Category Archives: ghost stories

Gothic Short Fiction: Top 5

We arrived at the cabin yesterday, and have been doing the slow, unloosening unwind of food and fire-ful conversation. Time out from one’s life is a strange, interstitial moment, sitting in a kitchen with my mother and my husband and arguing about literature and the state of the weather and the price of beans. Mum and I started in about Gothic fiction, because we have that in common. She taught a class in Gothic fiction way back when, using primary The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales. I read it along with her  at the time because I’m easy and I like books and I like short fiction. The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales ended up being one of the very best multi-author short story collections I’ve ever encountered. From the editorial choices to the brilliant fucking introduction, Chris Baldick knows whassup. (But, sadly, we made fun of his name a little because baldick.)

So we started arguing the top five Gothic short fictions, and Mum ended up with the following list:

“Jordan’s End” by Ellen Glasgow

A doctor goes to a remote, decaying Virginia farmhouse to treat the head of the family who is suffering from a hereditary disease. The doctor quickly realizes that not only the man, but his wife, aunts, and sons are all caught in a web woven of madness and death. Doom everywhere.

“The Gospel According to Mark” by Jorges Luis Borges

A student from Buenos Aires goes to visit his bumpkin cousin on a remote estancia during Lent, which is fall in the Southern hemisphere. To pass the time, he starts reading the Gospel of Mark to the degenerate, illiterate servants–which turns out to be a huge mistake.

“The Vampire of Kaldenstein” by Frederick Cowles

In the late 1930s, a clueless Brit takes a bicycle tour to a remote part of Germany, fails to heed the locals’ warning–to comic results. Don’t go to the castle, you idjit!

The Lady of the House of Love” by Angela Carter

A sad, young vampire waits in darkness in her ancestral castle for her true love to come to her. Many men and boys do, but wind up as blood donors. Another British bicyclist, this time a soldier o leave during WWI, shows up and spends the night with her. Will his blood be shed there or on the battlefields of France?

The Horla” by Guy DeMaupassant

Oh my god! Hysterical first person narrator wigs out when he thinks an invisible Brazilian chupachbra is haunting him. He grows crazier with every passing day until he finally decides to do something about his unseen tormentor.

Like the joke about lawyers at the bottom of the ocean, this is a good start. But my list would look a little different. I would add “The Bloody Countess” by Alejandra Pizarnik, which is so completely dirty and perverse and freaks me out with its semi-academic tone married to some seriously fucked up content. Elizabeth Bathory, man. The husband brought up Poe, because obvs, and we decided that “The Fall of the House of Usher” was the best of his Gothics. A young man comes to visit his friend and the friend’s tragic twin sister in their remote, crumbling estate.

In “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” by Joyce Carol Oates self-absorbed teenager Connie has all these fantasies about boyfriends, and when Arnold Friend pulls his red convertible into the driveway of her family home when her family is away at a barbeque, she gets a boyFriend from hell.

And then, of course, the patron saint of Southern Gothic, Flannery O’Connor with “A Good Man Is Hard to Find“. A Georgia couple, their bratty children and a grandma who fancies herself a Southern aristocrat, embark on a road trip. The grandmother’s insistence on seeing a plantation (that she later realizes is “gone with the wind”) ends with their rolling the family car on a dusty rural road.  Enter the Misfit, an escaped convict, and his sidekicks.

So, given this collection of freaking excellent stories, I think you could probably say something about the shape of the Gothic. An outsider comes into an often rural location. He (or occasionally she) might be a painful doofus. The rot of the inbred rural location might spread, or it might be a counterpoint to the mechanized horror of the industrial center. Monsters have faces; machine guns do not. Gothic more than other longstanding genres has a lot of female writers, and that makes sense to me: the creeping dread, the lack of agency, the limited locales. Women haven’t have the most control over our lives, historically speaking.
List:
Autumn setting
Remote, isolated location
Night, darkness
Enclosed spaces
Decaying houses, castles
Hereditary insanity, illness
Twins (doppelganger)
Madness
Grotesque body shapes
Inbreeding
Storms, floods, extreme cold or heat

So it was fun to talk lists, and the weird convergences – bicycles, apparently? – and I look forward to more food and talk and half-napping here on the North Shore.

The Horla by Guy de Maupassant

Neatly masterful short story which suffers for the contemporary reader from being too influential. Lovecraft was all over the first person descent into madness narrative like Chthulu on New England port towns, though of course he saw it here first. Nevertheless, the sheer whackadoo poetry of our unnamed narrator’s grappling with an unsubstantial succubus/doppelganger manages to hit tons of the tropes of Gothic fiction with a concision not usually seen: colonial panic, tortured aristos, unease with science/Modernism, weltering claustrophobia. 

