BORDERLANDS (1990-)

BORDERLANDS has been a long-running horror short-story anthology, one started in 1990 by editor Thomas F. Monteleone. While it’s still going in digital format, I’ll be discussing the volumes released in the 90s. Released by White Wolf Publishing — if you were a nerd in the 90s, you’ll recognize them as pioneers in revitalizing role-playing games — Thomas F. Monteleone assembled four tomes of scary and imaginative tales from some of the best genre writers: Harlan Ellison, Poppy Z. Brite, T.E.D. Klein, Peter Straub, Kathe Koja, Whitley Strieber, and so many more.

For a long time, I only owned two volumes, but I read the others via my friend Chris — who introduced me to the series — and I repeatedly re-read them, especially around October. One story that stands out in particular is F. Paul Wilson’s FOET, of which I’ll let you speculate about given its loaded title, but it has stuck with me since I’ve ever read it; it was a horribly brilliant breath of fetid air that let me know immediately what I was in for with this anthology.

It’s a fantastic collection to take in at your own leisure, and all four volumes featured Dave McKean’s unique collage work as their cover art. I believe there are later reprints that lack the cover, so if you’re ordering used copies online and dead set on those covers, make sure they’re the White Wolf editions. Otherwise, there are newer editions that — while they don’t feature McKean’s covers — reprint the original stories, and the volumes from five and up are all completely new.

Traditionally I eschew direct Amazon links, but it seems to be the way the reprints and new volumes are being distributed:

https://www.amazon.com/dp/B09NK9FRKKM

SATANIC PANIC: POP-CULTURAL PARANOIA IN THE 1980s (2016)

Since this is the world we live in, the thick of 2022, and apparently people aren’t terribly familiar with the Satanic Panic but there seems to be quite a bit of discussion concerning it as of late, I will direct your attention to the FAB Press essay collection SATANIC PANIC: POP-CULTURAL PARANOIA IN THE 1980s.

If you are too young to be familiar with the Satanic Panic: it was a period of time during the 1980s where suburban institutions insisted that the ills of culture were due to teens being wooed to devil worship via media and coercion. At the time, it was inescapable. The scare permeated all of commentary and political culture which, as you can imagine, resulted in the Streisand Effect, boosting anything and everything, having a reverb effect on all artistic endeavors.

FAB’s SATANIC PANIC is an expertly curated collection of scrutinies of life during that time, one that ranges the gamut from what you’d expect: D&D, cartoons, metal and MTV, to forgotten culture like the wall-to-wall lies of the memory recovery of Michelle in the book MICHELLE REMEMBERS as well as HBO’s INDICTMENT: THE MCMARTIN TRIAL. It also looks at Satanic Panic beyond the US, including the UK and Quebec and Australia.

It’s an extraordinarily comprehensive look at the irrational pop culture paranoia of Satanism at the time, all wrapped up in an immaculately attractive package.

You can wrangle your own copy at:

https://www.fabpress.com/satanic-panic-paperback.html

TRASH, ART, AND THE MOVIES (1969)

Pauline Kael’s TRASH, ART, AND THE MOVIES is an essay I want to hand out to everyone.

Kael simmers about being bored with films, about how she luxuriates in the garbage nowadays as opposed to the ‘prestige’ pictures, such as 2001 (a film she deftly eviscerates, an unpopular opinion around here, but one I respect given how she backs it up).

Ultimately, it’s Kael saying: stop trying to preach, give me something new, something interesting, take big swings! Trash with a glint of charm is far more intriguing than most art, and stop pawning off all film as art, because so many works are born of a simple consumerist need.

It’s a timeless piece, one that holds up over fifty years later, one that is still provocative.

Instead of blathering on about it, I’ll simply send you along to read her words. The entirety of TRASH, ART, AND THE MOVIES is available here:

https://genius.com/Pauline-kael-trash-art-and-the-movies-i-annotated

Or in her third collection of film reviews and essays, GOING STEADY: FILM WRITINGS 1968-1969:

https://www.indiebound.org/book/9780714529769

Or if you have a HARPER’S MAGAZINE subscription, you can read it here:

https://harpers.org/archive/1969/02/trash-art-and-the-movies/

WHY KEEP BOOKS? (2022)

Again, deviating from the norm here to egg you on to read the New York Times piece ‘How Many Books Does It Take to Make a Place Feel Like Home?’ (Hey, essays and articles count as media, and this is an article worth reading!)

