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From The Agony Column
Preview for Podcast of Monday, March 19, 2007: Get ready to go.
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preview of the Monday March 19, 2007 podcast for The Agony
03-16-07: Lucius Shepard is 'Softspoken'
The Sun Shines Dark On My South Carolina Home
A novel is not
a ghost, but it may haunt you. There's practically no beating the
American south as a setting for horror novels. Lucius Shepard has
visited this clime again and again, each time finding new horrors,
new men and women whose psyches are a primordial soup of every fear
and desire. 'Softspoken' (Night Shade Books ; May 16, 2007 ; $23.95)
is his newest novel of Southern Gothic horror, a hallucinatory mix
of very modern terrors and ancient family secrets. Shepard is one
of America's best-kept secrets, a great writer who produces superb
work every time out of the gate, yet seems to remain beneath the
radar of American mainstream readers. It's the sort of thing that
makes you want to scream, but writers like Shepard do break through,
and when they do, books like this achieve a financial value that
is nearly equal to their literary merit.
bad for not-the-final-cover.
Sanie has moved with her husband Jackson into the Bullard family ancestral
home in rural South Carolina, "a three story home that might have been
featured in the real estate section of The Astral Times." Probably
not a good sign, but then Sanie has other things to worry about. The Bullard
family tree grows from twisted roots. Her husband Jackson has, after all,
moved her into an antebellum mansion that has seen better days yet contains
worse memories. Sanie thinks he might take after his father and that would
not prove to be a good thing. Her sister-in-law Louise is "almost certifiable,
pitiful in her inability to cope with the world." And Jackson's brother,
Will is a real piece of work. He's the sort of fellow you ask how many buttons
of peyote you’re supposed to take, but who knows that the other voice
that Sanie hears in the house when she is alone is probably not one of the
ghosts. None of this bodes well for anyone other than the reader.
'Softspoken' is the perfect definition of Southern Gothic. You've got one
supposedly sane woman who winds up spending a lot of quality time in a large
Southern home. Alone, except for the voices she hears, and the things she
discovers; about the Bullard family, the small statuettes that might have
appeared in a certain famous piece of pulp fiction, the stacks of unsavory
reading material. She's alone with her mind in overdrive.
'Softspoken' is the perfect book to hand someone who thinks that they don’t
write horror novels the way they used to "back in the day". Shepard's
prose is rich and captivating, giving him an uncanny ability to hone in on
his characters' fears, hopes, and nightmares. He brings them to life with
atmospheric intensity, immersing the reader in a rich miasma that permeates
your perceptions. He has an unerring ability to set up a scene of shocking
revelation that reverberates long after the book is closed. 'Softspoken'
is indeed soft-spoken. It is a subtle and powerful novel that perfectly encapsulates
the Southern Gothic. Of the many novels that you may read in a lifetime,
this particular hallucination will stay enmeshed in your memory. But those
memories are not yours. The voice that whispers, speaking softly is not yours.
It's not a ghost. But you are haunted.
03-15-07: Christopher Golden Joins 'The Borderkind'
Book Two of The Veil
don't seem to mind doing their own bit of sampling now
year about this time saw the release of the first book in a
new trilogy by Christopher Golden, 'The Myth
Hunters'. I said then we could trust him to deliver and
deliver he has, with the second book in the planned trilogy
'The Borderkind' (Bantam Spectra / Random House ; April 3,
2007 ; $12). Once again, we join Oliver Bascombe, your not-so-basic
lawyer anymore. And once again, readers have reason to seek
out a novel that delivers on promises of surreal supernatural
scenes and complicated plots. 'The Borderkind' is a trade paperback
that should go on your shelf as soon as it lands on bookseller's
shelves. The cover design by Craig DeCamps is classy, and the
trade paperback format is rather nice. Yes, Golden to my mind
deserves hardcover first editions, but he's getting there.
With 'The Borderkind' we're well beyond setup, one of the reasons I like
Golden's work so much. He doesn't mess around, but he doesn't just write
one continual chase scene either. With 'The Borderkind' the layers of the
world have been peeled back to reveal both wonder and danger. Wonder for
the reader, who can submerse in the spectacle of legends brought to life
and danger for Oliver Bascombe, who finds himself immersed in a mythic
role he never knew he could fulfill.
