not two but three volumes for its mass-market paperback edition (for the record, those paperbacks -- with the titles of the three thematic sections of the HC/TPB -- are The Color of Evil, The Medusa in the Shield and A Fabulous Formless Darkness).

However, this anthology is supposed to be a useful all-in-one-volume survey of horror literature from its beginnings to the present day, the present day being the early 1990's, when the book was published. And as a survey, it's a bit of a bollocks on three fronts.

1) Thematic Organization: Generally speaking, I'd say historical surveys need to follow some semblance of chronological order. You can play with this a bit by having lots of sub-categories with, say, three representative stories in chronological order. Having no discernible order, though, and only three vague categories of horror, really doesn't help the hypothetical reader who's new to horror. I can figure out when certain things were published, sort of, and how they link together, because I've read a bloody awful lot of horror. A new reader can't, and thus can't actually get much of an idea of how M.R. James leads to, say, Robert Aickman.

2) Dates: Unless I missed them somewhere, this anthology doesn't provide a clear and consistently deployed explanation of when the stories were published. This is a really irritating omission, and one easily remedied by putting dates on the various stories.

3) ...But He Sure Loves Robert Aickman: Of the 60+ stories in this anthology, three are by Robert Aickman and three are by Stephen King. So 10% of the history of horror is tied up in Stephen King and some British guy no-one who doesn't read a lot of horror has ever heard of.

This wouldn't be as much of a problem if Hartwell hadn't bewilderingly left out Arthur Machen and William Hope Hodgson and limited M.R. James to the short and somewhat second-tier "The Ash-Tree." Machen and Hodgson and James are as central to the development of the horror story in English as Dickens and Thackeray and Joyce are to the development of the English novel. Maybe moreso. But they're only represented by one measly James story.

Now, this anthology deserves some love, not as a useful or even decent survey, but as an occasionally eclectic assortment of horror stories. And unlike the woeful, smug Masterpieces of Horror and the Supernatural survey anthology edited by the woeful and smug Marvin Kaye, The Dark Descent confines itself to stories that can actually inspire horror and terror and unease. So kudos to the unlikely but apt inclusion of Thomas Disch's "The Asian Shore", Gene Wolfe's "Seven American Nights", Philip K. Dick's "A Little Something For Us Tempunauts" and Michael Shea's "The Autopsy", among others.

The Terror, the Terror, yawn....

The Terror by Dan Simmons (2006): If there's a preset figure for the number of pages one can read in a lifetime, The Terror ate up 760 pages of that total without giving much back. But being one of those people who will almost always finish a novel, I finished it.

I think I may actually have skipped about 50 pages total in my rush to the end, but I finished it. The whole mess makes Stephen King's extended version of The Stand look like a model of narrative economy by comparison.

The Terror is about the doomed Franklin expedition of the 1840's which set out to find the Northwest Passage with two ships -- the Terror and the Erebus -- and ended with everyone dead. Well, so far as we know. Pack ice and fire destroyed the two ships, and only scattered bodies and camp sites and sledges give any indication of what happened to the expedition, and why.

Historically, the expedition fell prey to two years of being stuck in the ice off King William Island; its own lack of knowledge about how to survive north of the Arctic Circle; the complete lack of a Northwest Passage through the ice; and food poisoning brought on by tinned food prepared for the expedition by a really low bidder. Technically speaking, it's probably the last thing that really ensured the death of everyone involved before any attempt at rescue could get close to the two ships -- inadequate canning and cooking probably more-than-halved the expedition's food supply, which was enough to last for seven years. Botulism, lead poisoning from the lead solder used to seal the cans, and putrid food helped seal the deal.

In the novel, however, a magical polar-bear demon-god-thingie picks off members of the expedition by ones and twos as they sit stuck in the ice pack by King William Island. Starvation, scurvy, lead poisoning, botulism and mutiny take care of the rest. The captain of the Terror, Francis Crozier, alone survives to become a sort of shaman in a legion of Inuit shaman entrusted with the job of keeping the bear-demon from coming too far south. They basically do this by entertaining the bear-demon. Crozier marries an Inuit woman-shaman much younger than himself and goes off to have magical adventures in the far North. The polar bear demon will eventually sicken and die from eating white souls, which are poisonous to it, and the demon's death will cause global warming to begin. The End.

The worst thing about the novel was the repeated regurgitation of research (doesn't that sound like a Stan Lee line?). I knew I was in trouble when one of the Ice Masters shows up for the sole purpose of demonstrating that Simmons has read up on the various Royal Navy terms for ice circa 1847. Or the various scenes (especially funerals) when the book gives us the full name and rank of everyone there. Again and again and again and again and again. Or the number of times the novel sees fit to tell us the same information about a character again and again. I was relieved when John Franklin got killed around page 300 because it meant that I wouldn't be told at length every 20 pages that Franklin was a fanatical teetotaler.

