Read This! Volume 13
For me, the biggest difference between a review and a critique is spoilers. A review should offer readers an opinion on whether or not a book is worth reading and why, without revealing too many of the delights to be found inside. Critique is meant to deep dive into the mechanisms that carry the story forward, the how and why of it, broken down for all to see, as I did with Samuel R. Delaney’s purportedly enigmatic Dhalgren in the June 2016 issue of Lightspeed Magazine, “Doing Dhalgren” (bit.ly/35jKGpb). There I could explain in detail exactly what I was referring to and what it meant. In this column about books that I enjoyed reading, I perpetually dance on the edge of ruining what makes a book a good read in my enthusiasm to recommend it.
The two books I read for this column share aspects I would love to examine in greater detail than a review allows, but to do so would expose too many of the workings of beautifully constructed puzzle boxes. Still, I can address a common theme before I tell you more about each. Then at least I can discuss their good usage of the malignant feminine.
I grew up with a darker Disney, when Walt was still developing the essential elements of telling a story that would carry his company through today, using my generation as guinea pigs to gauge the effects. Back then, he thought nothing of killing off family or friends if it raised the emotional stakes for the characters and audience. Bambi’s murdered mom aside, I’d forgotten just how dark he could get until I recently rewatched a clip from the ending of Snow White.
The evil queen, in her old witch disguise, tries to crush the seven dwarves pursuing her by leveraging a boulder down on them. She uses a long stick that attracts a burst of lightning to shatter the ledge she’s on. The witch plummets, followed by loosened debris, the large boulder, and two vultures who have watched the whole thing. They smile at each other slyly, then glide down to feed on what’s left of her. The poor dwarves stare in horror over the edge of the cliff at a sight Disney spares us, in true Hitchcock fashion, her fate made far worse by our own young imaginations. It’s a hideous, if deserved, death that stands with the worst in Game of Thrones.
Aside from his surgical use of mortality, what I remember most about Disney movies are his glamorous villainesses; the evil queen in Snow White, the stepmother in Cinderella, and my favorite (and childhood role model), Maleficent.
Any representation of villainous females in film or fiction is rife with dangers. The worst result is to leave the reader with the impression that all women are predatory, unless they’re sun-drenched, apple-cheeked virgins. It’s no coincidence that all of Disney’s wicked women were “exotically” erotic, their sensual surfaces ample evidence of their wickedness and the easiest way to identify and avoid them.
Demonizing female sexuality is as old as the Bible. According to legend, Lilith, the first woman God created, demanded equality with Adam and got the boot instead. Afterwards, she was rumored to spawn monsters, or worse, abducted our babies, unable to have her own. I prefer the other reason given for her banishment — that she wanted to be on top during sex. Her real sin was daring to own her desires, a quality subsequently assigned solely to bad girls and branded as evil.
I tend to think that, at their best, wicked women in genre fiction represent examples of gender equality that puts them on a par with, if not above, their male counterparts. Their motives tend to be more complex than men’s mere power games, their methods more Machiavellian. In the recent movie Ragnarok, as a villain Hela is far more compelling with more depth of motivation in her one feature turn than Loki has been in six.
This month’s column presents you with two supernatural antagonists with very different motives, but strangely similar approaches. Technically, both are women in concept only—one is the physical manifestation of an animal spirit, and the other a gender fluid shapeshifter that uses any form necessary to seduce its prey. Nonetheless, their feminine form affects how they’re perceived and dealt with by others, and that’s where the pertinent issues of abuse arise.
Their deadly responses to it are folded into each story slowly and deliberately, in a slow boil from mildly disturbing to horrific, with no relief in sight until the end, if then . . .
I’m not telling.
The Only Good Indians
Stephen Graham Jones
Gallery/Saga Press, July 14, 2020, 320 pages
Throughout the novel, Jones toys with the titular proverb, “the only good Indian is a dead Indian,” and the childhood rhyme Ten Little Indians . . . They’re repeated as verbal leitmotifs at key moments in the story, as its four main characters are pulled back to an unfortunate night ten years ago that literally starts to haunt them.
