Monday, July 20, 2009

#17 of 2009: How to Write Horror Fiction by William F. Nolan

There’s a lot to like in this little book put out by Writers Digest Books in 1990. Part of the Genre Writing Series, Nolan (writer of the acclaimed Logan’s Run series, amongst other things) brings to the table the concepts of theme, dialogue, setting, mood and imagery in the writing of both short and long form horror tales.

The book is written in a friendly, personable style, full of quotes from the author’s own works and those of other famous tales. One chapter is devoted to opening paragraphs meant to hook readers and keep them from putting a novel down, and Nolan uses four full pages of examples to illustrate his points.

In yet another chapter, Nolan reprints his short story “The Pool,” a tale about a young woman and her new boyfriend who find themselves facing an evil entity that resides underwater. In between paragraphs, Nolan deconstructs the story into its individual points, illustrating what techniques he uses and why they work so well.

At a hundred and forty pages, this is a quick read, though remaining chock full of valuable information and advice that has and will continue to stand the test of time. The basic concepts of polished writing will never change, though the markets and players involved continue to flip and rotate as time moves on. For this reason, the listings of publishers may prove to be useless (especially for the small press magazines, which tend to appear and go under at short intervals over the years), but the essential reading lists and appendix of anthologies are still worth looking into.

How to Write Horror Fiction has sadly been out of print for many years, though there are still used copies to be had at decent prices through Amazon’s affiliate merchants.


Thursday, July 16, 2009

#16 of 2009: Paprika by Yasutaka Tsutsui

I have to preface this review by admitting something very important - I am a fan of anime auteur Satoshi Kon. I have been since first seeing his feature film Perfect Blue ten or more years ago. Millennium Actress is quite possibly one of my favorite films ever. I’ve seen all of his films, every episode of his television series Paranoia Agent and even the omnibus film Memories, of which one episode, Magnetic Rose, was scripted by Kon.

I am also a fan of Japanese literature. If I can find it affordably, I’ll add any piece of Japanese fiction to my growing library. Some of my favorite authors, Kirino, Miyabe, Yamada, Takahashi, I found through blind Amazon searches and “If you’re a fan of X, try Y” promotions.

Lately I’ve been on a reading kick that could be boiled down to “the stranger, the better.” Metafiction, epistolary narratives, retellings of classic tales, hazily defined science fiction. I like to believe that by broadening my choices in pleasure reading I may also be able to broaden my intellect. Who knows if this is true or not, but I follow the concept like it’s my own personal religion. Expand your ideas, expand your brain.

When I found out, several months ago, that the novel Satoshi Kon based his most recent film on was finally going to be published in English, a mere sixteen years after its original Japanese debut, I was beyond ecstatic. It’s not often that both a literary-based film and its inspiration are translated from Japanese into English. A lot of books are left out of the loop, and the ones that do end up published more often than not take forever to be translated.

Then something not completely unusual, but always infuriating, happened. The book was being published in Europe only, by a UK publisher. I’m not sure why this happens so frequently, but often a book that is translated from Japanese into English will only come out in Europe. It seems that some publishing houses operate on one side of the Atlantic only, and occasionally when the rights are snatched up on one side the publishers on the other all give it a pass. Taichi Yamada, for example, is an author whose works are generally more available in Europe. Only one of his novels, Strangers, was published in the United States. It was picked up by Vertical, a niche publisher of Japanese novels, comics and nonfiction. His other two books were published only by London publisher Faber & Faber.

Yasutaka Tsutsui’s novel Paprika seems to have suffered the same fate. Published only by UK publisher Alma Books, Paprika is not an easy book to come by. I spent twenty dollars buying it from an eBay merchant with a book warehouse in the UK. It took some time for it to get here, but the money and the wait was well worth it.

Paprika is a hard novel to describe, seeing that it splits its time between rigid Japanese social constructs and the anything goes logic of dreams. Set in an indiscriminate present day, the novel, though written in the third person, focuses mainly on Atusko Chiba, psychiatrist and clinician for the Institute for Psychiatric Research. Chiba uses new technological developments, made possible by the mechanical genius of coworker Kosaku Tokita, to enter patients’ dreams and interact with them in the realm where their psychological issues manifest and grow stronger. In analyzing and manipulating dreams, Chiba and her patients (who see her as her alter ego Paprika, a younger, freckled version of herself) are able to work through the issues that cause such things as depression, schizophrenia and nervous breakdowns. This must be done in extreme secrecy, however, because using the new devices outside of the Institute is not exactly legal, and Paprika’s clientele are loath to be found out by the public. Hence, the use of Chiba’s second identity is of the utmost importance.

When Tokita creates a newer, stronger wireless device called the DC Mini, meant to more effectively plumb the depths of patients’ dreams, neither he nor Chiba, nor any of their colleagues or the members of high society Paprika has been secretly treating, are prepared for the consequences. Prolonged exposure to these devices, which were not engineered with any protective measures in place, can cause dream and reality to begin merging, and one person’s dreams can bleed into another.

And now, someone has stolen the DC Minis.

