You know: in a foolish, undiscriminating way, I've been happy these last few months. I don't know why. I just am. I love my friends; I love my pupils; I love what I read; I -- dammit -- love my thoughts. I love the taste of oranges.
Thornton Wilder in a letter to Gertrude Stein, Aug 14, 1936

Wednesday, December 28, 2011


What do you do if you are about to graduate from a small Buddhist college but do not come from a priestly family and therefore have no job opportunities open to you. If you have the proper skills, and a strong stomach, you might join The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service. This group sees to it that corpses abandoned in garbage dumps or found in the woods or the trunks of cars make it home to where their remains truly belong. But special skills do come in handy. One is a computer hacker; one is a dowser able to find corpses not water; one channels a foul-mouthed alien through a hand puppet; another, who for some reason appears to be a little girl, is an embalmer; and, most helpful of all is Kuro Kuratsu who is able to speak to the recently deceased.

Eiji Otsuka's manga series promises to be ghoulish fun. One story involves a necrophiliac father, another a hair dresser determined to assemble the perfect woman. Most surprising is Eiji's ability to write funny dialogue, something you don't get a lot of in manga. There may be visual gags and outrageous situations in most series, but The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service at times has the verbal spark of good comic film writing. In one scene the group argues over whether they need to buy a train ticket for a corpse. Numata, the dowser, has the group constantly eating the same brand of instant noodles so he can collect the labels and enter a contest for a Prada windbreaker. Throughout, they banter and give one another a hard time like any group of twenty-year-olds, they just happen to be carrying around dead bodies.


The Simulacra is PKD's grand, panoramic novel. He sweeps the reader from the highest corridors of power in Washington, D.C., to the lush rain forests of the Pacific North West and the colony of mutants who inhabit them. We meet Nicole Thibodeaux, the First Lady of the United States and the most powerful woman in the world; Richard Kongrosian, a psycho-kinetic musician who performs without touching the keyboard; and Looney Luke, semi-legal dealer in jalopies, outdated spacecraft good enough for a one-way trip to Mars. There is intrigue, betrayal, deception, and the threat of war.

Wait a minute. PKD didn't write grand, panoramic novels. Not that all the above isn't true. In fact it suggests no more than a fraction of the goings-on inThe Simulacra. But it all goes on in the usual two hundred or so pages common to PKD's novels. This is his most chaotic book. Every chapter for the first third of the novel introduces two or more new characters. What connections there will ever be among them is difficult to imagine. But much of what happens focuses on pleasing Nicole, who spends much of her time auditioning new acts to perform at her functions, or planning yet another televised tour of the White House. (Only readers of a certain age will get this joke.)

PKD tossed a lot of stray ideas into this one. Most of the ideas or good, the situations very funny, but he does not manage to do much more than let them fizzle out towards the end. Readers may be either irritated or exhausted, but the wiser choice is to just go along for the ride.

As in most of the novels from this period, there is moment when a female character lets loose with either a kind of praise or criticism that PKD must have wished for or dreaded hearing from whoever was his wife at the time. Here is Nicole talking about Richard Kongrosian.

"Oh the hell with it," Nicole said. "I'm tired of his ailments. I'm tired of having him pamper himself with his hypochondriacal obsessions. I'm going to toss the entire power and majesty and authority of the state at him, tell him point blank that he has got to give up his imaginary diseases.

Ouch. But even though Kongrosian is a hypochondriac he still has the power to psycho-kinetically transport one of Nicole's gun-wielding agents to the White House laundry room when necessary. The author remains in control.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011


BAO BAKO BAKO -- sound of a distant helicopter          

ZU ZURU -- sound of body dragging itself on the ground

PAN PAN -- brushing dirt off pants

PITA -- sound of fly landing on eye

BUBUN -- sound of flies

BUUUUN -- buzzing flies

GA -- footstep

PURAN -- sound of an arm falling off a stretcher

JI -- zipper starting to open

JIIIII -- zipper unzipping

BIKUN BIKUN -- body starting to twitch

GEBOBOBO -- vomiting blood

DO -- an organ hitting the floor

GAKO GAKO -- old car sounds

GIKU -- gulp sound effect

PORI PORI -- scratching head

SHIN -- sound of silence

GATA GATA KATA GATA -- headless body starting to shake

GOGOGOGOGO -- rushing water

Selected from the sound fx glossary of  The Kurosogi Corpse Delivery Service (vol 1) by Eiji Otsuka

(English translations of Japanese manga usually leave the sound effects that are crucial to the image in the original  kanji lettering.  The above are transliterations of kanji words into Roman lettering)

Thursday, December 15, 2011


The set up for the story involves a pun that only works in Japanese. When Hikari wrote his name on his shoes -- is this something Japanese teenagers do? -- he accidently wrote Hikaso. And since he draws all the time, all this schoolmates call him Picasso.

