Book Reviews | Ancient Gods, Fallen Angels and Other Dissolute Beings Awaiting the End of the World

I’ve stopped logging my reading into Goodreads, mainly because I felt it was gamifying the experience for me far too much, and this really not the kind of headspace I want to be in when considering what I Wish to Read, what I’m Currently Reading and what I’ve just Finished Reading.

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As with most pseudo-social and insidiously easy-to-use interfaces, the Goodreads model only appears to respect the fluid ebb and flow that characterises the reading experience for most people. But in actual fact, asking us to list and show off our reading is just another way of adding undue pressure and exhibitionism over something that should be experienced in the deep inner recesses of our mind.

So rather than ‘clocking in’ – an even better term than logging in, I think, implying an employee-like schedule/adherence to the gods of social media – I thought I’d chat a little bit about some of the books I’ve recently enjoyed, in a way that’s hopefully more germane to the intuitive and flowing pleasure that reading them implies.

Mythos by Stephen Fry

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Perhaps opting to go for the audio route with this one was the best decision I could possibly make, as Stephen Fry’s self-narrated jaunt across the annals of Greek mythology is delivered in the lilting, bordering-on-placid notes that make him such a becalming yet enriching presence for many.

As regards the content itself, the tales are of course unbeatable in their timelessness, though Fry’s expansive approach is friendly and accessible, even if it risks ending up on the wrong side of avuncluar some of the time.

Much has been made of Mythos being published roughly around the same time as Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology, and the comparison illustrates precisely what I mean: where Gaiman retells key episodes from Nordic myth in lean, seductive cuts of self-contained story, Fry plays the encyclopedic know-it-all card. Not content to simply give us the stories, he will emphasise the linguistic and cultural strands that characterise the gods and personages that populate the myths.

It makes for a far ‘baggier’ affair than what Gaiman has to offer in his shoring up of the deities from up north, but it’s no less entertaining for it, and Fry made for an amiable companion during my self-administered work commute.

A History of Heavy Metal by Andrew O’Neill

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While I did not go for the audiobook route when it came to this hilarious and unputdownable trip across a music genre that defined me as a young man (it was a chance find at a local bookstore — quite rare, given that Malta is rapidly becoming swallowed up by a giant chain on that front), O’Neill’s voice quickly burrowed its way into my brain.

Unapologetically subjective (“Whitesnake can fuck off”) and in no way a conventionally authoritative, sober historical tome, it nonetheless reads like an impassioned and thoroughly lived-in love letter to an expansive, beguiling and often problematic musical genre whose intensity is often impossible to recapture in any other medium.

And that’s just it: a sober analysis would not have passed muster — it would have failed to capture the knotted, abrasive wall of sound that characterises that amorphous term, ‘metal’*. O’Neill is our man for the job. A black magic-practicing stand-up comedian who is also the vocalist and guitarist for the Victorian-themed hardcore punk band The Men That Will Not Be Blamed for Nothing. Can you really think of anyone else able to take up that mantle with the requisite amount of jagged style and grace?

The book made me ‘LOL irl’ in a way that only the likes of Terry Pratchett have done for me in the past, and it was also a contributing factor to me saying ‘fuck yeah!’ when a couple of friends suggested we go see Slayer in Glasgow on a month’s notice. Never underestimate the power of literature to influence impressionable young minds, folks.

Lucifer: Princeps by Peter Grey

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While Lucifer may feature heavily in all things (or at least, most things) metal, Peter Grey’s careful and thorough exploration of the evolution of the figure we’ve come to know as Lucifer sternly discourages any such shallow appropriation. Published in a gorgeous edition from Scarlet Imprint (which Grey runs with his partner Alkistis Dimech), Lucifer: Princeps is a beguiling and not-easy read, cleaving close to Biblical sources in an attempt to closely trace the most significant instances of the Lucifer figure, in what also serves as a preamble volume for Grey’s upcoming, Lucifer: Praxis.

With scholarly precision and an impatience for romanticised reimaginings of Lucifer and all he stands for, neither is Grey dismissive of the figure he considers to be the repository of Western witchcraft. Instead, as he writes in the introductory chapter (aptly titled ‘A History of Error), “My aim is to be effective in sorcery, rather than be ensorcelled”.

Long John Silver by Björn Larsson

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A life of itinerant freedom has always held a fascination for me, mainly because it represented a brighter flip-side to the many limitations otherwise imposed on a former ‘third country national’ such as myself. So of course, I will be magnetically drawn towards pirate narratives, and Larsson’s novel, which I found in a gorgeous bookstore in Rome after having Googled it as Black Sails withdrawal kicked in, provided that… and more.

Indeed, this novel may have been published in the early nineties, but its gritty revisionism is closer to the spirit of something like Black Sails — and the plethora of unapologetically violent anti-hero narratives that populate the crates of contemporary ‘prestige TV’ — while also using a seductive first-person narration to draw us into the story of Long John Silver, both before and after the events of Treasure Island.

In fact, the true genius of Larsson’s book is not its apt emulation of old-school adventure literature, and neither is it his evocative and often disturbing ‘maturation’ of the same (the slave ship segments don’t make for an easy read, for one thing, but this only helps Silver rise in our estimation: he is a no-bullshit narrator, at the very least). It is that Larsson’s Silver plays the same trick he played on young Jim Hawkins. He gets you on his side.

