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My Summer of Booky Wooks, Part I

Occasionally, colleges decide to regurgitate their students and make them go live in the real world for a bit. This happened recently so I’m prevented from pursuing my life’s true activity: procrastination. Instead I have to do things for fun. One of these things is reading books. The horror. At any rate, this is a post on what I’ve been reading since I got kicked out of my dorm. Don’t expect reviews so much as free-associative reactions:

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Hell House by Richard Matheson

She’s a hell (duh duh duh du) HOWSE… She’s mighty mighty, gonna eat your soul right out.

I have very recently come to the realization that I love the shit out of haunted house things. It’s the kind of epiphany you get when you’re watching your fifth Hammer horror movie of the week. I love the atmosphere of dark cobwebby corridors that (to quote…something…) are so Gothic that they shit bats. And I was coming off of another great Stephen King recommendation, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. Which you should read if you have any interest in this kinda stuff. Or if you’re Cris, you can watch the (fantastic) film adaptation, The Haunting. Actually, go do both ‘cause they’re both amazeballs.

But the awesome-ness of The Haunting of Hill House definitely played a role in dampening my enthusiasm for Hell House (yes, the titles will get confusing, even before you bring in the Vincent Price movie The House on Haunted Hill, which isn’t adapted from the Jackson novel). See, I was hoping Matheson’s take on the genre would be less literary and more exploitation-y than Jackson’s. I was looking forward to it. Unfortunately, Hell House tipped more towards exploitation than I would have liked (like a big fat fucking… okay, I’ve thought better of using that In Bruges quote).

The set-up is pretty par for the course: an eccentric millionaire has gathered four people to brave a stay at the notorious Belasco house in the hopes of uncovering its supernatural secrets. Our lucky contestants are Dr. Lionel Barrett, a physicist with an interesting take on the paranormal, his wife Edith, who has subtext, and two mediums – Florence Tanner, a Spiritualist, and Benjamin Franklin Fischer, who was the only person to survive a stay at the repulsive place. It’s a pretty standard set-up and things progress much as one would expect. The house has an atrocious history of blasphemy and perversion, the layout is a confusing maze, the team of four can hardly keep their impatience with one another under wraps, things start falling apart and the scientist fights with the spiritualist, everyone is confronted with their worst nightmares, etc. What really stands out about the book though is its straight up brutality.

Most haunted house stories I’ve read traffic in creepiness and insinuating tendrils of fog, but Hell House is like the Italian gutmuncher equivalent of the genre. It’s not a caress, it’s an assault. And it’s kind of astonishing. There’s a Chekhov’s crucifix with erect phallus that I should have clocked within seconds of its introduction but it completely flew over my head until halfway into the book. If you like queasiness from your horror, this book’s got enough quease factor to really make you feel dirty. I say this as a person who regularly brings up the rape-revenge film I Spit on Your Grave in polite conversation.

In case you’ve picked up on the sexual violence undertone of that last paragraph, be warned, there is a whole lot of that in this book. In fact, it’s a really really integral part of the book. Where Jackson was quite happy to let some of that subtext lie, Matheson is all about bringing that to the fore with ideas of violation and sexual identity. Which is interesting if you can stomach the fact that it’s almost exclusively foisted on the female characters (while one of the males gets an emasculation thing, but it’s given far less prominence). But it’s perhaps not interesting enough. It’s certainly not as significant or as interesting as Clive Barker’s use of sexualized violence (which might be more extreme, but seems to have more of a point). And, really, that’s the overall feeling I got from the book. There just wasn’t enough there. The images and ideas are suitably grotesque, but the framework just isn’t compelling enough to support it. This might seem a bit hypocritical given how much I love the surrealist horror of the Jean Rollin and the Italians, but those works live and die on the basis of image and sound and are also grounded in an audiovisual medium. Hell House is a book. Books can do some images better than movies (Lovecraft works better on the page than onscreen for a reason) but it’s a lot harder. It also doesn’t help that a lot of the images feel weightless.

A good comparison might be David Cronenberg’s Shivers. Compared to Hell House, Shivers is pretty incompetent. But it has a wealth of quease-inducing subtext that lends weight and importance to its scenes of absolute anarchic degradation. Though the ultimate “point” of the movie can a bit up for debate, there’s little to no doubt that its grotesqueries that have weight and meaning. Hell House doesn’t support its particular grotesqueries quite as well.

