tags: weird horror, weird fiction, fantasy worlds, dark magic
I’m not sure whether it’s a story with a long digression in the middle, or a story with a long framing device bookending it, but either way an odd construction—a tale split in the middle by another story as long as the rest combined. That middle story is the more vivid one to me, the characters more fleshed out, the setting more vivid, and that sort of works given that the middle story is meant to be almost an infection, capable of carrying additional details even if they aren’t told.
The outer story drapes itself in the weight of loss, and I don’t know that it quite carries it. Those human elements aren’t what has stuck with me, at least. Not in the same way as the more fairy tale-like middle story, which spans generations and continents. That one is a story of duelling dark magicians, more compelling but I guess less weird than a lonely fisherman stumbling onto the fringes of that story. So what this really is, is a weird story that manages to explain itself without losing its impact.
Such a perfect fusion of weird horror and pulp and comic book tropes, with some of the most striking art that comics have produced. I don’t know why I’ve only ever read bits and pieces of Hellboy, I’ve known for ages that I would love it when I got around to it. Maybe it’s that there’s so much of it out there, but right now that’s what makes it so delightful to start on it.
It was the documentary Mike Mignola: Drawing Monsters that pushed me into finally sitting down to read a Hellboy collection. I’m usually pretty leery of art documentaries, but Drawing Monsters was one of the best I’ve seen in a long while. Mignola himself seems down-to-earth and self-depricating, and generally aware of his flaws, and it’s nice to find someone who managed to build a career around doing what he loves and recognizes how fortunate that is. Plus, the directors seemed like nice folks when I interviewed them last year for the CUFF.Docs documentary film fest.
This visual essay is based on a premise that doesn’t really hold true for me, in that I have never really felt that I “see” when I read. So when Mendelsund tries to convince me that “seeing” is a false impression that’s disconnected from the actual experience, I’m already there. If there’s a revelation to be had from that, it’s just that I thought other people with a stronger visual sense would have a different experience. Maybe not.
Outside of that, I definitely enjoyed Mendelsund’s flair for visual metaphor, and the book’s questioning of the experience of reading. It’s kind of amazing how much The Master and HIs Emissary is impacting everything else I read that comments on perception and phenomenology and philosophy of mind. Here, Mendelsund describes what we “see” of the characters and settings we read about as fragmented, detailed in parts but not additive—more details don’t create a more vivid image, even if they do create a more rounded understanding.
I kept thinking of the left-brained mode of perceiving, the one that dissects and strips of context, that knows the parts that make up a whole but can’t seem to understand how to put them together. Mendelsund isn’t using that framework, but everything he says fits the idea that literature and language more generally is the domain of the dissecting left brain.
tags: short stories, fairy tales, fantasy, magic, fairies
It doesn’t have the scope of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, and it doesn’t suggest the same depths as Piranesi* but Clarke is a delightful writer and these stories nicely flesh out her conception of fairies as a strange mix of sophisticated and feral. Decadent is probably the word for it—the characters, not the stories, which are modest enough and all have the feel, appropriately, of fairy tales for adults.
Charming as most of the stories are, the real treat was the brief return of Jonathan Strange. Funny how satisfying it can be to revisit a character in a more relaxed setting.
*Not exactly fair to compare, given that Piranesi is quite possibly my favourite piece of fiction in the last decade or so, just an absolutely magical work in every sense of the word.
Plenty of good anecdotes on the way companies use their position as dominent buyers or sellers to manipulate markets, pocket unfair shares of wealth, and generally make life worse for everyone who isn’t their execs and shareholders. The collective solutions proposed all seem like reasonable starting points, too—but while I agree with their point that systemic problems require systemic solutions, I don’t feel like I left the book with a starting point of how to work towards that change.
Maybe just naming the problem and talking about it is a sound enough starting point. Chokepoint Capitalism is a useful term, evocative and intuitive to understand, but also expansive enough to capture a whole world of corporate corruption. If it bleeds its way into more general discourse, that can only be a good thing.
This may be wide of the mark in terms of musical theory, but despite its minimal compositions and electronic textures, Faten Kanaan’s Afterpoem feels like a work of capital R Romanticism. Its songs hint at hidden worlds and strange presences, haunted like a landscape, where the word connotes enchantment and mystery and just a hint of danger.
