Varieties of Viking | The Raven’s Table by Christine Morgan

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Though the Norse side of the equation hasn’t penetrated the Western cultural imaginary as thoroughly as the Ancient Greek and Roman equivalents, it’s safe to say that Vikings and the tales they carry with them retain a firm grasp on our collective consciousness.

You don’t have to venture very far to spot how appealing both historical narratives of Vikings and associated Norse mythology remains to this day. Just this month, Neil Gaiman — arguably the most popular and celebrated fantasy writer of our time — released his own take on some key stories from that domain, and the History Channel TV show Vikings appears to be trotting along rather nicely into a new season thanks to healthy ratings and online buzz.

But against this backdrop of an audience ever-hungry for more stories of the hardy men and women of the North, and the fantastical stories that sustain their sanguine worldview, a new player arrives on the scene of offer a shade of the weird and the majestic to that already rich weave. Released in the coming days from the ever-dependable American indie publisher Word Horde, Christine Morgan’s The Raven’s Table presents 18 examples of ‘Viking Stories’.

Standing tall: Still from Vikings (The History Channel)

Standing tall: Still from Vikings (The History Channel)

Given Word Horde’s standing as an exemplary publisher of off-the-beaten track genre fiction, one would expect Morgan’s collection to take a ‘genre’ tack to the history of the Northmen — and true to form, Morgan’s stories certainly take a liberal approach to both history and the parameters of reality, with all the stories featuring at least some element of the supernatural. Happily, however, this broadens out beyond a predictable association with the Sword ‘n Sorcery genre — the logical, obvious generic frame for Viking stories — to encompass a rich array of styles and storytelling modes.

But beyond the make-up of the individual stories in and of themselves, a feature that remains a running thread throughout is Morgan’s deft grasp of pacing and tension; ensuring that readers turn the pages while always being at the ready with a surprise. This is complemented by Word Horde’s consistently clever editorial approach, and once again the stories are grouped together in a way that complements their tone and approach.

In fact, The Raven’s Table opens with a grisly flourish, as the inaugural tale, ‘The Barrow-Maid’ spins a lurid yarn of treachery and vengeful resurrection that uses some fundamentals of the viking lifestyle — or rather, death-style — to give way to a zombie story with a hugely satisfying catharsis.

But beyond the make-up of the individual stories in and of themselves, a feature that remains a running thread throughout is Morgan’s deft grasp of pacing and tension

This is perhaps the story that most clearly recalls Morgan’s association to the Bizarro genre-cum-movement; with its freewheeling embrace of the violent and the grotesque. While it certainly makes for a great opener and a hugely satisfying story  in its own right, it made this reader happy to discover that it wasn’t really there to set the tone for the rest of the collection, which gives way to more varied — and even gentle — stories in this otherwise unforgiving milieu.

Thor Battering the Midgard Serpent by Henry Fuseli (1790)

Thor Battering the Midgard Serpent by Henry Fuseli (1790)

Along with tales of battles and their aftermath, there are stories of metamorphosis that clearly draw on a rich mythic and folktale tradition; whose sense of pacing and dramatic irony Morgan manipulates into the viking world with great effect. Among these is the heartbreaking ‘The Mottled Bear’ which, once again, comes with a hard-earned catharsis that will make the reader whoop with vindictive joy through their tears.

But there is also ‘To Fetter the Fenris Wolf’, whose metamorphosis comes late in the story to give full bloom to the theme of marginalized women in a patriarchal society. That story also deals with the power of storytelling itself, and is one among many examples in the collection of Morgan using the poetic idiom of key Norse texts such as the Elder Edda to insert stories-within-stories in which the characters reiterate the key folk narratives of their time.

Along with tales of battles and their aftermath, there are stories of metamorphosis that clearly draw on a rich mythic and folktale tradition

Some of these poetic interludes are stand-alone entries — ‘At Ragnarok, The Goddesses’, ‘The Shield Wall’, ‘As We Drown and Die’ — but more often they are framed by a wider story, as in ‘The Vulgarity of Giants’, where an imprisoned band of vikings recall the story of Thor vs the giant Geirrod in a desperate attempt to boost their morale.

Horror also features heavily in the anthology, which is hardly surprising given Word Horde’s predilection for contemporary weird fiction in general and — as it happens — Lovecraftian fiction in particular, with Morgan channeling the sometimes controversial but enduringly popular pioneer of cosmic horror in not one, but two stories.

My favourite from this bunch has got to be ‘With Honey Dripping’, a gloriously perverse depiction of a pagan ritual to ‘Ia Sib-Njurath’ that is far more sexually explicit than anything Lovecraft would have dared to imagine, with Morgan thankfully going all-out to depict a shocking ritual that achieves a kind of grotesque, orgiastic splendour by dint of being entirely unfettered.