So that's not very interesting. But things pick up when Picasso and his almost girlfriend Chiaki have a helicopter fall on them. Chiaki dies. Picasso suffers only minor injuries. Several days later, Chiaki appears Tinkerbelle-like from the pocket of Picasso's school jacket. Surprise! Picasso is also dead, and his body will rot unless he uses his drawings to help others. First he spots a schoolmate with a dark aura, then he draws a mysterious picture, then he is physically sucked into the picture, then he figures out what is wrong, then he makes things right. In Vol. One he does this four times.

Finally, some one has created a manga that uses an absurd premise you might expect from a prime time, network series. It has good production values but it's boring.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011


Ramsey Campbell's home page opens with a quote from the Oxford Companion to English Literature. It informs us that Campbell is "Britain's most respected living horror writer."

My copy of the OCEL is a fifth edition and has no entry for Campbell at all. If it did, that first statement might be followed by this bit of information: Charles Dee Mitchell has attempted to read five of Mr. Campbell's works and only succeeded in finishing three. And trust me, in the case of those I abandoned it was not because I was too terrified to turn another page.

Ramsey Campbell, Family Man

Ramsey Campbell may neither travel well nor date well. He has an American following but is a much bigger deal, obviously, in Great Britain. He is, after all, their most respected living horror writer. He has been publishing since the late 1950's, and his most recent novel came out just this year from one of the presses that do high-priced, short runs of fantasy, horror, and science fiction titles. The books I tried were early to mid career novels. The Doll That Ate His Mother (1976), The Face that Must Die (1979), The Nameless (1981), The Hungry Moon (1986), and The Influence (1988). Perhaps the past two decades have seen a remarkable transformation of his style and storytelling, but it is not as though the ones I read came un-recommended. The Face That Must Die was a somewhat fancy reprint with an introduction by Poppy C. Brite and a few really bad illustrations. The Influence won the British Fantasy Award and is on the Guardian's list of best sf and fantasy. The Hungry Moon, absolutely the worst of the lot, is the novel chosen by the Horror Writers' Association to represent Campbell's work.

So is it just me? Of course, if that turned out to be the case, I would be the last person to admit it. I found the books mildly entertaining to unreadable. The thought that they might be genuinely frightening or even unnerving never crossed my mind.

To start with the ones I didn't finish. The Hungry Moon is an overlong tale of Druid magic resurrected in the modern day by a religious nut. Campbell introduces us to too many of the residents of Moonwell, a village in Northern England. We learn what supposedly makes each one interesting and that takes a while. Then the event happens and we see how each of them react. Since I started skimming and finally quit the book, I don't know the full panoply of horrible things that go on. But in the first chapter you learn that the village of Moonwell not only no longer exists but has been removed from maps, memories, and the telephone directory. The Influence concerns an evil great aunt out to possess the soul of her grandniece. If it had been a movie on TV and I could fast forward the commercials I would have watched it. But I couldn't read it.

Random Spooky Image

The other three novels are about psychopaths, two of them with some black magic references. The best of them is The Face that Must Die. The anti-hero, a Mr.Horridge, is a deranged young man obsessed with the evils of homosexuality. Great Britain decriminalized homosexuality in 1967, and decade later, Horridge sees the twisted results of the legislation everywhere he turns. He and his hammer will do what they can to remedy this situation. When the book first came out, portions were excised supposedly because they were too shocking. The complete text did not come out until 1982. Now the book just seems like fun. Horridge is crazy, and the block of flats on which he focuses his rage is peopled by characters only one of whom is gay and none whom have any idea what's coming. Like some of those old British stage thrillers, this is a shocker that now plays as black comedy.

Campbell lives in Liverpool, and what he does best it create the down-in-the heel atmosphere and characters of that dismal, at least in his rendering, Northern England city. Everything is rundown, the weather is miserable, the people often not very bright. I especially liked the paranoid, pot-smoking hippie and the scatterbrained artist who lets a psychopath into her flat thinking he is the plumber.

So big deal, Mr. Campbell is not my cup of tea. If anyone, however, finishes The Influence, I am curious to know if anything even vaguely unpredictable happens by the time it is over.

Read my reviews of individual Ramsey Campbell novels on Worlds Without End

Monday, December 12, 2011


PKD spent a great deal of time in and out of psychiatrists' offices. He had bouts of agoraphobia from the time he was a teenager and went through several spells of clinical depression. He knew the psychiatric lingo and at times used it as rigorously in his personal relationships as he did in his books.

Alpha III M2 is one of the purest creations of his experiences with mental health professionals. Alpha III M2 is a small moon in the Alpha Centauri system used by Earth as a global mental facility. The moon was one giant hospital treating all known forms of mental derangement. The fact that these break down to only a half dozen or so reflects the mid-sixties when the novel was written. The DSM had not yet expanded to include everything from psychosis to social anxiety disorder (shyness.) A minor war with the Alphanes has left Alpha III M2 to its on devices for over twenty years. Earth is finally sending ships to check up on how things are going.

