Sunday, June 25, 2017

"The Call of Cthulhu" (1928)

Read story by H.P. Lovecraft online.

H.P. Lovecraft's signature story takes a familiar route for horror fiction, making it about an investigation and certain key documents. Like Dracula or Jekyll & Hyde, it practically gets carried away with the conceit, creating busy thickets of circumstances. During a period of time in late March and early April, an artist is troubled by nightmare visions accompanied by strange hieroglyphics he doesn't understand but transcribes onto a clay bas-relief (because it was convenient?). He then takes this sculpture to a prominent professor of Semitic languages at Brown University, who is also his uncle. Uncle George recognizes the language and images from previous disturbing events in his life, which are then detailed. He also conducts a kind of survey and discovers that many people, especially artists, had similar dreams during that time. Slowly, the consistencies come into focus: the image of a hideous writhing head, the names "Cthulhu" and "R'lyeh," and a haunting phrase all the investigators interpret as "In his house at R'lyeh dead Cthulhu waits dreaming." All the problems and pleasures I've had with Lovecraft are well represented here. The language is often stultifying, and the writing strategy hews uncomfortably close to word salad, relying on batteries of fantastic adjectives. Too often it tells rather than shows—even the showing is often a tiresome matter of telling too much detail. And the plotting is way too busy, a more general problem with horror of the past. Yet there's no denying a palpable sense of mounting dread oozing off this. Cthulhu is alien by definition—he is not of this planet, and never has been, though he has been connected with it longer than humanity itself has existed. It is not evil so much as infinitely cold and uncaring about humanity. He views us the way we view vermin. He can't quite stamp us out, but he's trying, and he's very powerful. It's hard to imagine what people thought when they encountered this story in a Weird Tales magazine in 1928. Frankly, it's hard for me to imagine that many even finished it. It's rather long, built out of big fat paragraphs with ponderous long sentences. It seems to do most of its work after the story is read and put away. It stretches the brain with its concepts of time. The hideous visage of Cthulhu is a bit like scenes from the 1933 King Kong movie, overdetermined yet vivid enough and redundant enough to get by the disbelief filters. Lovecraft's universe is vast, cold, and mostly empty, which isn't far from reality. The fact that there's a giant writhing octopus-head that means us no particular good lurking about the galaxies is unnerving in surprisingly penetrating ways.

The Complete Fiction of H.P. Lovecraft

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Emancipation (1996)

I was never as offended as others by Prince's insistence on equating the contract difficulties he had at Warner Bros. with slavery, as it was literally a battle to control masters and Prince was the black person in the equation doing the work. But I understood the point. I thought it was a little strange to start his formal manumission with two albums totaling some six hours of music on six CDs, with very few singles emerging from the assault. File under "ambitious," after four albums in the previous two years. In other words, Emancipation, his first album out from under the major label, is typical Prince product. Unfortunately, I considered that a small problem at the time. Like a science experiment, I was saturated. I could not absorb any more. I never even bothered to buy the follow-on two years later (at least he gave us those two years), Crystal Ball, and thus began my slow drift from following him closely, though I picked up several more of his new albums over the years. So it was good to give myself the chance to return to Emancipation at last and finish the job of absorbing. In 1996 I had stalled on the first CD and the one song that distinguished itself (after the covers), "White Mansion," which put me in a Minnesota mood with a high lonesome sound. The other two discs, no surprise, are equal to the first or better, affording hours rewarded with the solid good stuff. He's still attempting to accommodate latter-day developments such as a couple of spotlights for rapper Scrap D. There's also a rave / techno workup, "The Human Body." And more worthwhile-to-special tracks have distinguished all through: nice guitar play in "We Gets Up," a disclosure of his favorite cereal in "Joint 2 Joint," name-checking for everyone in "Style," and of course lots of good grooves.

Now about those covers, which have always stood out to me most on casual listens. I take that as partly a matter of my attention to the radio over the years, though maybe it says something about the original material. But like many I'm often fascinated by covers, attempting to divine something about the two artists involved, only one by deliberate choice. They are declarations of identity in mysterious ways. Emancipation has four, two each on the first and third CDs, one each per CD of a soul classic and a ballad made famous by a woman: the Stylistics' "Betcha by Golly Wow," Bonnie Raitt's "I Can't Make You Love Me" (written by Mike Reid and Allen Shamblin), the Delfonics' "La-La-Means I Love You," and Joan Osborne's "One of Us" (written by Eric Bazilian). All titles rendered in Prince, natch. As always the image is of Prince alone in the studio, working this stuff out. The soul songs are impossibly sweet, even in their original forms, and the ballads are impossibly vulnerable. He's a little better I think at accessing the pith of the ballads—he's not afraid they might be maudlin or trite, and thus he makes sure they are not. He's notably brave taking on "One of Us," which had been a big hit earlier that year, much disdained in many quarters. I have always loved it but often still feel a little constrained to keep my mouth shut. I hate to use the term guilty pleasure. But Prince really brings it for this one, underlining the themes (yes, including "slave" for "slob") even as he makes it all soar. A liberating moment for me for sure. There are many others in this generous set too.