Popular imaginary: Jamie Alexander as Lady Sif in Thor: The Dark World (2011)

Popular imaginary: Jamie Alexander as Lady Sif in Thor: The Dark World (2013)

On the other hand, ‘Aerkheim’s Horror’ gives a viking spin to the Lovecraftian fear of miscegenation — particularly the ‘fish men’ of ‘The Shadow Over Innsmouth’ — with Morgan evoking a sharp sense of dread as the oblivious viking crew washes up on a seemingly arid island whose ancient inhabitants will not leave without a sanity-shattering fight.

There is more traditional horror too, with the vampire-tinged ‘Sven Bloodhair’ and the folksy siren tale ‘Njord’s Daughter’. Also noteworthy is ‘Nails of the Dead’, narrated in a voice that would make Edgar Allan Poe proud and whose central image — a ship made entirely out of human nails — will certainly stick in the mind.

All of which is to say that The Raven’s Table may not be the revisionist viking story anthology you’re perhaps looking for — though male : female representation is pretty solid, it remains limned by the political realities of the period it depicts, and by a general desire to spin gripping yarns evoking traditional narratives — and neither is it a flinty, historically accurate portrayal of viking life as it was lived.

But Morgan’s collection certainly is a gripping read through-and-through. It takes all the things we find appealing about vikings and their world — the propensity towards righteous violence, a kind of vaunted machismo as a way of life and a mythic world that’s both weird and epic — and distributes them evenly across a tonally rich and inspired set of stories.

Morgan certainly taps into the raw nerve of the ‘viking imaginary’, but not in a way that feels mercenary. Rather, this is a labour of love about a period and a people we all seem to find very easy to love, despite their violent, rough edges.

The Raven’s Table is out from Word Horde on February 28

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Designing the thrill ride | Editor and Publisher Ross E. Lockhart on Eternal Frankenstein

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Ross E. Lockhart

A hard-working and eminently likeable presence in the field of speculative fiction small press, editor and publisher Ross E. Lockhart takes a seat at the Soft Disturbances lounge to chat about Eternal Frankenstein – a 16-story tribute to Mary Shelley’s groundbreaking science fiction and Gothic horror classic – which he edited this year for Word Horde. He also delves into what makes this increasingly essential genre fiction publishing house tick, before letting us in on the Frankenstein story of his dreams…

eternal-frankenstein

 

First off; why Frankenstein, and why now? Mary Shelley’s text has been a touchstone for quite some time, so what made you think that now is the right moment to put together an anthology like Eternal Frankenstein?

This summer was the bicentennial of ‘The Year Without a Summer’, wherein massive climate instability was caused by the 1815 eruption of Mt Tambora in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), blanketing the Northern Hemisphere in miserable weather. A young English couple – Percy Shelley and Mary Godwin – decided to escape the apocalyptic rain and constant cold (and majorly dysfunctional families) by staying with a friend in Switzerland, Lord Byron.

Mary Shelley (1797-1851)

Mary Shelley (1797-1851)

Percy and Mary brought along Mary’s cousin Claire, and Byron was attended by his personal physician, John Polidori. One stormy night, as the five sat indoors, reading ghost stories by firelight, Byron proposed a ghost story competition. That night, Mary had a dream that would inspire her to write Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, which she would publish anonymously in 1818.

The book and its many adaptations fascinate me, and I believe the story is one of the most intricate and poignant myths of the modern era.

Beyond this anniversary, I’ve been a Frankenstein fan since I saw James Whale’s Universal films as a kid. The book and its many adaptations fascinate me, and I believe the story is one of the most intricate and poignant myths of the modern era. I also looked at things from a commercial standpoint, and I realized that (with the exception of Steve Berman’s Daughters of Frankenstein: Lesbian Mad Scientists) it had been a long time since anybody had published an all-original Frankenstein-themed anthology.

As with other Word Horde anthologies I’ve had the pleasure of reading in the not-too-distant past, Eternal Frankenstein is a finely crafted piece of editorial work, with stories clearly selected to intensify certain through-lines and motifs: teenage angst, anti-communist hysteria and the reanimated automaton as a cog in the military machine, to mention just a few. How did you set about identifying these themes? And to deepen a bit further: why do you think the legacy of Shelley’s text accommodates these themes and images in particular?

Editing an anthology is a lot like building Frankenstein’s monster. You start by digging through graveyards, finding pieces, and seeing how those pieces fit together. You take chances. You invite authors whose work you enjoy, and you say “show me what you’ve got”. You tweak and you fine-tune and you experiment and arrange, and eventually a creature takes form, comes to life, and shambles out into the countryside, demanding a mate.

