Halloween Reads | The Memory Trees by Kali Wallace

“A memory was a thing with no shape, no mass, but indescribable weight. Words spoken in cold winter air, secrets shared, a sprint, a chase, a favor, these things had their own gravity, distorting everything around them like the heaviest star, shaping time and space even when the heart remained hidden.” – Kali Wallace

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These lines open the fourteenth chapter of Kali Wallace’s second novel, The Memory Trees, and they perfectly encapsulate the melancholy but deeply immersive nature of the author’s follow-up to Shallow Graves. Both novels are squarely targeted the ‘Young Adult’ crowd, but, happily, what the successor shares with its predecessor is also an appealing way of crafting characters who are sympathetic and beleaguered but never annoying, and whose ‘young adult’ parameters don’t stop its author from delving into some perennial themes.

The sixteen-year-old Sorrow Lovegood decides to take a trip back to her estranged mother’s rural home in Vermont from Miami, where she’s living with her dad and where, crucially, she is undergoing therapy — in large part due to the tragic (and still mysterious) death of her sister, Patience, eight years prior.

Hoping to find some much-needed emotional closure — and, even, to address some disquieting gaps in her memory pertaining to her sister’s untimely demise — Sorrow’s trip to Vermont ends up tumbling her into a fresh barrel of anxieties. While the (now mute) grandmother appears determined to serve as something of a gentle guiding hand throughout, her mother, Verity, only appears to have grown more neurotic as the years went by. A neurosis that manifests itself most potently whenever the subject of the dreaded Abramses is brought up.

For as we learn early on in this narrative in which the distant past is interlaced with the present, the feud between the Abramses and the Lovegoods stretches deep. And Sorrow’s family legacy is known to have something peculiarly ‘witchy’ about it…

kali wallace

Kali Wallace

The great thing, possibly the greatest thing, about The Memory Trees is that it remains a sensitive coming-of-age story despite the complex, time-hopping weave it’s dropped into. Even if we were to strip off the peculiarities of Sorrow’s situation — though why would we do that? — Wallace’s story would remain a valid exploration of growing up with both a tragedy and a secret hanging over your head, all the while trying to make heads or tails out of everything as your supposed adult superiors are of zero help.

A consistent characteristic of Sorrow’s relationship with her mother is the girl’s fear of saying the wrong thing, her aching need to walk on eggshells as she speaks to her. Apart from helping to form an image of Verity as a nerve-wracking Gothic matron in our minds, this quirk in their relationship is easy to relate to, and as Sorrow struggles to negotiate this psychological minefield, we’re with her all the way.

She even characterizes it as such at one point.

“Verity would ask her about the festival, and Sorrow would have to decide how to answer. She didn’t want to lie. She didn’t want to tell the truth. She hated the feeling that every possible thing she could say to her mother was a potential land mine, and she was navigating a path so narrow she could barely keep her balance.”

But the setting is also a character in and of itself, and Wallace certainly gets plenty of mileage out of it all being set on one farm, with the action and stakes calibrated on a long-drawn out ‘showdown’ between the two families: a showdown that is, perhaps, currently dormant, but which is rearing to bubble back up to the surface at the slightest provocation.

This palpable dread is masterfully turned into a creepy, autumnal vibe throughout the novel, which not only keeps the pages turning, but allows for moments of real beauty, too. Anyone with even a slight predilection for whatever we’re celebrating during Halloween will find something to love in Wallace’s evocations of the landscape; the valleys groaning with horror and promise, the huge, gnarly trees acting as ominous edges to the scene.

Because this is, after all, a book about memory. And memory has plenty of room for both trauma and nostalgia.

This review as based on an uncorrected proof of The Memory Trees, which is out on October 10.

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Bits of October | The Favourite Season

Eye of the storm: M'Scala, Malta, 05/10/14

Eye of the storm: M’Scala, Malta, 05/10/14

The heat has finally decided to recede but the weather is still nice – October is equivalent to spring in Malta but it comes with Halloween attached, therefore it wins.

Traditionally associated with decay, the season has actually borne some fruit for me already, so it’s just a matter of maintaining a productive momentum now.

Some moments to boast about, because that’s how the web-generation rolls.

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Custom dust jacket by The Secret Rose

Custom dust jacket by The Secret Rose

The New Weird anthology of short fiction and essays (edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer) may not be the absolute best and/or influential book I’ve ever read, but it’s had a strong enough impact on my post-adolescence creative life to warrant at least its own custom dust jacket.