Friday, June 23, 2017

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

USA, 123 minutes
Director: John Ford
Writers: James Warner Bellah, Willis Goldbeck, Dorothy M. Johnson
Photography: William H. Clothier
Music: Cyril J. Mockridge
Editor: Otho Lovering
Cast: James Stewart, John Wayne, Vera Miles, Lee Marvin, Edmond O'Brien, Andy Devine, Jeanette Nolan, John Qualen, Ken Murray, Woody Strode, Lee Van Cleef, Strother Martin, John Carradine

"The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," Gene Pitney's #4 hit song in 1962 written by Hal David and Burt Bacharach, has only a little more to do with this movie than Buddy Holly's "That'll Be the Day," a #1 in 1957, had to do with another famous John Ford movie, The Searchers. It's possible the Pitney song was originally commissioned for the movie, given how close the release dates are, and certainly it is based on the same 1953 story by Dorothy M. Johnson. But the song never appears in the movie. Nevertheless, the chorus rampages through my head every time I even think of the title.

It's easy to see why director John Ford would have rejected the little pop confection, but in many ways his movie is a kind of pop confection itself (albeit somewhat dulled by the soundstages and the black and white treatment, which were due to budget constraints). It's packed with stars new and old—John Wayne and James Stewart go back to the days of silent films, while Strother Martin, Lee Marvin, Vera Miles, and Lee Van Cleef look forward to visions of the future by way of Sergio Leone, Sam Peckinpah, and TV. And The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a kind of clinic in the art of engrossing narrative. I've seen it several times and if I'm rarely enthusiastic about seeing it again—the Pitney song pounds through my head at the thought, a certain deadly earworm—all resistance falls away once the story begins to unfold.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

"To Build a Fire" (1908)

Read story by Jack London online.

One of the happy surprises I've had on this short story project is discovering how much I like the nature stories, "man vs. nature," as the English teachers explained it. This is one of the best yet. It's among London's best-known and most anthologized stories, but it's not the first one he wrote under the title. There's also a 1902 version, which I don't know. The premise is simple. The setting is the far north regions of North America. We never learn the name of our hero, who is trekking with a dog across wilderness to reach a camp by day's end. It's extremely cold—50 below zero F. or colder, our hero speculates, but at one point the third-person narrator who mostly stays inside the head of our guy steps out for a few beats to let us know it is actually 75 below. That's cold. The hiker keeps his lunch under his layers of clothes next to his chest and belly to keep it from freezing hard. He thinks occasionally about an old-timer who warned him never to travel alone in weather colder than 50 below. He knows he is taking a risk but feels confident. He has experience and knows the dangers. But this is not a story that ends well, and the power of it is all descriptive and rhythmic. London sets out all the basic elements and shows how the situation can naturally if unexpectedly grow worse. Then he shows what happens next. The last few pages are vivid and even hard to read. I had to take a couple of breaks to compose myself. Jim Thompson has written in similarly strong ways about claustrophobic experience. Here it is nearly unimaginable cold. I have experienced near 40-below temperatures, and certainly know well the kinds of things that happen at 20 below. Seeing the man attempting to deal with a drenched leg as the result of stepping in a hidden pool (a natural feature in the region) is extraordinarily intense, especially the more you see how skilled the man is even as he steadily loses to the elements. I know from The Call of the Wild how good London can be with animals, and the dog here and its relationship with the man are nearly equal to that again. The story is sustained entirely by description and long, blocky paragraphs (which you know I have to love), with no relief from dialogue. Yet it sets and maintains a powerful rhythm, as it moves from the start, with the man's thoughts of his lunch and getting back to camp that evening, to the awful events that descend on him, one at a time.