Our apparently indolent narrator starts his diary – oh, yeah, it’s one of those – nattering on about trees and walks in the park. He sees a pretty white ship sail past the house. Isn’t that a pretty ship? I’m sure this won’t be important later. He starts suffering from insomnia and the vague sense that he is being watched, which he alleviates briefly by going on vacation a lot. But the visitations escalate, resulting in some really freaky descriptions of sleep paralysis. Yeesh. There’s an interlude of a woman being hypnotized as a parlor game which is milked for a full-blown freak out about human agency (especially the way it is intercut with some other revelations). 

By the end, our narrator is in exclamation point mode, his prose downright Old Testament in its panic. I would be willing to bet there are deliberate echoes of Job all over the place, but my Sunday schooling is rusty. The final attempt by the narrator to confine and destroy the Horla – as he has come to name this creature – tips horrifying in the extreme when – this is for serious a spoiler, but this clocks at maybe 20 pages, so the spoiler is more conceptual than anything –> when you realize this lunatic has burnt down his house with all the servants screaming to death within because of a creature not even he can see. Then he decides to kill himself. Tada!

Anyway, a neat little story, not partially because of the way it breathlessly drags you along with the madness, and then ever so subtly checks that madness. Oh my God! as the narrator yells dozens of times. Maybe we’re the monsters!

Oh, and I found this on Google books – excellent! But then it turned out that it was in French – bogus! So I found an English translation online here. You’re welcome.

Jane Eyre

This is a slipknot review to hold place until I can read this again. I’ve had to read Jane Eyretwice, both times for school. The first was the obligatory high school read, and then the second was the obligatory English major read. I liked it better the second time, because the class I took it in rocked like crazy, and I do remember fun things about it, like how Rochester outlines his various romances, and how each romance is with a woman of non-English background, and how each of those women are totally wrong because they are not English. I remember wanting Rochester to die in a fire a bit, because he’s such an arrogant fucking asshole, and then bang! he totally gets burnt in a fire! That’s some good writing. 

Weirdly, the thing I remember best about Jane Eyreis going to see a production at the Children’s Theatre here in Minneapolis when I was in the 5th grade. This was back in the Children’s Theatre’s heyday, before the sexual abuse scandal almost completely destroyed that institution. I had completely forgotten about this production until I recently got free tickets to go there again, and being in the building shook the memory loose. The play was based only on the parts of Jane Eyrethat detail her childhood – her unhappy time with the Reeds, her even more unhappy time at the Lowood School, her friendship with Helen Burns, Helen’s death by typhus. 

The production was really moving to me, and I remember seething with irritation when my classmates sent up a chorus of Oooohs when Jane climbs into bed with Helen to warm her as she dies of mistreatment and disease. Motherfucking homophobia starts young, and is stupid and unsympathetic at any age. Anyway, I guess I just wanted to say that I really loved Jane for her portrait of a mistreated and abused child who develops this incredible moral compass out of her experience. She makes incredibly hard choices, like the one to leave the man she loves because he’s an amoral would-be bigamist. 

Think about it. This is not some minor impediment to marriage, the kind of thing thrown up in dimestore romances to cause more sexual tension. This is not a misunderstanding or a mistake. This is a serious moral failing in the man she loves, and, you know, a legal failing too. For the lack of love, Jane’s childhood is cruelty and abuse. It’s wonderful for her to find love with someone who can appreciate her strange gifts. But love is not an ethical elixir that will magic away the difference between right and wrong. The most famous line to come out of this novel is “Reader, I married him.” I think sometimes this overshadows the fact that, Reader, for a very long time, and based on moral choices that materially damage her life, Jane does not marry him. Marrying him would be wrong, and all the love in the world will not make it right. That’s why I love Jane Eyre. 

Steampunk! An Anthology of Fantastically Rich and Strange Stories

Steampunk! An Anthology of Fantastically Rich and Strange Storiesis a cromulent collection of short stories, though uneven like most (maybe all) multi-author collections. I do appreciate the emphasis by editor Kelly Link on steampunk stories outside of the now-iconic Victorian London steampunk setting. I like the thickly urban setting – it’s what drew me to the sub-genre in the first place – but I can get fiercely irritated with the way some steampunk fetishizes the upper class twit of the year with his goggles and laboratory that I sometimes find in that setting. So, to the individual stories.

