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12-04-14: Anne Rice Crowns 'Prince Lestat'

A Unified Theory of Vampires

The voice is one that has been with us since many of us were children. Lestat de Lioncourt has whispered to us, he has roared for us; but now it is he who is hearing voices. Or rather, a voice. And we, courtesy Anne Rice, are hearing his. It's a very welcome return.

With 'Prince Lestat' Anne Rice finally pull out all the stops. She fills in the gaps, and brings together the many episodes set in her vision of a world co-inhabited by vampires. Questions are answered, but they lead to deeper and even more knotty threads. This is the book her many readers have been waiting for, and it lives up to its title and the needs of her readers. Anne Rice has finally made her world ours.

With a nod to the fantasy and science fiction genres, both deep strains that are a part of her work, even though she writes charmingly accessible mainstream fiction, 'Prince Lestat' open with a scene-setting "Blood Genesis" and a poetic dictionary of the "Blood Argot" favored by her vampires. Tucked away at the back of the book are handy summaries of just about every damned thing she's written. This is a risky reach. But Rice pulls off all this setup with admirable aplomb. It's beautifully written, and it helps.

Rice has been careful in her past work to delineate the origin of the manuscripts in the Vampire chronicles. The books are real within the world of the books themselves. She plays with story within story, creating arcane documents that map across one another, but have never been particularly serial. With 'Prince Lestat' she aims change that tack, and she succeeds in the course of this novel in tying together the many threads to give us one huge story. It's world-building as page-turning.

The story begins with Lestat hearing The Voice. All too soon it becomes apparent that he's not the only one, but he's more immune to it than others. There's a threat to the world of vampires and the vampires of this world. The scrabbling factions communicate via an Internet radio show and Lestat becomes the go-to choice for leader. As ever, the Bartleby of the vampire world would prefer not to, but he may find his choices shrinking.

Rice tells lots of stories here an plays with current events, the science-fictional nature of her creatures, their religious myths and others while threatening the vampires with a fate worse than being undead. It's a neat trick i you can pull it off, and Rive manages to do so with the same sort of classy, poetic feel that we find in her best work. She's also become much better at giving her novels a more rip-roaring plot. No matter where you left off in the Vampire Chronicles, this is a great place to pick up.

Even if you've never read Rice's work, 'Prince Lestat' gives you enough backdrop to take hold of your imagination. Rice's prose is always gorgeous and her characters subtle and complex. You'll meet new and surprising characters here, explore some engaging moral and scientific dilemmas, and see old characters suddenly thrust into a world of cell phones and social media.

'Prince Lestat' is no simple thriller, though it will keep you awake with some fairly gruesome scenes and a pitch-black sense of humor. It speaks to sequels, but is just what we need now. New blood for old vampires. Science poetry and the technology of magic. Anne Rice need not know magic. She knows story.

12-03-14: Andrew Michael Hurley Returns from 'The Loney'

A Matter of Faith

We're told that faith and religious beliefs are part of our neurological make-up. We're hard-wired to be believers, and so escape is impossible. But belief is not so slippery as we might wish. For all t our faith in the ambiguous benevolence of an anonymous power, our power to believe is more limited than admitted. The physical world of day-to-day life has strong hold on our minds. It is a wall which even the strongest belief may be unable to breach.

Andrew Michael Hurley gazes deep into the dark heart of faith in his first novel, 'The Lonely,' a powerfully written tale of faith, reality and what rises from the gulf between the two. In the first pages, we meet Smith as a broken adult, a man haunted by his brother's miraculous cure, deep in their past.

But the storms of England have broken the surface and unearthed that which may not be prayed away. As Smith reaches back into his memory and teases out the story of how his brother Andrew ("Hanny") was transformed, Hurley uses rich prose to transform and transpose time and place, memory and story, faith and reality. The novel is mesmerizing, unusual, engrossing and disturbing.

You can leave your expectations for chase scenes and bad guys behind. Hurley quickly establishes a nuanced, visionary approach to storytelling, quite the opposite of a hurly-burly flight from fear into redemption. As boys, Smith and Hanny grow up under a father Smith calls "Farther" and a mother who is the driving force behind the local church. The old pastor, Father Wilfred, took his flock of believers on annual pilgrimages to a shrine on the forsaken seashores of The Loney. The boys' mother absolutely believed that Hanny, a mute, mentally-disabled child would be cured on these journeys. Eventually, Hanny was. But.

And within that single word, lies an engrossing, creepy story. Hurley does landscape like a fine painter, and every one here is forbidding and deceptive. His evocations of the seashore are enough to put you off your holidays for a decade. And Smith, who tells the story, quickly proves to be more involved than he might want you to — believe. And at that point, at that juncture, what you believe crashes right against what happened. Does it matter that they are not the same?

Hurley has done something that not easily observed in 'The Loney.' He's created a novel with rich, intense characters and places you'll not soon forget — though you might wish to. He realizes that once you get past a certain point, where most of us actually spend most of our time, the fantastic is not so fantastic at all. It's gritty and hard to forget. You must be the master of the story to get the facts to match the fantastic. If what you must believe will cut you off from reality, then you believe it anyway. The edge is sharp, and if it draws blood, then make sure that it is not yours, or that of those you love. Take the blade and tell the story.