Library of America Story of the Week (Library of America)

Monday, June 19, 2017

Wonder Woman (2017)

Huzzah, the summer blockbuster season is upon us. Wonder Woman was already getting good word of mouth the week it was released so I went. Partly the excitement is a matter of the woman-friendly nature of the project: starring a woman (Gal Gadot), directed by a woman (Patty Jenkins), about a woman superhero raised by a tribe of women. It's a point of honor to take daughters, some screenings are for women only, and so on. Get into the heart of the movie, taken for what it is, and it's not bad. In fact, as a flailing DC effort in the Zach Snyder era of the superhero epoch, you could even say it's remarkably good. I liked the character of Diana, a goddess (or at least half-goddess, technically speaking). She's a beguiling mix of the naïve, the uprightly moral, and the beautiful—Gal Gadot is a glowing screen presence happily up to carrying the whole thing. This one is set in World War I times, which is a bit of a head scratcher. I presume things like that will be explained with the inevitable sequels (which inevitably will have to refer to her as "Wonder Woman," though they get away with not doing so here, a nice point). The Amazons back on the mysterious island of Themiscyra where Diana was raised are virulently antiwar, and World War I is famous for being the worst war ever, so there's that. One of the picture's highlights is an amazing race across No Man's Land. Chris Pine is handsome Steve Trevor, with a band of brigands in tow (Said Taghmaoui, Ewen Bremner, Eugene Brave Rock). Diana doesn't take long to establish herself as the resident badass among them, and these macho dogs all seem to accept it. Gender-fraught tensions percolate along more explicitly in the action. Because of her upbringing, Diana associates men with violence and war and only sides with the British because she happens to like Steve. It could have been a German as well. After all, this was the war with no good guys. At two and a half hours, there's no stinting of the big battle scenes and other special effects. There's a decent balance of motivations and fighting, though the last third turns hard toward the latter. That's why we're here, right?

Sunday, June 18, 2017

The Executioner's Song (1979)

With this very long and deeply researched true-crime tome Norman Mailer embarked on the last major phase of his writing career, evincing a preternatural comfort with lengthy and lovingly labored work. We met Mailer first as the latter-day acolyte of Ernest Hemingway, a self-serious novelist. Then, with Advertisements for Myself, he reinvented himself as an impish if erudite (or, if we must, "erudite") journalist, with an ego the size of a planet bigger than Earth. Now he strips away the self-conscious mocking tone in favor of plainspoken language that stretches miles to horizons. Indeed, the primary division of The Executioner's Song is into "Western Voices" and "Eastern Voices," the two halves of the story of the last nine months of Gary Gilmore's life, which Mailer straddles like a continent. Now first things first. One of the book's most impressive features is the research, and the great majority of that was done or overseen by Lawrence Schiller, who deserves co-credit for this book. He amassed tens of thousands of the words that appear here in interview transcriptions. What is most amazing about this book is how thoroughly its characters inhabit the story, and how absent is Mailer's voice. You can still feel it there in the structure and choice of details, but I'm not sure you'd notice it if you'd never read him before. As Dave Eggers says in a 2012 introduction, The Executioner's Song is the fastest 1,000-page read you're ever likely to encounter. And I think that's true independent of how much you know or care about the Gary Gilmore case—which, among other things, returned the death penalty to the US after a 10-year moratorium. For a thousand pages, Mailer carefully curates Schiller's massive stores, dropping sentence after sentence with speech so true the words often resonate like music. I'm not inclined today to like Gary Gilmore as much as those involved in his life and this project seem to, including both Schiller and Mailer, but even that doesn't dim the power of this wild and epic tale. I'm sure it's mostly Mailer who makes it sing, as he would go on to write more books with similar strategies of scope: long narratives of simple language, arguably coming full circle back to Papa. Approximately here is where Mailer finally started to realize his own dearest lifelong ambitions.

In case it's not at the library.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

"Men Under Water" (1986)

Story by Ralph Lombreglia not available online.

Ralph Lombreglia's story is reasonably witty. It comes before Quentin Tarantino but after Jim Jarmusch. It is self-consciously ironic, distanced, referential. It's set in Cleveland, at some point in recent history after the Cuyahoga River caught on fire. The first-person narrator is Reggie, a handyman who works for the unscrupulous landlord Gunther. Gunther believes he is destined to make it as a film director. He's actually more interested in Reggie for his skills as a screenplay collaborator. Reggie is just trying to get by. It's a strange job he has as Gunther's assistant. He has to haul Gunther out of bed most mornings and take him to breakfast before their workday can begin. Gunther is an obese hairless pig who cuts corners every way he can as a landlord. Reggie seems to consider him a necessary if annoying evil. Reggie's wife Tina thinks Gunther is taking advantage of him and he should quit. Every time Reggie tries to, however, Gunther gives him a raise—one of the most improbable plot points in a story full of them. I'm willing to look at the publication date of this story and credit Lombreglia for being on the front lines of various postmodern developments: Cleveland, the monoculture of cinema immersion, and of course good old disaffected irony. Gunther is a sort of id of '80s American capitalism—later in the story it appears he gets his break with a meeting with an actual money man. Reggie is the impotent hipster stand-by yet he is the one to save the pitch meeting from Gunther's paralyzed collapse. At the end of the story is a strange scene that is also the best thing here (hence the title, I take it). Reggie and Gunther are scuba diving in Gunther's pool and must share the breathing apparatus. Reggie is out of his depth in the water, prone to panic. He and Gunther bump and entangle the equipment underwater, and their gestures and movements take on specific meaning: "You really saved me up there." "I know I did, you huge oaf." Here, underwater, somehow—at least according to this fanciful writer, whom we have no particular reason to credit—Reggie and Gunther are capable of sensitive intimate exchanges. Both have been yearning. And it's a really beautiful exchange. But I don't believe a word of it for one second. Then I wonder if that isn't exactly the intent. An odd one, for sure.