“Some Unfortunate Future Day” by Cassandra Clare: Inoffensive piece of atmosphere that fails to say anything at all, cutting out right when the real narrative choices need to be made. The daughter of a mad scientist is abandoned by her father to go fight in some ill-defined war, leaving her in the care of Romantic talking dolls in a crumbling Gothic house. A soldier falls out of the sky, which leads to a lot of naive narrative imaginings from the girl, and then the obvious use of a Chekhovian timepiece and then…the end! It’s like a chapter cut out of a larger narrative where all the implications come to fruition in the next chapter. But the story is pretty enough, I guess, and the only thing I really hated was the entirety of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 64 used as an epigraph. Seriously, who does that for a short story? Ugh. 

“The Last Ride of the Glory Girls” by Libba Bray. I would absolutely kill for a Glory Girls novel, which is not to say this doesn’t function as a short story. Reminded me strongly of Firefly, with its frontier planet full of harsh religion and frontier cruelties, written in a stylized dialect that totally works. Pinkertons, train heists, girl bandits, divided loyalties: all the things that make Old West stories a hand-to-hand combat of colonialism. There is also arresting baptism by sludge sequence here, a very tactile metaphor for the industrial revolution, etc etc. 

“Clockwork Fagin” by Cory Doctorow. Very anecdotal story, told in the first person by a boy matriculating in an orphanage of children mangled in punk-shifted industrial factories. “Clockwork Fagin” is obviously a Dickens riff – Fagin was the antagonist in Oliver Twist - with its social consciousness and the plight of youngsters in the industrial machine. Full marks for being a story that doesn’t fetishize the corsets and monocles set, instead focusing on the organized rebellion of the working class. Workers of the world, unite! 

“Seven Days Beset by Demons” by Shawn Cheng. Seven deadly sins in comic form with perplexing steampunk ornament and terrible lettering. At least it’s short. 

“Hand in Glove” by Ysabeau S. Wilce. Too smart for her own good detective gets on the trail of a serial killer, despite an indigent man having already been convicted to hang for the murders. Some of the plot mechanics were unsuccessful – I didn’t like the mad scientists much – but the narrative voice is snappy, and the overall aims of the story worthy. The ways entrenched bureaucracies, like the police force, use and abuse science are always worth examining. 

“Ghost of Cwmlech Manor” by Delia Sherman. Not really to my taste, but a goodhearted little story. Cwmlech Manor is haunted by the ghost of the once mistress of the manor, killed in the English Civil War by Cavaliers looking for loot. The main character is a plucky girl type, who is pragmatic about her romanticism. 

Best of all, I loved the story that went with [Cwmlech Manor] – very romantic and a girl as the hero – a rare enough thing in romantic tales, where the young girls always act like ninnies and end up dead of a broken heart, often as not.

You can see the grammar is tortured, but the sentiment is neat. Her remark about the legend ends up describing her own story. Go girls. 

“Gethsemane” by Elizabeth Knox. A perplexing story, one with interesting themes that never came together satisfactorily for me. The setting on a Caribbean island (?) was cool, as were the racial themes: passing, folklore, even the old school non-Romerian zombie. But the plot ranged over too many characters, and shifted perspectives weirdly. I admit I just didn’t get it, but I suspect there was something here to get. 

“The Summer People” by Kelly Link. Editor, edit thyself! Which is a bitchy thing to say, and I don’t really mean it. This isn’t a bad story at all, but its steampunk elements are so nominal as to make it feel like a shoehorn job in the collection. It’s not even so much that I don’t think magic has a place in steampunkery – there’s a growing body of dash-punk work out there that shifts history by magic instead of technology – but that this magic doesn’t really do that. That said, I enjoyed this story about a girl tasked with minding the summer people, who we first are to understand are summer vacationers to her poor, rural setting. I liked her relationship with a vacationer-turned-resident, a girl who is slightly enamored of all the folksy poverty, which is of course only folksy to outsiders. The ending is a bit obvious, and the denouement more truncated than I would like, but a good story anyway. Fine, Kelly, you win. 

“Peace in Our Time” by Garth Nix. I’m on record as a Nix fan, but the more I see of his short fiction, the more I think he shouldn’t write it. The narrative voice was daft and grated, and the characterization poor. It wasn’t so much a story as a situation, one that ended in a OH DO YOU SEE? reveal that hearkened to the hokiest of Twilight Zone endings. Bah. 

“Nowhere Fast” by Christopher Rowe. Another short story that ends right before it should get interesting, where the real conflicts are going to begin. I don’t feel as irritated by this as the Clare short story, because at least this world is aiming for something more than pretty but useless. This is one of those post-apocalyptic utopias that no one bothers to write anymore – two generations past peak oil in a fiercely local America. A boy in a car, of all things, shows up in town, which kicks over a bunch of anthills. Given how bound up in our national identity the automobile is, it was interesting to consider the American landscape without them. 