Meanwhile back on earth, Chuck Rittersdorf has been tossed out by his wife, a successful marriage counselor, and now lives in a rundown conapt that sounds a little bit like the first apartment I had in college. He survives on the small salary he makes programming simulacra for CIA propaganda missions. His best new friend is a Ganymedean slime mold named Lord Running Clam. 

One reason I enjoy writing about PKD is that I can write Paragraph Two (above), follow it by Paragraph Three (above), and still be writing about the same novel. PKD said later in his career that he realized his writing technique involved starting multiple plots and then seeing how he could bring them together. I think this is usually referred to as "making it up as you go along." Chuck contemplates murdering his wife. .Bunny Hentzman, one of PKD's frequent world-renowned entertainers that exercise a bizarre control over Earth's culture, hires Chuck at a terrific salary, but counter-intelligence operations within the CIA and the Hentzman organization make Chuck a hunted man. As in a French farce of a Preston Sturges comedy, everyone ends in the same place, Alpha II M2, either shooting it out with laser pistols or making desperate diplomatic moves to keep Earth and Alpha out of a war and the main characters out of prison.

A strangely touching and revealing moment comes when Chuck, having agreed to another battery of psychological testing, has these thoughts which sound straight from the heart of PKD:

"Suppose the tests show no drift, no neurosis, no latent psychosis, no character deformation, no psychopathic tendencies, in other words, nothing. What do I do then?" ... he had an inkling that that was exactly what the tests would show. He did not belong in any of the settlements here on Alpha III M2; here he was a loner, an outcast, accompanied by no one even remotely resembling him."

Maybe not exactly a cri de coeur, but it seems one of the most personal statements PKD has made in his work to this time.

But then again, his is also improving his knack for toss away nuttiness. Here's the opening to Chapter 8:

When, late that night, Chuck Rittersdorf wearily returned to his rundown conapt in Marin County, California, he was stopped in the hall by the yellow Ganymedean slime mold. This, at three a.m. It was too much.


Wednesday, December 7, 2011


So what is the highlight of Vol 9?

A grown man slugging a ten-year-old girl in the face? No, that happens in just about every volume.

A revolt among one faction of the school that leads to dividing the buildings into enemy territories. No, that's been coming a long time.

The attack of the giant, flesh-eating starfish. Sorry, Umezo-san, you will have to try harder than that.

Sho's sudden attack of appendicitis? Really, after the bubonic plague outbreak some issues back, it just doesn't seem like that big of a deal.

The decision to operate on Sho using only an exacto knife and a pair of scissors? Now we're getting somewhere. Combine that with Sho's mother's mystic communication through the voice of the crippled girl who for some reason is suddenly near death, and you have one hell of an issue.

I can't believe there is only one volume more to go.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011


Without realizing it, Hiram and Levi had been in training for the Collapse most of their lives. They learned lessons in shop class, Boy Scouts, Renaissance Fairs, and all night sessions of Dungeons and Dragons. The began to receive instruction and train in earnest after television went all digital. On the unmonitored analog channels, 'Casters began sending out coded messages buried in the static, saying what to expect and how to prepare. Other messages were hidden in the wild style graffiti covering the walls of their college town somewhere in North Texas. When the Collapse occurred, Hiram and Levi would be among the prepared. The 'Casts had helped them assemble The Book, a sort of army training manuel for the survival of your Group. Following instructions Hiram and Levi already have established their Place in the country and stocked it with Salvage, i.e. stolen stuff. They have planned an escape route.

I was reading Noise on Black Friday. I took a break after about fifty pages, turned on the computer to check email, and saw first thing the videos of ambulances driving the fallen away from Best Buys in Colorado. Then I read the story of the woman at the California Wall Mart who pepper sprayed her fellow shoppers to protect her xbox console. And all morning I had thought I was reading a novel.

What Hiram and Levi have been learning, what they have assembled in The Book, are lessons in ruthlessness. They will not be victims. They will take advantage of chaos. They will regard all those outside their Group as enemies, and they will neutralize them when necessary. They neutralize some unsuspecting National Guardsmen who have been called in to discourage the turmoil breaking out in malls and on the campus. They steal the NG's Humvee with its 50 caliber machine gun. It comes in handy when dealing with disgruntled suburban males who don't like the look of what's going on. Hiram and Levi pick up some followers before their escape from the city, but this crowd, only partially trained in the disciplines of the 'Casts, prove to be a mixed blessing. When one thirteen year old is caught trying to escape -- he wants to go home to his parents across town -- he is tied to a porch railing, judged, and neutralized. The Group has done the right thing. The kid knew too much.

Noise is an unsettling read. It follows its relentless logic for just 200 pages and gets the survivors of Hiram and Levi's group to their Place of safety. I am one of those movie watchers who always wonder why characters hit guards and bad guys over the head instead of killing, I mean, neutralizing them, but I also know there is always payback time. Much of what is in The Book makes an awful sort of sense, given the situation. But nobody's long-term prospects look good.

Get the message?

