Monday, 29 December 2014

A Miscellany o' Stuff

In one of James Thurber's essays he remarks on losing his sight and having nurses read the newspapers to him. At one point a nurse comments that in the review section there are lots of books about Mussolini. Turns out it was 'Miscellany'. End of amusing aside. Start of actual blog bit.

I've been away over the Christmas period, doing Family Life. I actually enjoyed it, as it meant eating too much and then lying around reading books for the want of anything else to do (you'll have gathered that my folks are not online). In my old bedroom I found quite a few volumes I hadn't perused for many a year. Some were volumes of period ghost stories, which explains that last sentence. But I also enjoyed re-reading this:

If you know Tsutsui (like I know Tsutsui) you will be aware of his strange and often sexually explicit work. Salmonella Men on Planet Porno is one of his best-known story collections. The title story was dramatised rather well for a Radio 3 sf season a while back. He also wrote Paprika, the animated film of which is splendid - well worth a watch. 

What the Maid Saw - sometimes the title is translated simply as The Maid - is an early book. My American edition is dated 1990, and it was apparently the first of the author's books to be translated. It is a remarkably direct and powerful work, not least because it breathes new life into one of the most hackneyed ideas in pulp fiction - psi powers, or telepathy, or whatever you call it. Writing with great clarity and economy, Tsutsui brings complete conviction to an idea that's often been botched.

The heroine (?) is Nanase Hite, called Nana for short, a teenage girl who can read minds. Quite sensibly she hides her power, fearing abduction and experimentation. To keep a low profile she shuns higher education and instead seeks work as a housemaid. Unfortunately Nana's ability to mind read leads her into trouble as every family she encounters has its secrets, deceits, and concealed fault lines. 

One large family is so filthy that the stink of their laundry is almost unbearable, but Nana realises they are so used to it they have no idea that they smell. (Very Japanese, this, as having a 'dirty kitchen' means unmarriageable daughters.) In another family the newly-redundant patriarch starts to fantasise about raping the maid to re-affirm his masculinity. 

Needless to say, there is a lot sexual shenanigans, but Tsutsui is (for me) a moral writer - there is lip-smacking disapproval here, merely an acknowledgement that sex is part of normal life. And book concludes not with a bang but a scream of rage and terror, as Tsutsui rings the changes on a very old horror trope - one that Poe fans, in particular, will appreciate. I'd recommend this book for an afternoon's read. It's different, absorbing, and oddly uplifting. 

Elsewhere in the realms of the supernatural, some heavyweight opinions have been expressed. Here is a long and thoughtful review of the latest annotated edition of Lovecraft's fiction, A sample:

The effectiveness of Lovecraft’s fiction has little to do with its purely literary qualities, which are minimal (Michel Houellebecq claimed that Lovecraft’s work was “not really literary”), but with another feature that’s harder to pinpoint: the ways it casts a spell. Fiction like Lovecraft’s can be brutally hypnotic; the young reader, intellectually undefended and easily shaken, enters the writer’s fear-drenched universe and can’t easily get out of it. The mood of unappeasable, apocalyptic menace gradually overcomes those who are unprepared for it. Though sometimes stagy, the intensity in Lovecraft’s stories does not seem fake. Closing the book, the initiate tries to find other readers who were similarly spellbound. A cult is formed, as if to combat post-traumatic stress. From generation to generation the cult grows.

Quite. I enjoy Lovecraft, but came to his work in my late teens (or early twenties - I can't recall). The impact was somewhat less that it seems to have been on several of the big names in horror, who encountered HPL at more impressionable ages.

Here's another extract from a thoughtful piece, this time one that takes in the ghost story tradition and gives a well-deserved pat on the back (or spine?) to Tartarus Press for reviving interest in Aickman and others. 
Tartarus Press, the small imprint run from the Yorkshire Dales by the writers Ray Russell and Rosalie Parker, is semi-legendary among spook enthusiasts for its fine editions of supernatural and horror fiction. Tartarus was flying the Aickman flag long before Faber experienced its own revival of interest, and still has stunning hardbacks of his work available for sale, as well as work by Arthur Machen, L P Hartley, Lafcadio Hearn and other luminaries of the tradition.
Nice to see Andrew Hurley's debut novel The Loney get a mention amid the famous names. I don't know if, as the author claims, the ghost story is enjoying a renaissance. I'd like to believe it. But I'd also like to believe that the ghost story is evolving and changing, rather like ectoplasm at a Victorian seance, but without the tendency to turn into something fixed and dull - a vision of Uncle Fred in an unconvincing Elysium. 

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