'The Otherkind' offers Golden a chance to explore lots of mythic archetypes,
to give them literary flesh and life. Having stumbled across the Veil that
separates out world from the world of myth and legend, Bascombe is called
upon help those incarnations survive a force that seeks to destroy them
and thus undo our world as well. Bascombe has a huge stake in all this,
which is why this series is so compelling. On the surreal side, we've got
the legendary quest motif; meanwhile back in the supposedly real world,
Bascombe's fiancée is working with a detective to find a serial
killer who puts out his victim's eyes – and one of those victims
is Oliver's father, while his sister has been kidnapped. The solution will
not be amenable to ordinary methods of detection however – though
they can play their part in the great game. Golden uses his strengths as
a suspense writer to ground his surreal explorations and his strengths
as a writer of the surreal to intensify his suspense. Striding between
two worlds has its benefits.
Golden really has a great series going here, a wonderfully original take
on the Otherworld, the world of Faerie, of Legend -- the literary equivalent
to the Jungian subconscious, where the monsters swim with the memories.
Golden excels at melding the real and the unreal, at keeping the toes tapping
while letting his readers languish in the sometimes garish, sometimes understated
Otherworld beyond the veil. He packs his work with detailed research on
the archetypes an myths of many cultures, but doesn't bog it down. Simply
put, he writes outstanding novels that should appeal to a broad audience
that's willing to journey to the Otherworld. Given the state of things
in this world, that audience is clearly significant and getting larger
every day. While the fictional Otherworld may be in jeopardy in Golden's
novel, I suspect that when they discover the Veil in reality they'll have
to impose some pretty strict immigration laws.
But thankfully, books are the only passports most of us need to get to
the Otherworld. Golden's novel is a fine method of transport, though compulsive
types who like to hold back from starting a series until it is completed
will have to wait just one more year to begin. It's pretty damn certain
that Golden will be wrapping up his visit to the Otherworld then. But readers
who enter can easily decide never to leave again.
03-14-07: Donal O'Shea Delivers 'The Poincaré Conjecture'
A Rubber Band Holding An Apple
in mathematics," writes Donal O'Shea, "are
quiet affairs." But don’t take that to mean that they
make quiet reading. 'The Poincaré Conjecture: In Search of
the Shape of the Universe' (Walker & Company ; March 9, 2007
; $26.95) may describe events in closed room, reasonable people behaving
reasonably. But the impact of these events, the import of these events
literally redefines our place in the universe.
to a point on a sphere. No doughnuts allowed in this
Let's back up a bit, to the turn of the century. The
Clay Mathematics Institute decides to spice up the math world by offering
a million bucks a pop for the answers to seven not-so-simple math problems,
including as they describe them, the Birch and Swinnerton-Dyer Conjecture,
Hodge Conjecture, Navier-Stokes Equations, P vs NP, Poincaré Conjecture,
Riemann Hypothesis, and Yang-Mills Theory. Heady stuff, both the bucks and
The problem is that when you inhabit a world of pure math, the actual world
around you becomes correspondingly less important. Accolades for a solution
to one of these problems are practically meaningless in the face of actually
having solved the problem. Your first and best example of this is Grigory
Perelman's solution to the Poincaré Conjecture, which
I'll replay here from the Clay Institute website for your baffled enjoyment:
"If we stretch a rubber band around the surface of an apple, then we can
shrink it down to a point by moving it slowly, without tearing it and without
allowing it to leave the surface. On the other hand, if we imagine that the same
rubber band has somehow been stretched in the appropriate direction around a
doughnut, then there is no way of shrinking it to a point without breaking either
the rubber band or the doughnut. We say the surface of the apple is "simply
connected," but that the surface of the doughnut is not. Poincaré,
almost a hundred years ago, knew that a two dimensional sphere is essentially
characterized by this property of simple connectivity, and asked the corresponding
question for the three dimensional sphere (the set of points in four dimensional
space at unit distance from the origin). This question turned out to be extraordinarily
difficult, and mathematicians have been struggling with it ever since."
Okey-dokey! Doughnuts in space, I geddit. But behind the math and all the
conjecturing there are always men and women who do the conjecturing. We look
at all sorts of histories in our lives; political and scientific, but math,
so fundamental to our understanding of well, everything, is presented to
us without any human context. 'The Poincaré Conjecture' give readers
both a fundamental understanding of the math and a thorough understanding
of the history, so that when we finally reach the point -- so recently arrived
at -- when we achieve the solution and the human behind the solution proves
to be every bit as mysterious and incomprehensible as the problem itself,
at least we're prepared. One mystery is solved as another is presented.