Monday, December 5, 2011


This is how bad things have gotten. Earth is over-heated and over-crowded. If you go outside during the day you must wear a portable cooling pack and stay under anti-thermal protective shades until you can grab a passing jet taxi or "thermosealed, interbuilding commute car." The U.N. has a forced emigration policy designed to provide colonists to Mars and a few other locations. But everyone knows that life off Earth will be even more miserable than what they face here. The colonists serve no real purpose since agriculture is difficult with frozen methane storms and pesky alien creatures that may eat either your struggling crops or yourself. When draft notices arrive, anyone who can afford one hires a psychiatrist in a box. Its purpose is to keep your mind so addled you will never pass the psych examine when the U.N. tries to ship you off to the boonies.

Barney Mayerson's shrink is Dr. Smile, and he is supposed to be one of the best. But Barney should be able to beat his draft notice in any case. He is the New York Pre-Fash consultant for Perky Pat Enterprises. This means he uses his precognitive abilities to judge whether products presented as possible new additions to Perky Pat's layout will be a success. PP is a doll with a dreamy life and dreamy boyfriend --let's face it, they're Barbie and Ken. Colonists in their Martian hovels spend hours playing with Perky Pat, aided by the illegal drug, Can-D. (The drug is manufactured on Venus by Perky Pat Enterprises.) A chaw of Can-D gives participants up to an hour or so of complete identification with PP and her world.

Life for Barney, his new girlfriend/assistant Betty, and their boss Leo Bolero is good until word comes that renegade industrialist Palmer Eldritch has crash landed on Pluto after a decade spent outside the solar system. Rumor has it that that he has brought back with him a new drug, Chew-Z. (PKD was never one to shy away from puns.) Chew-Z is better than Can-D. It requires no layouts but instead puts the user into a completely realized fantasy world. And Eldritch has won U.N approval, so it is legal. Perky Pat Enterprises will be destroyed.

This might be a good time to mention that The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch is PKD's first overtly religious novel. It is one of seven novels written during the amphetamine-fueled years of 1963/64. There is some question as to when PKD first took LSD, but it is difficult not to imagine Can-D and Chew-Z as versions of marijuana and acid. Can-D is a party drug. Chew-Z promises to reveal new levels of reality. It is part of a spiritual quest, but it could also be a trap. There comes a Voltairian moment when Barney decides to chuck everything and just tend his own scraggly Martian garden. That doesn't last for long. Barney's quest will bring him into contact with the world of Chew-Z, Palmer Eldritch himself, and whatever exists beyond Palmer Eldritch.

This is the book that 30 years ago sold me on Philip K. Dick. I had seen Blade Runner and read, since it was supposed to be PKD's best novel, The Man in the High Castle. I liked it OK, but then I happened to pick up Palmer Eldritch. The screwball pacing, deadpan humor, and imaginative monsters were the perfect cover for the serious thought that lurked in the background. Even though I was hooked -- an appropriate term when discussing PKD -- I read him only sporadically until this past year. Now reading all his SF in more or less chronological order is at times a pleasure, a chore, and even saddening. It's my own Chew-Z trip. And I am just now getting to the good stuff.

Sunday, December 4, 2011



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Tuesday, November 29, 2011


Shinichi's problems continue in a series that shows signs of slowing down. The best part of Vol V is an extended chase and fight sequence with five aliens inhabiting a single body. The storytelling is cinematic, with the characters' parasitic components allowing them to swing through trees and grab hold of speeding trucks.

Satomi, Shinichi's supposed girlfriend, must be trying for the "most-long-suffering-girlfriend-in Japan" award. If I were her I would be more concerned with the dead bodies that turn up in his vicinity.

An interesting linguistic note: When characters are startled they may say either "eep" or "eek." I wonder if there is some subtle difference in Japanese.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011


Late at night on November 7, I fell and badly sprained my ankle. It hurt like hell.

By the afternoon of November 8 I was periodically soaking it in a bucket of ice water and taking the hydrocodone my doctor had prescribed.

Sitting with my foot elevated, only mildly bothered by the pain, and feeling generally pretty good, I decided to read Anna Karenina. It was an excellent choice. The hydrocodone lasted only four days and it took me over a week to read the book, but I enjoyed every moment of it.

For the past couple of years I have been reading a lot of science fiction and crime. I've enjoyed most of what I've read. I've been genuinely impressed by much of it, but you know, just a few pages into Tolstoy's novel I remembered it is hard to beat masterpieces of nineteenth literature when it comes to storytelling and characters. Especially the characters.

Characters in science fiction are in service to the author's idea. (I read a lot of Philip K. Dick.) And when most science fiction writers think they a developing fully rounded characters they a just scratching the surface. It could be that since those characters have to act out their stories in imaginary worlds, their interactions with those worlds cannot be as complexly realized as the actions of characters in realistic fiction. Crime novels satisfy my innate, pessimistic worldview, and you get to know some really horrible people, but I don't care what happens to these people. I am only curious to see whether or not they will get their comeuppance, and if the novel is good, I am satisfied either way.

