Blood and Chambers

Friday November 2, 2007 in books read 2007 |

That long-drawn, wavering howl has, for all its fearful resonance, some inherent sadness in it, as if the beasts would love to be less beastly if only they knew how and never cease to mourn their own condition.

Angela Carter is an author I’ve returned to after nearly two decades, deciding to read her collection of adult fairy tales as part of my quest for the perfect scary short story. Written in 1979, The Bloody Chamber seems defiantly anachronistic for those times. It’s still very modern, very current – and for a collection of fantastic stories – very real.

Angela Carter: The Bloody Chamber

Angela Carter certainly knows her fairy tales. She can take the basic premise and mould it into something far more chilling than anything that would be allowed at a child’s bedside. The title story in this collection tells of a young girl on her wedding night and it involves the usual suspects of fairy tale motifs; badly lit castles and forbidden keys to locked rooms – with a blind piano tuner thrown in for good measure. Carter is good at plunging the reader back into this storybook world before reminding that her fiction exists in the real world too. A telephone will suddenly ring, the dreamlike interrupted by the very real.

The story titles are very suggestive – The Tiger’s Bride, The Snow Child and The Lady in the House of Love all suggest what they deliver. Most recognisable is The Company of Wolves, adapted so magnificently for the cinema by Neil Jordan in 1984. It’s a vivid, weird film – itself I think out of place in the decade it was made – but the original is far more suggestive, impressionistic and – oh yes – scary.

I’m still undecided about The Bloody Chamber. Maybe I’ll have to leave Angela Carter alone for another long spell. In some ways her fiction is too demanding, too strange and ultimately too inaccessible for my simple tastes. Read it though, let me know what you think – let me know what I’ve missed. Or maybe she’s just still out of time…

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Anansi Boys

Saturday October 27, 2007 in books read 2007 | neil gaiman

Each person who ever was or is or will be has a song. It isn’t a song that anybody else wrote. It has its own melody, it has its own words. Very few people get to sing their own song. Most of us fear that we cannot do it justice with our voices, or that our words are too foolish or too honest, or too odd. So people live their songs instead.

Recently I’ve become a fan of Neil Gaiman. His short story collection Fragile Things is a contender for my book of the year and I’ve been subscribing to Neil Gaiman’s Journal, one of the best author blogs I’ve seen. Anansi Boys is the first of his full length novels I’ve had the pleasure to read.

Neil Gaiman: Anansi Boys

Gaiman in a writer with a distinct style of his own, inventing a world that is always magical and imaginative, and one with a slightly dark edge to it. Anansi Boys follows the adventures of one Fat Charlie who, following his father’s death, foolishly opens the door to his life to Spider, the mysterious brother he never knew he had. Spider proves to be a sibling of nightmarish proportions, bringing annoying aspects of his magical abilities with him. He moves a whole alternative world into Charlie’s spare room and seduces his girlfriend. Just for starters.

Anansi Boys moves between London, Florida and The Caribbean as well as stopping off in other uncharted territories, namely ones invented by the apparently limitless mind of Gaiman. I’ve said this before, but his writing reminds me a lot of Susanna Clarke, who brought us Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. He has a similar knack of using the well worn trick of magic in a highly original way. I’m thinking here of the scene where Charlie hails a taxi to take him just a few streets home. The magic weaved by Spider prevents his driver from taking him home, getting more a more lost in just a handful of streets. And Gaiman provides also a very well written scene from the point of view of a ghost.

There are many joys in Anansi Boys. Luckily for me, Neil Gaiman is a highly prolific author, so I’ll be moving on next to Smoke and Mirrors. Can’t wait…

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Bradbury Country

Monday October 22, 2007 in books read 2007 | ray bradbury

Neil Gaiman’s debt to Ray Bradbury as master of the macabre short story made me want to go back and reread a couple of classics.

