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03-12-10: Karl Marlantes Scales the 'Matterhorn'

World-Building in the Past

World-building is typically associated with science fiction and fantasy, where the settings of stories are partially or entirely imagined. But he technique is just as clearly required in historical novels as well. The nineteenth century is probably more unfamiliar to the 21st century read than any imagined future. Erik Larsen's 'Thunderstruck' is a great example of non-fiction, historical world-building.

But as we rocket forward in time, what we once thought of as "the present" — because many of us lived through it — becomes history, a world that needs to be built for us to see it again. In the hands of a great writer, world-building can become a powerful literary device. Karl Marlantes is clearly a great writer and his novel 'Matterhorn' (El Léon Literary Arts & Atlantic Monthly Press ; March 25, 2010 ; $24.95) builds for readers the world of the Vietnam War. It's alien, terrifying — and utterly real.

It's odd to think that readers of science fiction and fantasy may find 'Matterhorn' a lot more familiar than mainstream readers. They'll note the maps that head off the book, the command flow-chart, and the extensive glossary of unfamiliar terms in the back. All readers will appreciate them, because the world that Marlantes builds is indeed an unfamiliar, alien landscape. He doesn't cushion the blow, either. He drops you in the middle of the shit on page one and pretty much leaves you there for the next five hundred-plus pages. What speaks to his talent as a writer is Marlantes' ability to keep us riveted and willing to wallow, to wade through the river of despair.

The story is told primarily from the perspective of Waino Mellas, who is clearly a stand-in for Marlantes himself, who left Oxford in 1967 to enlist and fight in Vietnam. Mellas brings a literary voice to a gritty reality of leeches, filth and rampant disease. And it is through Mellas that we get a perspective on the racial as well as class tensions that permeated the men on the ground.

In 'Matterhorn,' Marlantes immerses readers in two worlds, really. The story unfolds in Vietnam, and everything that happens has the awful ring of truth. The lies, the wasted time, the wasted lives, the horrific rot of the jungle that creeps through everything, including the minds of those there. Marlantes puts the reader in Vietnam, and it is not a pretty place.

El Léon Literary Arts Edition
But Marlantes is also giving us the perspectives of Americans in Vietnam. The men who fought this war found the surroundings then just alien as we do now. They've accommodated, to the degree that is was possible, and it changes them — in ways we the readers can perceive. Reading 'Matterhorn' is a schizophrenic experience, in many senses of the word. It's dualistic, to be sure. But it is also a descent into madness, or what looks to us in our not-so-comfortable 21st century environs as madness. We can see how once you plunge down, it becomes almost unimaginable that you can look up. Once you are immersed in the world, in the war — as Marlantes writes it — the possibilities beyond seem to taper of into the void.

Marlantes manages a huge cast, a complex scenario and the problems of world build with complete ease. Our immersion in his well-plotted story is so complete that the literary underpinnings tend to go unnoticed. And he's admirably off-message here. It's clear that Marlantes is not writing a book with an eye towards converting readers to draw a particular conclusion about the general nature of the Vietnam War or, for that matter any war. Instead, 'Matterhorn' wants to put us in the boots of those fought this particular war in this particular place and time. All of them are now so distant as to be essentially unreachable. Ours is the alien planet. What was once the recognizable present has become an incomprehensible nightmare — one that replays, again and again. It's far better to read these nightmares than to dream them. Or live them.

03-11-10: Otto Penzler Scans 'The Lineup'

Behind Imaginary Badges

Detective series are by definition character-driven. It's a distinction that doesn't get made often enough to my mind, because the general slant on any sort of genre fiction is that the rules override the writing. But in the case of detective stories, the rules enshrine the detective — the main character — as the author's number one job.

Otto Penzler is himself a character, but happily not fictional, though to describe him you might think he is. He's to go-to man for the mystery genre, the proprietor of The Mysterious Bookshop in New York City and the editor of approximately one bazillion mystery anthologies. The thing about 'The Lineup' (Little, Brown / Hachette Book Group ; November 10, 2009 ; $25.99) is that when you hear the concept behind the book, it sounds obvious — like someone should have done it long ago. But that's the thing about great ideas. They always seem obvious in retrospect.

