Monday, October 12, 2009

Dark Fantasy Reads

‘Tis the season for spookiness. Does that bother me, as a Pagan? In that I hold the Dead sacred, and honor then in every season, and in that I also find various horned and clawed and winged ‘nature spirits’ holy, and have been and remain, I suppose, a witch, is there a reason to be put off of all the funny spookiness and fake-evil Hollywood fantasy of the US Halloween?
Hells no.
In some future Samhain perhaps I’ll write about the sacred customs of masking, and depiction of dangerous land-wights, and the lore of the walking dead. I could write about how we could bring all that together with the north-american pop-horror scene in a way that might give us an angle into pop culture…
Never mind that now, I’m going to just catch you up on some pop-literature reads that really impressed me recently. The so-called ‘horror’ genre is maturing nicely, in my opinion. I know that Ms. Kiernan, below, doesn’t even want the label, so I’m referring to this stuff as ‘Dark Fantasy” They actually range from down-and-dirty horror to quasi-mythic adventures with plenty of gore. All of them are characterized by being long, detailed stories, by using story elements that I dig, including quasi-authentic occultism, Euro-lore and Lovecraft’s bits. All of them made me really want the next book in the series, and be sorry (if shaken) when they were over.
• The Pine Deep trilogy by Jonathan Maberry
Ghost Road Blues
Dead Man's Song
Bad Moon Rising

Here’s something you don’t see every day – a horror ‘trilogy’ as tightly constructed and sequential as any fantasy series. The three books comprise what is really a single story, though the first two novels do offer reasonably satisfying conclusions. This gives the author the opportunity to really tell a story, to write the internal point-of-view of several characters in detail, and build suspense continuously. This is combined with a folklorist’s knowledge of actual nasty-liche lore from eastern Europe and Germany, an american musicological interest in hoodoo and Mississippi blues, and a lovely link with a historical character to create one hell of a tale of horror, terror and occult adventure.
The books tell the story of Pine Deep, an exurban tourist-trap community in southern Pennsylvania. Pine Deep has become known as the Halloween town thanks to the efforts of the current generation of town leaders, friends since boyhood. A huge haunted hayride attraction serves as an early centerpiece, and the town hosts a regional Halloween street party. Into this season comes a wave of fear and death. One of Maberry’s strengths is his ability to draw his characters. He presents a dozen characters in great detail, some heroes, some villains, slowly revealing their layers through the first book, all well-developed as human figures, at least at first.
The supernatural horror is always lurking, but takes until near the end of the first book to begin to become visible. However no pages are wasted, and it’s all fascinating set-up for the more overt evils of the later story. The length gives the author the chance to do some classic scenes in detail – the Evil House, the Terrifying Backstory, the Haunted Swamp all get first-class treatments. While perhaps the later two books are not quite as perfectly paced as the first, the payoff is all one could expect - a fully produced cinematic blowoff of just the pulpy sort I like.
This is my A1 recommendation for a Halloween read this year, if you want one.

• The Deacon Silvey books – by Caitlin R. Kiernan
Low Red Moon
Daughter of Hounds

I’ve liked each and every thing I’ve read by this author, but my favorite stories are these very weird tales of a human family’s interaction over generations with the beings that Lovecraft called ‘ghouls’. In HPL’s tales the ghouls are a race of corpse-eaters, huge, dogman-like and crusted with mould and filth, who dwell in tunnels beneath both our earth and that of the Dreamlands. In the most famous appearance in “Pickman’s Model" it becomes clear that ghouls may mate with humans, make hybrids, and take some of those hybrids back below with them, to become a next generation. A lovely combination of the changeling with Lovecraft’s constant theme of the Monster Is Me.
Kiernan totally gets all that, and has built a level of detail around these beings beyond what Lovecraft wrote, but not beyond what he implied. The stories revolve around the characters of Deacon Silvey, a fairly powerful psychic who drinks fairly powerfully, and his love and life with Chance Matthews, a lovely young paleontologist. The first book gives us their unlikely pair-bonding, and the ‘family issues’ that ensue, as they bear and raise a child are a subtle expression of Lovecraft’s themes of the Other breaking through into the common. All of this rather subtly leads to revelations of the under-dwellers. The third book is pretty much kick-ass occult adventure, though there’s plenty of weirdness, too.
This is probably my favorite post-Mythos fiction lately. Kiernan writes Lovecraft’s themes about thoroughly modern characters (including women, thank the Goddesses). She makes a nice mix of visceral shock with occult spookiness, drawing on her own knowledge of traditional witchcraft and magic. From cosmic horror to spell-and-shotgun, these are a good read.
• The Stephen Raszer books – by A.W. Hill
Enoch’s Portal
The Last Days of Madame Rey
Nowhere Land

I’ll have a little less to say here, because I’ve only read one of these – “The Last days of Madame Rey”. That much is enough to give me that telltale feeling of wanting more. “Last Days” is a tale of a ‘psychic detective’ and his efforts to recover a rich man’s son from a dangerous far-right military cult on the slopes of Mt Shasta. Within that premise the reader is taken for ride of mythic proportions, while hardly ever straining the boundary of what we might call fantasy.
In theme and incident I was reminded of the fiction of Robert Anton Wilson. UFOs meet Landspirits, tarot meets the ancient middle-east meet the yetis of Hyperborea – Icke fans, sorry – no lizardmen actually appear in the novel. The characters include scientists, devoted assistants, romani tribesfolk, Moroccan Jews and a psychic stripper.
The plot is adventure - plenty of lead flies, psychic power is used, many weird things occur. Even more interesting, perhaps, is the depiction of the spiritual journey of Stephan Raszer (not his real name…); a former actor, he’s had an illumination, rather literally, and now he must devote himself to his personal search. On the way he can make a few bucks in the anti-cult game. I greatly look forward to reading more of this author’s odd brain, and Stephan’s personal journey.
• The Age of Misrule – by Mark Chadbourn
World’s End
Darkest Hour
Always Forever
Here we come as close as we’re getting to ‘fantasy’ genre material. Once again, I’ve finished only the first two books, but will certainly read the thirds. The writing is engaging and the themes are among my faves. The core theme is common enough in fantasy thinking – the Old Gods are returning. The difference is the author’s fine depiction of what a total change in the fabric of reality, such as might accompany a return to the age of myth, might mean for the world as we know it. Here we see another version of some of the Illuminatus! themes. The first book especially is about the veils of daily, work-a-day life being drawn away, to reveal a new reality that was previously unperceived. This being dark fantasy, this isn’t always particularly good news.
The author makes Celtic myth and legend his motif, and it is the Fomor demons that first return to the mortal world. The first book shows us the ‘assembling of the company’ as five regular joes and janes are drawn together. Once again the author really manages to show us a modern mind making accommodation with the new dangers and challenges of a world driven by what amounts to magic. The heroes must gather the necessaries and do the spell to bring back the Shining Ones in the first book, but the Gods, when they return, are as alien as the Fomor to modern mortals – if prettier.
As the heroes pursue their deeds (on perhaps a trifle clockworky timetable) we see a variety of small depictions of the return of magical and mythic life, as the shadows and fields are once again filled with dangerous wights, and humans begin to make new deals with the nobles of the Shining Courts. The pace of the first two books gallops, but unless our heroes manage to turn back the tide, we see the new age stretching out into the foreseeable future. I have been especially pleased at the slow revelation and/or discovery of what operative magic may now be able to do.

Well, that’s plenty to keep you. Put on your rubber horns and have a fun Halloween season, and the blessings of the Dead be upon you.

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