Which is not to say that it couldn’t. The book attempts to ground a lot of its sexual violence in character revelations. This could have worked if the characters didn’t feel so flat. Intellectually, the set of characteristics afforded to the cast are interesting. There is a sexual repression angle to Edith, Fischer is a half-broken survivor, Barrett is a supercilious paranormal rationalist and Florence is an exposed nerve with faith. But few of these elements are explored in a compelling way that engages us with the characters. It’s as the man says, just because you are a character doesn’t mean you have character.

The plot is also pretty weak. It’s structured as a series of reveals which prove to be neither shocking nor insightful. There were definitely a couple of points at which the characters experience big moments of revelation that seem to be incredibly important but aren’t. I was honestly kind of annoyed that the characters hadn’t cottoned on to some of the possibilities of the haunting that I would have assumed were obvious. It’s a real shame because I could see myself liking this book a lot if it was better at its fundamental narrative. In this it’s almost a dark mirror to The Haunting of Hill House, which is very good at plot and character but is less interested in making you feel horrific emotions. But maybe a bit of time away from the Jackson book will rehabilitate this one. I’m not going to be re-reading this for a while, but I might come back to it if I read a particularly compelling appreciation of it down the line.

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Redshirts by John Scalzi

Redshirts, Jeanie never wears those red shirts. Probably why she never does get hurt, on thse away missions where everyone bites the dirt…

And now for something completely different… John Scalzi’s lighthearted meta comedy romp on the subject of those poor ensigns who get horribly mangled on Star Trek when the story needs it.

Andrew Dahl and a bunch of other vaguely characterized recruits who go by their last names are assigned to the flagship of the Universal Union, the Intrepid. But something really odd is happening on the ship. They all seem to have replaced crew members involved in violent, dramatic deaths, their co-workers blanche at the mention of away missions and everyone seems to disappear conveniently when the captain or the head of the science team show up looking for volunteers. Could it have something to do with the fact that their uniform includes red shirts? Well, yes. Why else would it be in the title?

This one’s a lot of fun, especially for anyone who enjoys Joss Whedon’s cutesy smartass dialogue and subversions of genre tropes. It’s a short, fast read which is crucial because this is one of those ideas that can run out of steam really easily. But Scalzi seems to know his stuff and he keeps things light and keeps things moving. Sure, you sacrifice a bit of stuff (the characters are pretty standard, though they do get a couple of lovable quirks), but the book’s a lot better for it. I’m not going to talk about this one much because a lot of the enjoyment of it is discovering the particular avenues it decides to travel.

But I will say that you should totally read the three (!) epilogues, which I found especially interesting and really made the book something completely different from what I expected. Definitely worth a look.

Also, I really like John Scalzi as an Internet personality. Look him up when you get the chance. He seems like a very cool dude.

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Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

We are Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, God save used book shops, secret societies and obscure lore. Preserving the old ways from being abused, promoting the new ways for me and for you…

Here’s another “idea” book that could easily be a cutesy lark. And it’s not mindblowing, but it does take the path less traveled and that does make something of a difference.

Clay Jannon is a bloke out of work who decides on a whim to apply for a position at a really strange bookstore. It’s a weird space, mostly vertical, with shelves upon shelves of oddities that don’t seem to show up on Google searches. And the clientele is pretty strange as well. What’s the secret behind Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore? Well, it has far more to do with Google than you expect.

This is one of those books that is almost completely aimed at the person I would be right now if I had been born in, say, 1996. It’s about a love of books, secret conspiracies, cute hackers and the worlds of possibility opened up by new technology and close scrutiny of fantasy books. I would have eaten this stuff up. And I still do, to some degree. It’s a very enjoyable read without being at all challenging or new. It’s a comfort book of the kind I would totally be down for any time I had a bit of time to waste.

Fun, if a bit… shallow? But I don’t mean that a criticism. More of a descriptor. It’s a good young adult book that’s not being marketed as a young adult book.

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The Privilege of the Sword by Ellen Kushner

Your mad uncle’s got you in a whirl, no one’s sure if you’re a boy or a girl, hey babe your moves are alright, hey babe let’s epee tonight.(look, you try coming up with a cutesy song parody that seamlessly incorporates the phrase “privilege of the sword”)

If Penumbra was aimed at me at 15, Ellen Kushner’s The Privilege of the Sword is aimed at me right here right now. In fact I’m 2 for 2 on the Riverside series, having caught Swordspoint at the exact point in time where I would most appreciate a gay retelling of Henry IV with more stabbing. Actually, there’s probably never been a point in my life where I wouldn’t have enjoyed the shit out of that. But PotS is even more appropriate to my mindset. It’s a fantasy novel which basically has no fantasy, is about a person being trained in swordfighting who duels twice in the entire goddamn book and is actually mostly a progressive attack on gender and sexual norms in society. It’s kinda like Orphan Black with more character development and dithering! Are you watching Orphan Black? You shouldn’t watch Orphan Black. I love Orphan Black but it’s awful. You should watch Orphan Black.