The anthology introduced me to M. John Harrison – ‘The Luck in the Head’ is proof that genre-inflected surrealism could really be a thing, with atmosphere to boot – and it made me sit up and pay attention to Clive Barker, as ‘In the Hills, the Cities’ showed me that far from being superficial trafficker in splatter, Barker is interested in tapping into the primoridal (at a stretch, ‘pagan’) strain of horror fiction. It has even led to friendship, as Alistair Rennie’s blistering, shocking and hilarious ‘The Gutter Sees the Light that Never Shines’ (the only original story in the anthology) made me seek out the author online, and a couple of years later I found myself sitting on the sofa of his plush Edinburgh pad showing him a video recording of a round-robin reading my friends and I performed of the story (in funny voices).

Its carnivalesque meld of genre elements and literary fiction made me feel like kindred spirits were around: that I could consolidate my since-childhood love of genre fiction with a newfound love of carefully constructed language and intertextual lit games. This spark was an extra kick in the butt to kick-start one of my enduring (collaborative) passion projects, Schlock Magazine, and the addendum essays gave a necessary backbone to my MA dissertation on the New Weird.

I knew my friend Sarah Micallef – aka The Secret Rose – would be able to meet this challenge, and then some.

Click here to get the full lowdown on how she put this baby together.

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Cover illustration by Vincent Chong

Cover illustration by Vincent Chong

Speaking of Schlock, this month we’re resurrecting from our summer-slumber (blame the aforementioned heat) just in time for – again – Halloween, and I’m quite happy with what’s in store.

Already up is our interview with prolific writer and editor of The Spectral Book of Horror Stories Mark Morris, along with a profile of Spectral publisher Simon Marshall-Jones.

I like the unsentimental approach Morris has towards fiction writing; an inevitable survival tool, perhaps, considering he’s written tie-in material for properties like Doctor Who, Spartacus and the Dead Island video game.

Here’s my favourite extended quote from the interview:

“I accepted the ‘Dead Island’ commission – an 80,000 word novel in four weeks, based on nothing more substantial than 15 pages of gaming notes. I panicked and sweated over that one for an hour or two after accepting it, and then knuckled down and within half a day produced a novel plan and writing schedule, which I stuck to rigidly. That then gave me the confidence to write a Spartacus novel, which again was an 80,000 words in four weeks job. I’d never seen the TV series and knew nothing about the ancient Roman Empire, but I said yes and just got on with it.”

In the weeks ahead we’ll also be featuring analyses on Penny Dreadful, along with an excellent essay on the ‘splatpunk’ horror sub-genre that delightfully skates a fine line between academic rigour and fannish enthusiasm.

Click here to read our full interview with Mark Morris.

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We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

It has also been a good season for reading so far. I’ve finished Karen Joy Fowler’s Booker-nominated We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves last night; having zipped through it in little over a week (a busy work week, I hasten to add). Though I think it’s ultimately not as hard-hitting and profound as it could have been (strong ideas are suggested but never allowed to fully take root), it remains an endearing and touching read. Fowler is clearly an effortless storyteller; there’s a fine balance of heart and mind all throughout, and the back-and-forth narrative is effervescent and rich.

On an entirely different tangent, Jeff VanderMeer’s conclusion to his Southern Reach trilogy was both obliquely satisfying and inspiring. To some readers’ frustration, Acceptance deliberately refuses to wrap up every single mystery at the heart of Area X. But I found its oblique approach to be its most powerful quality.

Acceptance

In fact, ‘oblique’ is what is best about both the VanderMeer and the Fowler book. Among other things, memory is Fowler’s theme, and the fragmented hopping back and forth of her narrator Rosemary is what lends the book both its charming conversational rhythm and uncanny poignancy.

VanderMeer, on the other hand, enhances his genre-collage by coming at everything sideways and leaving plenty of leftover gaps for the reader. Gaps which, thanks to his left-field manipulation of genre details, create a creepy – in the literal sense of ‘creeping’ – effect over the proceedings.

I will be talking about the Southern Reach Trilogy with my good friend Marco Attard, for an upcoming edition of his Pop Culture Destruction ‘Destructcast’.

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The Southern Reach Trilogy is also about our mistreatment of the natural world and its enduring power despite all of this, so I was glad to experience some of nature’s wrath first-hand during a picnic-cum-hike at one of Malta’s few remaining spots of unblemished ‘nature’.

Far from being a damper on our outing, a sudden storm lent a welcome atmosphere to our adventure. We found shelter and watched the rain and lightning, and the mud-caked trip back ensured we experienced something of an adventure too.

I couldn’t have asked for a better way to usher autumn in (see image above).