The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories, ed. Tobias Wolff

Sunday, June 11, 2017

The Only Ones (2015)

I thought this science fiction novel by Carola Dibbell was pretty good. It harks to the cyberpunk mold in many ways—there's a lot of concept to figure out as we are plunged in media res into the bewildering action. In this case, set 50 years in the future, it's a world dominated by biology. A series of cascading pandemics has ripped away worldwide social bonds. For various reasons, only some of them clear, there aren't many babies. There's a crisis of fertility going on, perhaps as byproduct of the die-off or perhaps because of the contagious diseases that are wiping out people in large numbers. Computers and digital communication are woven into daily routines more deeply, but feel even more fragile than they do now. Into this dystopic nightmare comes our hero and narrator: born Inez Fardo, known as "I." She is a "Sylvain hardy," which means she is almost perfectly resistant to the diseases ravaging the planet. In fact, her body system is a danger to the viruses. So the question arises: is her condition genetic? Can it be passed on to an heir? There is much black market activity around fertility in this world, and there are also many fundamentalist vigilantes attempting to stop it with violence. The Only Ones is the story of Inez and Ani, I's spawn of herself—"clone" is a term of insult in this world, not to mention dangerous because of the fundamentalists—and the life they share in the burnt-out wreck of Queens, New York, while Ani grows up. Ani is everything I lives for. It becomes a thrilling action adventure story of motherhood, from conception and birth to letting her go into the world, a natural arc in a very unnatural setting. I think my favorite part is the voice of I, a clipped wounded repressed thing, but fully expressive when you learn her ways. Somebody compared it with Huckleberry Finn, and it's maybe not such a stretch. You learn the ways she expresses love and what love means to her in the sense of some of her recurrent phrases. "Still alive," she says all through. Ani's life growing up is an echo of her early days and weeks and months, when her viability itself was uncertain. "Still alive," I reports back to the group responsible for getting Ani into the world. Or I's use of the word "cute," always in reference to Ani. Until the first time she uses it, Inez is manifestly not the kind of person who would, you'd think. When she applies it to Ani, it's a pure expression of love, glowing almost, as you come to understand. The Only Ones starts slow, but it's worth sticking with.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Graffiti Bridge (1990)

By the time Prince died—on April 21, 2016—I had mathematically spent more of my life living in Washington state than Minnesota. But that didn't blunt anything for me about his passing. He was one of those people who wasn't supposed to die before me. I never met him—well, I literally bumped into him a couple of times at the First Avenue nightclub in Minneapolis. Somehow it still felt a little like a death in the family. I was surprised, when I went to my CD stacks (which I have been systematically downsizing for more than 10 years), to find I had everything but two albums from Dirty Mind to Emancipation (1980 to 1996, including every title from his extraordinary dump of product in the mid-'90s). The two that were missing, Around the World in a Day and Parade, I had bought as vinyl and they are lesser efforts by my lights anyway. (I think this is also the place to say how much I resented "D.M.S.R." being dropped from the CD version of 1999.) Eventually, over the last year, much of his catalog has made it to Napster too, at least into that mid-'90s dump. There's still little beyond anthologies for the last 20 years of his life, though he remained about as prolific. It's probably going to stay like that a while as legal issues are sorted out. On the bright side, we're likely to see new Prince music before we see new J.D. Salinger novels.

Graffiti Bridge was Prince's first album in the '90s and his first with the New Power Generation (NPG), and also includes a reunion with the Time. In my listening that followed his death (normally I put away albums after an artist dies, but this is another area where Prince was different for me) I noticed the albums I was quickest to reshelve tended to be his widely accepted best and/or personal favorites of mine: Controversy, 1999, Dirty Mind, Sign O' the Times. Call them all used up at least for the time being. With the exception of Sign O' the Times, which has never seemed more to me than the sum of its impressive (but inconsistent) parts, I would still rank them high, but more based on what I remember of listening to them and/or seeing him at the time. I did find a good deal of life remaining for me in Purple Rain—particularly the title song, which I never before heard with so much clarity, and the more obscure numbers (especially "Take Me With U" and "The Beautiful Ones") still sounded great or even better. On the basis of this, I would probably call Purple Rain his greatest album if forced to make a single choice.