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01-19-13: George Berguño 'The Tainted Earth' Reviewed by Mario Guslandi

"A perceptive, enchanting storyteller"

It's no secret that nowadays the best dark fiction is to be found in the indie press, that is to say in books published in limited editions of a few hundred copies, available to the connoisseur through the Internet and bound to remain completely unknown to the public hunting books in physical bookstores or at the major online booksellers dominated by the major publishing companies.

So, thank God for the existence of small imprints where new genre authors can find room for publishing their work. On the other hand I always feel uncomfortable when a great emerging author has a limited readership, feeling that he/she deserves a wider audience.

This is exactly the case with George Berguño, a terrific new writer of dark fantasy and horror whose first two collections got scarcely noticed by the reading crowds because appeared in limited very expensive editions(by now, long gone out of print) by an excellent Romanian small publishing company, the Ex Occidente Press.

Berguño's third collection, The Tainted Earth, is now published by another new small imprint, UK-based Egaeus Press, which at least has reasonable prices.

The beautifully produced volume, enriched with black and white and sepia artwork, includes eight tales and a novella, which fully display Berguño's extraordinary talent as a perceptive, enchanting storyteller.

The title story "The Tainted Earth" is an epic Scandinavian medieval saga imbued with a vivid knowledge of the world's ugliness and beauty, where light and darkness share the same path. "The Ballad of El Pichon" is an excellent tribute to magic realism, and not only because the story takes place in Valparaiso. Berguño transfigures the reality of a failed marriage and of petty deceit, and features a person who may or may not be the Devil.

In the outstanding "The Sick Mannes Salve" a young man endeavours to take possession of a terribly dangerous inheritance while in "Mouse and the Falconer", a piece of "philosophical" horror, an avalanche of disquieting allegories overwhelms the reader.

"Fugue for Black Thursday", a grim tableau about the death of Bruno Schulz, features Nazi officers and helpless Jews moving about as on a tragic stage.

"The Rune Stone at Odenslunda" is a fascinating, complex story inspired by another Scandinavian saga, while "Three Drops of Death" is a delightful, dark yarn based upon a Scottish folk tale.

The final novella in three parts, "A Spell of Subtle Hunting" is a puzzling, spellbinding work of art, which, in the author's own words, is "touching on the mysteries of guilt, cruelty, impermanence, memory, time, literature and death. " It's a fine tribute to Surrealism and the incarnation of the quotation by Alexander Lernet-Holenia put at the beginning of the volume: "If death is a dream, life, too, is merely a dream".

A friendly bit of advice: hurry up and buy a copy of 'The Tainted Earth', before this book goes out of print too.

01-15-13: Brian J. Showers Re-Issues 'Old Albert'

Epilogue to Epilogue

Editor's Note:
A little over a year ago, I reviewed an out-of-print version of 'Old Albert: An Epilogue' by Brian J. Showers, simply because it was so superb. It's been re-printed by The Swan River Press, with a new presentation and material, so I'm running an edit of the old review.

Stories have a natural power, a gravity that draws the reader in, pulls the reader down. Even the most inconsequential-seeming tales catch our attention, and more so if they filter out from the world around us. The issue of veracity, of truth, no matter how slight, increases that gravitational pull tenfold. Stories we think are true, or might be true, or that even feel true command our attention.

Brian J. Showers commands the readers' attention in 'Old Albert: An Eplogue,' a short collection of linked stories that add up to a very nice reading experience. After an Epigraph from Italo Calvino's 'Invisible Cities,' you'll find "A Note to the Reader by Jim Rockhill," which purports to be a sort of introduction, but is, in reality an integral part of the collection. Rockhill sets the scene with letters from Showers, notes on Showers' previous book 'The Bleeding Horse' (which will end up on the must-buy list of anyone who reads this book), and notes on storytelling and fiction itself. Rockhill anchors the work that follows with his well-known scholarly prose and reputation.

Showers follows through with six short stories (one of which is the "Prologue") that start out craftily meandering but eventually wind up being intensely powerful. Showers begins with an introduction to Rathmines, a suburb of Dublin that the author makes real for the reader by virtue of extremely smart and engaging writing. Then, in a series of stories that follow, he brings the work to focus on Larkhill, beginning with "Ellis Grimwood of Larkhill," the story of a reclusive eccentric who studies birds, and finishing with "Come Like Shadows, So Depart," in which the author reveals his sources. Each story brings to light a new perspective on Rathmines in general and Larkhill in particular, culminating in a chilling finale.

The prose, and the prose voice in particular are engagingly low-key and academic, but extremely compelling. Showers fills his stories with notes that mimic reality but may or may not be based in reality. There are a series of end-notes that lend credence to the tales being true, and add a sense of veracity. The effect of Showers' incredibly well-crafted prose is to give the tales he tells a ring of truth that is undeniably and very enjoyably compelling.