But in Anna Karenina I remembered what it was like to live with characters. When Kitty's pregnancy stretched past nine months, I feared the worst. When Anna was snubbed at the opera, I thought she should have seen it coming. When Levin went out to mow with the farmers, I hoped he wouldn't make a total ass of himself.

Now I have my eye on The Red and the Black. I've already read War and Peace and I think it would take more than a sprained ankle along with stronger drugs to get me settled down forThe Brothers Karamazov. I am also reading a 1970's novel by Ramsey Campbell called The Doll that Ate His Mother. The life of the mind goes on.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011


This is not going to be a easy to write as I thought. I had my first line all planned out and can still use it.

"Of course her real name is not Poppy Z. Brite. It's a pseudonym used by Melissa Ann Brite, born May 25, 1967 in New Orleans, Louisiana."

I got that much by glancing at Brite's Wikipedia entry. But  further down the page I picked up this bit of information: "Brite is a transgender man, born biologically female. He has written and talked much about his gender dysphoria/gender identity issues.[3] He self-identifies with gay males, and as of August 2010, has begun the process of gender reassignment. "

That I didn't know, but it goes some ways towards explaining why almost all of Brite's male characters, whether they are vampires, musicians, artists, drug dealers, or serial killers tend to be gay men.

An early publicity photo.
You don't want to know what she's thinking.
When I decided to read some horror fiction, I thought I would start with Brite because I had heard the novels were good, moody, sexy, and very bloody. She, as I thought at the time, represented the new generation of horror writers, steeping the novels in a gothic punk atmosphere the no other writer at the time -- the early 1990's -- had explored. Although she wrote stand alone novels, some characters and settings reappeared, creating a world of the supernatural and the grotesque that alternated between Missing Mile, North Carolina and New Orleans. (I love that name, Missing Mile.)

Brite's horror publishing career lasted only half a decade and produced three novels and two volumes of short stories. His first novel, Lost Souls, he began while still a teenager. When his last horror novel, Exquisite Corpse came out in 1996,  he was 29. Brite then turned to writing comic novels centered around the New Orleans restaurant scene. For the past several years, he as been on an official hiatus from writing at all. But I think with Lost Souls, Drawing Blood, and Exquisite Corpse Brite has left a significant legacy in the horror genre. (I have not read the short stories.)

 Lost Souls is a lushly over-written, almost plotless tale of vampires traveling the country in what must be a very smelly van given their sloppy feeding habits. Their handsome leader, Zillah, keeps things somewhat under control with his more party-minded friends Molochai and Twig. They meet up with a confused, not yet out of the vampire closet fifteen-year old named Nothing. Nothing and Zillah almost instantly hit the sack,. In a scene that involves killing his best friend, Nothing learns he is a vampire. Later he learns that Zillah, due to a one night stand in New Orleans many years ago, is his father, a fact that does not put a crimp in the sexual activity. They hang out in Missing Mile, NC, which is a much hipper place than it sounds. They seduce some people, they kill some people, they meet up with an old friend from New Orleans and relocate. There they get involved with some other kinky types -- there's no point in going any further with this. Brite's enthusiastic prose keeps things happening if not exactly moving in any particular direction. It's fun, although long.

Poppy Z. Brite is now Billy Martin
Drawing Blood returns to Missing Mile where the sole survivor of a family massacre returns twenty years later to confront family ghosts. He meets up with a computer hacker on the run from the feds and guess what, they spend almost all their time in bed -- or on the floor or in the shower. They are at the age when erections are so hard they ache. If the traditional horror audience of 16 to 25 year old males actually read this book, things have changed. Or maybe that demographic only applies to horror movies and not horror fiction. Drawing Blood is a haunted house story of sorts, with lots of rock and roll, gay sex, and mushroom ingestion. It is also a romance with a happy romance ending that I personally thought was out of place, but I suspect Brite, or at least his publishers, know their audience.

And what to make of Exquisite Corpse? Brite says his original publishers turned it down because it was too extreme. They would have had a point. The descriptions of necrophilia, torture, and cannibalism are like nothing in the previous novels. The book has at least a couple of images that unfortunately will most likely always be with me. But her publishers might also rightly have considered this novel something of a mess. HIV and AIDS are prominent elements in the story, and perhaps the serial killers are meant to represent the death sentence the disease was considered at the time. This is Brite's best writing. The grotesque sex is like the Marquis de Sade minus all the frou-frou. or Georges Baitaille without the pretension. What ever was intended, Exquisite Corpse might best be considered grand guignol fun. It is also a book I would never recommend to anybody I know, fearing recriminations.

Brite's three novels are quickly becoming period pieces, and you have to find them squeezed onto the shelves surrounded by all the paranormal romance and zombie crap that dominates the field. I like to imagine some unsuspecting Laura K. Hamilton fan will pick up Exquisite Corpse and live to regret it.