So the story is set roughly 10 (?) years after all the shit that went down in Swordspoint, but you don’t really need to know that. This works quite well as a standalone read. We’re introduced to our heroine, the plucky Katherine Tremontaine, who is unceremoniously whisked of by her uncle, the Mad Duke, on a whim. It seems he wants to train her to be his bodyguard and fight duels of honor on his behalf. Naturally, Kat’s a bit put off by this but soon learns that it might not be so bad to slip out of hoop skirts and try on some form fitting leggings once in a while.

If you’ve read Swordspoint, you already know the Mad Duke is Alex Tremontaine, the callous, cruel and intelligent hedonist with a death wish. And Alex is just the best. I mean seriously. He is one of my absolute all-time favorite characters in fiction. He’s a sick, twisted, egotistic asshole who will have nothing sway him from conducting his little experiments of human nature on the people closest to him. He is terrible. But he’s also amazing. He’s flamboyantly bisexual, cuttingly witty, fiercely caring and cunning as all fuck. His decadent existence of selfish, sensual pleasure masks the heart of a revolutionary thrashing at the barricades. And he’s the villain of the first half of the book! I just adore spending time with the little git and every time he’s on the page I get the warm fuzzies in the pit of my stomach.

And then there’s our protagonist, Kat, who goes on the most stereotypical female power fantasy ever, but is a really endearing character nonetheless. Her inner monologue and actions really, really sell the depth, drama and importance of her transformation so that you end up rooting for her pretty much right off the bat. But really, it’s not just the leads. I absolutely adore almost all of the characters in the book. They feel lived-in and quirky and right in a way that none of the other books in this post quite capture.

Which is all to the good, actually. Aside from the character drama there’s really not much of a plot to speak of in PotS. You’re about sixty percent in before the book realizes there should be some driving element to the novel and concocts a serious threat to our beloved company of misfits and outsiders. But the novel’s plot isn’t really too interesting. The denouement almost makes it work though, it’s so weirdly offbeat and sudden.

But the principal pleasure in the book is really soaking in the character interactions and discovering the depth and motivations of each individual. The main cast, assembled under Alex Tremontaine’s freak flag, are all pretty unique and fleshed out. But what really makes the book great is that these characters, though ostensibly on the same side, don’t necessarily like each other. Alex is obnoxious, scathingly caustic and repels pretty much everyone at one point or another. The different relationships the characters have with Alex and with each other are also a factor of the power dynamics that govern their interaction. After all, Alex is the most powerful person in the room at all times and has pretty much totalitarian control over the agency of anyone in his family or his employ. And this creates barriers that can’t quite be breached as easily as the reader might suppose. It’s a credit to Kushner that she never downplays this, despite her obvious sympathy for all the characters.

And I think it’s those kinds of things that make the book stand out, especially in a crowded field such as fantasy. It’s a really progressive book that’s interested in subverting both tropes and expectations, but in ways that tie into broader social arguments and concerns. It’s not just fooling about with tropes to show how self-aware and intelligent the author is, but to create a fundamentally different type of fantasy novel experience. It’s pretty fascinating, especially if one is familiar with the genre. It’s a fantasy novel that’s a study of characters and their reaction to society. How many books can you think of that fit that description. If you’re interested in this stuff at all, even slightly, I’d strongly urge you to check it out.

Okay, that’s it for this installment of My Summer of Booky Wooks. Here are the smiley ratings for each of the books:

Hell House by Richard Matheson

Neutral

Neutral

I don’t know about this one. It certainly made me feel quite a bit. But mostly disgust. And not interesting disgust, either. Maybe if I come back to it at some point.

 

 

Redshirts by John Scalzi

Liked It

Liked It

This really fun stuff. Check it out if you’re in the mood for some good relaxed summertime reading with a meta sci-fi tinge.

 

 

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

Generally Liked It

Generally Liked It

It’s okay. You might like it a lot if you get it at the right time in life.

 

 

 

The Privilege of the Sword by Ellen Kushner

Loved It

Loved It

Yes, I realize the degree to which it flatters my progressive sensibilities. But damn if I didn’t love every second.

 

 

I’ll probably get another coupla posts out of my summer reading, but let’s not hold our breath. After all, we all know what happened to that damn Wes Anderson retrospective.

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