Equally compelling are the characters he creates in a very offhand manner, from Ellis Grimwood to James Walker and his wife Eva, to the Author himself and his unnamed friend who finish the book. There's a sort of documentary, casual feel to these people; they're introduced as real and they feel that way to the reader. The characters' stories, their definitions, as it were, form the plot of the book, in a powerful cumulative effect that makes for a striking reading experience.

Originally published by Ex Occidente Press, Showers has re-issued the book from his own concern, The Swan River Press. Alas, I never saw the original, but the new version offers a perfect cover image, one that becomes more beautiful and disturbing after reading the book. This version also includes an extensive afterword by Adam Golaski, not in the first version. As with Rockhill's introduction, it slots into the Showers' narrative seamlessly. Brian J. Showers is clearly an author of great talent, with an ability not just to describe reality, but create it out of whole cloth.

01-14-13: Laird Barron Summons 'The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All'

No Silence in the Solid Shadows

Editor's Note:
Alas, this is not officially coming out until early April, and these early reviews are problematic for readers and publishers, so I'll likely run this one again when the book comes out. But it is really worth pre-ordering.

We know that while the universe is infinite, our knowledge is limited. There's only so much we can learn, and the certainty of our ignorance should give us pause. Most of the time, we operate as if this does not matter, because most of the time that's true. But on occasion, we might glance at a shadow and mistake it for something more substantial, or hear a voice that proves to be no more than the soughing of the wind. In those moments, if we're lucky, we see more than our workaday world, and are able to return. There is nothing to connect the solid shadow to the voice in the soughing of the wind.

Laird Barron's collection 'The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All' makes those connections for us, in stories that are truly haunting. Barron's rough-and-tumble assembly of hunters, mob-enforcers, lumberjacks, schoolteachers and writers are every bit as limited in their understanding of what is around them as are his readers. Barron lets them see just a little bit more than a shadow, and hear the words in the wind. Their lives are not improved by this knowledge, even as Barron's readers' lives are. Read these stories only if you want the unique experience of feeling a frisson of fear.

The power of 'The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All' is that Barron sets all the stories in a consistent universe, with connections between the tales both obvious and obscure. Most of the stories here unfold in the remote forests of the Olympic peninsula, and alert readers will note returning characters and families. By virtue of the rich background that Barron provides, these stories will reward reading and re-reading with an ever-deepening apprehension of terror.

Barron is particularly effective when he his working with a historical setting, and you'll find a variety of these in this collection. 'The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All' is bookended by two hunting stories; "Blackwood's Baby" and "The Men From Porlock." The latter story fleshes out events mentioned in Barron's novel 'The Croning,' while the former introduces readers to the locale and the unsavory habits of the local aristocracy. Both unfold in the early part of the last century. Barron's ability to evoke the gritty historical details and his facility for taking a men's adventure story and guiding it into much darker territory ensure that these are hunts that will not be forgotten. The mirroring effect and the intimate connections make the stories all the more powerful.

But Barron writes well no matter what his setting or who his characters are. In "The Redfield Girls," schoolteachers on holiday pick the wrong lake, and in "The Carrion Gods in Their Heaven", a lesbian couple on the run from an abusive husband stay in the wrong house. Barron does well by his women protagonists; he fares far better than they do in his unpleasantly connected world.

In "Hand of Glory," mob enforcer Johnny Cope, seeking to avenge his father's death, falls into a circle of men that includes Eadweard Muybridge, whose inventions were not limited to a means of photographing horses, and Phil Wary, who also makes an appearance in "Jaws of Saturn." Both stories play perfectly well as hard-boiled men of action sagas, even with Barron's whispering shadows.

Not everything here is historical. "Vastastion" and "The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All" depart from the setting even though they are tied into Barron's other works. "Vastation" is tightrope walk across a science fictional void, a madman's rant with enough powerful imagery to unsettle. The title story is a name-dropping bit of meta-fiction featuring a very well-known author of outré horror fiction. Barron's prose gets the nod here, in a really creepy scene where words prove powerful both within the story and in the readers' perceptions.

With 'The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All' Laird Barron continues the world-building efforts that we've seen in all his work, and in particular, 'The Croning,' which is intimately entangled with this book. This is a collection of rich and powerful stories that will receive and reward re-reading. Many of the works here pack the punch and have the density of a novel. Prose, character and pacing are stellar, but never to the point of calling attention to themselves. Barron reveals beauty in the solidifying shadows that surround us. It proves to be his voice in the whispering wind, and we listen, rapt, to the words that threaten to consume our souls.

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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