Having seen the film before reading the novel, I have to say I was quite surprised by how faithfully in places the book was recreated. There were the usual blendings of characters and unfortunate omitting of others, but the soul of the narrative remained completely intact. Reading the book felt like experiencing an enhanced version of the film, a Director’s Cut with hours of extra footage. It rounded out the story and made it feel more complete, and explained the difficult mapping of character relationships, office politics and dream objects much better than a film ever could. Reading the novel, with all of its graphic sexuality and fierce emotion, was like being privy to the scenes between scenes.

I can’t focus on the plot for fear that I’ll accidentally give something away, but suffice it to say that Paprika is amazing, just as fresh and impressive in book form as it was as an animated film, and every penny spent tracking down a copy is worth it.


Monday, July 6, 2009

#15 of 2009: Fangland by John Marks

Anyone who has been following me on Twitter or Facebook is already well aware of my relationship with John Marks' novel Fangland. They already know about how I picked it up and put it back down four or more times, moving on to read something more my style before dutifully returning and slogging through another fifty pages only to put it back down and repeat the entire process.

In the time it took me to read Fangland I also read Liquor, The Gum Thief, In Search of a Distant Voice and I LOVE LORD BUDDHA.

This isn’t to say that Fangland is without merit. It just means that it continuously failed to capture my attention long enough to complete it, and at just under four hundred pages that’s a bit strange.

But first, a run down of the plot. Fangland is a Dracula analog, a modern day retelling of the classic story in which England has been replaced by paranoid, skittish post -9/11 New York City and where the heroes are no longer solicitors and other members of British high society but the cast and crew of The Hour, yet another analog, this time of the news program 60 Minutes. Many of these characters are based in part or wholly off of Stoker’s characters, though their ages, genders and origins are different.

Evangeline Harker (a more heavy-handed nod to the original) is an associate producer for The Hour, and is charged with traveling the world to scout out locations and subjects well-suited for the show. If she decides, while on location, that what she has seen will make a nice segment for the show, her green-lighting brings crews, equipment and newscaster to the scene for filming. If not, the segment is squashed and forgotten.

On one such occasion, Harker is sent to Romania to interview Ion Torgu, an old-world mob boss whose name has been whispered throughout eastern Europe but whose face has never been seen. While there, she runs into a young, blond woman named Clementine Spence, a religious missionary under a cloud of mystery, who, like Harker, was born in Texas. The women build a fragile travelling relationship, higher-rent versions of European backpackers, until Harker has found Torgu.

Something goes very, very wrong during the interview with her subject. Torgu, who appears well-mannered and civil, at least in the face of his reputation, is not what he appears to be. Harker goes missing after this exchange and is not seen from again for months, when she is found hiding amongst nuns in a country monastery, her personality very obviously changed.

In her absence, someone has been writing convincing emails from her accounts and has shipped back several tapes of nothing but an empty chair, the audio track garbled with what sounds like the whisperings of city names, some of which, like Nanking, are immediately recognizable due to the human atrocity they will forever be linked with.

There are several reasons, I believe, that I took so long to finish this novel. First, let me point out that this is, indeed, a vampire novel, though in comparison to many other works of this genre its emphasis is rather subdued. Most horror novels are printed by horror-friendly publishers, like Tor, DAW, Del Rey, etc. This is published by Penguin.

If you are not familiar with Penguin, let me explain briefly. This is a publisher that began in Europe in the 1930s with a vision of bringing quality writing to the masses for a low cost, to actually furnish literature at the price of a pack of cigarettes. It has come a long way in the ensuing decades, and now publishes mostly literary fiction. People whose works are put out by Penguin are generally already well-known and have been the recipients of critical or institutional acclaim.

In short, Penguin is known for being mostly high (read: literary) fiction. I’m sure there are exceptions, but for a work of horror to emerge with their orange and white logo on the spine it has to be something completely different than the glut of vampire-related works of other imprints sitting on bookstore shelves.

Different it is, in spades. Between the pacing and choice of vocabulary the book struck me as quite pretentious, and being the kind of person I am it, honestly, put me off a bit. Often I will use a blank, ruled notecard as a bookmark so I can take notes while I am reading. Some of the notes I jotted for Fangland include “This book screams ‘Not genre fiction - REAL LITERATURE!’ so loudly and so often it ends up becoming rather distracting,” “Lay off the five-dollar words, already,” and “I wish the plot would pick up a bit!”

Perhaps it’s me, but after seeing the word “paternoster” in reference to an old-style elevator (accurate as it may have been) and “gabardines” for trousers (still accurate), I rolled my eyes a bit. It’s not that these words, or any other, were inappropriately used. It just dawned on me, more and more, as I read that most, if not all, of the characters in Fangland live in a world of wealth and privilege and education that I do not share.

I am squarely middle-class, and these people absolutely are not. It’s a bit hard for me to get in their heads and see the world as they do, and if my past book reviews are to be believed (hint: they are), I have a very hard time visualizing as I read to begin with. Throw in a bunch of high-earning New Yorkers and my brain hits the brakes hard enough to leave skids.