“Finishing School” by Kathleen Jennings. Another comic. Slender reimagining of the invention of flight, this time by a daughter of Scottish and Chinese parents who is stuck in an Australian school for girls. Nice metaphors of girlish exuberance. When a friend’s mom got divorced, she took Amelia as a middle name. We long for flight sometimes, and sometimes we should get it. 

“Steam Girl” by Dylan Horrocks. I think I’m going to call this one out as the stand out of this collection. A nerdy, chubby boy semi-befriends a poor, outcast girl. She tells him stories of Steam Girl, an obvious self-avatar grown long-limbed and beautiful in her pulpy imaginings. Horrocks has a good sense of the teenage outcast – not the romantic one, with his bangs in his eyes, but the real kind: uncomfortable in his body, clueless, and slightly horndoggish, but not in a particularly nasty or cruel way. Escapism is important for people who have something to escape from, and this story is so sensitive to that equation. 

“Everything Amiable and Obliging” by Holly Black. Fine, I guess, but I don’t think all the implications of the central metaphors here were considered, so I feel all squicky in the end. A girl falls in love with a house automaton, and her family tries to dissuade her from her love of the dancing instructor robot. He’s part of the hive consciousness of the house, and there’s a lot of shouting and stuff about loving robots designed to give you exactly what you want. That’s not the squick part for me. The squick part was when this was equated with the other girl’s lack of agency in her own relationships, and then my brain started shouting, but wait! Are we characterizing the working class as automata? Are we really saying girls lack agency? I can see where Black was going with this, I just don’t think it was thought out enough. 

“The Oracle Engine” by M. T. Anderson. A Roman steampunk story. And not modern Roman, but the Classical kind. Holy shit, but this was fun. Written in that gossipy historian’s voice, the one that relates a bunch of folklore and quotes the classics, and then pulls back demurely and says there isn’t any basis for that conjecture. I was fully expecting a Mechanical Turk at the center of this story, which, if you are not familiar with the concept, was a chess-playing engine invented in the 18th C, but turned out to be a dude hiding in a box and not an automaton at all. (Amazon has named it’s crowd-sourcing venture after this, and this enterprise is why capchas have gotten so freaking annoying.) That would have been neat, but the actual center of the story is so much cooler and weirder. GIGO. 

Oh, and also? The scientific ornament was brilliant. Archimedes almost invented calculus, for crissakes, and while there’s no guarantees that the lunatics of the Middle Ages wouldn’t have lost his discoveries – like they did with how to make concrete - had Archimedes’s discoveries become widely known, it is a fun thought experiment to consider.

The Archived

To be clear, I only read the 108 page sneak peak of The Archivedby Victoria Schwab available on Netgalley, and not the whole novel. I’m unlikely to read the entire novel, not because this book is bad, but because I’m of a mind that most young adult fictions, especially paranormal fictions as sloppily built as this one, should be read in a sitting so you don’t have time to tear it down. The teaser ended up being a flinch. 

The idea here, in the abstract, is wonderful: people, upon death, are kept as recordings like books in an archive. But they have bodies like ghosts, like cordwood stacked. There’s a grief-stricken girl, and a family that has moved to escape grief, and a nifty old hotel. I liked those parts. But the girl is also one of those precocious ingenues that I don’t cotton to, who is talented beyond her experience. She is not the worst of these kind of characters, not by half, but when I put her sort of world-weary kvetching about responsibility alongside a magical system that makes zero sense once the flinch took, it just killed it for me. 

Again, I am not saying this is bad by any stretch, and The Archivedcould certainly tighten up and go somewhere in the end. The set-up, as I said, has some pretty great metaphorical possibilities, especially if you are a book nerd. And certainly, I have enjoyed many a book that had sloppy or silly paranormal systems, because the system is more framework for felt experience than it is some nerdily exact taxonomy. (Divergent, for example.) Credible examination of grief, from what I saw, but also annoyingly naive for grouches like me. Sometimes young adult literature is more for young adults than us slumming grown-ups, which isn’t really the fault of anyone. 

Sacrificial Magic: Right Book, Wrong Time

I forced this read, and I’m sorry, because I think I crimped my enjoyment. Sorry, Sacrificial Magic. You were the right book at the wrong time. Blame it on the library, which only lets me renew thrice before I have to return the book, and with 10 days left to go, I figured, screw it, I can read this in a Sunday. 

