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04-28-11: READ 5

Why to Read a Book, in this case 'Powers of Darkness' by Robert Aickman as Published by Tartarus Press

Writing about a book — and reading itself — is a tricky, selective process. A book can be regarded from a variety of perspectives. One can concern one's self with the plot, the non-fictional content, the characters, the cultural relevance, the imagination and innovation behind the book, the prose — the list is as long as many books. Some books make this easier — their holistic presence obviates any decisions or breakdowns you might care to make. Some books are, in themselves, perfect books.

Tartarus Press makes perfect books; in this case, a mere 350 copies of Robert Aickman's 'Powers of Darkness' (Tartarus Press ; April 2010 ; £32 / $50). Like 'Dark Entries' and 'Sub Rosa' (recently reviewed by Mario Guslandi), 'Powers of Darkness' presents itself whole; from the front cover to the final pages, this is a book meant to enhance, meant to become a reading experience. Between the production values of Tartarus Press and the artistic intelligence of Robert Aickman, this book will entrance and ultimately, haunt you. 'Powers of Darkness' is the perfect example of why we read books.

The first thing you notice when you pick up this book is how thick and heavy it is. Though it is merely 226 pages, it is nearly as thick as Tor's 'All the Lives he Led' by Frederik Pohl, which clocks in at 347 pages. The Tor book weighs 1 lb 3 oz; the Aickman volume from Tartarus Press weighs 1 lb 8 oz. It features a very tight hand-sewn binding with a silk bookmark. Just pick it up. It's an impressive piece of publishing. Putting it next to any New York hardcover is like putting a Porsche next to a Pinto. There is simply no comparison.

The Tartarus cover designs for the Aickman series (and indeed almost all of their work) are classy and simple. Inside it's equally nice. The pages are actually so thick it often feels like you are turning two at once. The typography and layout are generous and very easy to read. This is a book meant not just to be read, but re-read. Fortunately, Robert Aickman's writing lives up to the impressive presentation here.

Aickman is primarily known as a writer of co-called ghost stories, but given the stories herein, that description clearly misses the mark. Even his own preferred description of his work as "strange stories" implies, to most who hear it, that what is considered strange are his implications of the supernatural. But if you back away from the genre associations, what you'll find by and large are stories that are strange not because they sometimes include elements of the fantastic, but rather because they move in what reads like an unerringly straight line to the center of a very complicated human heart. Aickman is not afraid to include anything in his stories; there are often comedic elements, there is lots of psychology, cultural commentary, even considerations of the effects of technology on our lives. Aickman's stories are strange because, in the final analysis, he found people to be strange.

What carries the complexity of Aickman's work is prose that is amazingly beautiful. He never over-writes and never under-writes. There's a smooth, almost but not overly poetic flow to his words. Whether he's describing the state of marriage for the middle aged, the depths of a remote coal mine, or the sounds crawling forth from a bad telephone connection, reading Aickman's prose is a pure and easy pleasure. He has the knack for creating a solid vision of any situation he cares to describe, and doing so in a manner that pulls from that vision the universal within the specifics. Most of these stories were written at least fifty years ago, but you'd rarely even think about that. In fact, Aickman does not make you think so much as he uses prose to put the reader into a very pleasant but ultimately disturbing trance.

Here we can talk, briefly about some of the stories. "Your Tiny Hand is Frozen" is among the most famous here. Edward St. Jude, staying at the home of a friend, begins to experience problems with the telephone. Aickman's technological horror is fresh and jarring because, as with all his work, it is underpinned by strong psychological insights and supple prose. The plot explores St. Jude's psyche as he sinks into depression, perhaps for a very good reason.

"My Poor Friend" reflects some of Aickman's personal interests in the waterways of rural England. The "poor friend" of the title is Walter Enright, a politician who offers to help the narrator in his quest to preserve local electrical generation. Much of the story is an effective vision of the stultifying nature of democratic government. But Enright is a troubled man, whose unusual family problems follow him into politics. There's a nice dose of humor here, particularly in Aickman's understated sardonic prose. But the ultimate fate of those who play with power is not pretty. "A Roman Question" finds a couple at a similarly obtuse conference. Aickman takes a humorous perspective but finds that underneath the obfuscation lays a darkness that does not compromise. Both stories have strong endings, but leave the reader lots of room to explore in the reading experience and in their imaginations precisely what happens.