The great idea here reveals its greatness in its simplicity: ask 22 authors about the stories behind their detectives. The result is 'The Lineup,' a fascinating and gripping book about the craft of mystery writing. Here is a book that is essential to both readers and writers of mystery fiction. 'The Lineup' covers both sides of the coin, and manages to grandly entertaining.

The deal is that if you just read mystery fiction, the chances are that you'll find the secret stories behind your favorite characters. Here's where Penzler's influence comes in; he can get the top names here and reaches beyond what you'd expect for some surprising choices that make for exciting reading, even if you're not just a mystery reader. Finding out about the origins of Aloysius X. L. Pendergast, who first appeared in 'Relic' by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child is a hoot that includes an interview with the detective himself by the authors. David Morrell talks about the polarization of America during the Vietnam war and the creation of Rambo. Colin Dexter offers an Inspector Morse FAQ, while John Connolly talks about the resistance of the mystery community to the supernatural aspects of his Charlie Parker novels. If you're a reader of mystery fiction, here's a great way to find out about the characters you already read and meet some new ones whom you will probably want to read about afterwards.

The real power here is that the concept cuts both ways. It offers readers behind-the-scenes insight into the characters they read about, and writers an idea of how memorable characters are crafted from the ground up. You'll see a variety of creative processes at work here in a variety of settings. The cross-talk between the various authors can't help but inform and probably inspire those seeking to write mysteries. You really can't go wrong here. Writers may long for a bit more detail in the specifics, but that's not what this book is about. It offers a look at the imaginative aspects of creating a character; it does not suggest a plan of action. This is probably for the best; the actions are left to those who want to write.

From any perspective, Penzler's done the mystery genre a huge favor with 'The Lineup.' By pointing the audience at the importance of character in mystery fiction, he's helped us all latch on to the literary appeal of these books. Arthur Conon Doyle famously thought his Sherlock Holmes stories would not stand the test of time, where is literary, historical fiction would. He was too busy inventing the genre to understand its literary appeal. But it is quite clear that more than a hundred years after he first appeared, Sherlock Homes is very much alive. This is the power of the character in fiction; this is the power of the character in mystery fiction.

03-10-10: Thomas Ligotti Reveals 'The Conspiracy Against the Human Race'

MALIGNANTLY USELESS, From Arthur Schopenhauer to Peter Zappfe

This is a book for brave readers. Thomas Ligotti did not write this book brighten your day. He wrote this book to ask, and at last attempt to answer, what is arguably the most important question ever posed:

Why bother?

Sure, the autonomic nervous system does its job. Your heart beats and you breathe. Beyond that — what happens and why is a mystery. It is the sort of thing that we don't talk about. It is the sort of thing that we don't think about. Beneath each step, beyond our perceptions lies an inviting but uncaring black pit of nothingness that would just as soon see us suffer as disappear.

Why bother?

Certainly, the experience of reading Thomas Ligotti is one reason to bother. From his first book, 'Songs of a Dead Dreamer' to 'Teattro Grottesco,' Ligotti has created a truly unique body of prose, one that partakes of the horror genre, but swallows it whole and dissolves it in a sucking void of philosophical despair. Still, he's for the most part kept to work that is clearly recognizable as fiction, with exceptions that are as enjoyable as the fiction that surrounded them.

'Songs of a Dead Dreamer' includes two works that look like non-fiction; "Notes on the Writing of Horror" and "Professor Nobody's Little Lectures on Supernatural Horror." Outwardly, they were critical observations of the horror genre, thought-experiments. But there was the feel of fiction, of a character who had written these pieces who was not Thomas Ligotti.

Ligotti has finally taken off the gloves with which he created characters and plots. With 'The Conspiracy Against the Human Race' (Hippocampus Press ; April 2010 ; $25), Ligotti offers readers something that looks a lot like a philosophical treatise. The back cover blurb describes this book as "renowned horror writer Thomas Ligotti's first work of non-fiction."

Inside, matters proceed apace for a non-fiction work of prose. Assertions are made and actual philosophers are quoted. Actual works of fiction are referred to and analyzed for their pessimistic content and intent. Ligotti's reverse flashlight, casting a shadow of darkness wherever it is aimed, pinpoints reasons for depression and despair.