I read the first three books of the Downside Ghosts series in one of those cabin porch hazes, and I thoroughly enjoyed them. Chess Putnam is a ghostbuster (though this term is never used) in an alternate present: in the late 90s, murderous ghosts broke free into the world, killing maybe half the population of the earth. The only bulwark against this threat was The Church, a non-theistic organization which replaced all the other religious and governmental powers that be. But that’s all backstory; this series is about Chess and her city. Chess is a powerful fuckup with a seriously damaged past, someone who managed to claw up just barely to near-polite society through some native talent hitched to the driving need to get out of her squalid upbringing. But just barely. She’s a junkie and an emotional isolationist, and I just adore her. 

The first three books felt to me like they ran an emotional arc, with the third, City of Ghosts, rising to a crescendo of things I’d barely noticed hanging around on the edges twisting together into a big explosive clusterfuck. God, that was just grand. So, here, in Sacrificial Magic, I feel like we’re restarting a trajectory which will run for the next couple of books, and I’m just a little let down. It’s not that this book is place-holding, it is that it’s piece-moving. I liked a lot of the piece-moving, but, as I said, I forced it. 

I think for me the weakest parts of this series tend to be the ghostbusting Church plots. Chess is given an assignment, and in a sort of Noir-lite manner, that assignment intersects with her Street life, her dealers, her drug use, etc. Here the Church assignment felt especially weak, with too many people I didn’t give boo about and couldn’t differentiate doing things way too sins-of-the-past for me to respond. The assignment had to do with a high school, which gives framework for Chess to ruminate about her shitty education and upbringing, and that part I really enjoyed, as I did her tense and fractious relationships with Terrible, Lex, and Beulah. And hoorah, I’m loving that Chess finally has a female friend – and that she realizes she has friends at all. 

Pretty much with this book I was just shipping for Chess and Terrible, which is super fun, don’t get me wrong, but it made me feel a little antsy when the high school ghost plot was unfolding. Get out of the way, plot! Let us freak out about their last conversation! And the fact that Chess is still a huge junkie, the way she manages and feeds her addictions, continues to be one of the selling points of this series. There’s a scene where she notices others noticing her usage, and she gets really jealous and freaks: this is mine. This is my addiction. Quit looking. That we’re on book four, and Chess hasn’t had a big After School Special moment where she realizes Drugs Are Bad – addicts know drugs are bad, kids – is a very brave choice on the part of Kane. There are no easy answers, and the knowledge that you are fucked up beyond belief doesn’t magically cure you of the fuck up. Even addiction is one day at a time. Or one book at the wrong time; sorry again.

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Unholy Magic: Where I Store my Complaining

Before I set into bitching – this is going to be the review for the Downside Ghosts series by Stacia Kane series where I lay out my gripes with this world – I want to make sure I underline how much fun I’ve had reading these books. There are more than three at this point, but the first three seem to constitute an emotional arc. While I’ll probably check the others at some point, my lost weekend of slamming through the Downside Ghosts series is done since I just closed City of Ghosts a couple minutes ago. 

So, as a middle in a trilogy, or even as a second in a series of books, Unholy Magicis going to lag a little on the enjoyment level. Kane is very consistent in her writing style and plotting, which I count as a good thing – but consistency is the hobgoblin of readers getting a little wearied of certain things. As a second book, you’re not in that sparkle of new environments and the rush of new characters. You’re at that point in the relationship where you start noticing how your new beau has a tendency to snore or to clear his throat all the freaking time seriously what is that? The opening half is characterized by a lot of wheel spinning and the solving of mysteries I don’t care about, which brings me to the next thing.

Chess Putnam is a ghostbuster is a profoundly alternate history. In 1997 there was a ghostacalypse which tore down every religious and governmental institution we know. All institutions were replaced by The Church, a mystical but ultimately non-theistic order which is the only thing that can keep the ghosts at bay. One the one hand, it’s just fine to gesture to this profound upheaval, running your characters from their limited perspectives from street level, a street level I found richly detailed and, well, just cool. On the other, oh, come on. While I appreciate the lack of infodumps – well, Bob, you recall how the Elders of the Church formed a council which blahblahblah – sometimes the haziness was a little too hazy. Even when paying pretty close attention, I don’t really get how this whole ghost thing works, exactly, and there was more than one occasion where Chess would be in a dire magical situation and be like, oh, yeah, if I do this thing it’ll neutralize this other thing, and wheee! Now I’m out of that scrape. It’s not so much that the magic was inconsistent, it’s that I didn’t know enough about how it worked to do anything but roll my eyes and think, well, that’s convenient. Which is not to say that Chess doesn’t continue to be one of my favorite fuckups in urban fantasy. 