Aickman has a talent for evoking surreal situations that suggest the supernatural, but never have to explicitly expose it. Instead, everything is conflated in Aickman's prose and deep psychological understandings of his characters. In "The Visiting Star," Colvin is the author of impossibly boring books about lead and plumbago mining. While staying in a remote town, he falls in with the director of a small local theater company who is bringing in "the great actress Arabella Rokeby" to star in his play. She brings with her more personality than anyone bargains for. "Larger Than Oneself" finds Mrs. Iblis alone at a gathering of spiritualists, without any strong beliefs of her own. Aickman ruthlessly skewers the purveyors of any beliefs in scene after scene with razor sharp prose that never goes over-the-top. The end to this gathering lives of to the title.

The final story in this collection is "The Wine-Dark Sea" and is among Aickman's best known, as it was the title story for his most easily found collection of stories. Set on "an island relatively offshore from an enormously larger island which was relatively inshore from the mainland" of Greece, Aickman here evokes the arid beauty of Greek mythology and storytelling. It's gorgeous and subtly erotic. But beauty in the extreme can be rather unreal and potentially dangerous. Just ask Odysseus.

Lending power to the prose and all the stories are the heft and beauty of the volume itself. When you pick up this book to read, you've paid a pretty penny for it. It is worth setting aside a large chunk of time to read each story in one sitting. This book, as published by Tartarus Press, is a perfect example of why reading and the technology of reading are vital to our own ability to undersand ourselves as human beings. It's not just the prose, the stories and the storytelling, or the wonderful published production. The synthesis of all of these, held in your hands as you read is what reading is all about.

As a reader, one can almost feel the haunting quality not just of the prose and the story, but also of the book. The weight of the book lends itself to the weight of the stories within. You will be aware that the eyes that perceive the words on the pages will one day no longer be able to see anything, but the words will still be there. While I would not confine these tales with the description "ghost stories," when you hold this book in your hand you know that it will last. It will very likely outlast the tiny, frozen hands that hold it.

04-27-11: Will McIntosh Engineers 'Soft Apocalypse'

Falling Apart at the Seams

In my conversation with Richard Matheson, he mentioned a rule he'd made for himself, and it's one I've heard since from other writers — never put a date in your science fiction. Matheson learned the hard way when he wrote 'I Am Legend' in 1954 and set his apocalyptic tale in the impossibly distant future of 1976.

I must admit that it's sort of fun to read something like Philip K. Dick's 'Martian Time-Slip,' where "...the archaeological teams that had landed on Mars in the early 70's had eagerly plotted the stages of retreat of the old civilization which human beings had now begun to replace." Yesterday's futuristic fiction becomes tomorrow's alternate history. Of course, it helps to remember that science fiction is not about the future in which it is set, but instead is a transmutation of the present in which it was written.

Will McIntosh's 'Soft Apocalypse' (Night Shade Books ; March 29, 2011 ; $14.99) begins with a hard date; "Spring 2023," then lopes through ten years of future history. It's a terrorizing time, not because what happens is so intense (although it is), but instead, because it seems so familiar. It's not particularly futuristic, though there are some nice touches of extrapolated science.

Here's a novel whose future I'd be happy to see become alternate history. But in the present, it makes for an engaging if harrowing reading experience. Readers who enjoyed James Howard Kunstler's non-fiction work, 'The Long Emergency,' and the subsequent novels set in the future Kunstler describes — 'World Made by Hand' and 'The Witch of Hebron' — will find a lot to like in this novel, because all of them share an abhorrence of the world as it falls apart today. And as far as that goes, McIntosh based his novel on his own short story of the same title. There's a real temptation to file this under non-fiction. But we'll have to wait and I hope we will be disappointed.

'Soft Apocalypse' does not have to make a lot of assumptions to make things a lot worse. All it has to do is to empty the cupboards for long enough to drive everyone out in to the cold foraging for food. That's where we find Jasper and Colin as the novel begins. McIntosh gives you a flavor or what to expect from the get-go; on page two Jasper tells Colin, "...we're not homeless, we're nomads. Keep your labels straight." But labels won't fill your stomach, and as it happens what does fill your stomach in this particular future is something that many readers will find hard to stomach. Particularly pet owners; you were warned.

For all the evident despair in this novel, McIntosh knows how to create an involving reading experience. His characters, desperate though they may be, are grounded in our reality, and his scenario is extrapolated less from our science than our political and economic trends. In McIntosh's world, the current economic trend of concentrating wealth has resulted in a truly stratified society. The wealthy are protected and the rest of us are left to fend for ourselves. The reduction of the middle class to desperate homelessness (in spite of what Jasper says) has been accomplished. McIntosh adds some nice grace notes to the mix, with engineered diseases and social structures reverting to a tribal format. But the relentless grind is not the result of atomic war, or a single catastrophe. This is a vision of the future where those who strive for power now have succeeded, and the rest of us are paying the price.