I work with authors who are constantly striving to produce the best possible work, and I’m willing to push those authors to do better.

Frankenstein by Bernie Wrightson

Frankenstein by Bernie Wrightson

Given that Shelley’s novel continues to hold such an influential sway over our culture, was it actually easier to amass short fiction of adequate quality and variety for Eternal Frankenstein, when compared to other anthologies you’ve put together? Or did the process pan out in more or less the same way?

Eternal Frankenstein is my seventh anthology, and while these books are always challenging in their own way, and a lot of work, I’ve developed a system that keeps things on track in a more-or-less smooth way. I work with authors who are constantly striving to produce the best possible work, and I’m willing to push those authors to do better.

Frontispiece for the 1831 edition of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Illustrated by Theodore Von Holst (Steel engraving; 993 x 71mm)

Frontispiece for the 1831 edition of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Illustrated by Theodore Von Holst (Steel engraving; 993 x 71mm)

Ultimately, I want stories that are going to resonate with readers, stories readers will remember for the rest of their lives. One of the things that inspires me about Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is that she was trying to write a story that would be as powerful and memorable as anything written by Percy or Byron. And I think she managed, with Frankenstein, to outshine both of them.

There is an analogy I frequently use when talking about anthologies: The Thrill Ride

And on that note, do you have any iron-clad principles you adhere to when putting together Word Horde anthologies?

That it be fun. There is an analogy I frequently use when talking about anthologies: The Thrill Ride. Like the designer of a roller coaster or carnival dark ride, the anthologist is directing a reader’s experience. You carefully arrange things, the climb, the fall, the sudden turn, the loop. You seed in shocks and scares. You direct the reader’s view. But you also have to keep things moving. Always moving. Sure, readers jump in, read stories out of their intended sequence – that’s a reader’s right. But one must never forget that a book is best read from cover to cover, each story in conversation with the ones before, each setting the stage for the next story to come.

Word Horde is certainly becoming something of a standard-bearer for the genre small press. How would you say it’s evolved to this point, and what are your future ambitions for it?

I’m really happy with the way that Word Horde has been received. I’m currently publishing five books a year, picking projects carefully, and getting work out there that has something to say and shakes up the complacency so common in by-the-numbers genre fiction. If you’ve enjoyed what I published in 2016, you’re going to love what’s coming in 2017. And Word Horde may be a small press but we’ve got big ideas, so stay tuned.

Still from Frankenstein Conquers The World (1965)

Still from Frankenstein Conquers The World (1965)

Finally… what would your own Frankenstein story look like?

Just off the top of my head, remember Monster Island from the Godzilla films? I’d like to tell the story of Frankenstein Island. All the various cinematic Frankenstein’s monsters – Charles Ogle, Boris Karloff, Glenn Strange, Koji Furuhata, Phil Hartman, Robert De Niro –building a civilization on a remote island. Though I’m not sure whether that society would be a utopia, dystopia, or something in between.

Check out my Eternal Frankenstein read-a-thon in all its entirety for reviews of each of the stories in the collection.

Please consider donating to the Patreon for MIBDUL – Malta’s very first serialized comic!

Eternal Frankenstein read-a-thon #14 | David Templeton

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been reviewing the new Word Horde anthology Eternal Frankenstein, edited by Ross E. Lockhart. As was the case with my read-a-thon of Swords v Cthulhu, I tackled the anthology story by story, and my reviewing method was be peppered with the cultural associations that each of these stories inspire. These were presented with no excuse, apology or editorial justification. Now, please enjoy the final review of the series.

eternal-frankenstein

Mary Shelley’s Body by David Templeton

 

And now, at the very end of Lockhart’s anthology, we get a focus on the body — the ultimate body as far as we’re concerned: that of Mary Shelley, the originator of all of the things we’ve been discussing so far, and one of the most fecund imaginations of the Romantic and/or Gothic high point of literature — an unexpected force to be reckoned with considering her young age when she composed her key work, and her compromised — some would say relentlessly tragic — private life.

David Templeton’s novella — it is in fact the longest piece in Eternal Frankenstein — makes for a fitting conclusion to this varied and comprehensive tribute to the legacy of Shelley’s most famous work, by forcing a fictionalised version of the beleaguered author to confront her many demons, seemingly as a final goodbye before parting the world for good.

In turn, the story also forces us, the readers, to come face-to-face with Frankenstein’s many themes and emotional implications; some of which weigh on the very real side of disturbing: not just in their Gothic power to enthrall and terrify by dint of grotesque detail and atmosphere, but also because of the tortured psychological place they come from, the biographical backbone of which Templeton makes it a point to unpeel, explore and embroider further to craft his novella.