The world of Afterpoem is foggy and elusive, its songs coalescing and dissipating, only occasionally lasting more than a minute or two. That’s usually more than enough time to make an impression, but the songs that linger also tend to be more memorable, like “Votive” and its minor-key melody and eery major resolution, or the swell of distortion in the otherwise somber “Ard Diar.”
In the album notes, Kanaan says she “find[s] pleasure in music as a language that nudges and hints” and that’s exactly what Afterpoem does. It is oblique and indirect, and all the more intriguing for it.
Khotin – Release Spirit
I’ve been enjoying this album since it was released two weeks ago, but listening to it today on an afternoon walk as the city edged its way out of a deep freeze, sunshine warming my face, it fully clicked. The Edmonton producer’s third album for Ghostly International is the soundtrack to a good day—not the forced “best night of our lives” from a pop anthem, but the kind where you catch yourself smiling for no particular reason and take a moment to just bask in that feeling.
Highlights change with every listen, but on this most recent spin it’s the quietest moments that hit: the ambient “Life Mask” is one of Release Spirit’s most immersive moments, a spa day in a fantasy forest, refreshing and subtly otherworldly; or the vocal samples in “3 pz” that slowly drift from reassuring to surreal. The more propulsive tracks are nothing to brush off, either—Tess Roby’s vocalas are right at home in the eddying undercurrents of “Fountain, Growth,” and “Lovely”, “Computer Break – Late Mix” and “Unlimited <3” are all pure downtempo bliss. It’s unflashy and unpretentious, but damn is this nice.
Yves Malone – A Hello to a Goodbye
For an album rooted in horror-synth sounds and inspired by the paranoid early days of the COVID pandemic, you’d expect A Hello to a Goodbye to be a more bleak listen. It’s certainly laced through with tension, minor key melodies, and the crystaline harmonies and buzz-saw bass of a John Carpenter score, but in spite of all that (and a write-up that describes it as “isolated paranoid landscape is mined with what-ifs and never-mores, a profound distrust of fellow humans,”) I’d swear it has a more optimistic core than it’s letting on.
Take album centrepiece “In Desperate Nights They Flee Towards Anything Safer” — the title tries to pass it off as an illusory hope, but there’s nothing half-hearted about its triumphant synthwave sounds. Along with “Smoke and Ash, Hand in Hand” and “ambiguous closer “No Matter How I Try, the Road Leads Away From You” it provides plenty of breathing room and even hopefulness. Other tracks embody the anxiety more fully: openers “A Splash of Palm Razors Across the Sky” and “Stiff Starter” are all frenzy and confusion, and while “Object Concern” starts on a more placid note, a mid-point plot twist cranks up the tension.
Calling it a plot twist feels appropriate, as Malone’s music has enough narrative thrust to justify the term. He’s an expert at crafting unexpected turns and building momentum through the album’s ups and downs, but like any good thriller, it’s the glimmer of hope that keeps you tuned in.
Edena Gardens – “Sombra del Mar”
Edena Gardens’ self-titled debut last year was a high point even for consistently fantastic label El Paraiso, fusing psych, jazz, and post-rock into a mind-expanding melange. So it’s a pleasant surprise to see the trio already releasing new music in 2023. “Sombra del Mar” doesn’t stray from their established sound, but it doesn’t need to—the contemplative pace, meandering melodies, and spiraling chord progression is as inviting as anything on the debut. Fans of Gunn-Truscinski Duo or Do Make Say Think’s more folk-leaning moments will find plenty to enjoy here.
Jeremiah Chiu & Marta Sofia Honer – Leaving Grass Mountain
Longform Editions’ releases are always worth visiting, but this latest single is a true standout. Like the label name implies, the point here is to give artists a chance to stretch out, and Chiu and Honer take advantage of every minute, using stuttering rhythms, modular synths, ambient interludes, and Honer’s luscious viola to craft a compelling narrative piece. Full without being busy, varied without losing coherence, it’s a masterclass in extended experimental songwriting.
Portalling is what happens when you transport Boards of Canada’s haunted Scotland to the shores of LA. Bendu’s second album for Edinburgh-based Werra Foxma Records has all the hallmarks of hauntology, but even at its most melancholy, there’s a sunniness that’s distinctly Californian. More than anything, it’s there in the bass, which bubbles and bounces, sometimes carrying the melody and sometimes accenting the hip-hop drums, but always full, round, and joyful.
