Stephen King articles
First Appeared in Tabula Rasa#4, 1994
Lost Souls, by Poppy Z. Brite, Penguin, London, 1992. Reviewed by Sarah J. Groenewegen.
At the Sydney film festival this year was a panel on sex and the post-feminist screen. Rose Troche (director of Go Fish) was the only lesbian on the panel, but by no means the only lesbian in the room. During the course of the discussion, Rose admitted to finding gay male porn a turn-on. The relief in the room was palpable; obviously, there are a lot of dykes out there who find what gay guys do erotic (like many things in the dyke 'community', a fact well-hidden).
I suspect, from Lost Souls, that Ms Brite is a lesbian (the pic on the back has her wearing freedom rings) who digs gay male sex. The book is littered with (male) homo-erotica, even between the smalltown Ghost and Steve (as straight a couple of friends as ever there were). The book is very male-centred, with all the major characters being men, or boys, and few (Two? One?) of the support characters being women. To be fair, the few times there is hetero-sex, it is told from the woman's POV, and is sensitive to women. The rape scene is made all the worse because of this, and Steve is never fully redeemed for what he did.
Though the tale is about vampires, arguably the sexiest 'monsters' from the Western imagination, the sex and sexuality isn't the be all and end all of the book. What impressed me far more (actually, confession time: I'm a dyke who doesn't find gay male erotica erotic) was the major theme: lost souls. There are the Near Dark style vampires (though these ones are much prettier, and are all men) who are the ultimate hedonists, into hard drinking and drug-taking, and thrill-killing. Naturally, none of them have souls, and as for their humanity -- well, they're vampires (an alien race, in Brite's scheme).
Then there is the intriguingly named Nothing (raised in a 'normal' home with the name Jason -- Hmm), son and lover of Zillah, the really cruel lead vampire. The book charts the losing of his soul, yet he still retains a certain, learnt humanity (not the right word, but you get what I mean) as the tale unfolds.
And there are the masses who prop up the walls of the places the main characters visit (the book is a road movie, another similarity with Near Dark). Aah, Goths, where would we be without the crusties, the black sombreness, the lifestyle that yearns for vampires? The Goths are the real lost souls of the book. Pathetic, empty; they exist just to get drunk and listen to the Cure (question: why have I heard of all the real bands mentioned in this book? They're all 'mainstream' alternative bands, that's why!). To paraphrase the only meaningful thing William Shatner ever said, they need to get lives.
That's where Ghost and Steve come in. They're the heroes of the book, and of the two it's Ghost who has a soul quite possibly the only one in the whole novel. Both of them are pretty much stuck with their lot, but they have dreams (being rock stars) that they are acting on (the Lost Souls? band) and are getting somewhere with them.
There's a fair share of gore, the rape scene (told in flashback) the best all out horror. Brite writes well, overall (even my Dad liked her style!). The atmosphere is perfect, the characters of the vampiric serial killers superb. Surely, though, there are more words for 'spit', or is English really that poor when describing sex?
Finally, I have another confession to make. I have not read any Anne Rice so therefore I have no idea if this book is the rip-off the blurb suggests (i.e., anything that compares a book just to one author suggests a certain similarity).
Virgin Among the Living Dead (Una Vergine Tra I Morti Viventi, Jess Franco, 1971). 85 minutes. Subtitled. Redemption Films, London. Re-released September 1994.
'What have you done, wretched girl? You shouldn't have destroyed the great phallus! Woe betide us! The time has come for us all!"Now here's a film with a stylish cover. (More stylish than the film.) Redemption Films are re-releasing a large number of older European horror and exploitation titles, and they certainly seem to be making a proper job of it.
It's also a film with an interesting history. (More interesting than the film.) It is a French film made by prolific Spanish director Jesus Franco, and we am led to believe a number of pornographic scenes were later added (under the title Christina Princesse De L'Erotisme) after the gain in popularity of that genre. Furthermore, when Zombie films became popular... well, you get the idea.
So what survives the process? Sadly, not very much. The plot is somewhat hard to follow (maybe it was the combination of Rod Marsden's comments and Slugman), but not particularly profound -- there is a difference between confusion and surrealism (and where does the 'delightful dark comedy' mentioned on the back come in?) This is a rather trite Twilight Zone ghost story with intermittent rape/lesbianism/black magic and what we assume are dead animals. But perhaps its main fault was it was just slow.