Bradbury’s world always appears to be on the periphery of what’s comfortable and safe, occupying antiquated fairgrounds and remote shacks on the edges of windswept landscapes. His characters are always just on the edge. The Dwarf is one such tale, using the setting of a hall of mirrors for its disturbing chain of events. The dwarf from a ramshackle fairground finds solace in the mirror maze, visiting night after night. He’s watched by a would-be tormentor, who realises that he is posing in front of a specific mirror, one that alters his proportions to a larger size. The nightly visits always satisfy the dwarf, until a mirror is mysteriously changed and things aren’t quite the same again.

The creepy showground is also the backdrop for The Jar, where a mysterious glass bottle houses something quite disturbing that may be a fake or may be a real and rather sickening specimen. It is real enough to spark flights of imagination in those who gaze at it – we hear of dead infants and drowned kittens – before the story ends with something very tangible taking residence the jar…

These tales date from 1955 and 1947 respectively, but Bradbury is still going strong. There’s a new film version of Fahrenheit 451 in production and there’s always room for a new version of my personal favourite The Martian Chronicles. But these older short stories are always worth a read. And always manage to unsettle.


Fragile Things

Monday October 15, 2007 in books read 2007 | neil gaiman

The imp grinned down at me from the wooden door, a vivid splash of crimson in the grey gloaming.
I walked around to the side of the playhouse and peered through all the windows, one by one, into the dark and empty room. Nothing moved in there. I wondered if the other three were inside hiding from me, pressed against the wall, trying their damnedest to stifle their giggles. I wondered if it was a big-boy game.
I didn’t know. I couldn’t tell.
I stood there in the courtyard of the playhouse, while the sky got darker, just waiting. The moon rose after a while, a big autumn moon the colour of honey.
And then, after a while, the door opened, and nothing came out.

Neil Gaiman’s Fragile Things is a collection of short stories and poems. It is about dreams, fairy tales, children’s games, urban myths and monsters. It celebrates the art of a good story told well, something that Gaiman shines in as a true artist of the ghost story.

Neil Gaiman: Fragile Things

In 26 brilliant parts, this book is almost beyond a review. Subjects include a homage to Conan Doyle with shades of H.P.Lovecraft, a Matrix style sci-fi tale and instructions on what to do if you just happen to find yourself trapped in a fairy tale. And three of the tales were the best short stories I have read in years…

October in the Chair is a tale within a tale. It’s excellently told, and even though it has loose edges this is what can be attractive about Gaiman. He’s unafraid in presenting fragments, stories that are even more chilling in their inconclusiveness. Real scares are not as neatly formed as a comfortable short story. In this story the months of the year take turns in relating ghostly tales. They take a while to settle down, discuss the odd urban myth before a story about a lonely child … and the dearly departed. Fantasy is expertly weaved into this chilling tale, and Gaiman manages to also weave what appears familiar with the truly original.

There are some similarities between this story and Closing Time, from where the opening quote is taken. Visitors to an after hours drinking den in the West End of London again settle into urban legends – one neatly echoing the story from October in the Chair – before embarking on an account of a boys game of dare that becomes mysteriously open ended. It’s effective enough, but Gaiman skillfully stitches on a particularly nightmarish conclusion that keeps just enough back from the reader to truly disturb. He also continues to excel in his Chinese boxes method of storytelling.

Closing Time stayed with me a long time after I’d put Fragile Things down, but my favourite may turn out to be the brilliant Feeders and Eaters, about a particularly hungry tenant in a lodging house, where Gaiman isn’t afraid at all to worry and haunt his reader. The ending made me want to snuggle into my armchair just a little bit more. Then again, I may develop other favourites such as The Monarch of the Glen, about a loner visiting Scotland who foolishly agrees to some unusual overtime…

Fragile Things is such a rich collection that it asks to be read again to be fully appreciated, and Gaiman is a writer that demands to be read full stop. He’s a master that carries the macabre tradition of Ray Bradbury, and comes across as the mischevous twin of Susanna Clarke. Read him – especially as it’s nearly Hallowe’en. My only worry is that Hollywood already has its clutches on Neil Gaiman – I just want him to continue with the short stories that he writes so brilliantly.