Read my reviews of individual Poppy Z. Brite novels on Worlds Without End

Sunday, November 20, 2011

BOOK REIVEW:SINEATER by Elizabeth Massie

I picked this up because it was on the Horror Writers' Association list of horror must-reads. I have always been a pro-horror film voice, but was never attracted to reading horror novels. Movies are over in 90 minutes. Novels takes hours and hours. And I also had the not-uncommon prejudice against the genre, or at least against anything written much later than the turn of the 20th century.

But I liked Sineater. I guess it's a horror novel, although I wondered if Massie's publisher didn't promote it as a genre book so it would not get lost in mid-list literary fiction. It's really a pretty good coming-of-age story set in a grotesque situation. If there is such a thing as the Hillbilly Anti-Defamation League, I am sure this book is on its radar. One lesson I took away from it was to fill up the car with gas before driving through Virginia and don't make any stops. These people are crazy.

Sineaters, a tradition that made it to the states from Scotland and Wales, are outsiders, shunned by the community but necessary to its functioning. They appear at wakes and eat a light meal prepared for them by the grieving family and placed on the corpse of the recently deceased loved one. The meal is the sins of the one who has passed on, and by consuming it the sineater assures their soul will go to heaven. No one must ever look on his face.

Avery Barker is an unusual sineater. He is married to the woman he loved before he took up his profession, and although even she must never look on his face, that have managed to have three children. Joel Avery, the youngest son, is the central character, the first Avery allowed to attend school. His only friend was the son of the liberal Methodist minister who has recently moved his family to a parish outside Washington, D.C. Joel's potential new friend is a very different sort of person. Burke Campbell is a skinny, angry redhead sent to live with his religious nut aunt after her daughter has gone missing. Burke's friendly overtures to Joel involve shooting him the finger every time he sees him in the halls at school.

Sineeater is not the gorefest I assumed contemporary horror novels to be. The story is long and leisurely Southern Gothic with lots of character development and one moment so repulsive that I made that pledge about never getting out the car in Virginia.

(Below is a sineater currently plying his/her(?) trade in the Baltic states.)

Tuesday, November 15, 2011


... their next principle was that man brings with him into the world a peculiar portion or grain of wind... This quintessence is of a catholic use upon all emergencies of life, is improveable into all arts and sciences, and may be wonderfully refined as well as enlarged by certain methods in education. This, when blown up to to its perfection, ought not to be covetously hoarded up, stifled, or hid under a bushel, but freely communicated to mankind. Upon these reasons and others of equal weight, [they] affirm the gift of BELCHING to be the noblest act of a rational creature. To cultivate which art and render it more serviceable to mankind, they made use of several methods. At certain seasons of the year, your might behold them, ... in several hundreds linked together in a circular chain, with every man a pair of bellows applied to another man's breech, by which they blew each other up to the shape and size of a tun;....  When by these and the  like performances they were grown sufficiently replete, they would immediately depart and disembogue for the public good a plentiful share of their acquirements into their disciples' chaps. For we must here observe that all learning was esteemed among them to be composed of the same principle. Because first, it is generally affirmed, or confessed, that learning puffeth men up; and, secondly, they proved it by the following syllogism. Words are but wind, and learning is nothing but words; ergo, learning is nothing but wind...wherein they had acquired a wonderful eloquence, and of incredible variety. But the great characteristic by which their chief sages were distinguished, was a certain position of countenance, which gave undoubted intelligence to what degree or proportion the spirit agitated the inward mass. For after certain gripings, the wind and vapours issuing forth, having first by their turbulence and convulsions within caused an earthquake in man's little world, bloated the cheeks, and gave the eyes a terrible kind of relievo. At which juncture, all their belches were received for sacred, the sourer the better, and swallowed with infinite consolation by their meagre devotees.

MANGA MANIA: MW by Osamu Tezuka

This is by the creator of Astro Boy?

I read that later in life, Tezuka wanted to do something with a more adult theme than the work he was best known for. "More adult" in this case does not mean more emotionally or morally complex. It is simply outrageous, blissfully disdainful of credibility, and full of sex -- hetero-, homo-, and bestial. It is also over 500 pages long, but I suppose all those manga that come in installments are this long or longer. Still it is an intimidating tome.

Michio Yuki is a ten-year-old kidnap victim held prisoner in a cave on a Japanese island. He and his teenage captor make love that one night together. ("You're as pretty as a girl," the older boy keeps saying.) The next morning, everyone on the island is dead, due to the leak of a poison gas, the titular MW, stored there by Country X. (Now who could that be?) Yuki and his captor/boyfriend have escaped because of the altitude of their cave hideout. But tiny Yuki. it turns out, is short enough to inhale enough of the residual gas to lose any sense of morality. 

Jump twenty or so years forward. Yuki is a strikingly handsome assistant bank manager by day and notoriously violent kidnapper on his off hours. His childhood captor, sorry I forget his original name and don't have the book in front of me, has become a Catholic priest named Father Garais. Yuki, knowing that what is said in the confessional cannot be repeated, confesses on a regular basis to Father Garais, They also have frequent sexual liaisons. Father Garais suffers spiritually but never turns down a roll in the hay with the still quite fetching Yuki. Yuki can also pose as a woman -- his family has a history of playing female roles in the Kabuki theater -- and seduces and murders his way to the top of the banking and political machine of modern Tokyo. His plan all along is to discover where the MW gas has been relocated and use it to destroy all life on earth. He is slowing dying from the low level MW contact he had years before, and wants to take the whole world with him. This kid wrote the book on nihilism.