Whenever my wife and I have searched for a new place to live we’ve told the agent: “It has to have a lot of wall space. We have a lot of shelves.”

We currently live in a standard-size condo carved out of a 1890s Chicago house, so it’s not extremely spacious. You’ll be hard-pressed to find any free wall space not taken up by shelves or other furniture. In fact, we refer to our front room as ‘the library’, even though media shelves wrap around the rest of the condo.

So, when we read this article, we started guessing at how many books we have, whether we’d have the 1,000 to be ‘book-wrapt’ (a phrase I promise you I will never type again). At first guess, I thought I might have around 400 books. Then I did a rough count and it turned out to be around 1200. (Obviously, I suck at carnival games.)

Coincidentally, I’m in the process of whittling down my collection, something I do every few years. I realize some consider that blasphemy, as in: “Every book I buy is a book I want to keep!” That’s a nice thought, but I change over time, and I also receive a number of books I simply have no interest in. Also, I am simply running out of space. (I’ve included a photo above, which should speak for itself. The boxes in the lower left are for books to donate, as well as books to put into storage.)

I realize not everyone feels the same way I do. Some folks move a lot, or they don’t have the space or the inclination to cultivate their own home library. Hell, I even know writers who keep very barren bookshelves. However, not a day goes by where I don’t peruse my stacks, looking for a quote or a fact or a bit of prose that I think I may be misremembering, and I know that our place would feel incomplete without our homegrown library.

ON USED BOOKS (2022)

If you’re a writer, or just a casual reader, the essay “What Working at a Used Bookstore Taught Me About Literary Rejection” by Carl Lavigne is an insightful look at how people seek material to read, and the ennui of confronting reams of books that have been discarded.

At one point in the essay, he notes that the bookstore he works at stocked a signed copy of his friend’s novel. Carl brought the book back home, afraid of the repercussions that would occur if his friend would see that that unread book on the shelf.

I trawl through used bookstores all the time — usually picking up books from authors I’ve never heard of but appear intriguing — and often find that I’ve inadvertently purchased a signed copy. In fact, the book I’m currently reading — I won’t name it — was signed to a friend of the author who had invited them to a writer’s colony that, presumably, they used to work on the novel. Like Carl, I thought: “Maybe the friend died. Maybe they had a falling out. Maybe the friend loaned it to someone, never got it back, and the loanee sent it along. Maybe it was simply an unwanted copy.”

Every writer wants a physical copy of their work to be cherished, especially if it’s a copy you took the time to sign.

THE LUNAR HOUSEWIFE (2022)

Few novels can evoke the feeling of a Kurt Vonnegut work, of leaning on the crafting of an internal sci-fi novel, one that speaks just as much as the text it’s buried in, but Caroline Woods’s THE LUNAR HOUSEWIFE manages it.

Louise Leithouser inhabits 1953 New York City as a romance writer who pens articles for her boyfriend Joe’s upstart culture magazine DOWNTOWN under the name of ‘Alfred King’. She met Joe while waitressing an industry party, and passed herself off as someone with a higher station in life than in reality and, while she’s still insecure about her lower-class background, she’s slowly adjusting to being part of the upper-crust party, instead of being party to hand out hors d’oeuvres.

As Louise spends more time with Joe and Harry, the other half of DOWNTOWN magazine, her suspicions are raised as she overhears murmurs of fear and paranoia from the two of them. By the time she’s assigned an interview with Papa himself — Ernest Hemingway — she’s fraught with anxiety, which he stokes with off-the-cuff remarks about government surveillance and the like.

To process her suspicions, Louise writes her life into the star-crossed romance novel she’s always wanted to pen: THE LUNAR HOUSEWIFE, which focuses on a fuckup of a single American woman who defected to the Soviets in hopes of feeling useful again, who is then shot into space to be a ‘housewife’ to a single man while the two of them inhabit a pod on the moon.

Woods’s interweaving of second-halves, literary aspirations and influences, along with the singular thorough-line of cold war insecurities, sets the stage for Kilgore Trout-ish digressions, which are a fine second-side to the same coin; Woods leans on romantic fiction tropes instead of Trout’s action and wartime scenarios to spread her, and Louise’s, deeper messages.