O'Shea traces the history of the problem from the earliest beginnings of
math itself. It begins with our understanding of the shape of the earth in
Ancient Greece, then on to both Euclidean and non-Euclidean geometry. Cthulhu
ftagn! Then we bump into the first instance of a Clay Institute problem,
The Riemann Hypothesis, which gives a great idea of how math works. On June
10, 1854, Bernhard Riemann was giving his Habilation lecture, an academic
rite of passage. There in the University of Göttingen, Riemann overturned
three thousand years of geometry in a speech with almost no mathematical
notation. It would take almost twenty years for the implications of his work
to make their way into mainstream mathematics. A revolution was launched
with no fanfare of foofaraw. In 19004, Henri Poincaré, offered up
another poser, leaving humanity with a problem that it could not solve.
Fast forward to November 11, 2002, when Grigory Perelman published a paper
on the Internet at www.arXiv.org. At
first it seemed interesting and matter-of-fact, but it quickly became clear
that Perelman had solved the Poincaré conjecture. Last year, Perelman
was awarded the Fields Medal. He declined it. He's certainly able to claim
the million bucks from the Clay Mathematical Institute. But compared to the
Poincaré conjecture, this is a real problem: will Perelman accept
O'Shea's books takes readers on a journey through mental revolution that
have not just shaped our world but altered our understanding of that shape.
It cannot help but be compelling, and more than mildly mathematical. Before
we start seeing the cone-shaped aliens that Rudy Rucker created for 'Mathematicians
in Love', we'd be well advised to have a clue not only about the math
they perceive, but the humans who do the math as well. For all their daunting
complexity, the problems posed by mathematicians are less problematic than
the mathematicians themselves.
03-13-07: Cherie Priest Peels Back 'Dreadful Skin' ; A Review of Christopher
Moore's 'You Suck'
to watch an author's work unfold. Back in 2005, Liz Gorinsky from Tor
was kind enough to send me an ARC of Cherie Priest's 'Four
and Twenty Blackbirds', an outstanding supernatural Southern Gothic,
and the start of a series featuring Eden Moore, both cursed and blessed
with an ability to see ghosts. Most days this might not be a problem
but if you live spitting distance from the killing fields of the Civil
War, well that changes the equation. 'Wings to the Kingdom' continued
Moore's story, weaving mysteries of this world and beyond. Priest is
an evocative, fascinating writer, who invests her novels with a sense
of place and history. Like many writers who work with elements of the
fantastic, she uses them to highlight and externalize all the things
we think about, both good and bad, beautiful and horrific, to bring
those idle thoughts to fictional life. We get a glimpse of what we
don't see in the mirror. The series will conclude with 'Not Flesh Nor
Feathers' coming in October from Tor.
(top) feaures an illsutration also found inside; another
interior illustration (bottom). They're perfect.
In the interim, readers requiring more than a glimpse of the beyond can look
to 'Dreadful Skin' (Subterranean Press ; March 1, 2007 ; $25), a bird of
a different feather from the talented Priest. Priest's Eden Moore novels
are merely, so to speak, drenched in history. 'Dreadful Skin' is in fact
a historical triptych consisting of three novellas in which two characters
circle round one another, drawn together by the changes wrought upon one
when hunting in India. Jack Gabert returns to London, but soon enough finds
that his condition leads him elsewhere; to America, and then to the South.
He ends up on the steamboat Mary Byrd on the Tennessee River, where he meets
Eileen Callaghan, a nun with a gun. And a secret. And the resolve to end
Jack's life. One story at a time.
'Dreadful Skin' includes three novellas that hinge together following these
two characters. "The Wreck of the Mary Byrd" affords us a glimpse
of their meeting aboard a doomed steamboat, while "Halfway to Holiness" suggests
that talking in tongues is not quite so consecrated as those who do so might
have you believe. All that writhing, all that ... becoming. "Our Lady
of the Wasteland and the Hallelujah Chorus" finds a wicked congregation
on the road and seeking converts. In the sense that predators convert their
food. A confrontation between two opposing forces impends.
'Dreadful Skin' is a beautiful book package, chock-full of wonderful period-style
line drawings by Mark Geyer, a lot of them even though they hadn't all been
completed at the time when the ARC was issued. Each panel of this triptych
novel is preceded by a very authorly, Victorian-style introduction. One can
easily see this coming out as three slim novellas in a series at the turn
of the last century. Priest invests her narrative with a motherlode of historical
minutia that keeps the narrative delightfully detailed. And the unique structure
of the novel makes a perfect three-day read. At $25 for a hardcover edition,
it seems like a deal to me, especially given the lovely illustrations.