Reading this book, however, is not among them, though, by implication (and the actual content), this book provides more reasons for despair than an undertaker's convention. Though Ligotti explores with great precision, and even enthusiasm, the works of writers like Peter Zappfe, Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche. He quotes, he cites, he notes. In every aspect of appearance, we have before us a serious work of philosophy.

And yet; and yet.

Ligotti is up to something considerably more interesting here than a bleaker-than-thou philosophical treatise. For all the citations and scholarly work on display here — and it is an impressive display -- what is far more impressive, equally scholarly, but unbelievably more entertaining, is Ligotti's prose. Ligotti demands to be read aloud, though to be quite honest, reading aloud from this book in any public setting would likely get you tossed into the loony bin, in a 5150 loop that would be impossible to escape.

Still, there it is, undeniable: Ligotti is incredibly entertaining, and one is hard pressed to read the bleakest of pronunciations without barking in laughter. And you will bark, not laugh, exactly. The bleakness of the prose, the precision of the idea and the intent is gob-smackingly hilarious; and yet it is clear that Ligotti is deadly serious. He contends that life is, to humans, MALIGNANTLY USELESS. In caps. Repeatedly.

Readers who enjoyed Michel Houellebecq's 'H. P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life' are really going to enjoy this book. Ligotti does not confine himself to philosophy, but reaches out to analyze movies like John Carpenter's The Thing and books by Lovecraft and other writers of supernatural horror. Wherever the dark shadows of despair and hopelessness fall, Ligotti is there, with a tight, smart sentence that sears your brain.

And that glorious writing, that breathtakingly good prose, both makes and undoes Ligotti's premise. One begins to sense that he is perhaps a character of his own creation, that this depressive, despairing but incredibly insightful and talented man, who cites Zappfe's arguments in favor of childlessness as a means of bringing about the welcome extinction of the human race, has, in this book, created his own child. In arguing so passionately, so articulately, so insightfully about the upside of extinction, Ligotti gives readers a reason to turn the page. He gives readers a reason to die that is itself a reason to live — and to read.

03-09-10: Paul McHugh Meets 'Deadlines'

Murdering the California Coast

It's come to this; the fate of newspapers is itself news, consuming more and more of the ever-shrinking number of pages that are willingly delivered to your front yard every morning. At least, I hope they are. I truly start every day by reading The San Francisco Chronicle while I eat a hot breakfast. This assures me both the mental a physical wherewithal to make it through the next 16 hours.

Paul McHugh spent more than 20 years writing and editing for The San Francisco Chronicle. One might truly say that he knows where the bodies are buried. And, given that knowledge, it's bracing to know that his first novel, 'Deadlines' (Low Coast Press / Cypress House ; February 13, 2010 ; $16.95) is a mystery featuring a grizzled veteran news reporter who is bestirred into action when an unburied body shows up on a typically scenic California shoreline. But there's more at work here than land-grabs and real-estate scams. The real mystery to be solved is what is happening to America's newspapers.

McHugh's approach to mystery writing is — not surprisingly — journalistic. You start with the murder of a land-use activist. Sebastian Palmer is the young reporter in pursuit of her story, and thus, the killers as well. He befriends Elle Jatobá — who hopes to become a cop — and the two of them begin poking into the Cornu Point problem under the disinterested eye of Colm MacCay, the grizzled veteran who bestirs himself when Palmer ends up comatose. Clearly, there is more going on at Cornu Point than habitat preservation. Real estate is not priceless. But the reporters looking into the death of Beverly Bancroft will face all the perils of the investigation with none of the powers of the police. And the cops themselves are not so hot on the trail.

McHugh brings three levels of authenticity to 'Deadlines.' Narrated in the first person by Colm MacCay, 'Deadlines' offers an authentic newsman's voice to tell the story. The prose is not that of a breathless or brainless thriller, but rather, that of a man who has seen and written about a lifetime of San Francisco news. 'Deadlines' reads like a particularly gripping newspaper story where real-estate speculation and land-use issues escalate into murder. It's fascinating to see events from the newsman's eyes, and then read not just his words, but the words he writes for his newspaper. It's a neat meta-fictional trick. And McHugh knows how to pace his story as well, as journalistic piece, which means that 'Deadlines' is not just another cheesy page-turner, but a welcome insight into how newspapers themselves are written.