Oh, and the bear demon not only can't be killed by conventional or magical means, it can't even be hurt. Imagine a nineteen-hour version of Jaws in which the shark has a force field around it and you've pretty much imagined The Terror, only with more nautical history and research than three Moby Dicks folded into the mix, all rendered in a serviceable prose style that starts to plod about 200 pages in. Attempts at the poetic and the sublime tend to get derailed into the mundane and the ridiculous by this sort of plain style. The overall effect is that of Moby Dick as reimagined by a pompous newspaper writer.

I also despise the cliched right turn the novel takes in the last 100 pages as it suddenly becomes the story of how a white man 'became' a Native American (well, technically in this case, a Native Canadian). This is not a fruitful literary sub-genre, and is generally the stuff of melodrama (see: Dances with Wolves, Man Called Horse, even Last of the Mohicans). Large swathes of American and Canadian literature have been derailed by the narratives of white people who Learn Better and "become" native people.

Of the magical polar bear, the less said, the better. Ramsey Campbell noted in an essay that "Explanation is the death of horror", and even though it's necessary sometimes, the sudden introduction of Inuit mythology via telepathy 600 pages into the novel was jarring. Campbell does a similar thing structurally in The Hungry Moon, but a lot more interestingly and without providing any clear and definitive answer as to 'what' the long-leggedy beasty of that novel is, while imbuing the telepathic discovery of that knowledge with wonder and terror.

Here, it's like Captain Crozier just got front row tickets to the Encyclopedia of Inuit Mythology. Yippee!

And as I noted earlier, the monster can't be killed, so there's really no point to the whole struggle. Can't even be hurt. But it can be poisoned by the craptastic souls of white people, and when it dies, Global Warming will begin. Hahaha! That is fucking ridiculous!

If you want to read a good Dan Simmons novel, I'd recommend either Summer of Night or Song of Kali. If you want to read a supernatural horror story about the polar regions, go with HP Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness or John W. Campbell's "Who Goes There?" or Ramsey Campbell's Midnight Sun. Rent the John Carpenter The Thing. Watch the first-season X-Files episode "Ice." Get really drunk and then try to find a cab in London, Ontario on New Year's Eve. But leave The Terror alone.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Sense and Sensibility and Sea-monsters, Oh my

The Sorrows of Young Werewolf
Wuthering Heights and Werewolves
Gone with the Frankenstein
The Bell Jar Sans Merci
Finnegan's Bloody Wake of Terror
The French Lieutenant's Werewolf
The Incredible Shrinking Man of La Mancha
Howards End of Days
The Hell House of Mirth
The House of Seven Gables on the Borderland
Never Cry Werewolf
Sons and Lovers and Loup-garouxs
The Shoggoth Always Rings Twice
For Whom the Belle Dame Sans Merci Tolls
As I Lay Dying from a Zombie Bite
The Sound and the Fury of Frankenstein
Ethan Frome Must Die!
Middlemarch of the Penguins
George Romero's The Dead
Portrait of the Artist as a Young Manimal
Portrait of the Artist as a Young Manitou
Undeath of a Salesman
Bring Me the Head of Damaso Garcia
Zombie and Son
by Charles Dickens
Gone with the Wendigo
The Stone Angel of Death

Your Cthulhu Mythos Cheat Sheet Part 1.

I often end up babbling on and on about H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos to people whom haven't actually read a Cthulhu Mythos story and may indeed think H.P. Lovecraft is a sex shop that also sells printers.

Given that Lovecraft's cosmic horrors have infected pretty much every area of pop culture since his death in 1937, herewith a short glossary to help you navigate those rare occasions when you suddenly need to pretend that you know the difference between a Shoggoth and Fungi from Yuggoth.
H.P. (Howard Philips) Lovecraft 1890-1937: New England born-and-bred writer of science fictional horror and fantasy, he wouldn't become really famous until decades after his death from stomach cancer. A mentor to such writers as Robert E. Howard (creator of Conan) and Robert Bloch (creator of Psycho). Quite racist and classist -- many of his horror stories showcase a profound fear of miscegenation and/or the 'lower' classes. Cthulhu Mythos term actually coined by Lovecraft's posthumous Boswell August Derleth, who founded one of the greatest genre specialty publishing houses, Arkham House, in part to keep Lovecraft's fiction and poetry in print. Central conceit of Cthulhu Mythos is that all religion is wrong, and that Earth was once the home to various cosmic beings who want to get back in but are blocked from doing so for the present. Humanity itself appears to have been some sort of lab accident.