But the real accomplishment here is the characters' determination to live in a world devoid of hope, as we, in our time, know it. McIntosh has done nothing more — or less than create a world in which the illusion of hope that now keeps many of us moving forward has been stripped away. Upward mobility is gone. A better world for our children will not happen. Things are bad and they're going to get worse. And yet, the characters keep living. And, as readers, we keep reading. We're living to read and reading to live.

Though no writers I know have stated it so baldly, to my mind most dystopian visions, and this certainly qualifies, are created by writers so that their predictions will not come true. If you read 'Soft Apocalypse,' you'll, have good reason to hope it does not come to pass. This is a book with great characters adrift in a world where the odds are stacked hopelessly against them. It's the present with the already frayed social safety nets removed. It's a great reading experience — but only so long as you find it filed under Fiction.

04-26-11: David Thorne Pretends 'The Internet Is A Playground'

License to Annoy

David Thorne makes his bid to make a living making mischief with 'The Internet Is A Playground: Irreverent Correspondences of an Evil Online Genius' (Tarcher / Penguin Putnam ; May 2011 ; $14.95), essentially a "best of" his website. He's given this website the name "" to demonstrate the genius mentioned above. It's a reference to both George Orwell and Terry Gilliam, in case you were wondering. Geniuses both, and so, by association, we are to assume that Thorne himself is as well.

The book does, to a degree, demonstrate the veracity of the rest of the title. Most of the pieces herein originally appeared on the Internet, so check that word. As for "Playground," it is true that Thorne plays with his victims, but in the sense that a cat plays with a mouse before it presents you, the owner, with the headless, soon-to-be-rotting body. Neither you nor the mouse is well served by this playfulness, though in theory at least, the cat thinks it's doing you a favor. Thorne also assumes that we enjoy the soon-to-be rotting bodies of those he toys with via email.

Since the book involves reprinting lots of emails, we can quickly aver that it does involve correspondences. But on closer examination, once again, the word is undermined by the actuality. Yes, you'll find emails re-printed within. But Thorne's particular genius in this regard is his ability to cast a deaf ear to those with whom he corresponds.

We, the readers of these emails, touted as "viral" and "passed-on" ("passed on" in the sense of forwarded from one person to another, not seen and disregarded as perfect examples of why, as one know-nothing puts it, "the Internet is making us stupid") and even described as "staggeringly popular" (how can an email be staggeringly popular?) are supposed to find Thorne's obliviousness charming and even funny, or at least funnier than a sentence that clearly should have been edited into several much shorter sentences were the writer of said sentence not so caught up in his own incredible cleverness as to as to not realize just how annoying a run-on sentence can be for the online reader to parse.

Let's presume that Thorne assumes "Irreverent" to be a synonym for "oblivious." That lets us check off both "Irreverent" and "Correspondences" before we skip lightly past "of" and "an." We'll presume that he has to be online to be "on the Internet." Even someone who uses the acronym "LOL" knows that. That lets us get to the heart of author David Thorne, as found in a single word in the title of his book. That word is: Evil.

Based on a reading of 'The Internet (etc)...," I think we can certainly conclude that Thorne is certainly not the sort of person we usually think of as an Evil Genius. He's not intent on world conquest, or setting up shop in Fortresses of Solitude, Multitude, Plenitude or Horny Dudes. He is not creating super-weapons, disrupting the economy, nurturing his wounds, suturing his wounds or rupturing his spleen — though he might cause you to rupture yours, if you're easily amused, or work in a cubicle most of the day.

Any reader will quickly conclude that the quixotic nature of his email loops suggests that were a superhero to appear — say Internet Charmin Man, with a mission to cleanse the Internet of um, what Bears Do in the Woods — Thorne would have to hole up in a Virginia library and pretend to be very interested in the Civil War to stay safe. If Thorne is an "Evil Genius," he is either so evil or so much of a genius that we've not seen his type before.

Or alternately, he's so not evil and so not a genius that well, though he might put both words in the title of his book, it's clear upon reading the book, that he has mistaken annoyance as a synonym for evil. So the man has a problem with synonyms.