Mary Shelley (1797-1851)

Mary Shelley (1797-1851)

The setting is as baldly Gothic as they come, though, with Shelley’s disembodied form rising from her Bournemouth grave to settle a score initially mysterious to her. What follows is something of a rambling confessional whose shape, like the Creature Shelley constantly makes reference to in various ways, could have used some trimming and re-arrangement.

While the concept is a worthwhile one — and, again, a perfect note to end the anthology on — that does come with a real emotional pay-off in the end, Templeton’s decision to go over some of the key moments of Shelley’s life, as well as key passages of Frankenstein, will come across as a tad tiresome to those of us familiar with the scenes and passages in question.

What’s even more problematic is that Templeton doesn’t really do all that much to upend expectations, either: the obvious connection between the death of Mary’s mother while giving birth to her is made yet again, while Mary waxes lyrical about her Creature while condemning Victor Frankenstein as a coward at best, a clueless, callous bastard at worst.

But the digressive nature of it all is part of the point — this is a kind of mental Groundhog Day for our poor Mary, and if nothing else, Templeton demonstrates a key understanding of what makes Shelley’s work tick. And neither would it be fair to say that he succumbs entirely to boilerplate interpretations of the text; Victor Frankenstein’s failure is eventually revealed to be Mary’s own, in connection with the death of her first unborn child.

Ultimately, here we have a story about bodies — the bodies we encounter and the body that we inhabit, and all of the complexity that that implies once we’re forced to stop taking them for granted. This complexity falls down on Frankenstein’s Creature like a ton of bricks since he is first brought into the world, and so it serves to offset our own lives at any given moment. And, finding a suitably tortured test subject in Mary Shelley, Templeton uses the opportunity to zone in on these moments at various points in time: from bodies freshly born and vulnerable, to those sickly and decaying… and everything in between.

The body is all we have. And at some point, we were all Frankenstein’s Creature. At some point, we will BE Frankenstein’s Creature yet again. This, above all, is why Shelley’s legacy endures, and why it’s likely to help create more anthologies like Eternal Frankenstein in the years to come.

Read previous: Kristi DeMeester

Stay tuned for an interview with Ross E. Lockhart, the editor of Eternal Frankenstein!

Eternal Frankenstein read-a-thon #13 | Kristi DeMeester

In the coming weeks, I will be reviewing the new Word Horde anthology Eternal Frankenstein, edited by Ross E. Lockhart. As was the case with my read-a-thon of Swords v Cthulhu, I will be tackling the anthology story by story, and my reviewing method will be peppered with the cultural associations that each of these stories inspire. These will be presented with no excuse, apology or editorial justification.

eternal-frankenstein

The Beautiful Thing We Will Become by Kristi DeMeester

There might be something to the niggling assumption that, Mary Shelley having penned Frankenstein when she was merely nineteen years old helps to lend the book with the urgent, neurotic charge that it the necessary flipside to the life-and-death energy that characterises youth.

The ‘outsider’ status of the creature is the biggest element in favour of that interpretation, but I would argue that there’s also something to Victor Frankenstein’s initially obsessive, but ultimately brittle commitment to his project that speaks to the young person’s unease of matching their dreams — and nightmares — to the cold slap of reality.

As we’ve already seen, Lockhart himself appears to be very sensitive to this, what with two back-to-back stories from Eternal Frankenstein capitalising on the legacy of Shelley’s original story by juxtaposing it to a high school context, with inspired results.

The strand is however also picked up by Kristi DeMeester, though her take is less about the social dynamics of the high school than it is about the harried bonds of love that develop among young friends at that delicate stage. More importantly, it’s about how just a small push into stranger territory can alter these young lives, seemingly for good.

teenage-frankenstein

Our Frankenstein’s Creature is one Katrina, and the narrator is a hanger-on best friend who grows curious about Katrina’s — initially slight — hints of bodily modification. But family history steps in to ensure this morphs into a full-on obsession: after her father abandons her mother in pursuit of a younger (and crucially, slimmer) woman, the narrator is thrown into a calorie-counting frenzy by a newly weight-conscious single mother.

This serves to give a keener edge to her attraction to Katrina, which is really an attraction towards the grisly experiments her kindly but eccentric father performs on his daughter.

DeMeester writes from the point of view of the narrator’s eerie emotional state, and as such the narrative voice isn’t judgmental, but fully immersed in a world that sees self-destruction as a form of salvation and horrific acts of bodily modification by a demented patriarchal figure as something to embrace. Needless to say, the effect is disturbing. But since we’re so close to the narrator all the way through, we achieve a strange sort of empathy with her journey.