Those crazy names: The names of alien beings in Lovecraft are ostensibly, for the most part, approximations and not 'authentic,' primarily because creatures such as Cthulhu have much different vocal and auditory apparati than human beings.
Great Old Ones: Blanket term for ancient alien beings who want our planet back, including Cthulhu.

Yuggoth: Pluto.

Elder Gods: Blanket term for never-seen alien race that opposed the Great Old Ones long ago and managed to expel them from our space-time and bar them from returning. Apparently exist in or around the star Betelgeuse.
Cthulhu: Ancient and extremely powerful alien being who's either from another dimension or just from somewhere else in space. Changes in space and time, either accidental or engineered by the ELDER GODS, have barred Cthulhu from Earth, where he used to hang out and get up to all sorts of mischief. He will, however, eventually break back into our planet and lay waste to everything we know. Looks like a cross between a mosquito, a squid and a biped; seems to be about as big as a fair-sized office building. Sort of lives on an island submerged in the South Pacific which periodically rises when conditions become right for Cthulhu's re-emergence. Last recorded re-emergence thwarted when a sea captain rammed Cthulhu with a yacht in the 1920's, keeping Cthulhu in the vicinity of the island (Ry'l'yeh) just long enough for conditions to change to force Cthulhu to return to the island before it submerged again.

Dagon: Cthulhu's lieutenant in the Atlantic Ocean; named for Sumer-Babylonian sea-god.

Yog-Sothoth: Cthulhu-level being that seems to act as the gatekeeper (or gatecrasher) between our world and Theirs. Seems to be stuck in 'our' space somewhere around the demon-haunted New England town of Dunwich. Can get human women pregnant. Apparently looks like some sort of tentacle-waving, many-faced blobby thing.

Azathoth: Insane or possibly mindless central being for Cthulhu-type beings, may actually be the center of all existence. Enjoys flute music and weird, shrill piping.

Nyarlathotep: Messenger and harbinger of the Cthulhu-type beings, can occasionally appear as human, but normally looks like some sort of multi-headed flying creature with a "three-lobed burning eye." Can operate in our world under certain conditions, but is extremely sensitive to even small levels of light.

Shub-niggurath: Also known as the "Goat with a Thousand Young", is roughly an Earth Elemental to Cthulhu's Water Elemental. Extremely blobby looking and, under the right conditions, capable of spawning miniature versions of self. Seemingly confined somewhere in England.

Old Ones: Powerful alien beings at war with Cthulhu and company. Once lived on Earth tens of millions of years ago, building a great city at what is now the South Pole, among other places. Final fate of entire species unknown. Ill-fated Miskatonic University expedition to the Antarctic Mountains of Madness in the 1930's unearthed several Old Ones which returned to life once they were thawed and, in a panic, killed most of the expedition before travelling to their seemingly empty city. Resemble seven-foot-tall winged sea-anemones with starfish heads; some sort of animal/vegetable hybrid.

The Mi-Go: Winged, mothmen-like aliens who are enemies of the Old Ones and servants of Cthulhu. May be carrying on mining operations in the Vermont hills for some unknown substance to this day. Can 'fly' through space and enjoy keeping human brains alive and communicative in large metal holding tanks. Are more closely related to fungus than animals. Hail from beyond our solar system, though they do have a base on Pluto (a.k.a. Yuggoth). Can be killed by floods, rifle fire and dogs. Source of stories of the Yeti/Abominable Snowman, as the Mi-Go prefer to stay on or near mountaintops when on Earth.

Shoggoths: Shape-changing, acid-spewing, multiple-mouthed former servants of the Old Ones and current servants of the Great Old Ones. Can live on land or in water. While there's a major hive of them in the city of the Old Ones in Antarctica, they also live throughout the world's oceans and have been seen in New England. Can be as large as the passenger car of a train.

Football, football, football

As I'm stuck wearing my University of Michigan ballcap in public until U of M loses (ah, superstition), I can't help the Steelers get back to winning until Michigan loses. So it goes in the world of sports voodoo.

But this is interesting -- last year's NFL division champions are a combined 10-14 after three weeks of the 2009 season. Early season results are notoriously unreliable, but at least for this brief stretch, the NFL's eternal quest for parity seems to be working.

Of course, history suggests that a number of the front-runners now won't be around at the end of the season, while at least two or three currently struggling teams will be in the playoffs at season's end.

