Jul 16, 2011

Monkey droppings - Canadian authors and their demons. Seriously literate demons.

Once again, the shelf monkey pits genre writers against one another! In the octagon!

This time, two Canadian genre authors, each dealing with unimaginable horrors in their own unique ways.

An unimaginable Canuck horror? Sounds unlikely, but have you seen our government lately? More terrifying than ogopogo and sasquatch combined.

The Thirteen (Random House Canada, 2011)
by Susie Moloney
The suburbs were deadly boring. And there were too many cats.
I'm not a huge fan of witches. When compared to their counterparts (wizards, magicians), the witch just seems to pale in comparison. Sure, they've got chants and potions, and the right ear of Satan himself, but they just aren't as cool. Genre-wise, they peaked right about when Margaret Hamilton first tried to steal the ruby slippers from Judy Garland.

And between you, me, and the Internet trolls, promoting Susie Moloney's new effort the The Thirteen as a cross between Desperate Housewives and The Witches of Eastwick isn't helping win me over (I'm assuming that the Moloney's publicist is referring to the enjoyably daft Jack Nicholson/Cher/Susan Sarandon/Michelle Pfeiffer movie, and not the original and immeasurably darker John Updike novel).

I'm willing to give Moloney a chance, however. Her novel A Dry Spell was an often riveting piece of genre thriller/horror, and The Dwelling a nifty and atmospheric haunted house tale. Moloney has the gift of rooting fantastic tales in the real, creating tension through an appreciation of character as well as a real sense of menace.

At first, The Thirteen has menace in spades, with a gangbuster prologue involving a grieving widow, a lighter, and several gallons of gasoline. Her friends do not respond quite as one would anticipate, and it does not detract from the story to reveal that the women of the neighbourhood have formed a cabal of witches. Now that one of their own is gone, the circle is incomplete. Yet there is a chance; after one of the oldest, Audra, takes mysteriously ill, her long-absent daughter Paula returns, her daughter Rowan in tow, and the surviving witches see not only an opportunity to reseal the circle, but to present an offering to the dark one in the bargain.

Moloney is careful to lay the groundwork for her main characters, allowing us to better sympathize with the mother/daughter team as they move back to a neighbourhood of weirdly cheerful citizens. At times, Moloney evokes the subtle satire and horror of Ira Levin at his best (Rosemary's Baby, The Stepford Wives); there is true creepiness in many scenes, especially when the cabal meets to woo Paula over, with inane promises of "It's great. You'll love it. Your hair will be thicker, your skin so clear and smooth." There is the promise that The Thirteen could become an incisive satire of the forced domesticity of the suburbs, of the need to stay young and beautiful forever and the lengths we travel to keep themselves in comfort.

Alas, it was not to be. Despite such ripe possibilities, Moloney barely grazes the satire and instead amps up the horror. There's nothing inherently wrong with this, and she proves herself again a terrific talent when it comes to gruesomeness. She certainly does not shy away from some of the more unsavory aspects of witching, rewarding the reader with scenes of unsettling carnality and violence.

Yet The Thirteen is a novel that could have benefited from another hundred pages or so. It feels like the author is rushing to the finale, so quickly that several secondary characters who prove themselves vital to the conclusion get short shrift, their actions thus appearing random and essentially unmotivated (in particular the troublesome indecisiveness of Paula's childhood friend Marla, whose motivations appear to grow from plot necessity rather than a fully-formed character need). This is a dilemma common to all of Moloney's work so far: superb set-ups, but rather unsatisfying conclusions. There is so much that is good that it's a letdown that the end result is only entertaining. Moloney has proven herself as a genre writer of talent and verve; I only wish she had fleshed out the story a little more to give it an emotional base that would serve to heighten the horror.


A Rope of Thorns (Chizine, 2011)
by Gemma Files
This was no mere confidence-show, some drab provoking ghosts for profit, telling sad and frightened folk what they most wanted to believe, but the truth behind a thousand pretty lies made flesh.
As Moloney is to Stephen King (finding horror in the mundane), so Gemma Files is to Clive Barker (anything freaking goes).