DeMeester morphs disgust into madness and back into love, leaving us to observe the journey with nervous awe.

Read previous: Nathan Carson

Eternal Frankenstein read-a-thon #11 | Scott R. Jones

In the coming weeks, I will be reviewing the new Word Horde anthology Eternal Frankenstein, edited by Ross E. Lockhart. As was the case with my read-a-thon of Swords v Cthulhu, I will be tackling the anthology story by story, and my reviewing method will be peppered with the cultural associations that each of these stories inspire. These will be presented with no excuse, apology or editorial justification.

eternal-frankenstein

Living by Scott R. Jones

Since horror and fantasy are, broadly speaking, my favourite of the classic speculative fiction categories — while a wide berth is given to the Weird and any form of intermixing — my experience with literary sci-fi falls a bit on the lean side.

That said, the sci-fi favourites I do have, I cling to very dearly indeed, dipping in for regular re-reads. Mary Shelley’s Frankestein is actually one of them. The other is William Gibson’s pioneering work of cyberpunk fiction, Neuromancer. And despite the fact that both novels were written over a century apart from each other and that, apart from their central commitment to a science fictional set of ideas, situations and concepts, could not be further apart in tone, narrative rhythm and scope, I like to think of both of them as being complementary.

Shelley addresses the limits of bodily modification and reanimation, and problematises the notion of a creature created ex nihilo, but without the embracing context of family and community. The Creature in Shelley’s text grasps at the world outside of itself to give it meaning — it feeds on what we can widely describe as ‘culture’ to legitimise itself, but all the while its aberrant bodily shape snuffs out any chance of real belonging.

It is a tale of bodies and what they mean, and how we process or fail to process their realities: be it the Creature’s own failed — but understandable — attempts at making peace with its uniquely tormented predicament, or Victor Frankenstein’s refusal to take responsibility for his engineered progeny, largely on the basis of its physical appearance and its implications.

Frankenstein by Bernie Wrightson

Frankenstein by Bernie Wrightson

In the end, both characters are disappointed by the fact that their physical reality doesn’t match up with the abstract dreams they have: Victor’s Creature doesn’t conform to the aesthetic decorum he may have wished to achieve with his experiment — which further cements the fact that his work is an affront to God — while the Creature’s admirable self-taught attempts at becoming intellectually and emotionally sensitive are ultimately rendered moot by the limits of its body.

The innovation of Neuromancer, on the other hand, was to circumvent the body altogether in favour of an exploration of the cybernetic singularity which has since become rote not only in fiction, but in daily life too (you’re reading this online, aren’t you?). The open hostility that some of Gibson’s characters espouse for ‘meat’ (i.e., traditional biological bodily structures) are a testament to this, and seem to suggest that Frankenstein got the ball rolling, but that the future imagined in Gibson’s model is in some ways the logical conclusion of Victor Frankenstein’s experiment.

To wit, the trick to circumvent mortality is not through some messy and pathetic attempt at stitching together dead body parts and reanimating them… the trick is to embrace the possibility of downloading and replicating your consciousness in a virtual realm that edges closer and closer to our ‘real’ one.

In his contribution to Lockhart’s anthology, Scott R. Jones happily meshes together both of these key strands in sci-fi, but in a way that they don’t, in fact, cancel each other out. In the snow-capped setting that recalls both — of course — the bookending sections of Shelley’s novel, as well as pop culture artefacts like John Carpenter’s The Thing in its depiction of rugged outliers gazing suspiciously ahead at a mysterious and dangerous mission, Scott injects his version of the Creature with both anger and agency.

Frozen waste: The Thing (1982)

Frozen waste: The Thing (1982)

The story itself is largely composed of a monologue delivered by the same stand-in for the Creature; a military experiment gone awry and who is now on a vindictive mission to find and execute its creator, Aldo Tusk of ‘Eidolon’ — a corporation or military body of some kind which has apparently OK’d Tusk’s mission to stitch together a super-soldier.

As the ‘asset’ beings its narrative, we learn that it’s made up of various body parts made to fight in unison, and the voice of the monologue is laced with a sarcastic bitterness that the Romantically pained Creature from Shelley’s original novel would never have managed. Later on, Jones adds another twist of black humour by suggesting that the Creature’s programming includes orgasmic delight at an enemy kill. This guarantees that the story has the edge and attitude normally associated with cyberpunk, but more importantly, it also means that the Creature here is a fighter, and not a subject of pity as in Shelley’s text.