The opening mystery is one of those locked houses with a bunch of perverse rich sickos. Which is fine or whatever, but it took maybe longer than necessary for this to snick up with the other plot line, because you totes know it will. As I’ve said before, this is pretty straightforward detective Noir plotting, where everything is going to brew up into one giant clusterfuck. And whoo boy, when it does, the cluster fucks so godamn hard. Even while loving Chess as a character, she’s not a good person, and her failings come home to get her in a powerfully awful way. She’s a junkie, and while I didn’t think this ran entirely convincingly in the first book, there’s a withdrawal sequence here which had ants running all over my joints. Gah. But that sequence is just a warm up to her serious comeuppance for betrayals that you can dig why she did them, but oh, Lordy, being the betrayer is no fun park. Specially when you get caught out. 

Oh, and, quick edit, I’m on record as having a boner for city stories, ones that write a city as character. Triumph City, and its underside, the Downside, is really compelling to me. I like its markets and orphans and physicality. I like how Chess talks about neighborhood, the Street, the interactions of the poor and destitute, the ways the rich are insulated and clueless. Much as I love Downside, the fact that this must be a recognizable American city rankled me a bit. Is this DC? Where the fuck are we? I noticed this more in this book, with its casual chatter about LA and Hollywood. And, can we talk about the City of Ghosts? Is this place accessible from any city in the world? Or just in Triumph City? What happened in Russia during Haunted Week? Again, I’m not really complaining – this book is about the concerns of a person, and her concerns aren’t about the global experience of the ghostacalypse. But it would be sweet if this were addressed even sorta passingly. 

And, I would have really liked there to be at least one lady in this whole world other than Chess. There’s some bitchy librarian types and some dead whores, a psycho wife and a teenage daughter, but none of these women matter. Or they don’t really matter to Chess. This is pretty common in urban fantasy, or in romance more generally – the lone chick in a world of dudes – but it’s bunk to fail the Bechdel test no matter what the gender of the writer, no matter what the gender of the protagonist. (Aside on the Bechdel test – yes, this was developed for movies; yes, it’s not a measure of quality; yes, it’s not exactly fair to bring this up in a very specific instance. It’s a statistical test, a way of polling the relevance of women’s relationships within a genre. Which is why I get so disappointed when I see fucking sweet ass characters, girl characters who have real personalities and failings, written by sweet ass women writers whom I respect a good deal and still have those sweet ass characters only exist in a world where women don’t talk, don’t have real relationships.) Which is not to say this book doesn’t deal sensitively and convincingly with certain touchy subjects that are alarmingly common in women’s experience, things like the legacy and recovery from rape, prostitution and trafficking, and some other dire ass shit. The experience of women does matter in this world, which is why it seems notable that Chess doesn’t have even one ladyfriend at all. 

Anyway, blahblah, feminist hobbyhorse aside, this is an incredibly fun series, and the slackness of the early sections of this book give way to some really knuckle biting conflict, conflict that won’t rightly be resolved until the next book. Not that is is uncompleted – the locked house mystery comes to its little end – but the trajectory of Chess’s betrayals is still mid-arc. I kinda like downbeat, uncompleted endings, hanging in a welter of shame and survival, but mileage varies. I can say the next book deals with that stuff in a satisfying way to me, but that’s a retroactive assessment, fwiw. Booyah.

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City of Ghosts: Squealing While Jumping

I outlined all my complaints with the Downside Ghost series by Stacia Kane in my review for the last book, Unholy Magic, so it’s time for me to become a squeemonster and jump up and down clapping. My ratings for the books in this series have been all over the place, but in truth, this is just a bang up pulp series, and this book really distills the goodness down to a black tar of seriously freaking awesome. 

Which is the thing about series. For book series, I have the tendency to wander off after one or even two books, my investment on the world or characters not able to stretch beyond the several hours it takes me to get to the end of the installment. TV, though, that’s a different beast even though it’s series-similar, and I find myself on the hook for seriously uneven crap like The Walking Dead, beholden to the odd nail-biting set piece – and lord, can that show pull off the set piece – despite the shiftiness of the characters and dialogue. The series waits for that season ender, which will blow a budget on a burning barn and a bunch of character deaths that will pay me off for putting up with all the bullshit. 

Here though, in the third book, City of Ghosts, Kane pulls together a whole bunch of disparate stuff from the first two books, things I wasn’t even rightly tracking, and sets those bitches on fire in the very best way. This is squeal at the commercial breaks season finale fun, working out mythology details that you didn’t even know were going on. Woooo! If I were the kind of reviewer to use pictures, there would be one here of clapping or something. 