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Dark Matter

Tuesday October 2, 2007 in books read 2007 | ghost stories

She’d gently questioned Fleet about his ‘project’ (this matchstick structure now took up the best part of their dining table – his bedroom having long since been evacuated because of the leak). She was especially interested in why it was that he hadn’t completed the cathedral itself before moving on to some of the surrounding buildings.
‘But what about this section?’ she’d asked, standing on the cathedral’s south side, where a large hole still gaped, unattractively, at the entrance.
‘It’s not finished,’ Fleet had murmured.
‘Then finish it,’ she’d said.
He’d scowled up at her. ‘It’s not finished,’ he repeated, as if speaking to an imbecile. ‘They haven’t built it yet.’

After finishing the last of its 838 pages, I’m still torn between calling Nicola Barker’s Darkmans either an effectively clever and creepy ghost story or something of a waste of my time. The stumbling blocks are both the book’s incredible length and its sometimes irritating over-confidence. This is a novel that takes a long time to settle in and – if you’re willing – it will eventually begin to get under your skin and appear worthwhile. But I was still having some doubts about it when I reached the halfway mark, which is a disheartening realisation. There is the nagging doubt that if a book takes so long to even hint at taking you anywhere it might not take you anywhere at all. Darkmans does eventually pay off – just about.

Nicola Barker: Darkmans

For such a long novel, Darkmans doesn’t have an especially huge cast. The number of characters is no greater than a book of a third of its length. Barker does play with them magnificently though, weaving a very intricate set of relationships. And for such a long novel Darkmans doesn’t have an especially complex plot; it just takes time, it rambles, it appears to go off at inexplicable tangents. Most of all it succeeds in perplexing the reader. What it does do, although sadly much, much less than it should, is be at times extremely creepy and unsettling. Darkmans is a modern day ghost story about the past. How the past is always there, turning up unexpectedly, worryingly, surprisingly. How the past can haunt us. For the cast of Darkmans, the shadow of early modern England hangs over them, a time when the English language was getting to grips with itself and the printed word was in its infancy. What the novel does very well is presenting a danger dating from an earlier time that’s recent enough to make some sense, but is distant enough not to fully understand. In other words, imagine a ghost speaking a less refined version of the English language, references, allusions and most of all motives wildly different.

John Scogin is a ghost with a specifically wicked sense of humour. The last of history’s great jesters, Scogin lives on in surviving biographies and, when his remains are interred to make way for a Channel Tunnel rail link, quite possibly in the consciousness of others. These are notably Isidore, dropping normality to run amok in Kent, and his gifted, possibly autistic, son Fleet. The most memorable parts of the book feature Fleet as he slowly reveals his rather unusual and at times disturbing nature. Five years of age, his precocious talents allow him to build an entire catherdral from matchsticks, and to ponder on the Latin root of random words.

Recurring themes link the past with the present throughout the book, most of them weird and unsettling. Sinister black birds and feathers, bells (in the guise of pet collars and mobile phones), fire (as lighters and matches), roofs and tiles, blood, bruising and – strangest of all – feet – are just some of them. Also unsettling is the indecision about whether this is a dark comedy (we witness a Kurdish refugee with an unusual fear of salads and a dysfunctional family who give Mike Leigh a run for his money) or something altogether more disturbing. Barker won’t let you make up your mind, and won’t tell you what’s really going on until right until the end. Or not – I’m still slightly baffled.

Darkmans was my first taste of Nicola Barker’s fiction. She’s an incomparible talent; her characterisations are detailed and convincing and she can unravel a good plot, if at times slightly over-relying on coincidence. The background is convincingly researched and there’s even a mention in there of Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, one of the longest novels written in English at 1500 pages. Who knows, Barker might even try to surpass that next time…

I’m glad that this novel is on the Booker shortlist; I’ll be surprised though if it wins. It’s too odd and too experimental and there’s too much left unresolved, but it’s undeniably thought provoking and will give any Booker judge a hard time in justifying their decision about it. Darkmans certainly is extremely baffling and infuriating but – just sometimes – I can accept that as a bold move from a uniquely original author such as Nicola Barker.

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