I also get a very Victorian vibe from this novel. It seems rather similar
to the work of writers like Gordon Dahlquist, Susanna Clarke and Jeffrey
Barlough. These writers don’t just write about the Victorian time period
(and I'm using "Victorian" to cover a wider range of history and
historical fiction than that ruled by the Queen). No, instead, they write
as if they are residing in the time period in which they write. This is a
significant difference and one worth noting. I've written about "New
Victoriana" before and the sub-genre stays remarkably busy. Priest is
a natural for this sort of fiction and we're lucky to have her here. The
tricks of the trade, when used sparingly and wisely, as here, make for a
lovely little bit of fiction. It's possible that Priest shall not revisit
this territory, but we hope she does. We shall watch her career unfold. This
career too, is a tale worth following.
OK, so 'You
Suck' by Christopher Moore doesn't suck. It's
not perfect, but it surely doesn't suck. The review of the book is
the first you're hearing about it here, because like, it was a NATIONAL
aren't the only ones who suck in this novel.
It has a bright blue cover with the words and title 'You Suck' on it, always
guaranteed to get a rise out of the librarian. So, unless you were hiding
under a rock, it's not like you needed me to tell you about it.
Granted, the world these days gives you hundreds, thousands of reasons to
hide under a rock. Moore is not one of them. He won a Quill Award, he's a
bestselling writer, and thank you very much we still can't write him off
ourselves. When he's pretending to be a sixteen year-old girl, he's really
in his element.
'You Suck' is clearly going to stand out in the Moore canon as the novel
that give readers their first full glimpse of Abby Normal. The goth grrl
who narrates chunks of the novel via her diary is so likable you want to
hug her, in chapters with titles like "Being the Chronicles of Abby
Normal: Competely Fucked Servant of the Vampire Flood". You can practically
hear her reading them aloud to you. You wish.
So, here’s the lowdown. You want to read first 'Bloodsucking
Fiends'. Then, read 'A
Dirty Job'. Then, read 'You
Suck'. Then cry, lonely clowns, cry. It’s going to be a while before
we hear from Moore again. I just hope that when we do, he's feeling like
a sixteen year-old girl.
03-12-07: A 2007 Interview with Jenn Ramage and Vendela Vida
Drinking Reindeer Blood
Late last year, I
interviewed Heidi Julavits, and when we had a delightful
discussion about her novel, 'The
Uses of Enchantment', she told me about her co-editors
at The Believer, Vendela Vida and Ed
Park. Vida is herself a writer,
with three titles to her name. Her first novel was 'And Now You Can Go',
an odd concoction in which the heroine, Ellis, is held up by a man who
ends up listening to her recite poetry. What follows is a descent into
the details of violent crime victims, without the violence ever having
been actually perpetrated -- at least by the gunman. Vida blows out her
narrative when Ellis has creepy encounters not with criminals but roommates,
and by sending Ellis off to travel. The book is short, to-the-point and
rather powerful. Vida is a smart writer who leaves you wanting more.
in circles, walking in snow.
She followed this up with 'Girls on the Verge' a fun, odd and rather
sticks-to-you study of the habits and rituals of American girls trying
to make the leap from girlhood to adulthood. 'Girls on the Verge' is
sort of sociology that entertains as much as it informs, and that entertainment
value is a key factor. The stuff that Vida talks about here is really
pretty weird. These are the sorts of stories that get under your skin
and bother you though they don’t suggest, from the look and sound
of them anything particularly disturbing. But the sum of these stories
is indeed disturbing, the sort of statistic that is not amenable to summaries,
tables and graphs.
Vida's new novel is 'Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name', and in
her conversation with Jenn Ramage, she reveals that it is the second
in a planned trilogy of novels that deal with travel, self-definition
and violence. When I spoke to Heidi Julavits, I found her to be a really
fun guest, always on the verge of laughter, and Jenn's conversations
with Vida follows this model. Well, as much as you can laugh about drinking
reindeer blood, which the intrepid Vida did in her traveling research
for her new novel. I love these writers who get gigs writing novels that
require them to travel hither and yon. It's got to be a great deal, even
if it does on the off-occasion come down to drinking mammal blood from
You can download today's podcast in MP3
format, or in RealAudio format.
You can also download a
very short promo trailer in MP3 format, which includes a
bit of background music in a style known as joiking. When I had to put
together the radio version of this promo, I found myself faced with a
seemingly difficult task. Rick Kleffel had to introduce the promo, but
then I had to find a piece of the interview where Jenn Ramage spoke in
a manner that clearly identified her as the interviewer, and then Vida
had to respond in a manner that identified her as the interviewee; their
voices were pretty similar. Then, I had to find some joiking music, which
I did manage to find online. Fortunately, I was dealing with a skilled
interviewer and a fascinating interviewee. It all fell together quite
easily. And I'm not joiking.