Anyway, should I say something about this series in general? Okay. In the late 90s, there was a ghostacalypse that killed off much of the world’s population, and also set into power The Church, a paranormal but non-theistic order that keeps the murderous dead at bay. Chess is a ghostbuster in this organization and also a huge freaking junkie, and much of the series details her mixed allegiances, from her work life to her love life. This book pays off all of those threads in a serious way. And that despite my reservations which are still on record from the second book. But sometimes the squeal of the series finale, up out of seat at that last scene, is happy enough to overcome more complainerly tendencies. Wooooooo! 

Woooo! 

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Seed by Ania Ahlborn

I have this compulsion to call Seedby Ania Ahlborn “cute”, which I think might come off as bitchy and insulting. I don’t mean it that way though. Seedis a riff on The Bad Seed, which has been iterated many times since its mid-century publication: stage, film, and even Macaulay Culkin vehicles designed to “show his range”. (Also, whoa, looks like Ian McEwan wrote the screenplay for The Good Son. Trippy.) Anyway, The Bad Seedis this slightly hysterical examination of the whole nature/nurture where-does-evil-come-from? question. A perfectly adorable Aryan moppet from a good family – good in this case having the usual class/racial overtones – turns out to be a conniving sociopath. Being a product of the 50s, there’s a lot of Freud talk and socially Darwinistic stuff about criminality which doesn’t read too good anymore. 

But scary, creepy kids are a horror mainstay for good reason, which is that raising children is probably the scariest thing I can think of. If you don’t have kids of your own, then other people’s kids are just objectively creepy. (Sorry, other people’s children.) It’s all so confusing, and everyone is so judgmental, and there are days when you get that call from the school about an “incident” and just close your eyes and try to sound like a grown-up, but you know you’re just a fraud. 

Jack Winter is driving his family home one evening when a swerve to avoid the flashing retinas of a creature on the road results in a car accident. Nobody is killed but the car, which for this slightly less than politely impoverished family is a pretty serious financial blow. The youngest daughter starts behaving strangely, and Jack begins to ruminate on his own childhood encounters with whatever sharp-toothed beastie hides in the grass and the walls of the house. There’s never really a question as to whether this is anything but supernatural in origin – this is Old Scratch, not new psychology.

Seed is very Murder Tonight in the Trailer Park Southern Gothic, with all the requisite touches: crumbling house, sins of the father, trailer homes, card reading, religious in-laws. I thought the family sketches were very nicely drawn, with a naturalistic sense of the mixed irritation/affection of the long married – how fights get shorthanded and truncated, each knowing what the other will say and then nodding at the wheel-spinning with something like understanding. I liked the kids, who felt – when they we’re being creepy and evil, of course – like actual kids, not the truth-speaking moppets who drive me mad in many supernatural tales. Hell, if you get right down to it, I even liked when the kids were evil, because I think most parents have at least the one moment when they look down on their child having a nuclear tantrum and think, this child is possessed by the devil. One of mine had a creepy relationship with an imaginary friend who seemed less than imaginary sometimes. (I have a portrait drawn of Ghosty, which is a blank spot on the paper. When I asked about this, the answer was, “Oh, you can’t see him, but he’s there.” Shudder.) 

Jack is so strangely passive in the whole business, for reasons I found murky at best. On one level, I guess I dig it, in that it’s such an unbelievable bummer seeing my less-easy personality quirks visited upon the next generation – sorry about that introversion! and the social anxiety! – but on the other hand, seriously dude, you know what’s going on here, just say it out loud. At times it felt like his lack of affect was being treated as a supernatural quiet, like the hand of the devil was closing his throat, making him play out these scenes. When it wasn’t diablo-ex-machina – which I don’t exactly like, existentially speaking, but can accept in the confines of the story – Jack’s passivity just didn’t track for me. 

But, I still want to call this cute. It may be that the cuteness I am feeling is the very old school nature of the plotting, which serves up a series of reveals and visitations with a stair-treading escalation that isn’t really surprising. I mean, there’s a pet dog: where’s that gonna go? I’m sure he’ll get lots of treats and go live on a farm somewhere. Which isn’t to say I’m bagging on this, and as a slender (one might almost say cute) piece of atmospheric horror, Seedtreads the creaking Gothic stairs very competently. But given the straightforwardness of the plotting, I think this could almost be trimmed to deliver its gut-punches more quickly, like the truncated arguments between the parents. Everybody knows the dice are loaded, just roll them already.