The meat of the matter here — the buying and selling of the California coastline — is also something of which McHugh knows whereof he speaks. In his years working for The San Francisco Chronicle, McHugh himself investigated events that bore no small similarity to those in his novel. He knows the political, business and environmental climate well enough to create crime fiction where the motives and emotional ties are authentic—and he knows how a veteran columnist would write of these events. And finally, McHugh has a front-row seat on the biggest mystery here, though many contend there is no mystery whatsoever when it comes to the Case of the Disappearing American Newspaper. We see what is happening from the inside, in an unvarnished portrait of the day-to-day issues that keep reporters' feet on the street — and profits remain perpetually just around the corner. This is the kind of research that you just can't accomplish in a couple of days (or for that matter, years) with search engines. And this is the kind of story that can best be told as fiction. If you need to read the facts of the matter, Id suggest subscribing to your local newspaper, before it too ends up as a story in another newspaper.

03-08-10: Joe Hill Grows 'Horns'

Devil and Detail

It's funny to think of it, especially in the current religious climate, but the Devil is really an all-American figure — and often a hero. He — and it is inevitably a "he" — is certainly a common figure in our collective memory. We read about him in elementary school, in "The Devil and Daniel Webster." We encounter him again in high school and college, in the work of Bernard Malamud and Isaac Bashevis Singer. And all these are the just the academic exercises.

We actively seek out ol' Scratch whenever he gets a good airing. He was primal and utterly terrifying in 'The Exorcist.' Robert R. McCammon enlisted his help to bring about Armageddon in 'Swan Song' and Stephen King in 'The Stand.' Oh, the names are Legion, right? What's one more on the fire? In the case of 'Horns' (William Morrow / HarperCollins ; February 16, 2010 ; $23.99) by Joe Hill, he's the sort of man, or demon — whatever! — you want on your side when the chips are down.

Hill doesn't mess around with his Devil. In an opening that reads like Kafka after a bender, protagonist Ig Perrish wakes up after a bad night — with horns. Three pages later, things start getting worse, much worse. And that's pretty hard for Ig, considering he was accused of raping and murdering the Love of His Life, only to be let off for lack of evidence — but not lack of suspicion. He's lived his life in the past year as a pariah. Now, he's grown horns. This cannot bode well — except for the reader.

'Horns' is a delightfully well-written and taut tale of internal terror. It is one thing to confront the devil. Perhaps your will might be tried, your morals might be tested, and your life might go to hell. It is another thing entirely to become the Devil, and that is the problem confronting Ig. These horns aren't just fashion-plate appliances. They're outliers of a Very Bad Thing, the externalization of a hellish internal landscape. Moreover, they seem have a bad influence on those around Ig. People tell him things, ugly things. Then there's the murder of his love, Merrin. It's never been solved other than by fingers pointed at Ig. If it were to be solved, that might not prove so beneficent to Ig's life as he would hope. Especially since he's sporting horns.
Hill does just about everything right in 'Horns.' The novel is cunningly architected, both in terms of plot and character. Hill knows how to use his supernatural tropes to chip away at chronology and re-arrange the story so that the who-done-it and the why-done-it are engagingly escalated. He's quite well aware that if he's going to wreak mayhem on the lives of these people, we'd better damn well care about them or we're just going to stop reading. He manages this through some effective rock-and-roll Americana, offering readers cringe-inducing breakup scenes counter-balanced with more visionary set-pieces of American Youth In Love. What's really interesting is that readers will speed through this mainstream fiction novella embedded in a horror novel, not realizing that they've jumped out of genre.

But then, all the way through, Hill manages to side-step the horror genre. That Kafkaesque kick-off leads Hill and readers down another path. 'Horns' is less of a horror novel and more of a Tall Tale — "Did you hear about that dude who turned into the Devil?" Sure you did. Came to a bad end, man. Took some others along for the ride. That's a ride to hell, readers will realize, and it's a fun one. Hill's Devil has more than a bit of Coyote going on, and not just the Wile E. variety, though you'll get that as well, anti-gravity and all. No matter how you tackle it, Hell is a long way down. You might as well enjoy the ride.