Monsters Do It Better: Oscar Season

Caravaggio's Medusa
A couple of things I came across on the web serve as a nice addendum to a previous blog post, where I complain about how anemic Oscar-nominated films tend to be.
China Mieville’s argument that Halloween is not an enemy to contemporary socialists – if ‘done well’ – bears the kernel of what I was complaining about. Allowing your kids to dress up as cowboys for Halloween means just succumbing to the capitalist machine; making them dress as ZOMBIE cowboys – thereby allowing the still-existent chthonic underbelly that Halloween hints at – is good, because it acknowledges the topsy-turvy disorder that Halloween (like Carnival) encourages – a temporary subversion of the status quo.
And films that are nominated or Oscars tend to be guilty of promoting this ‘vanilla’ view of culture. 12 Years a Slave appears to be searing, but it comes draped in the trappings of stereotypical period dramas – the worst of both worlds. American Hustle appears to be an edgy look at how the capitalist machine in America functions, but it’s too keen to please it viewers to allow for anything genuine to seep through.
Robocop 2014
This isn’t just limited to Oscar fare, either. The Robocop remake has been released to some negative press in the US and UK, and it appears to have fallen into a similar trap. It’s not a freakish creation like its original – a wonderful aberration by Paul Verhoven that doubles up as a satire of the Regan administration. As a wonderful article on The Guardian illustrates, Verhoven was successful – and this counts for his subsequent films Total Recall and Starship Troopers too – because he had a keen grasp of how the grotesque works.
His films walk like dumb action flicks, but talk like something far more playful.
It’s this commitment to your vision that I tend to admire, and that I want to champion here. Just like wearing non-supernatural, non-horror costumes in favour of something generic for Halloween is a disservice to the imagination and the subversive implications of the festival, so does making concessions to the audience and the established cultural order make for maimed storytelling.
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I admire China Mieville for saying what basically amounts to “Sometimes a monster is just a monster.” By making monsters obvious ‘symbols’ for something, you divest them of their real power. Monsters will always mean something, of course, but they can stand for a rich variety of things – as opposed to some single, often hackneyed idea – if you just let them be.
Utopian vision: Let the work do its work. And don’t give awards to work that is more interested in glory and appeasing the status quo than in delivering good work.

The Quiet Halloween Mind-Feast

While my teenage sister was out on the town rocking a Wednesday Addams get-up (her ‘bff’ went as Morticia so they stalked the small island nightlife scene with old-school-goth panache), I had no Halloween party to go to.

That’s a lie, actually: I could have very easily – and very lazily – donned my stock Dracula cape and multi-purpose 18th century broach, waxed my moustache and tagged along with my younger sibling, to revisit the local rock club for some Halloween fun, as well as a healthy dollop of nostalgia.

But in what is probably another sign that I’m getting old before my time, I opted to stay in to read instead. Fridays are hard work for me anyway – so that there’s a distinctly non-Halloweeny sense of dread looming over every Thursday evening.

The reading was as ritualistic as I could make it though, so some sense of commemoration was kept. I indulged in Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Masque of the Red Death‘ for umpteenth time; it’s a story that I keep returning to for its visceral and visual impact, but would you believe that I have yet to fully conjure up an image of Prospero’s castle in my head? Maybe that’s why I keep returning to it.

The fact that Gabriel Byrne did a brilliant reading of it some years back helps too, of course:

After I was done, I got the urge to revisit what is probably one of my favourite literary tributes of all time: Laird Barron‘s ‘Strappado’, published in the Ellen Datlow anthology Poe, released in commemoration of the macabre master’s 200th anniversary. It’s a glorious mash-up of both ‘Masque’ and ‘The Cask of Amontillado‘ – probably my second-favourite of Poe’s stories, and updates their most horrifying elements in a way that makes my skin crawl.

Though Lovecraft – my second choice for the evening’s reading – is perhaps more vulnerable to this than Poe due to his stylistic excesses, the visual furniture and 19th century narration that fuels Poe’s tales can sometimes soften their impact (if not all that substantially). Barron’s story doesn’t have this problem. I don’t want to write a detailed crit of it – I like it too much anyway – but do check out the anthology if you can, it’s got a few other gems in store.

My reading of HP Lovecraft’s ‘He‘ was cut short by my drooping eyelids. However, I returned to it after a ranging storm woke me from my slumber… which I appreciated for providing some holiday-appropriate mood, if nothing else. But the story is truly one of Lovecraft’s lesser works, any terror undermined by its ridiculous antagonist and the logorrithic miasma that works much better in the Cthulhu stories than it does here.

Re-reading can be far more pleasurable and rewarding than reading something for the first time. It has the ability to etch stories in you like incantations, like prayers that remind you of who you are. If the stories and the storm congeal into something meaningful for my writing, that would be truly great.