MW is an entertaining farrago of sex and violence. Having it all in one, chunky volume made me feel like I was reading the worst, or maybe the best, Harold Robbins novel ever written.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

MANGA MANIA: MPD PSYCHO VOL 1 by Eiji Otsuka and Sho-u Tajima

Nutty and outrageous. The hero is a police detective with multiple personality disorder who is convicted of a string a killings while he was not himself, or rather while he was one of his more violent selves. After what seemed like a surprisingly short prison term, he is hired by a policewoman friend to set up a detective agency specializing in profiling killers. In this first installment the bad guy is a world-renowned architect with a passion for kidnapping beautiful women and planting flowers in their brains while they are still alive. Given the roller coaster pacing of the series it would be rude to question exactly how this is done.

Takishi Miike, that Japanese movie-making machine, did at least two TV episodes based loosely on this series. Reviews of the DVD's complain that the gore sequences have been pixilated out of the prints, I suppose in deference to the TV censors. But since one of the episodes involves a killer who cuts the fetuses from pregnant women, I surprised that is was on TV to begin with. I like to imagine a Japanese mom calling out, "Hurry kids. Dinner is ready and MPD Psycho is about to start!"



"Anyhow, Pete Garden, you were psychotic and drunk and on amphetamines and hallucinating, but basically you perceived the reality that confronts us..." 

PKD must have dreamed that any one of his five wives or several girlfriends would one day sit across the breakfast table and speak those words to him. I don't know that he was ever psychotic, that term was tossed around differently in the 1960's than it would be today. But drunk and on amphetamines,? Yes. Hallucinating? During the time he was writing this novel PKD walked daily from his home to his "writing shack" about a mile down the road. In the blue, Northern California sky, he saw a gigantic malevolent face. "It was immense, it filled like a quarter of the sky. It had empty slots for eyes -- it was metal and cruel and, worst of all, it was God." An Episcopal priest PKD consulted suggested it was a vision of Satan. Whatever the case, it didn't go away for days. So, I think that is another "yes" for hallucinating. 

In Game Players of Titan, earth has been dealt a double blow. As per usual with Dick, there has been an atomic war, this one started by the Red Chinese using a new weapon developed in East Germany. (Nice period details, there.) The radiation released by the new weapon sterilizes the populations it is directed against, but wind currents being what they are, the Red Chinese have inadvertently almost completely sterilized the human race. To add insult to injury, beings from Titan, the largest moon of Saturn, have invaded and conquered earth. They are the Vugs, oversized amoebas that sound a bit like Al Capp's Shmoo. Humans find them irritating and keep Vug sticks on hand for pushing them out of rooms. But the Vugs are, in their way, benevolent landlords. Longevity drugs allow humans to live into their hundreds while never looking much over 30 or 40 years of age. With earth's population in the low millions, lucky humans are Bindmen, property owners whose properties include towns, cities, and vast swathes of the depopulated planet. If you are a Bindman you must also play the Titans' game. 

The Titans' game seems like nothing more than a rudimentary board game, a simplified form of Monopoly but with all your landholdings at stake. Peter Garden's loss of Berkeley in the first chapter of the book sets in motion events that will involve murder, interplanetary travel, telekinesis, ESP, and large quantities of alcohol and amphetamines. 

Along with Berkeley, Garden loses his current wife, but acquires a new one that same night. Another purpose of the game is to keep reshuffling human couples in hopes of finding those who can still "get lucky," the current term for becoming pregnant. Garden's spectacular bender that takes up much of the book occurs when he discovers that with his new wife he has gotten lucky for the first time and on their first night. He ingests every pill in the house and starts hitting the bars. What he discovers are conspiracies within conspiracies, Vug infiltration of his closest friends, and a offer to play the ultimate game to decide the fate of the earth. 

Game Players of Titan is PKD really hitting his stride. It is a masterpiece of paranoia, where no one can be trusted to be who they claim to be, where rules are made to be broken, and the protagonist must bluff his way through a game that he knows is a deadly sham. And how do you go about bluffing if half the people in the room can read your mind? The fact that PKD works out a method implies that he had spent for too much energy in his personal life dealing with just barely more earthbound versions of these same issues. And remember that every morning, on his walk to his typewriter, he must endure the glaring, empty eyes of a malevolent god. 