And perhaps mentioning the lack of characterisation is placing our own expectations on this well-defined genre.
But nonetheless Franco is a well-regarded director for a number of his movies -- Diabolical Dr Z. Night of the Blood Monster, Deux Soeurs Vicieuses, and his series of Dracula movies with Christopher Lee (who was less enthusiastic himself) among others are recommended to us -- and Virgin had, if nothing else, a strand of imagery that worked very well. Starting an hour in and continuing to the end, Christina's visions of her father's continually receding body approach the movie talked about on the back cover.
We also received Bare Behind Bars, Osvaldo de Olivera's 1987 Women In Prison movie. Uh-huh.
Chaos and Order: The Gap Into Madness, by Stephen Donaldson, Harper Collins, 1994. $35.00 hardback
Do you remember the old Chinese proverb about interesting times? Stephen Donaldson's characters live in fascinating times. It is true these times are some way into Earth's future, which has lead to this series of novels being called everything from science fiction to swashbuckling adventure. Except, the erstwhile reviewer adds, for the nasty bits.
The Gap series -- The Real Story: The Gap into Conflict; Forbidden Knowledge: The Gap into Vision; A Dark and Hungry God Arises: The Gap Into Power; and now this -- is an inward-spiralling nightmare. In each book, I've noticed, the time lapse gets shorter; from several months in The Real Story to Chaos and Order, where the entire action of 663 pages covers barely three days. The erstwhile reviewer above is overlooking the incredible, seamless darkness of Donaldson's universe - as if 'bits' like Mom Hyland's initial rape by Angus Thermopyle could be somehow considered apart from the science fiction adventure, or whatever, (doubtless spliced in to appeal to the violence freaks, dear reader!). Donaldson's universe -- which in spite of encompassing interstellar distances is horribly claustrophobic -- is one of the most uncomfortable places I've ever imagined. Perhaps you could face the threat of genetic invasion by the Amnion with equanimity, in a shiny space ship with Liberator fittings, if you had the knowledge that Earth is depending you and you were following in the footsteps of James T. Kirk. But, if you hadn't slept for three days, if your mouth and throat felt like they had been scoured with abrasives (and) a grainy sensation inflicted his eyeballs, as if they turned in grit', let alone what Morn, Angus, Nick and the rest have had done to them by Earth Government and each other -- and you were all together on the same cramped, little ship... and as I said, the pace is getting faster.
These books deserve consideration by us because they are about the dark side of humanity. One of the most alarming things, about its science fiction, swashbuckling set up is that Donaldson has over the series removed its necessary supports, the concepts of heroism and villainy. Thus the 'Real Story' mentioned in the original book; he's telling the real story and it's taking five volumes. The complexity, in all quarters, by this point easily and dazzlingly takes up 663 pages for three days.
There is an alternative to the warped, vicious, ineffectual and plain confused humans struggling in the morass; this is the Amnion. The emotionless, sexless, amoral Amnion, who can bring you into 'union' with a single injection. The Amnion, who can solve all problems, keep everything neat, and tidy and unexcessive. The overall theme of this fascinating story, is probably to do with this. Anyone who's still shy of Donaldson's prose from way back with Thomas Covenant should take another look; no bombast or untranslatable adjectives, I promise. In fact, Stephen Donaldson is actually a superb writer, and in this series and in these characters, it has never shown to such effect.
Incidentally, the fifth and final volume is to be titled This Day All Gods Die: The Gap Into Ruin.
The Tallow Image, by Jane Brindle, Orion, London, 1994. $34.95 Hardcover.
Well, this one wasn't very good. Let me count the ways.
The Tallow Image is a book about ancient evil reaching across generations, its author, presumably British, "confesses to having a sharp eye for detail, and admits to being a 'people watcher' ". Furthermore she was induced to write this book to tell the story of Rebecca Norman, a name that struck her with some force in a certain cell in the old Fremantle Lunatic Asylum. Fair enough then.
