Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Happy New Year, everyone!

Just a quick note before I head out to a burlesque show, and gladly leaving 2008 behind. I want to wish all my readers and friends the best of 2009. I'll be here, giving my news and views as I take things off my to-read list.

So have a great one, folks! And I'll see you in 2009!

Monday, December 29, 2008

Required Reading: The Bryant & May series by Christopher Fowler

A while back, I happened on Christopher Fowler's Peculiar Crimes Unit mysteries, better known as the Bryant & May series, after the two lead characters. These novels are perfect reading for those of the Dust & Corruption persuasion. The two main characters, aging detectives whose partnership is more enduring than any other relationship in their lives, are compelling and enjoyable. (It almost qualifies as a gay love story, except there's nothing sexual. Is this what's called a "bromance" these days?)

So far, there's six books in the series, but I've completed the first four.

The first, FULL DARK HOUSE, introduces the pair and their squad, Scotland Yard's Peculiar Crimes Unit. An explosion rips through the unit's HQ in the present day, apparently killing 80-year-old detective Arthur Bryant. His partner and best friend John May investigates, linking the explosion to the first case they investigated as a team: a series of grisly murders in a theater about to stage a production of Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld, in the midst of the Blitz. There's a lot of humor, but also lots of twisted grotesquerie with all the backstage shenanigans. In the end, it's almost like a mix of Gaston Leroux with Dr. Phibes, and the story bounces between the 00s and the 40s smoothly. It's a load of fun, with so much darkness simmering under the surface to be slightly unsettling, as enjoyable as it is.

In THE WATER ROOM, an elderly agoraphobic woman is found in her basement, dressed as if to go out shopping. She's dead and her throat and mouth are full of water...not tap water, but river water. What happened? Who is responsible? This is a devilishly fun whodunit that mixes old-style grotesquerie with modern sensibilities. Who is the mysterious Egyptian and what treasure does he seek in the London sewers? Why has an expert on London's (real) underground rivers started hanging out with shady characters? The drowned woman is the first in a series of murders that start to seem like a ritual...there's a burial alive (earth), a smothering (air), and an immolation (fire). There's certainly some deviltry afoot. A fun read, and the relationship between the two characters is compelling as always.

And, naturally, it made me start thinking of the underground rivers here in Washington DC, especially Tiber Creek, and what sort of secrets could be lurking there....

Next comes SEVENTY-SEVEN CLOCKS, in which a series of bizarre murders hits 70s London, with the victims being members of an aristocratic family, or those connected to the family. One is found sitting in the Savoy hotel, dead from water moccasin venom. A man in Edwardian dress throws acid at a Waterhouse painting, then later is killed by an exploding watch. Other deaths involve throat-slitting, a poisoned compact, doctored drugs, and other weirdness. There's Pre-Raphaelite art, Gilbert & Sullivan operettas, esoteric sects, and other fun, with a gloriously bizarre climax. As one character notes, it seems like something out of The Avengers. It verges on sci-fi, or steampunk. Lots of fun.

This time around, in TEN SECOND STAIRCASE, Bryant & May are back in the present day, investigating a bizarre killing, where a controversial artist is murdered and made part of her own installation. The only witness describes an eighteenth-century highwayman on a horse. In rapid succession, a series of D-list celebrities die under bizarre circumstances, with the Highwayman being seen at each sight, and rapidly becoming a folk hero. Meanwhile, the members of the PCU have to deal with the possibility of their unit being shut down, and pressures to finally solve the ongoing Leicester Vampire case (which has been mentioned in all the novels to date). One of the more thoughtful PCU novels...but I won't say in what way.

There are two more novels in the series, WHITE CORRIDOR and THE VICTORIA VANISHES. I don't know how many he plans on writing in the series, but I love them. They mix old-style murder-mystery conventions with modern ideas and sensibilities, in a way that few authors manage to do without seeming precious or twee. Check 'em out, folks.

A Dusty, Corrupt Christmas

Ugh...sorry I was away for so long. The holidays took their toll on me. Lots of wine, lots of food, lots of shopping, lots of wrapping, lots of other crap.

I spent close to a week at my parents' house in western Maryland. It wasn't all that bad, except for a bit of cabin fever after a while. It's set in the middle of a wild landscape of rock outcroppings and twisted trees, and from the kitchen windows you can spot a 200-year-old mansion, reportedly home to several ghosts and a secret room, cursed so that anyone who enters it dies. And a few hundred yards from the back door is the unmarked grave of a Union soldier. And the house is built on the site of a colonial brick foundry, of which almost no trace remains. Across the road are the ruins of a burned-out barn, and down the road a short way is a cemetery. In the other direction is a funeral home.

No wonder I grew up the way I did. When hearses and funeral processions are regular occurrences, it has an effect on you.

So let's see. I saw a cool movie, LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, a Swedish-language vampire film, that's all the rage right now. Everything the critics are saying is true; it absolutely rocks. I saw it on a quiet Sunday night at DC's Avalon Theater. It was very cold and windy that night, and I had parked my car a couple of blocks away. The cold and wind didn't bother me; I loved them. But it was great to be walking down a quiet residential street, everyone's at home, the lights were was one of those moments that's the ultimate winter memory.

And like I said, the movie rocks. An arty horror film that doesn't forget it's a horror film. There's some real arty material there, but there's also quite a bit of genuine gruesomeness and creepiness, and the final note is unsettling.

And avoid TWILIGHT. I am personally boycotting anything of that ilk.

I'm also working on an anthology, GHOSTS FOR CHRISTMAS, which is perfectly seasonal. And some other stuff. I'll be posting some stuff later.