It's alive? The 'birth' scene from Paul Verhoeven's Robocop (1987)

It’s alive? The ‘birth’ scene from Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop (1987)

And in fact, it’s through cyberpunk ‘means’ that the hint of complete emancipation appears to suggest itself. While the beginnings of the asset’s career as a patchwork soldier are as abject as ever — they even recall Robocop‘s forced resurrection as a hybrid fighting for someone else’s agenda — the gleeful bite as she/it reveals just the programming has been circumvented is a joy to read.

A spirited and inspired mash-up of key strands of the sci-fi genre (at least from my admittedly limited POV) with a highly satisfying revenge kick to round things off.

Read previous: Martin, Falksen

 

 

Eternal Frankenstein read-a-thon #8 | Michael Griffin

In the coming weeks, I will be reviewing the new Word Horde anthology Eternal Frankenstein, edited by Ross E. Lockhart. As was the case with my read-a-thon of Swords v Cthulhu, I will be tackling the anthology story by story, and my reviewing method will be peppered with the cultural associations that each of these stories inspire. These will be presented with no excuse, apology or editorial justification.

eternal-frankenstein

The Human Alchemy by Michael Griffin

We rarely speak of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as being about the angst related to artistic creation, and instead grasp at more solid metaphors. Understandably enough, received wisdom has it that this is first and foremost a parable warning against scientific hubris on the thematic level, and emotionally, it resonates with us thanks to the undeniable pathos we feel towards the creature: rejected by a father who only half wanted him, with no reference points in a world that wants nothing to do with him.

So I was glad to see that Michael Griffin’s creepy but complex tale of a successful pair of surgeons — with otherwise also picks up on the ‘standard’ intertextual cues stemming from Shelley’s original text — also pitches its Frankenstenian couple, Reysa and Magnus Berg, as frustrated creatives looking to satisfy their unconventional cravings in a world that has yet to — ethically as well as aesthetically — catch up with their tastes and ambitions.

In the case of Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein’s initial revulsion at the Creature he’s made could find a direct corollary in the way most young writers — or artists of any stripe — would view their juvenilia. “I expected to create something at least as beautiful as the work of the forebears in the field that I admire,” they think to themselves as they grimace at that first draft, or that hesitantly completed painting, “what the fuck is this shit?!”. And in it goes into the proverbial fire.

Pedro Almodovar's own take on Frankenstenian surgeons: The Skin I Live In (2011)

Pedro Almodovar’s own take on Frankenstenian surgeons: The Skin I Live In (2011)

But Reysa and Magnus are not young: Aurye is, and though their wine-soaked gathering at the rich couple’s mountaintop castle may suggest all the trappings of a cliche seduction into a three-way, this mundane idea is dispensed with fairly quickly. In fact, the couple reject all mundane ideas suggested or imposed by society, a dogma whose limits are tested by this increasingly disconcerting, but equally sensitive and intelligent, contribution to the anthology.

And the way Griffin manages to walk this tightrope is, in fact, by couching the couple’s past history and future dreams in the most precise, and even reasonable, discourse. As one example, let’s get back to the artistic creativity metaphor. Midway through the story, the couple start explaining — always to Aurye, as their increasingly eager acolyte — the challenges posed by their unconventional lifestyle.

In the meantime, the story’s unsettling vortex intensifies, and Griffin actually piles all of the cosmetic details you’d expect from a Frankenstein story

Without spoiling anything, the way Reysa describes it sounds exactly like the kind of set-up a freelancing couple of any profession would face; with partners alternately sacrificing time and comfort while the other aims for their dream job, or at least helping to create a mutually beneficial situation for both based on their relevant skills.

In the meantime, the story’s unsettling vortex intensifies, and Griffin actually piles all of the cosmetic details you’d expect from a Frankenstein story: the Gothic castle, the operating table, the thunder… and a monster. But on their own, these details are now blunt: Frankenstein’s Creature is indeed eternal, yes, but the moralistic discourse about scientific ambition needs fine-tuning and updating if it is to sustain its chilling menace into the modern day.

And this is precisely what Griffin does with his two surgeons. But arguably, he completes this effect with the help of the young Aurye most of all, whose role in the drama flouts expectations in more ways than one.

An urbane and superbly structured little chiller that is intellectually engaging more than it is viscerally scary, but that is all the more rewarding for it.

Read previous: Edward Morris

 

Eternal Frankenstein read-a-thon | Introduction

In the coming weeks, I will be reviewing the new Word Horde anthology Eternal Frankenstein, edited by Ross E. Lockhart. As was the case with my read-a-thon of Swords v Cthulhu, I will be tackling the anthology story by story, and my reviewing method will be peppered with the cultural associations that each of these stories inspire. These will be presented with no excuse, apology or editorial justification.

eternal-frankenstein

But first, kindly indulge me in a bit of a personal reverie on what made me fall in love with Mary Shelley’s seminal novel in the first place…

*

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is one of my favourite novels of all time. I guess this isn’t particularly unique – what with the book being the source of one of the most perennial features of multimedia pop culture since the beginning of the 20th century – but that doesn’t of course take away from the intense love I have for the original novel.