But... The novel's sense of place is almost non-existent. There are no real descriptions of the stables (or was that farm?) where most of the story is set, and the first eighty pages, set in 1880s Australia, have practically no description at all. Indeed, when the modern-day heroes visit our fair land for two weeks, it's all reduced to a scene in a café and a quick stop by the asylum to grab the necessary doll and get out before any detail can be imparted.
The novel's sense of character is pretty much non-existent as well. None of the 'good-guys' have any apparent motivations apart from their hearts being filled with love and gentleness. The 'badguy', Rebecca Norman, naturally a highly beautiful women (who has survived twenty years as a violent-spirited convict with perfect teeth), has an abandoned childhood and a hanged grandmother to turn her nasty. But if this is her story, why do we never get her point of view, bar the occasional vengeful snippet in the author's scattered narrative? And why does she spend her last day cursing a man who has nothing to do with her at all? Ralph Ryan was simply one of her many guards. The only two characters who break the mould are a pair of unnamed and fleeting junkies (who still come out with lines like 'the authorities are already impatient to see us on our way'). Did I mention that the dialogue isn't very good?
The writing style is simple, with scant attention paid to the need of varying pace for the exciting bits (less of a problem towards the end, I'll admit). The worst problem is Ms Brindle's over-indulgence in italics, apparently thinking that any old melodramatic sentence takes on some deep significance when suitably dressed.
And sometime's she's just plain inconsistent. Did Ralph prefer working in the jail or the asylum? Depends which page you're on. Not to mention chapter eight which starts with a whole paragraph in italics. The paragraph sets the scene for what happens in the next nine pages, ending with: But something did. Something so strange and horrifying that it struck at the very heart of him, threatening everything he held dear. The actual event follows, ending with 'life was a strange thing. Like a will-o'-the-wisp it came and went, ever surprising, sometimes cruel, sometimes kind, but always unpredictable'. Now that's what I call the POV of a man struck to the very heart.
The ending was... well, it had a twist all right, a plausible one at that, but as to what actually happened... I'd already spent time going over some earlier pages to make sure they made some sense. This time I didn't bother.
It is a horror novel, has hanged priests and berserking dogs (who are apparently put down after they've had their brains spattered everywhere) and all sorts of supernatural wickedness (not to mention the author's strange fascination with the word 'crucifying'). But I have a inexplicable and horrible feeling, twisting in my guts, that I've stumbled into horror for the Women's Weekly set. Then again, maybe it's just a bad book.
The Priest, A Gothic Romance by Thomas M. Disch, Millennium, London, 1994. Paperback quarto $19.95.
Try a little priest. Is it good?
This is the book to give people who don't understand that horror is a serious and a literary genre -- but don't let that put the genuine aficionado off. My one criticism is there are too many strong ideas pushing at each other for space. They are great ideas conveyed with good, evocative writing, I would just have liked to linger over each concept and scene. A quite wonderfully evoked paedophile priest -- this intimate portrait was for me the highlight of the book -- caught in as many traps as he has created for others, on one hand glutting his own desires, heading anti-abortion riots on the other; on one hand living without faith, hypersensitive to the currents of the genuinely mystic on the other. Then we have the Albegesian crusade and the Toulouse Inquisition in the Thirteenth century, where the Shroud of Turin has its grisly genesis. Then we have the truly hideous foundation of Birth Right, a home where pregnant girls are forcibly kept until they come to term. Add the motif of the medieval visitor viewing the twentieth century as the Age of the Antichrist -- those sequences in the Tattoo Parlour are the book's true nightmare -- and a peculiar new age cult founded by an ex-science fiction writer who believes he has been both time-travelling and abducted by aliens; you get the impression?
Mr Disch almost brings it off. Oh, and the erstwhile hero, as distinct from protagonist of the book, is a rather endearing forty-year-old gay priest. Can of worms doesn't begin to describe it.
The Priest is an exemplare of the art of providing exposition without boring the reader, so don't worry if you don't know anything about the Albegesians. It is also an example of handling extremely gross things without actually describing them; while I leave this to your personal judgement, I do find that while some things benefit from implication, other things should at least be approached through the eyes of an onlooking character. And don't leaf through looking for the sex scenes either, try The Monk instead.
A book to read, it reads well and deceptively easily, and think about. Think about how the author resisted the temptation to do some more of the thinking himself, and write a longer novel or perhaps two...
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