My favourite paper tiger will remain Minnesota until the Vikings actually win a Super Bowl, or at least make it to one. For one thing, I don't trust Brett Favre to hold up over an entire season as an effective quarterback. For another, Minnesota fits way too nicely into a particular paradigm of conventional wisdom that doesn't actually bear out. Namely, TEAMS THAT CAN RUN THE BALL AND STOP THE RUN WIN.

What's wrong with the above CW? Well, mainly that it's trumped by TEAMS THAT CAN PASS THE BALL AND STOP THE PASS WIN SUPER-BOWLS. Good passing is defined more by overall offensive efficiency (how many points do you get out of how many yards?) and yards per attempt than gross yardage. And the NFL is a passing league, now more than ever thanks to three decades' worth of rule changes meant to help the passing game at the expense of the defense.

The last Super Bowl was like an advertisement for the 'Pass/No Pass' theory simply because both the Steelers and Cardinals had below-average running games. Way, way, way below average in terms of both yards and yards per carry. Indianapolis had a legendarily bad run defense entering the 2006-2007 playoffs, and while the return of Bob Sanders helped, Indy's ability to stop the pass was a lot more important.

Actually, the Indy/Miami game of two weeks ago was like a bizarro microcosm of this whole theory, as Miami held the ball with its ball-control offense for 45 minutes of gametime and still lost the game because it couldn't stop Indy's passing game and it couldn't muster much of a passing attack of its own.

So it goes.

You can always go check out a variety of CW-attacking viewpoints over at Cold, Hard Football Facts, whose estimable creators and contributors are engaged in trying to create workable sabrmetrics for football.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Crime and Punishment and Bacon and Eggs

So this happened in the far-flung past of spring 1990, when I was living in a house with a bunch of bizknobs in Waterloo while attending Wilfrid LaurierUniversity.

At this point I had both a beard and a glorious, shoulder-length head of hair, thus resembling some modern-day Adonis in a London Fog trenchcoat as I stalked the city of Waterloo.

One day, I walked home from school, checked out the food situation (which is funny in retrospect because I did most of my eating either on-campus or at local bar Phil's Grandson's Place) and then strolled off to the Dutch Boy supermarket about a ten-minute walk away to do some grocery shopping.

At this point, I'm in my London Fog trench coat and thus look like a Bohemian hoodlum or possibly the Jesus of Luke-warm.

So as I line up at the ten items or less check-out about half-an-hour later, I notice four uniformed cops come striding through the door looking very grim and purposeful. Like any good Hitchcock hero, I immediately think, "With my luck, they're here to arrest me!"

Which they proceed to do. As I'm led off by one cop, I note the other three cops rummaging through my grocery cart.

So after reading me my rights in the car, the arresting officer (who has the typical cop/porn-star mustache) explains to me what I'm accused of. Apparently, one of the houses on my route home from WLU was robbed around the time I went by. The stolen items were jewelry, bacon and eggs.

In the Lynchian Hardy Boys universe I'm now operating in, a plucky eight-year-old boy from next door to the Bacon House saw me commit this robbery and bravely followed me home, waited around, and then followed me to the Dutch Boy, from whence he phoned the police and his parents.

Well, of course I deny it. I get driven to the station and stuck on a bench while Detective Chimp* and the crack team of detectives search my apartment (thus baffling my roommates who, to be fair, probably should have been arrested en masse on more than one occasion for rowdiness and throwing rocks and beer bottles at houses). Detective Chimp comes out for a moment and looks at the soles of my shoes, grunts and goes back into the back.

So after about a half-an-hour of cooling my heels, I again get visited by Detective Chimp, who informs me that the charges have been dropped and I'm free to go. My shoes don't match any prints they've got in either size or tread.

Their theory of the crime was that I'd stolen the jewelry, bacon and eggs, gone home, hidden the jewelry in my room, and then taken the bacon and eggs with me to the Dutch Boy so that I could disguise my crime by putting the stolen breakfast in my cart and then buying the bacon and eggs from the Dutch Boy.

I'm sure you're thinking at this point that if they'd just waited, I'd have gone to a jewelry store and bought the stolen jewels. But of course.

At this point, without getting angry, I say something like, "Well, old chap, that's the stupidest theory of a crime I've ever heard and besides, I didn't steal the stuff."

Detective Chimp replies, "No, we know you did it. We've got a witness. We just can't figure out how you hid the items from us."

Worried about the state of law enforcement in Waterloo, I wandered off into the gathering night.
And that's why, in my heart of hearts, I really don't trust the police.
* Not his real name. The desk sergeant also wasn't named Sergeant Gorilla.