What he does not have a problem with is entertainment. Here's another book to chain to the side of every toilet stall in Silicon Valley, CA and Silicon Gulch, VA. If you want your employees to work those insane hours, and in this economy you can probably get them to do so, then you'd best provide a modicum of relief, and what better way to do than to make the Relief Room, shall we call it, a one-stop shop? Put a Diet Coke machine in there as well and you can turn the break room into a copy room. No more offices that reek of Taco Smell! For that alone, we can thank Thorne.

There's an incredible benefit to buying this book, something that is truly groundbreaking and unusual. If it sells, and this may very well be the case, then Thorne will have accomplished the unusual feat of making money on the Internet. That may very well qualify him as evil. Who else makes money on the Internet? Credit card thieves — EVIL. Scamazon, once good, now — EVIL. Goo-"Don't be evil, sorry just kidding"-gle — EVIL. Porn web sites — Pretty evil. YMMV, OMG, I'm using Internet acronyms.

Please kill me now. I have been overtaken by EVIL. Just reading this damn book has made me EVIL. I suppose that the book, like most fine entertainment, and Thorne himself, like most entertainers, must be EVIL. So far as I'm concerned, good!

OK, back to work cubicle prisoners! You know this book's for you. Buy it at a local bookstore, or feel the wrath of my condescending sneer. And please, please don't heat up your leftover burritos in the microwave. Or yesterday's fish special from the Chinese restaurant you love so much.

If you do, I'll have to send an email to David Thorne. The reply should, I trust, give you some perspective on how I feel about the smell of Chinese fish specials re-heated in the break-room microwave, which should also go to that one-stop Relief shop. It'll be good company for the book.

04-25-11: Henning Mankell is 'The Troubled Man'

Forgetting Kurt Wallender

Kurt Wallender is tired. He is closing in on himself. At the age of fifty-five, he's bought a house, his first since his divorce. He's not slipping into a nook in the city. He's invested in an old farmhouse, away from other people. He can't get away from himself. No matter where he is, the mirror shows him the same story. He is becoming more and more like his father. This is not how he wants his story to end, but then, we have so little control over our own endings, even in an age when it should be quite simple.

Henning Mankell has quite a bit of control over Kurt Wallender's ending, even if he never envisioned it back in 1991 when he wrote the first novel featuring the morose detective, 'Faceless Killers.' Mankell has kept Wallender around for twenty years, and in 'The Troubled Man,' he manages the unique feat writing a novel about a tired, troubled man that is lively and engaging even as it dives into matters murky and dark.

Mankell's novel has the detailed, gnarly feel of a life lived with regret. Wallender's daughter has met a man she loves and the result finds Wallender at a dinner with the man's parents. The father, Hakan Von Enke, takes Wallender aside during the celebration and reveals himself to be nearly as troubled as Wallender. He's haunted by the part he played in a series of events that transpired nearly thirty years ago. Wallender's instinct kicks in, but it doesn't tell him much. Not long after, Van Enke disappears, and Wallender cannot resist the mystery.

Readers who have never read a Wallender novel by Mankell will find this book, mired in memory, quite easily readable. It works well on its own. But Mankell is summoning up a lot of history in 'The Troubled Man,' both personal and political. The world is not treating Wallender well, and how he copes with his own potential disintegration is a key part of the pleasure this novel provides.

Mankell's evocation of aging in the 21st century is a powerful, plot-driven externalization of what happens to us as individuals age, and what happens to us as nations age. There's a perception that we're all supposed to sail off into a rosy sunset, that things just keep getting better, but we all know the odds are against it. The house always wins. Wallender is a complicated character who is terrified of becoming less so. It's an interesting twist. He's compelling to read about, and those who surround him — his daughter, Linda, his colleagues, his ex-wife — care about him in a manner that makes the reader care about them. There's a level of detail here that has the feel of everyday life.

Mankell's plot mirrors the murky state of Wallender's life, as the dead hand of politics long-thought forgotten and buried reaches into the present to hold the hearts of characters we care about hostage. Even as every moment feels entirely naturalistic, Mankell maintains a driving tension that does not let up until the last words on the last page. As Wallender has aged, so have we. If he is afraid of what the mirror may show, then perhaps we should be as well.

It's natural to seek a solution to our problems. But in so doing, we risk dissolution. Every problem has an ending, but endings tend to be messy. Life is untidy, and not necessarily the best answer to the problems that may present themselves. Fortunately, when we read, the words do end. But the reading experience need not end with the words. A well-written novel lets us reach into a past we never experienced, and apply the perspectives of that past in a very real present to create a future we might not otherwise have imagined.

New to the Agony Column

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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