While THE LUNAR HOUSEWIFE isn’t as intricately wound as one might like from a thriller, it trades the intrigue for ruminating on a more realistic portrayal of the end-result of confronting others with your paranoid instincts. This is a singular tale of a woman with artistic and autonomous aspirations, of a woman who, in her own words, learns that “the government lies to you. Men lie to you.” and is constantly endeavoring to keep herself open, while protecting herself.

https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/688456/the-lunar-housewife-by-caroline-woods/

GOOD TIME PARTY GIRL (1966)

GOOD TIME PARTY GIRL is a self-reflexive work of sorts: penned by POPULAR HOME magazine editor Robert Dougherty, it’s a recounting of “The Notorious Life of Dirty Helen Cromwell”, straight from her mouth, according to Robert.

Dirty Helen Cromwell (Helen, from here on forth), was — for some time — a Milwaukee fixture from the Prohibition age. While she was reluctant to lay down roots anywhere, she did find a home in Milwaukee with her boozy outpost THE SUN FLOWER INN, which is where Robert first met Helen.

What follows is Robert jotting down Helen recalling a good forty years of ‘good times’ as a self-proclaimed ‘woman of pleasure’. In other words: a sex worker. There’s a moment where she wishes that the term ‘call girl’ was popular in her time.

The tales recalled in GOOD TIME PARTY GIRL are certainly those of a willful, self-possessed woman, one who isn’t a skin-flint, but values what remains in one’s pocket, while still living a remarkable life, one the that included all sorts of fashionable dovetailing, as well as shoulder-rubbing with Al Capone.

“My advice is not to accept initiations to these cruises if you aren’t prepared for certain eventualities.”

That’s about as dark as Helen deigned herself to deal with, but as one dives deeper into GOOD TIME PARTY GIRL and reads about the litany of dead husbands, and the brave face she plastered on, the harder the read becomes. This is a memoir/auto-bio where the absence of details are more damning than the inclusion; you can almost feel the hurt in certain eras of hers that she glosses over, ambiguous hurt that hits harder than when she discusses the death of one of her several husbands.

That said, yes, you do have to read in-between the lines for that. Otherwise, it’s a bold, brash tale of a bold and brash and gregariously singular woman who made her place in Milwaukee. That alone is reason enough to read her tale.

Purchase: https://feralhouse.com/good-time-party-girl/

THE TINDALOS ASSET (2020)

Caitlín R. Kiernan’s THE TINDALOS ASSET is the third and final novella in the TINFOIL DOSSIER trilogy, a fitting bookend to their confidently wild portrayal of mostly scumbags trying to reign in — or perpetuate — horrors both otherworldly and extra-dimensional. Like the other two novellas, it’s an absolutely wild ride of clipped thoughts, traumatic events both past, present (and some future), all occasionally interrupted by bouts of depravity.

THE TINDALOS ASSET returns to The Signalman, the binding character of the series, while spending much of its time in other Dreamland agents’ heads. In several ways, both in setting and inciting events, TINDALOS feels smaller in scope, far more than the epic, wide-ranging state-of-the-world relayed via the second book in the series, BLACK HELICOPTERS. That feels strange to say, given that TINDALOS is centered around very apocalyptic events, but it primarily takes place in only three locales: a hotel room, and airplane, and by a body of water. Between the limited locations and the amount of exposition and dialogue expelled between the major players, TINDALOS often comes across more like a stage play, as opposed to the unseeable weird fiction it is.

That TINDALOS feels more insular and focused more on the headspace of its characters and their actions and motives, and this approach is to be applauded! Each act in this grand work has its own texture, its own litany of surprises. Don’t enter weird fiction hoping for more-of-the-same with every installment, because if you do? You should find a different genre.

After reading AGENTS OF DREAMLAND I noted: “To riff on the ‘it’s not a season of TV, it’s a 12-hour movie’ sentiment, the TINFOIL DOSSIER series is not so much three novellas, but a three-part novel.” I wish I’d taken my own advice and binged the novellas like a season of TV. Reading the three novellas over the period of a few months under a year proved to be too spread out. To those who read these as they first appeared, especially those who followed it via piecemeal through anthologies and the like, I salute you. I wish I’d read them all in one big gulp, but in time — instead — I’ll simply re-read them, hopefully shortly after being told the release date of a TINFOIL DOSSIER film or TV adaptation.