Railsea and Earthsea

One of the reasons I didn’t get to Railseauntil now is that Moby Dickis all over this story, and obviously so. I haven’t ever read Moby Dick, and reading a book without having read the obvious intertexts can be a problem. For example, I know I read The Club Dumas but I was so at sea with all the Dumas-lore that almost none of it stuck. Apparently, seeing a bunch of Three Musketeers movies and having the gist of buddies fighting Cardinal Fang wasn’t enough for me to dig the intertextual story. (But I liked the movie! I know I am a philistine.) But I think Moby Dick, like Frankenstein, is a different situation, in the sense that both of those stories have achieved a level of saturation (at the very least in the States) that you can dig the nods and winks when they come up even if you haven’t read it. They’ve been ground down and seeded into our story-listening DNA. They are molecular at this point.

Hell, even last weekend I was watching The Wrath of Khan- I know; philistine – and Khan in his last scenes spits out the lines, “To the last, I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart, I stab at thee; for hate’s sake, I spit my last breath at thee.” I thought to myself, that is from either Moby Dick or one of the Shakespeare revenge plays. And behold! It is from Moby Dick. (It is somewhat hilarious to consider that Kirk was the Big White Dick in that movie. Ba dump tss.) The crew of the Pequod comes up rather a lot on Trek, the show dealing as it does with explorers and frontiers and the occasional philosophical madness. Alfre Woodard calls Picard Ahab when he’s raging about the Borg in First Contact. He takes her point, and ruefully quotes some lines to her, after which she admits with some embarrassment that she’s never read it. Reference five, Alfre! It’s okay we’ve never read it. It’s in our bones. 

Not that the Moby Dick intertext turned out to be this super huge thing anyway, I say never having read it. Sham ap Soorap is an orphan child-on-the-cusp-of-manhood who is sent off with a moling train as a doctor’s assistant. He appears at the first blood-soaked and swaying on his feet, this powerful image of a bloody boy about to drop. But the story then reverses, chugging, letting you know the half-comfortable events that lead up to this half-uncomfortable image. Railsea is a train-world, where the ocean is stripped and tied with rails in snarls and parallels, all these tracks onto which to lay the story down. The earth of the railsea is a scary place, roiling with all manner of underground monsters: worms, moles, bugs, digger owls. (Like Un Lun Dun, Railsea includes line drawings done by Miéville himself. I toss my underpants on the stage.) It’s a place of reversals and islands and debris, and Sham picks his way through the mess on the ground and underground, and sky and upsky. It seems like a layered world, discrete, with its tracks and isolines, but while the tracks may run linear, the trains on them do not. Oh dear, this is the kind of thing that gets me very hot. 

Railsea has one of those chatty narrators that you sometimes find in young adult literature, like the narrator from The Hobbit but less so. I don’t mean a strong first person voice, like Avice from Embassytown, but a straight up capital-N narrator. My husband and I spent some time talking narrator when I sorted this out about Railsea, and I realized I pretty much only can stand these sort of narrators in young adult fictions. “Name me one chatty narrator in adult fiction,” I said to my man. “Tom Robbins,” he said. I groaned. I admit I loooooved Tom and his narrators before the age of about 25, but after that, no. It’s not even an issue of quality, or my becoming all wise or something, it’s just that all that aggressive meta-narrator stuff aimed at my fully formed personality makes me freak out. I see what you’re doing, so don’t tell me what you’re doing while you’re doing it. But stuff aimed at the unformed? That for some reason doesn’t bug me. I admit my biases are deeply unfair. 

Here’s the thing. I was rolling along in this story, very much enjoying all the usual Miéville touches and flourishes: the weirdness, the half-dashes at local beliefs, the scrubby, bloody rawness. (I admit, I do miss his profanity in this young adult world, but I can forego cussing for other good things.) Then I had the revelation. You guys, this is on some level a riff on A Wizard of Earthsea. How did I not see that before: earthsea, railsea? Omigod, and when Sham and company sail right off the end of the world, on that one impossible track that stretches over the great impossible void, I was breathing right into a bag. Le Guin’s archipelago is the geography of my heart, and while Miéville takes that geography and runs it to a slightly different locale…I’m still breathing into a bag here. My heart, it burns. 

Both of these stories – Railsea, Earthsea – hinge so strongly on their endings and their denouements that I don’t even feel like I can talk about it, even under cover of spoiler. You’d see the terminus of those tracks before you felt the rails, which is part of the point of the thing called story, head out of the window like a dog in the artificial wind. Adventure stories for the young chattily run us from one place to another, confronting impossible and possible monsters, meeting and losing people, learning the tracks of regret and lost opportunities, one’s life narrowing to a single impossible track over the great impossible void. The great thing is that there are seas, whole seas, earthseas beyond the void, and the tracks never run where you expect. Nothing does, even if you knew the shape of Ahab’s philosophy and metaphor-spearing expectations. A railsea does not mean, but be. And 

So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.

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