I laid down a lot of praise for Files' first entry in her Hexslinger trilogy, A Book of Tongues, finding it a delightfully nasty/tasty treat, a sui generis grab bag melange of magical realism, Aztec, Mayan, and Christian gods, cowboys, horses, and repugnant anti-heroes, all tied together in the form of a western so gruesome and gritty it made me want to take a shower. Lovely stuff.

Now, scant weeks after I acquainted myself with her talents comes A Rope of Thorns, the second novel in the trilogy, and an equally impressive follow-up. At this rate, the third novel better explode the world at least twice to keep up the level of excitement and intensity. This is a fantasy series for adults, so you'd better cowboy up if you want to survive. For those who yearn for the next Harry Potter-like series, be warned; the brave and resourceful Harry would have been dead and his body desecrated and defiled within five minutes in Files' universe.

Following on the heels of the first, Thorns finds the outlaw and newly-minted hexslinger Chess Pargeter wandering the west with his companion Ed Morrow and a young spiritualist named Yancey Colder, looking for the Reverend Ash Rook, the man who stole Chess' heart. Literally. Had it ripped right out of him in a resurrection ceremony in book one: "His breastbone . . . cleft and barely re-sewn, each no-beat of his own missing organ a hammer-blow echoing from the inside out." Rook has joined forces with the goddess Ixchel to form Hex City, the first place on the planet where magicians can live without feeling the urge to tear each other apart (a side effect of having such powers). To get to Rook, however, Chess has to face many foes, including the whole of the Pinkerton Detective Agency, his own hair-trigger temper, and most gory of all, the resurrected Sheriff Mesach Love and his fearsome evangelical powers over death:
[Yancey] felt herself stagger, caught up one more time by Ed Morrow's welcome arm; clutched close to its warmth for comfort, finding none. Because—those figures arrayed 'round Love, just waiting—she knew them . . . had known them. They hung as if by hooks through the neck, all their weight dangling limp, black eyes staring off to a dozen different quarters. And woven over it all, pallid flesh and dirty rigs alike—sewn through the muscle, covering bone where it showed, blossoming crimson pods at every cheesecloth-skinned joint—a net of Weed throbbed and knotted, a hundred thousand marionette cords grown thick and juicy, hideously animate.
After the vicious Tongues, Rope is a true middle chapter, as our heroes (?) wander on their quest, vanquishing foes while incrementally getting closer to their goal. What that goal is, is in some doubt, as Chess—as violent and psychotic a protagonist as there has ever been— actually grows as a character, learning the limits of his power and actually evolving into something far more interesting. He starts Rope looking purely for revenge, but as Chess becomes more self-aware, he begins to see his place in the world, and understands the concepts of consequences and fate. If Chess had simply remained a remorseless stone-cold killer, Rope would still have been entertaining, but this stab at personal growth, Chess' actual attainment of empathy, is what allows the narrative to grow accordingly. There is still all the frank intergender sex of the first, but Files has leavened the outrageousness of the first through a deepening of the bonds between the leads. Chess and Ed may not become the next Frodo and Sam, but their quest is just as dangerous, and unlike those lovable hobbits, there is no doubt on the subject of homoeroticism.

Where is Files going with all this? I cannot tell, except that the finale will no doubt be apocalyptic in scope, a battle which will make Potter's last stand at Hogwarts seem a slap fight between fifth graders. Right now, I put The Hexslinger series in the top tier of my favourite urban fantasy series, right up there with King's Gunslinger/Dark Tower mythos, Barker's Art Trilogy (if the third is ever finished), and (hopefully, as I have not yet read the upcoming second installment) Lev Grossman's Fillory novels.



John Mutford said...

The way you describe it, Files' book sounds in need of a graphic novel interpretation.

okwari said...

Oh, HELL YES, to the graphic novel suggestion.

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