Wednesday, November 9, 2011


ambages, circuitous, roundabout ways

atrementous, black as ink

bait, to stop for rest and refreshment

boutade, a sudden motion,  like a kick from a horse's hind legs

butter weight, good measure, 18 or more ounces to the pound

cockle, the weed corn cockle, whose seeds had to be sifted out of the seed corn; the task gave rise to several proverbs

cully, a simpleton, gull

ends, shoemakers' threads pointed with bristles

exploded, clapped or hissed off the stage

garnish, money extracted from a gaoler for better treatment, particularly allowing light manacles, or freedom of movement within the prison

gossips, the women friends invited to be present at a birth

hic multa desiderantur, a great deal is missing here

horsed for discipline, placed piggy-back to be flogged on the posteriors by a school master

jordan. chamber-pot

kennel, the open drain or gutter in a street, usually in the middle

mopus, a stupid or moping person

pinner, coif (q.v.) with two long hanging strips pinned on each side, worn by ladies of rank

pure bite, completely successful hoax

put, (country) bumpkin, 'buffer'

rubs, disagreeable experiences

sack-posset, a drink made of hot curdled milk, white wine, and perhaps spices

smock, fornicate

stews, brothels

tentiginous humour, an inclination to lust (from the L tentigo, an erection)

truckling, subservient, obsequious

vapours, hysterics

Selected from the glossary to
Jonathan Swift. Major Works,  
ed. by Angus  Ross and David Woolery
Oxford University Press

Friday, November 4, 2011


By the 8th volume it should come as no surprise that these kids just can't get a break. The maniacal cafeteria worker is back and taking charge. He sends Sho and his friends into the desert to dig a well -- yeah, sure. He abandons them in the pit. But they find a crack in the wall that leads them into the ruins of the Tokyo subway system. There they learn, through a convenient, ritual showing of an educational film for the mutant insect creatures who populate the underground, that Japan in the the late 20th century -- Umezu wrote these stories in the 1970's -- had so despoiled the land that women began giving birth to mutant babies, hence the insect creatures, and massive earthquakes buried their civilization. This is another lesson in eco-awareness from the country that gave us Godzilla Vs. the Smog Monster.

In a typical twist for Umezu, at the end of the installment the enormous spring of fresh water the kids discovers turns into an active volcano. Damn! Only two more installments to wind this thing up.

Monday, October 31, 2011


Depending upon which survey you read, somewhere between 30% and 50% of Americans believe in ghosts.

That number seems high to me, and I would like to know how each survey phrased the question. If some one hated to be rude to the lingering dead and deny their existence entirely, did they waffle and say, "Well, maybe," and then get classified with the yea sayers? Were they merely ghost agnostics, wanting to leave at least a tiny rent in the veil that separates the living from the dead? After all, how can you really know?

I realize that I am about to lose potentially between a third and one half of my already scant readership here, but I have to say that on this one point at least, people who believe in ghosts simply are not very bright. Now all those same people are saying that I'm not very open-minded to shut the door on the very possibility of a spirit lingering after the body's death, but you know, fuck that. Grow up. Ghosts answer a variety of needs in peoples' lives, from comfort to punishment, but they are not real. There are many creepy aspects to deserted houses, lonely country roads, bad parts of town, and abandoned mental hospitals, but they have nothing to do with ghosts. The night you saw your grandmother, a week after her death, sitting at the foot of your bead may have seemed very real -- I know it did in my case -- but she was not a ghost.

Having said all this, I admit that the only thing that really scares me, in movies or stories, is a ghost or a haunted house. Vampires, werewolves, serial killers, monsters large and small are there for my entertainment. If one leaps out from behind a closed door I may jump out of my seat with the rest of the audience, but I would do the same thing if a CPA jumped out from behind a closed door. That is nothing more than being startled. But ghosts are uncanny. They worm their way into that part of my brain that knows better but cannot fight back the reflex reaction that raises goosebumps or makes you wish the wife would just stay in her room and not check out those noises downstairs.

I blame my parents. When I was in seventh grade they gave me the Modern Library Giant Edition Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural. The stories terrified and delighted me. They were almost all of either Victorian or Edwardian vintage, and that specific diction in a story, the sound of the Oxford Don hesitant to tell his tale for fear of being thought mad, still does it for me. Films and modern writers that attempt that exact atmosphere tend to be creaky and ineffectual. But there are endless modern variations. I find modern vampire stories silly and serial killers tedious if sometimes disgusting, but a film like Paranormal Activity can have me squirming in my seat. (At least the first one did. I just saw Paranormal Activity 3 and felt like I was hearing the same joke for the third time. Although it had its moments.)

Recently I have begun reading horror novels. The Horror Writers Association has published a list of 40 must reads in the genre, many of which I must have read in Junior High and High School. I have also taken a look at the annual Bram Stoker Award winners. It's an interesting list with some surprises. Joyce Carol Oates, no doubt, was delighted to win in 1996 for a book I've never heard of called Zombie, but how must a writer the quality of Stuart O'Nan have felt about first being nominated and then losing out to a novel by Peter Straub in 2005?

I have misgivings about the length of most of these books. How can anything be scary for 400 pages? But I am approaching this with an open mind, hoping for entertainment and the occasional creepy moment. And yes, they will find their way onto Potato Weather. I hope to use the word putrescent a great deal.