The complete TINFOIL DOSSIER: https://us.macmillan.com/series/tinfoildossier

THE NINE TAILORS (1934)

The moment I realized Dorothy L. Sayers’ THE NINE TAILORS was a special sort of murder mystery novel was when I encountered one passage and thought: “Wow, she’s really leaning hard on the details of this old church’s bells.” Ten pages later: “Cripes, I never knew that I wanted to know this much about bell-ringing!”

Sayers is best-known for her murder mysteries, specifically her Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries, featuring a rich, compassionate, gregarious but astute man who often finds himself surrounded by death. GAUDY NIGHT (the tenth Wimsey story, published in 1935, one a year after THE NINE TAILORS) is perhaps her best-known, but sadly, nowadays unless you’re attending an Edgar Awards afterparty, you’re probably unlikely to hear her name or accidentally stumble over a visual adaptation of any of her novels.

This is a shame — and something The Dorothy L. Sayers Society is trying to rectify — because, as THE NINE TAILORS exemplifies, she’s exceptional at weaving a engaging world, one dense with intriguing and idiosyncratic individuals, where actions are richly detailed, and each work is ornately penned to soothe even the most high-minded snob. In her hands, the murder contained in THE NINE TAILORS almost fades away as we’re drawn into this small town and its denizens.

In other words: THE NINE TAILORS is the complete package. It’s thrilling, it has depth, it goes unfathomably deep into the world of bell-ringing in ways that manage to be highly entertaining, and it sticks the landing in an amazingly satisfying way. It’s an absolute classic, one that should certainly not be overlooked by any mystery fan.

Read here: https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.512291

THE PARASITES (1949)

I’m at the point in my life where I’m filling in the gaps of my favorite writers over the years, nabbing books of say, James M. Cain or, in this case, Daphne du Maurier, where — while staring at a barely read, two-bit book in second-hand bookstore — I mutter to myself: ‘Why don’t I have a copy of this already?’

Such was my case with du Maurier’s THE PARASITES, which frankly, is overdue for a proper film adaptation, as it’s a fantastic distillation of her approach towards inherited talent and du Maurier’s own festering cynicism towards the world.

THE PARASITES focuses on a piecemeal family: the father is a legendary singer, while the mother is an acclaimed solo dancer, and the two create heavenly works together. (It’s worth noting that these two somewhat mirror du Maurier’s parents, as her father was well-known actor/theatre producer Sir Gerald du Maurier and her mother was the acclaimed stage actress Muriel Beaumont.) Between the two, they have three siblings, the eldest being Maria, who grows into a mercurial actress, the result of a coupling between Pappy and an unnamed Vietnamese stage performer, who died shortly after birthing Maria; Niall, the product of Mama and a pianist who may or may not have died of tuberculosis; and Celia, the child of Pappy and Mama.

Maria is married to Charles, the heir to a Lord, who — at the opening of the novel — calls the three Delaney siblings out as ‘parasites’. The three spend the rest of the day mulling over exactly what he meant by it, diving deep into their past to investigate how they may have become such creatures. Maria reflects on her cavalier attitude towards her own offspring and her husband; Niall mulls over his uncommon attachment to Maria and his difficulties and dissonance with the tunes that lilt through his head; finally, Celia speculates about a world where she didn’t spend so much of her life living to serve others, and what may have happened if she’d indulge her illustration talents.

Du Maurier spends the bulk of the novel peeling away the familial onion layers, revealing the fact that this isn’t an ensemble character drama, but is in fact a murder mystery of sorts: who (spiritually) killed Charles? What was the motive? Who had the means to induce the final blow? It’s a novel that consists of processing, of personal scrutiny, of evasion and ultimately acceptance.

While it’s one of the least sensational novels of hers, THE PARASITES feels icily personal; the siblings are constantly skirting and circling around their issues in the way an overly invested author flinches as they see themselves on their page, mining their strife for drama, but not quite willing to strike the major veins. Given that that it’s a work that is primarily spent on a specific sort of self-reflection, that feels right and welcome and fitting, but those hoping for a neatly satisfying ending may be disappointed.

https://bookshop.org/books/the-parasites-9780837604107/9780837604107