When the first of them dies drunk outside a bar, his fate is too ambiguous for it to warn the others. He’d gone outside for a piss when he saw a massive elk appear in the parking lot and crash among the cars, causing damage with horns and hooves. He’s blamed for the destruction when redneck owners come out angry and ignore his protests of innocence. He’s already been condemned by virtue of his skin color, and his fatal beating is regarded by surviving friends as just another random racist killing in a brutal life filled with them. It soon becomes substantially more significant and personal.
Jones deftly plays with the inability of people faced with seemingly impossible events to be sure of what they’re seeing, or even what’s really happening. Applying Occam’s Razor to find the simplest explanation for the unnatural only leaves them with Sherlock Holmes’ dictum that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. That leaves the novel’s second “little Indian” in a slow free fall into psychosis, the first of them to act on what he knows must be true, no matter how insane it seems. The price he pays for following his intuition leads him down the right road, but in the wrong direction, with shocking consequences.
As the book progresses, its focus leaps from one survivor to another, until it lands in the head of the horror at hand, the vengeful spirit of a pregnant elk killed in a clandestine hunting party that was punished by the law, but not by nature. Once the avenging animal’s consciousness has grown strong enough to take over the reins of the narrative to tell her own story, even if only in grimly lyrical bursts, we follow a creature born of ancient traditions adapted to modern times to an inexorable confrontation between past and present.
Jones’s use of a conversational, matter-of-fact style slides you from a world of real world problems, personal and cultural, into mythic surreality before you know it. He’s constructed a chilling tale of ghostly vengeance, but also a masterful portrayal of Native American communities in crisis that reminded me of familiar issues in similar Black communities. With each protagonist’s death, we see how much deeper we’ve been pulled into the book’s quicksand as the four friends’ impulse to hold on to the old ways comes into conflict with their need to grasp the new.
That disconnect is expressed most clearly in the relationship of Gabe and his teenage daughter, Denorah. She was meant to be named Deborah, but her dad scrawled it illegibly on her birth certificate, an introduction that perfectly sums up a relationship rife with errors. Her love for him, against her divorced mother’s wishes, eventually makes her a target for the shape-changing Elk Head Woman pursuing him and his friends, but also the instrument of at least one redemption.
Gabe’s older daughter had already escaped the confines of their community with a basketball scholarship, her fastest way out. Denorah, the younger, is the real deal, an intuitive athlete that lives the game and could do even better than her sister. Her father’s inability to avoid the failures of his fellows, alcoholism and instability, both economic and emotional, serves as sufficient motivation for her to get out the same way—but her innate ability to quickly understand the true nature of a tradition-based threat is what carries the story to its climax. She becomes a bridge between the two worlds, and the lesson offered by the book’s end is not that we can never go home again, but that we can never leave it. Where we came from and how it shaped us can’t be forgotten or erased. It must be seen clearly and accepted as the root of who we are.
The four men’s denial that their illicit actions betrayed their heritage, choosing instead to believe in a modern world that says there aren’t any consequences for trampling on tradition, is ultimately their downfall and their tragedy.
The Wise Friend
Flame Tree Press; Reprint edition, April 23, 2020, 256 pages
Periodically I like to check in on the current work of well-established authors who influenced my writing. Demons by Daylight hit me when it came out in 1972 as strongly as Clive Barker’s Books of Blood collections did when I found them in a London bookstore in 1986, collections coincidently championed by Campbell. The opportunity to read his latest work was irresistible. Even if I didn’t specifically recall the old stories and couldn’t find my hardcover copy to refresh my memory, I remembered the fever they’d fired in me as a struggling young writer.
Over the course of a career, writers either settle into a steady and successful formula, as recognizable as a Roy Lichtenstein halftone painting, or they continue to evolve and grow. The Ramsey Campbell I found in the new book isn’t the Lovecraftian horrorist of his first work, or the echo of Vladimir Nabakov he used in Demons by Daylight. Masters of the art of writing become invisible in their work because the story’s so involving and the characters feel so real, you almost forget someone wrote it. You begin to believe the writer busy behind the curtain, pulling set pieces into place and giving everyone their cues. The voice I found, instead of the Campbell I expected, is that of Patrick, the novel’s middle-aged academic protagonist, as believable an example of British intelligentsia as Jones’s characters are to his milieu.