12-01-14: Back to Darkness

Re-Visiting 'Darkscapes'

Editor's Note: An outstanding collection and an essential book for all serious readers of dark and fantastic fiction. Not to be missed under any circumstances! The review has been updated upon my re-reading for the interview.

Narrative and story can lead us to visions of that which is impossible — that which can drive us mad, or make us feel as if we already are mad. The horror story in particular offers the possibility of a temporary release from sanity and safety. The fifteen stories in 'Darkscapes' by Anne-Sylvie Salzman, translated from the French by William Charlton, offer a literary taste of madness, an intense inversion of reason that is powerful, sometimes unknowable, and almost always unforgettable. Salzman is the perfect 21st-century bride for Edgar Allen Poe.

The book is divided into four sections; "Lost Girls," "Crucifixions," "The Story of Margaret" and "Wildlife." The titles are pertinent, if sometimes a bit oblique. They suggest and enhance the stories within, but don't confine them. Once you dig into this collection it becomes clear that Anne-Sylvie Salzman is not a writer who can be confined.

The collection starts strong with "Child of Evil Stars," a story that involves two friends and the denizens of a traveling circus. Using these familiar ingredients, Salzman manages to serve up a superbly-drawn surprise. "Fox Into Lady" evades any expectations you might bring to such a title and offers a glimpse at Salzman's more hallucinatory style. "The Old Towpath" is a smart turn on what happens when you stray from the road, while "The Opening" takes readers on a beach journey that will be unfortunately difficult to dislodge from memory. The first section concludes with "Mennanaich," a tale about a father's obsession with his dead daughter that does not work out well.

Readers will immediately notice that Salzman brings a very different voice to these stories; it is a womanly voice, with a grown woman's concerns, not to be confused with a feminist voice. Salzman is not fighting for a cause, but offering readers a unique, generally terrorizing vision of the world around us, where men and women are equally powerless, while reality and nightmare are fighting for equality.

The second section of the book, "Crucifixions" begins with "Passing Forms," in which a man named Bale goes upon a vacation and encounters a most unfortunate form of roadkill. "Under the Lighthouse" takes us with great ease into the world of nightmare, while "Pan's Children" puts us in the mind of a nightmare. "Brunel's Invention" and "Shioge" work with powerful, hallucinatory prose to craft first-class horrors that are easily experienced as a reader by working at the edges of story and sanity. Salzman is adept at using narrative to explore mental instablity.

The third section, "The Story of Margaret" is sort of one long story split into two different perceptions. It involves artificial eyes, two women who are friends and so many layers of cross-talk and echo that it feels as if you're reading the book in a large, blood-splashed operating theatre. It is nothing short of astonishing and an utterly original work. You'll not read anything like it soon, and it conjures up imagery you won't forget.

The book finishes up with a section titled "Wildlife," and by the time you get there, you'll know that Salzman is ever-able to sidestep your expectations and deliver a searing series of sentences that will take you into a visionary world of borderline madness and gorgeous insanity. In "Hilda," the narrator acquires a pet selot (akin to panther) and finds herself infected by its vision. In "Lamont," a young man meets a girl he likes, but their relationship is rather more complex, original and unusual than anything you've ever read. The book concludes with "Feral," about a young girl who leaves civil society behind. Read it with care, as Salzman's prose might make you feel a sense of vertigo as you hover above those fleshy, clothed figures on the street around you. Salzman's sense of character captures the amoeba-like, squirming monsters that humans can so easily become; her plots take those sidewise steps into the unfamiliar that lead to painful tragedy.

As usual, Tartarus presents Salzman's work with class. William Charlton's translations are at least as amazing as the work presented, since they capture Salzman's oblique approaches with effortless ease. 'Darkscapes' is an important work, and owning one of these books is going to soon be very difficult. Salzman has a very unique and interesting voice. She speaks as a woman; her concerns and observations are those of a woman, not a girl. But she's on the bleeding, distressing edge of human madness. Salzman knows that we live in our heads, and she takes readers there to plant sentences and words that drag us to a place where pain and shame and terror and lust are indistinguishable. For those seeking a collection of stories that truly are tales of mystery and imagination, stories that are all too human, 'Darkscapes' offers a series of maps that will lead you to places from which your reading mind will find it difficult to return.

[Afterword to Review, 12-01-2014]

Upon re-reading, 'Darkscapes' retains its intensity, and manages to gain more depth and subtlety. Make no mistake, even when you know what is coming, the shocks and the disturbing dissonances of insanity are there as well. The variety of tones and topics makes the collection much easier to read, because the reader is kept off-balance and each successive story seems new and fresh.

Readers who enjoy the short stories of Clive Barker and Shirley Jackson will find ample rewards here, as will those who enjoy work in a slightly more experimental style along the lines of Jeff VandeerMeer. Margaret Atwood fans will enjoy the starkness of Salzman's vision. I can't say if the first edition has sold out, but it should. If you find yourself reading these words, you'd be well-advised to go straight to the source and ensure that you pick up what i feel will be an essential work n the canon of early 21-st century weird fiction.

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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