The Ransacking of Expectations

cover tanzer pleasure merchantI went into Molly Tanzer‘s most recent outing, The Pleasure Merchant [Amazon|B&N|Powell’s|Goodreads], with delighted anticipation. Molly (disclosure: my friend) is the kind of author who is interviewed in Locus, noted by NPR for her steampunk genderswappery, and publishes whatever she wants. You liked that werewolf short story? Have some incestuous Lovecraftian twins. You liked incestuous Lovecraftian twins? Have a wigmaker’s apprentice. It’s kind of like that with her: if you like her writing, you have to follow where she goes, without too many expectations in terms of precisely what she’ll be writing. Because she writes well, it’s an unmitigated joy, but—baby—if you like More of the Same?—if more of the same makes you feel comfortable?—Molly Tanzer don’t care. (Although I’m perhaps a bit of a liar on this, as word on the street is that she does have a Vermilion sequel forthcoming, so British/Chinese  psychopomp Lou Merriwether will ride again.)

The Pleasure Merchant is hard to classify, as reflected by the fairly tentative level of genre-tagging over at Goodreads, and Amazon’s robots are reasonably sure that it’s “genre fiction,” but aren’t quite clear what kind of genre it is. Whatever! It’s an amazing mashup of history, fantasy, horror, and… well, “bawdy” is actually a great way to describe it. Is there sex? Reader, it’s one of those amazing books where there’s copulation, libidinal exultation, and naughty language around every corner, and yet it’s not particularly pornographic: everything on the page serves a purpose beyond titillation, whether advancing plot or revealing character.

This novel takes the Pygmalion story and embeds it in 18th century England, exploring class and gender and medicine along the way. I read it with the kind of eye that one has with historical fiction, curious to learn more of historical norms, practices, events, and culture, along with a well-told story. The Pleasure Merchant does not disappoint, following the aforementioned wigmaker’s apprentice through the turns and reversals of fortune, weaving in and around picaresque set pieces that wouldn’t be out of place in Fielding.

I recommend this book wholeheartedly to people who like novels. A particular genre of novel? Not really, although it might not suit prudes very well. To enjoy this book you have to have a taste for living characters inhabiting a pleasing narrative that occurs in well-depicted settings. It has the scope and sprawl that we seek in novels, and the interweaving plots and themes. In a literary world that is overcrowded, featuring so many books that feel virtually write-by-the-numbers,  The Pleasure Merchant is a strange and wondrous journey that should delight all readers.

adam nevill the ritual coverIn a rather different thematic vein lies Adam Nevill‘s The Ritual [Amazon|B&N|Powell’s|Goodreads]. I knew that I was in for something other than a monster-and-rituals-in-the-wilderness sort of narrative, but—augh, reader!—the opening half of the book is so compelling I sank into it and found myself developing unwarranted expectations. The parts of this novel set in the up-near-the-Arctic-Circle Scandinavian wilds are gut-wrenchingly tense portrayals of people degenerating in harrowing circumstances. It was like Scott Smith rewrote “The Wendigo” as a novel and gave it to Mary Oliver for a line-edit. Strange and beautiful.

And then, halfway through, the type and pitch of the narrative changes utterly. It goes from one kind of harrowing to another, and this was the point where the pace at which I read slowed considerably, and it never picked up again. I think this is in part because the arc of the narrative follows a more or less standard set of peaks and valleys, and then it hits Norwegian black metal cultists and the needle starts flying all over the place. I knew from the book description that this turn was coming, but when it did, it became (for me) a much different book. My investment waned along with the tension and dread that Nevill so carefully built in the powerful first act. Comments on Goodreads, Amazon, etc. suggest that some readers have a similar experience, though many others didn’t have any problem with this.

I recommend The Ritual to people who are versed in literary horror of the weird stripe looking for a flip-the-script sort of experience. It features notes that will appeal to readers of Algernon Blackwood, James Dickey, William Golding, and perhaps Joseph Payne Brennan. It’s not a book I would offer to someone new to the genre, as I expect that many readers will wind up thrown for a loop without awareness of the themes that it varies, and some knowledge of the subgenres it’s mashing up. That said, I enjoyed it enough to recommend it here, and I urge you to give it a try and come to your own conclusions.

The Monsterghostoccultapalooza of Orrin Grey

cover of Never Bet the Devil

Never Bet the Devil, by Orrin Grey

Once upon a time, monsters were monsters. They were, by and large, not objects of sympathy. Whatever Count Dracula or Larry Talbot or your unfriendly neighborhood ghoul may have suffered, however tragic they might have been, we were all quite clear on what they were. Genre fiction has undergone sundry transformations under the hand of Postmodernity, and many are the monsters who now seem more subaltern than Satanic, but in his first short story collection, Never Bet the Devil & Other Warnings, my friend Orrin Grey has managed a neat trick. He’s taken the ghost story through the thickets of self-reflexivity and produced tales that are both nuanced and human… but also traditional in the sense that they use creatures from myth, folklore, and literature to hair-raising effect.

Orrin’s taste as a reader informs his fiction: rarely have we ever discussed an author, book, or film even tangentially related to monsters of which he’s unaware. I say “rarely” because “never” is an unlikely and fate-tempting proposition, but that’s probably closer to the truth, especially as he continues his lifelong project of consuming monster-related material, from truly obscure Victorian ghost stories to the sketchbooks of illustrators with a lech for liches. Given the monsters in general, why are these ghost stories? Reader, you will have to taste them yourself to understand, but they feel like ghost stories. “Supernatural” or “occult” are terms that might also be invoked, and they’d often be correct, but this is by and large a book about people who are and have been haunted.

To recount each story and creature you’ll meet in Never Bet the Devil would spoil the fun, but here are a few of the waypoints you’ll encounter. “Black Hill” is the story with the longest shadow, having appeared twice in print, and once in a sanity-destroying audio edition. It’s a tale about death and the secret history of oil fields, and its concluding lines are memorably effective. “The Mysterious Flame,” the novella that anchors the collection, deals with the doings of necromancers, among other things, but read it for the golem. Said golem is not the Golem of Prague, nor the Golem of Chelm, but is instead a sort of Everyman among constructed creatures, and his tale illustrates how monsters can, in their way, be haunted. “The Devil in the Box” is my personal favorite of the lot, a tale of haunted artists, and the power of a paint brush to still or loose inner demons. Finally, the allusion-rich “The Seventh Picture” blends Gothic formulae with found footage to creates a rich, multilayered story that feels the most contemporary of the lot and deserves, in my estimation, to be reprinted and keep infecting finding new readers.

author portrait of Grey

Orrin Grey with Bat

Who should read Never Bet the Devil? If Netflix has ever suggested to you the categories “Monster Movies,” “Scary Supernatural Movies,” or “Movies with Protagonists Likely to Be Eaten,” it might be for you. If Hellboy resonates with you, this book might be for you. If you want something dark without hockey masks or hostels gone hostile, it might be for you. If you fondly remember the ghost story anthologies you read by flashlight under blankets as a kid, and you wonder what could give you that same thrill today? It’s definitely for you. Too many authors’ first collections lack flavor and focus. Never Bet the Devil & Other Warnings lacks neither. What it has in abundance is all of the spooky and mysterious things that you’ve always loved.