Like the previous novel, A Wise Friend begins with the prosaic minutiae of ordinary lives. The protagonist’s teenaged son, Roy, is spending time with his father while on summer holiday from school. Patrick’s a professor living in an apartment overlooking a train station, correcting papers and working out his next lesson plan. He eventually settles on having his students find the supernatural elements in mainstream fiction, just as an ancient magic re-enters his life.
Roy, bored and at odds with his father, becomes interested in a series of portraits down a hallway by his late Great-Aunt Thelma, paintings of his father over the years as he grew up. He reads through his collection of books about her highly regarded paintings, and in his search for more, Roy finds an enigmatic diary bound in black. Nearly forgotten by Patrick, reading its contents sparks dim and disturbing memories of his aunt and her unfortunate end, but he dismisses them. Despite that, Roy’s soon curious to know more, especially after he finds out that her mysterious demise was a deadly drop from the roof of a nearby residential tower.
Was it suicide? Or possibly violence at the hand of an elusive paramour? Desperate to connect with his adolescent son, Patrick agrees to take him there and to some of the sites listed in the diary, places depicted in her paintings. When he feels a strange chill and unseen presence at the first, he encourages his son to abandon his quest and go to a show of her work at the Tate gallery instead of the next site.
Like an appointment in Samarra, by trying to steer Roy away from the occult influences that led to his aunt’s death, he brings them both face to face with Bella. She’s a seemingly innocent young woman, an avowed and knowledgeable fan of his aunt’s art, who quickly becomes the embodiment and engineer of Patrick’s worst fears.
The novel bounces casually between the present and a past where Patrick is his son’s age and his aunt is alive to fill in gaps in his understanding of her. There’s tension in the family about her recent divorce and Abel, a new love in her life. Patrick overheard everything, and in present day begins to remember a family strife that turns out to be at the root of the horror ahead.
Patrick’s son pulls them, and then Bella, down the same twisted roads his aunt walked, seeking the inspiration that led her to something greater, older, something that took her down its own path into the thick mystical woods behind her house. The forest primeval is an ever present backdrop to the action; deep green, trees so thick and lush with moss and leaves, Patrick feels it’s a living entity that watches him when he’s there and changes the landscape to obscure his way, to keep him from escaping its depths. He begins to glimpse in the leaves flashes of a phantom face that only children can see, the same face Roy saw peering over a fence at him when he was young, one Patrick had seen too when younger, in a different form. The new danger in his life is one he’s met before, but no one believes him as it sets its sights on his son.
The nature of the monster and what it wants is what Patrick has to unravel before he comes apart at the seams . . . The more he insists something’s inexplicably wrong, the crazier he looks. By the time he’s answered all his questions and faces a fierce force of nature determined to find its freedom, he has no allies left and must battle alone to save his son’s soul.
As in The Only Good Indian, Campbell’s antagonist appears to be a human woman, but that’s only a lure or camouflage. In “reality,” both are undying forces of nature, magical beings called into existence by the selfish needs of men who don’t care about the consequences of setting powerful forces like them in motion. In that, there is an echo of the #MeToo movement in both novels, with their antagonists seeking male accountability for wrongs done to them.
It’s not hard to understand the reasons for the Elk Head Woman’s desire for revenge on the men who killed her and her unborn calf . . . but as Patrick digs deeper into his mystery, Bella begins to look like she has far less noble motives. Patrick looks for the reasons why his son and his new girlfriend are gathering samples of earth from assorted occult sites, as his aunt did with Abel, who may be Bella’s father, or worse, simply another face worn by whatever Bella really is to achieve its goals. As Patrick follows them and researches the places they visit, he pieces together a terrifying truth he can barely believe, but must confront and defeat to save his broken family and his sanity.
The two authors find entirely different ways to approach a related premise, and while the two novels make a fine pairing, they in no way resemble each other. Ultimately, these are not so much stories of scary women as they are about male hubris, masculine fear of feminine power, whether in women or other men, and the lengths some of them will go to subvert it.
How well they succeed, I leave you to read for yourself.
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