It’s been odd. I haven’t had much luck writing the last few days to a week. I think my problem is that I’m reading too much. Or reading too much that was good. Part of the problem is that the stuff I’ve been reading has taken too much mental and emotional energy. The other part is that these folks write so goddamned well that it’s disheartening So.
I finished James Crumley’s The Right Madness last night. This book was written, from what I understand, while he was recuperating from a serious bout in the ICU (so far, I’ve seen nothing online that actually tells what happened, other than that he almost died, but was too crotchety to go peacefully. Crumley has written so few books in his long career that I reacted quickly, instinctively, paying too much for the hardback copy and eying it all the way home from Annapolis, wondering how dangerous it could be to try to read the thing in the dimming light while speeding up route 301.
It’s a disappointing book in some ways. Like his other works, The Right Madness lives in a gritty world of greed and lust and stupidity that underlies this thin veneer we call civilization, and his tough-guy detective heroes stumble through this in a haze of drugs and alcohol, blood and senseless violence, moral ambiguity and madness: the only sane options in an insane world. Unfortunately, it lacks the smooth cohesion of his earlier works, becomes repetitive in places, and there’s some glaring continuity problems. I think it could have done with one more pass through the rewrite process. But hell, this guy writes lines like “A streak of summer haze like a line of blood lay across the moon’s idiot face.” And as long as he’s doing that, continuity be damned, it’s still better reading than 99% of the stuff out there.
In The Physiognomy, Jeffrey Ford paints a phantasmagoric world of twisted magic and even more twisted science, a world in which science and magic and madness and reality blend and bend under the force genius and arrogance and greed. Physiognomy is a “science” that claims that character and personality can be determined by study of physical features of the body, primarily the face and head. It has been around for a long time; there’s a treatise on the subject attributed to Aristotle, and was popularized in the 1700s as a means to discover those of low character. Ford’s Physiognomist Cley is a detective, of sorts, using his science to discover perpetrators of crimes, fingering criminals for punishment based on the form of their bodies and the nature of the crime, sometimes in anticipation of any crime being committed. He is, I believe, one of the most foul and monstrous protagonists, if protagonist you wish to call him, that I’ve read.
The writing is brilliant, descriptions that tell more of the narrator than of those described (“He was a porcine fellow with rotten teeth, and I could tell from one look of his thick brow, his deep-set eyes that he had a propensity for daydreaming and masturbation”), literalized metaphors within literalized metaphors; Ford efforts at magical writing clearly owes much to Borges, without falling into the trap of simple imitation.
Caitlin R. Kiernan’s Silk hurt. Her stuff always hurts. I’ve only read two of her novels so far, and I’m convinced that it’s probably unlikely that I’ll have the courage to read more than one a year. She loves her characters deeply, all of them, really, the heroes and the villains and the poor folk caught between, and by doing so she connects with them, makes them real, makes them people you care about, people you empathize with.
Even the villains.
It’s a world of broken lives and broken minds, a world of missed opportunities, of “if only”s, where nothing is inevitable, but everything is inevitable. It’s a world of bad choices, of misunderstanding, of pain that goes too deep to be reached. It’s a world where no one is wholly evil and no one is wholly innocent. This is horror that fails every test of the genre: it is not a morality play, it’s not a slasher flick filled with stereotypes; its just people trying to cope in a world gone mad. And that’s what makes it better.