The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay

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Ever since his twisty, layered, rich and creepily satisfying fourth novel A Head Full of Ghosts, Paul Tremblay has been on top of the list of writers to read for horror fans of all stripes, down from little old me and up to the likes of Stephen King himself.

The Cabin at the End of the World strips down his approach from the formally ambitious acrobatics of ‘Ghosts’ and is even more close-hewn and minimal than its immediate predecessor, The Disappearance at Devil’s Creek (which shows up in a sneaky cameo, an Easter Egg for true Tremblay fans).

Telling the increasingly harrowing story of a small family whose vacation at a remote rural cabin is cut short by a group of seemingly ‘well-meaning’ cultists, Tremblay’s latest initially reads like a screenplay, with his present-tense sentences flitting perspective from one character to another while maintaining a fluid third-person narration throughout.

It’s a shrewd formal choice that fits both the apocalyptic ticking clock that characterises the story — a looming axe that’s about to drop  (or is it?) — that generates both basic suspense while providing a rich fount of thematically-relevant ambiguity. But what really impressed me is that in the end, it actually feels less like a film than a harrowing stage play: something Sarah Kane or Philip Ridley could have written.

The limited setting and cast of characters makes it so: there’s something classically Greek about how this all pans out — all in real time, and forcing us to ask hard questions to ourselves, and our culture at large.

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If you enjoyed these mini book reviews, please consider buying my own novel, Two. It’s a coming-of-age story set in Malta that blends realism and fantasy, and it has been described as “dreamy, and poetic and often exquisite“. Find out more about it here.

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*Though I humbly put forward the ‘Thor vs Surtur‘ scene at the beginning of Thor: Ragnarok (2017), set to Led Zeppelin’s ‘Immigrant Song’, as a pretty apposite distillation of what metal at its best should be all about.  

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Housing

Birzebbugia, Malta, 2010

Birzebbugia, Malta, 2010

“I was taken with the thought that these were dream homes, literally: here was space from which history had been expunged, and an optical illusion of history set up in its place. The real houses were elsewhere on earth. Was this what one built when one lived with a sense of being precariously positioned in space and time? I imagined them all to be sleeping an enchanted sleep that would go on through the years, until they were embedded in a thick enough buildup of time to wake without vanishing into the air” – KJ Bishop

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Read previous: HOMING

Like you do: Flea markets and hypogeums

Joy of junk: the Birgu market.

Joy of junk: the Birgu market.

I’ve just finished a draft of a short story which deals, obliquely, with my perception of the spaces I’ve lived and brought up in. Spaces I’ve inhabited – sometimes more vividly in memory than in reality.

Having been born in Serbia but raised in Malta – taking long summer trips to my native country while I was a kid – I’ve always had a tenuous relationship with the very idea of place, and how you’re supposed to, or not supposed to, belong to the places you’ve been put into.

This intimate (let’s call it ‘subconscious’) tension was further compounded by real-world concerns (read: I only acquired Maltese citizenship early last year, by which time I had been living in Malta for a healthy 19 years), which allowed plenty of time for subtle neuroses on the matter to germinate at the back of my head.

Shells

Not subtle: shells for sale

In what turned out to be quite an idyllic Sunday, I paid a visit to both the Birgu flea market and the Hypogeum of Hal Saflieni. The day was a happy one for some obvious reasons. My haul from Birgu was substantial and special while also being cheap – ‘General Correspondence’ book dated 1922-1925 for the same price (€1) as Savage Sword of Conan #40? Yes please – and the journey to the ancient underground burial site was by turns calming and inspiring.

General Correspondence 1922-1925

But what also became clear to me was just how tangible the imprint left by Malta’s last colonisers – the British – still remains. Of course, the idea that Malta is racked by post-colonial neuroses that may mirror my own is something of a foregone conclusion. It’s a frequent talking point, and also a convenient way to peg down arguments why Malta remains culturally insecure in a lot of ways, for example.

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It’s one thing to encounter a taken-for-granted idea in the ether, but it’s quite another to see it alive in the real world. The Birgu market, an eviscerated sprawl of unwanted collectibles for the most part, is rich in telltale signs of Malta’s former British conquest.

One of my proudest purchases from there is a wonderfully un-PC book called Around the Empire: a guidebook on the parts of the world which then fell under British rule, “so that our schoolboys will know that they don’t form part of a country, but an empire.”

Look, it's Casual Orientalism everybody!

Look, it’s Casual Orientalism everybody!

This time I snagged an edition ‘The Wide World’ (dated December 1945), which is packed with charmingly illustrated exploits of British soldiers enduring hardship and adventure in ‘exotic’ places like India and South America. And neither is it a coincidence, I think, that histories of Windsor Castle (and some of its most notable occupants over the centuries) were very thick on the (Birgu football) ground.

The 'Holy of Holies' at the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum

Going to the Hypogeum right after the flea market was slightly surreal, because unless you count farming settlers from what would eventually become Sicily and surrounding parts of Italy, this was a glimpse of Malta long before any real colonisation took place.

These smoothly-hewn caverns cancel out all thought of propaganda and nationalistic paraphernalia – British or otherwise – and they invite a mystery that can be filled with whatever you wish.

This was partly my goal when I was writing ‘Two’ – to connect with something that feels intrinsically Maltese without infecting it with any received notions and romantic jingo. But there’s only so much drama you can wrench out of yellow rock, no matter how ancient. At some point, you have to bring yourself into the picture. And that’s when the real journey can begin.