Another problem I have with Fangland is its format. It is, like Dracula before it, an epistolary work, my third for the summer. This time, the narrative is woven by Evangeline Harker’s personal notes, Austen Trotta’s (a Mike Wallace/Abraham Van Helsing analog) journal, as pressed upon him to write by his therapist, emails between Stimson Beevers, production assistant (and handy Renfield clone) first to someone he believes to be Harker and later to Torgu, and the very opening and ending of the novel are penned by James O’Malley, senior VP for Business Affairs for Omni News and Entertainment, The Hour’s parent company. All of these are written in separate fonts for easy recognition.

However, there is another narrative in the novel that I do not understand. Julia Barnes, former Weather Underground explosives agent turned video editor and Sally Benchborn, producer and Civil War re-enactor, are the focal point of several chapters that are written in the third-person by author unknown. I suppose we can attribute it to James O’Malley, though how he manages to get into Julia’s head and describe her thoughts is impossible and both confused and irritated me throughout her chapters. Marks makes no effort to explain how James O’Malley, if Julia and Sally’s chapters truly are from his detached point of view, could come to know Julia’s past history or the goings on of her mind.

Fangland is a slow burn of a book, the first third of the work being the setup and initial horror of Harker’s Romanian excursion and transformation. It’s not easy to read if you’re used to the racing-out-of-the-gates feel of most horror genre works. That is the main problem with Fangland. It’s not a horror novel but a piece of literary fiction, aiming to work on multiple levels, that has shrouded itself in a vampire’s high-collared cloak. Vying with the horror of the supernatural are multiple references to September 11, terrorism, the nature of human atrocities and the cut-throat (sometimes literally) business of working in television news.

I found myself picking up this book and marveling at its amazing paperback cover (a New York skyline underneath an enormous full moon, accented with bats in flight and one drop of spattered blood), only to find myself slightly disappointed that the vampire element, when touched upon, was strange and distorted. Somewhere in this narrative of backbiting and paranoia is a most unusual vampire, with a set of bizarre physical circumstances, that fails to bring much fear once on American soil.


#14 of 2009: I LOVE LORD BUDDHA by Hilllary Raphael

What do you get when you combine sex, drugs, techno, bar hostessing, manga and a warped, perverted revisioning of Buddhism?

Apparently you get I LOVE LORD BUDDHA, Hillary Raphael’s avant-garde, postmodernist first novel.

Heather Peterson, a native of New York, using her adopted name HIYOKO, leads a group of foreign-born bar hostesses in Tokyo to murder their clients and commit suicide en masse, all in the name of enlightenment. But how did she get to that point, and how did she amass so many followers?

Short answer, by being a whore. Long answer? It takes nearly 200 pages to get there, but all signs point to being a charismatic whore. There’s a difference, you see.

I’m getting ahead of myself here, though.

Heather Peterson, A.K.A. Tiffany (her hostess name), Spiky (due to her short, theatrical blonde hair) and HIYOKO (her Neo-Geisha name), starts off as a somewhat subpar hostess. She doesn’t empty ashtrays, take drink orders or wear a skirt. But she’s an excellent conversationalist, very seductive and gorgeous in a plastic-and-comic-book way. Because of this, she never loses her job, and winds up one of Tokyo’s best foreign-born hostesses, with lovers and admirers in all facets of Japanese society.

“Tiffany” changes her name, at least outside of the bar in Neo-Geisha capacity, to HIYOKO, and begins reworking Buddhist philosophy into what she deems a “new-new religion,” one of vehement anti-consumerism, the use of sex and narcotics a straight path to what are called “Limit” experiences. The Neo-Geisha are all beautiful women, courtesans of foreign birth, who entertain and arouse the gentlemen that come to their bars. And now they will save the world through their manga, proselytizing, homicidal actions and deaths.

I LOVE LORD BUDDHA is the second epistolary novel I have read this summer. The events depicted take place in late 1996 and early 1997, though the narrative does not begin until after the mass murder and suicide have been in the news and the bodies buried. Because of this, news articles, eye witness accounts, personal letters and haiku are used to shed light on the Organization, as well as the main narrative thread created by one of HIYOKO’s cousins, gathering information in order to publish an academic paper on the massacre.

Stylistically, the novel is very strange. There are few, if any, capitalizations in the narrative. All sentences begin with the lowercase, though punctuation is used. Because of this, I sometimes had difficulty differentiating between a long sentence and a new sentence while reading at a fast clip. Dialogue is also atypical, with several different styles being utilized. In places, dialogue will be denoted with quotations for one character and greater-than and less-than symbols for another, usually HIYOKO. In other instances, dialogue will be listed with a name or alphabetic character followed by a colon in a list style not unlike interrogation records.

I’ll come out and admit it. I love bizarre fiction, either in subject matter or format. I LOVE LORD BUDDHA was both, a strange tale part AUM, part techno, part comic book, all pornographic, with the look and feel of something I’d never seen before. It was an interesting read, for sure, and I’d recommend it to anyone with an interest in Japan, if only for the bizarro characters living and dying within its pages.


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