It’s not a childhood favourite, either: I first decided to finally tick it off my virtual to-read pile for a very functional reason. I was in the final year of my Bachelor’s course in English Lit at the local Uni, and one of the elective courses I chose that year was ‘Literature and Technology’, taught by the inimitable Prof Ivan Callus, and which had Frankenstein as a required text for obvious reasons.

Frontispiece for the 1831 edition of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Illustrated by Theodore Von Holst (Steel engraving; 993 x 71mm)

Frontispiece for the 1831 edition of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Illustrated by Theodore Von Holst (Steel engraving; 993 x 71mm)

My social life at Uni was at its highest ebb at the time, but so were degrees of academic stress – what with a dissertation to complete and synoptic exams to cram for – but despite all this, I decided to put everything aside and check out the austere Everyman edition of Shelley’s groundbreaking, genre-creating work from the University of Malta library and finish it asap.

I guess I expected it to be fun-by-accident, and stylistically creaky in a similar way to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, whose essence – in my humble opinion – was improved and made far cooler by subsequent iterations. In other words, I suppose I was expecting to find an old-timey version of all the things that have made Frankenstein great for generations to come.

But actually, I ended up being humbled by a novel whose raw power was undeniable. She wrote this when she was nineteen! I kept saying to myself in disbelief, but there was also something peculiarly appropriate to this fact. Far from being creaky, it moves at a breakneck (if pained) pace – the work of a young woman trying desperately to give shape to the confusing mess that life can sometimes be.

Portrait of Mary Shelley by Richard Rothwell (1840)

Portrait of Mary Shelley by Richard Rothwell (1840)

Despite the fact that – much like its central Creature – the novel mashes together various preoccupations (the scientist’s hubris, motherhood, absent fathers and the inability to function in the world as a context-less outcast), it also felt like a barely-edited transcription of a fever dream. Which is even more surprising given how the story is stacked together against various frame narratives – a gradual build-up with a shifting POV that immerses you deeper and deeper into, instead of alienating you from the story.

(It always saddens me to think just how outmoded this style of storytelling has become… how easily we would dismiss a novel that tries this nowadays as being ‘long-winded’ and/or accuse it of ‘taking ages to get going’.)

Thankfully, even if its pop culture counterparts sometimes loom larger – like Karloff’s original Hollywood creature – than the reputation of Shelley’s own novel (I wonder how many people familiar with the Frankenstein name even know there is a book), it’s heartening to know that Shelley is in fact getting respects from the quarters who matter. The legacy of this, her first novel, has been discussed and celebrated ad infinitum for various reasons, and I won’t get into that now.

Despite the fact that – much like its central Creature – the novel mashes together various preoccupations, it also felt like a barely-edited transcription of a fever dream

Suffice it to say that it was great to hear that Word Horde, one of my favourite indie presses, has decided to dedicate an anthology to Shelley’s influential novel, amassing an army of some of the best writers working in the genres that same book has helped give rise to.

I look forward to reading and reviewing each of the stories, as I’m fairly confident that all of the 16 writers whose short fiction makes up the contents of Eternal Frankenstein has felt a similar electric charge as I have when first experiencing Mary Shelley’s work.

Because after all, it is a charge that has run through my own fiction too. My debut novel, Two, contains a somewhat hidden but nonetheless deeply embedded debt to Shelley… and I’m confident that anything else I write in the future will contain at least a shred of Frankenstein’s legacy in one way or another.

So, despite it not being a dreary November night, I look forward to unleashing my little micro-creations (aka mini-reviews) into the world very, very soon.

I hope you enjoy them too.

Watch this space.

 

Painting a beautiful ruin | The Nameless Dark by T.E. Grau | Book Review

VIDA OCTOBER BOOK REVIEW

T.E. Grau’s debut collection The Nameless Dark is a powder keg of imagination and potential. While the rag-tag gathering of stories sometimes slides too frequently into the unhallowed and by now well-trod annals of contemporary Lovecraftiana – a testament to it being made up of various magazine and anthology contributions over the years – the writer’s voice has a rich, fresh appeal.

Mining a vein opened by the likes of Clive Barker and more recently stretched further by the pained and earthy tales of Nathan Ballingrud – who introduces Grau’s collection, confirming that he’s a writer with a baton to pass – Grau regales readers with stories that have clear horror hooks but that don’t skimp on atmosphere or psychological exposition.