I'm also trying to figure out what to do for New Year's Eve, and also preparing for a black-tie pre-inaugural gala in a couple weeks. (I actually bought a tuxedo today, for pity's sake.)

So stay tuned....there's more coming up...

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Dust & Corruption Goes Christmas Shopping

Yes, there's stuff out there for folks like me.

Actually, this is just an excuse to run a cool picture that was taken of me. I dropped by the Craft Mutiny Booty Market last Saturday, and one dealer, Kelly Rand, had the neatest pillows, embroidered with little bloodstains. They're about ten different kinds of wrong, so I just had to have one. Plus they're amazingly comfy. So after buying a few gifts, I treated myself to a pillow, and was photographed and briefly interviewed for the Hello Craft blog. So, for my readers who don't know what I look like, here I am, cuddling my Christmas pillow.

Ain't I just the cutest?

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Short takes: More Clark Ashton Smith

I'm plowing through my Arkham House edition of A RENDEZVOUS IN AVEROIGNE, a candybox of Smith stories. There's a selection from each of his created worlds, plus a random section of non-mythos stories. Nicely, I can skip about half of it after my recent readings.

Of most interest are Averoigne selections. Averoigne, for the uninitiated, is a mythical region of medieval France, haunted by witches and demons and what have you. You know, the usual Smith dark stuff.


First off is "The Holiness of Azedarac." The title character is the bishop of the city of Ximes, and is in reality a diabolical sorcerer using his holy office for all sort of unholiness. (It's broadly hinted that he's actually immortal, and this is just his latest disguise.) Brother Ambrose has been sent by another bishop to investigate, and is rushing off with his report when one of Azedarac's servants slips a potion into his drink at a wayside inn, which doesn't kill him, but projects him 700 years into the past, where he's nearly sacrificed by druids. However, he's rescued by a pagan sorceress....

While it's mostly about Ambrose, the title actually has a function. The story's crowning irony is that Azedarac's holiness is a sham, and even after Ambrose returns (albeit a generation after he left), he finds that Azedarac is now regarded as a saint. And Ambrose ends up returning to the past, shedding his holy orders to live happily with the pagan sorceress.

Thus we have what appears to be a theme of the Averoigne stories, the battle between Christianity and paganism, with Christianity almost always coming out on the losing end in one way or the other. In "The Holiness of Azedarac," all Christian piety is a sham, and even the most sincere believer ends up abandoning his faith for earthy pleasures.

Next up is "The Colossus of Ylourgne," in which we have another unholy sorcerer, Nathaire, swearing vengeance on Averoigne's ecclesiastical community for various reasons, summons newly-dead corpses to a remote castle and using them to construct a corpselike giant, into which he projects his own soul. He despoils the various churches in Averoigne until another sorcerer, Gaspard du Nord, foils him with a clever plot.

Again, there's a strain of anticlericalism here, as the church is helpless and ineffectual in battling the giant, and only another sorcerer can defeat the menace. And he's the only sorcerer left alone by the church afterward.

After that is "The End of the Story." Law student Christophe Morand is traveling and takes shelter in a remote monastery, where he befriends a jovial monk whose has an extensive book collection. He finds a bound manuscript that the monk warns him not to read, claiming it will lead to his destruction. Kinda like the cursed video in RINGU, he just HAS to read it. It tells the story of a knight who disappeared while exploring the ruins of the Chateau des Faussesflammes, which just happens to be nearby, although the manuscript is incomplete, not telling just what happened to the knight. Naturally, Christophe is curious and goes to the Chateau the next day, and in the catacombs finds a lovely grove inhabited by a beautiful woman...

Of course, things are not as they seem, and Christophe is at first rescued by the monks. the end, he cannot resist the call of the pagan enchantress, and goes to her, a triumph of pagan earthiness over Christian piety. Also, the book-collecting monk has his own share of culpability. He shows Christophe the manuscript, and if not for that Christophe would never have gone to the Chateau. The monk's collection is also eyebrow-raising; a complete manuscript of Sappho, odes by Catullus, an unknown dialogue of Plato, an Arabian work on astronomy that prefigures Copernicus, and the "somewhat infamous Histoire d'Amour," of which there are two known copies, the rest destroyed upon publication. Obviously, this monk's studies are hardly of the approved variety! Brother Hilaire is obviously an unwitting enabler of the dark forces in the Chateau, and perhaps a long-distance puppet?

The last story in the section, "A Rendezvous in Averoigne," is well-written but ultimately shallow fluff about lovers on the run who end up taking shelter in the Chateau des Faussesflammes and being menaced by vampires. (Presumably this takes place long before the events of "The End of the Story" but who knows?) Everything's dealt with quickly and easily, so it's entertaining, but without the depth of the others.

The "Atlantis" section has three stories that are OK fantasies, with good twists of irony, but just not very noteworthy aside from that. No real common theme unites them except for the irony. "The Last Incantation" has a sorcerer summoning a dead love, only to find her less beautiful; the irony being that he failed to summon up his own youth, so he could see her with young eyes. "The Death of Malygris" has the same sorcerer apparently dying, and his rivals taking almost absurd precautions, waiting years before they finally venture in...only to be felled by a final booby trap. "A Voyage to Sfanomoe" gives us two brothers, scholars and scientists, who flee a sinking Atlantis in a homemade spacecraft and land on Venus...where, while exploring Venus' fields of flowers, they are transformed into plants themselves. Nice stuff, well-written, but lacking a certain oomph.

I can skip over the "Zothique" and "Hyperborea" sections, leaving only the grab-bag "Lost Worlds" part which I started today. I'll report on that later...