New to the Agony Column

09-18-15: Commentary : William T. Vollman Amidst 'The Dying Grass' : An Epic Exploration of Simultaneity

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with William T. Vollman : "...a lot of long words that in our language are sentences..."

09-05-15: Commentary : Susan Casey Listens to 'Voices in the Ocean' : Science, Empathy and Self

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Susan Casey : "...the reporting for this book was emotionally difficult at times..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 213: Susan Casey : Voices in the Ocean: A Journey into the Wild and Haunting World of Dolphins

08-24-15: Commentary : Felicia Day Knows 'You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost)' : Transformative Technology

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Felicia Day : "I think you have to be attention curators for audience in every way."

08-22-15: Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 212: Felicia Day : You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost)

08-21-15: Agony Column Podcast News Report : Senator Claire McCaskill is 'Plenty Ladylike' : Internalizing Determination to Overcome Sexism [Incudes Time to Read EP 211: Claire McCaskill, Plenty Ladylike, plus A 2015 Interview with Senator Claire McCaskill]

Agony Column Podcast News Report : Emily Schultz Unleashes 'The Blondes' : A Cure by Color [Incudes Time to Read EP 210: Emily Schultz, The Blondes, plus A 2015 Interview with Emily Schultz]

08-10-15:Agony Column Podcast News Report : In Memory of Alan Cheuse : Thank you Alan, and Your Family, for Everything

07-11-15: Commentary : Robert Repino Morphs 'Mort(e)' : Housecat to Harbinger of the Apocalypse

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Robert Repino : " even bigger threat. which is us, the humans..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 208: Robert Repino : Mort(e)

07-05-15: Commentary : Dr. Michael Gazzaniga Tells Tales from Both Sides of the Brain : A Life in Neuroscience Reveals the Life of Science

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Michael Gazzaniga : "We made the first observation and BAM there was the disconnection effect..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 208: Michael Gazzaniga : Tales from Both Sides of the Brain: A Life in Neuroscience

06-26-15: Commentary : Neal Stephenson Crafts an Eden for 'Seveneves' : Blow It Up and Start All Over Again

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Neal Stephenson : "...and know that you're never going to se a tree again..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 207: Neal Stephenson : Seveneves

06-03-15: Commentary : Dan Simmons Opens 'The Fifth Heart' : Having it Every Way

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Dan Simmons : "...yes, they really did bring those bombs..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 206: Dan Simmons : The Fifth Heart

05-23-15: Commentary : John Waters Gets 'Carsick' : Going His Way

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with John Waters : " change how you would be in real life...”

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 205: John Waters : Carsick

05-09-15: Commentary : Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD and 'Shrinks' : A Most Fashionable Take on the Human Mind

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD : "..its influence to be as hegemonic as it was..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 204: Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD : Shrinks: The Untold Story of Psychiatry

04-29-15: Commentary : Barney Frank is 'Frank' : Interpersonally Ours

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Barney Frank : "...while you're trying to change it, don't ignore it..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 203: Barney Frank : Frank: A Life in Politics from the Great Society to Same-Sex Marriage

04-21-15: Commentary : Kazuo Ishiguro Unearths 'The Buried Giant' : The Mist of Myth and Memory

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Kazuo Ishiguro : ".... by the time I was writing this novel, the lines between what was fantasy and what was real had blurred for me..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 202: Kazuo Ishiguro : The Buried Giant

04-17-15: Commentary : Erik Larson Follows a 'Dead Wake' : Countdown to Destiny

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Erik Larson : "...said to have been found in the arms of a dead German sailor..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 201: Erik Larson : Dead Wake

04-15-15: Commentary : Peter Bell Reflects 'A Certain Slant of Light' : Strange Stories of Modern Scholars

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Peter Bell : "...I looked up some of the old books..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 200: Peter Bell : Strange Epiphanies and A Certain Slant of Light

03-14-15: Commentary : Marc Goodman Foresees 'Future Crimes' : Exponential Potential

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Marc Goodman : "...every physical object around us is being transformed, one way or another, into an information technology..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 199: Marc Goodman : Future Crimes: Everything Is Connected, Everyone Is Vulnerable and What We Can Do About It

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