And as with the abovementioned precursors and influences, a keen handling of dread is another key wrinkle in the work, making for an unsettling but immersive experience.

One of my own favourite stories from the collection would have to be ‘Return of the Prodigy’, which I had originally encountered in the Cthulhu Ftaghn! anthology from Word Horde.

Detailing a late honeymoon in a Pacific island gone wrong, the story makes full use of its exotic setting to both seduce and unsettle the reader, while also letting in yet another trademark of the author’s work: a satirical streak; the targets in this case being the dull and bigoted American middle class. The undeniable pleasure of schadenfreude looms over the story – you know these unpleasant protagonists are in for an unpleasant time, which adds a giddy excitement to the terror.

Neither is our protagonist in ‘The Screamer’ all that sympathetic and relateable – a corporate cog with very little love for his fellow man and woman beyond what he can get from them, Boyd gains a strange kind of dignity in his doomed trajectory as he follows the titular ‘scream’ that appears to infect his workplace with a siren-like call.

The regression into a submerged world of horror bubbling right under the urban sprawl is a common theme for Grau and his fellow peddlers of modern horror, and an atavistic charge – an escape from the mundane into a world of destructive bliss – is taken to its logical conclusion here.

More traditional thrills are to be found in ‘Beer and Worms’ – a brief but hard-hitting chiller consisting of nothing more except for a conversation between two friends out fishing, which by the end takes a truly sinister turn without our characters having to lift a finger to influence this very sudden and very real shift in the mood.

It’s a testament to Grau’s ability to wring horror out of any situation, which is made all the more seductive and poignant by his command of the language.

In fact, Grau’s emphatically non-minimalist style holds him in good stead throughout, and on this point he’s very much in line with Ballingrud’s approach to the genre. It’s not so much about ‘sweetening the pill’ of the horror with beautiful language. If anything, it’s rather the opposite: the language immerses you into the tale, and Grau is also careful to add texture and nuance to his characters – making the hammer fall all the harder when it does.

VIDA OCTOBER BOOK REVIEW BOX

T.E. Grau

But the writing is also, quite simply, a pleasure to savour, and notable passages can be picked more or less at random throughout the collection. Here’s one example from ‘White Feather’ – sins of the father horror on the high seas that takes its sweet time to establish a rich historical narrative before kicking into pulpy gear:

‘Chilton held the glass to his nose, working through the alcohol and molasses down to the subtle perfume of Newtown Pippins before they were picked, smashed, and ordered to rot. Back when they first emerged as springtime buds from a lifeless branch, so full of promise. This was the aroma of his home, of a particular wind and soil that knew him from birth and yet held no judgement. He wished he were a boy again, before his father lost his leg and his mother her will, before the responsibilities of adult life solidified a legacy that was as permanent as history written by the bloody victorious. Before his last raid on Nova Scotia’.

Sometimes it does dip dangerously into style-over-substance territory, as happens with the undeniably fun but largely cosmetic ‘The Truffle Pig’ – another story written for a Word Horde anthology, this time from Tales of Jack the Ripper – which envisages the world’s first serial killer as a member of a long-standing cadre of murderers who work in what they believe to be a noble tradition.

While the language and mood is certainly on point as ever, there’s not much to the story beyond this high-concept twist. A similar problem plagues ‘Love Songs from the Hydrogen Jukebox’, in which Grau very convincingly transports us back to the golden years of the Beat Generation milieu, only to end his psychedelic journey with a Lovecraftian add-on that fans of the weird fiction genre (and the looming behemoth that is Lovecraft) will have experienced all too frequently.

But that’s not to say that riffing on Lovecraft automatically means reverting to formula, nor that Grau isn’t capable of adding something fresh to the mix.

Clear evidence of this can be found in the strongest entry in the collection, ‘Tubby’s Big Swim’. A tour de force in every sense of the word, the story does appear to have a coveted octopus at its centre, though the resemblance to Cthulhu is kept to a minimum, and Grau waits until the end to deploy it to full effect.

Instead, the bulk of the narrative concentrates on the journey of a young boy burdened with a stereotypically shitty home life, who nonetheless remains hopeful that his pursuit of the octopus in question will bring happiness… if not transcendence. The glorious kicker of Grau’s tale is that it’s largely told with a corresponding sense of wide-eyed wonder shared by Alden, our protagonist.

It’s a modern picaresque story with a Dickensian dynamic at its core, and as the beleaguered but resilient young man winds his way through vibrant, filthy streets and suspect alleyways – climaxing in a visit to an abandoned zoo – Grau paints a vivid, memorable tapestry.

The Nameless Dark is a rich and varied collection that taps into the best strands of contemporary horror fiction.