It’s a refreshing sound in a genre that can get bogged down in its moodiness. Not that Bendu doesn’t indulge in some pensive moments—Portaling comes with its share of heady vocal samples and philosophical conceits. It’s just that you’re always relatively sure that, despite the questioning, things are all going to work out.
Drum & Lace – Frost
Like its title implies, this EP from London’s Sofia degli Alessandri-Hultquist is an intricate and fragile set of ambient compositions. Its five songs rarely rise above a whisper—even its brashest, most multilayered moments feel like they could be dissolved by a stray breath. Despite the title, though, and in spite of its crystaline character, Frost is an inviting album, and a comforting one. degli Alessandri-Hultquist’s wordless vocals are at the heart of the compositions, radiating warmth and reassurance with every breath, and minimal as the arrangements are, they feel complete and compelling.
Bobby Lee – Reds for a Blue Planet
Lee’s latest is a propulsive addition to the new wave of Cosmic American Music, a twangy instrumental that layers a desert-psych riff over a steadily swaggering beat. The song is all forward momentum, a soundtrack to an endless highway pointed at a perpetual sunrise.
Conic Rose – Learn to be Cool
The melodic echoes of Massive Attack’s “Teardrop” may or may not be intentional, but it’s hard to deny that cribbing from one of the most stylish outfits of the past few decades is a solid way of learning to be cool. The Berlin-based quartet bill themselves as jazz, but their sound seems to pull from plenty of other turn-of-the-21st influences, too, from Chicago post-rock to Kid A ambience and the slick easy listening of Zero 7. It could stand a bit more grit, but still, a promising sound.
Lael Neale – I Am the River
Speaking of cool… “I Am the River” takes the haunting but subdued sound of 2021′ album’s Acquainted With Night and kicks it into high gear, and the result is a head-bobbing good time. The video and song both seem to be channeling the Velevet Underground with a hint of Robert Palmer, with Neale’s droning omnichord serving as a sugar-coated version of Cale’s viola. A much-needed tribute to nature and movement and the magic of music.
Masahiro Takahashi – Cloud Boat
Due out in late March, Takahashi’s Telephone Explosion debut sounds like it’ll be a perfect springtime record. With a lush saxophone melody from Brodie West and tasteful piano from Ryan Driver, “Cloud Boat” lives up to its title—warm and buoyant, you can picture it at sail amid clear blue skies, drifting between updrafts and watching as the ground below comes to life.
A collection of short sci-fi exploring the present through elabourations of technological trends, plus essays picking at the threads the authors have raised. The ideas are more interesting than the prose, which can come across a bit amateurish—but then these are meant to be bite-sized provocations more than complete stories, so it’s hard to complain on that front. The bulk of the stories are dystopian, extrapolating the worst tendencies of our modern systems into bleak Black Mirror vignettes, but I was pleasantly surprised to see a mix of hopeful stories in with the cautionary tales, along with some that are a mix of both. Tech is rarely just one or the other, and these brief glimpses into possible futures are a great way of illustrating that mixed potential.
An interesting book that doesn’t quite achieve what it promises (the humble task of resolving the age-old question of what consciousnes is and how it emerges from unconscious matter). The authors seem convinced that it does, and maybe something is lost in the translation from math-heavy research papers to accessible prose, but I don’t think I’m any closer to grasping it.
The key chapter on self makes a distinction between consciousness and self-awareness that I’m having a particularly hard time with, essentially saying that many creatures have qualia experiences of the world, but only humans are aware of themselves having them (unless they’re actively engaged in something like the mirror test, at which point a self-aware self emerges only to disappear once the mirror is removed). And I just can’t grok the concept of consciousness without awareness.
The idea of consciousness as a process, like a basketball game or hurricane, seems accurate but not exactly groundbreaking, and also an oversimplification. After all, a game is only a game because of the conscious actors playing it, and a hurricane is a dramatic example but that comparison relies on the drama of the image; a waterfall is a similarly context-dependent arrangement of water, but you’d be hard-pressed to convince me that saying “”consciousness is like a waterfall”” would tell me anything useful. Game, hurricane, and waterfall are all categories that emerge out of conscious beings assigning names and categories to physical processes; it’s hard to see how they can be used to explain the emergence of consciousness itself.
I did find it was wonderfully written, and its descriptions of mental processes were clear and informative. I don’t feel much closer to understanding the mystery of the self, but there’s plenty to chew on regardless (as evidinced by the fact this summary is double the length of the other three combined).
A neat pairing of Jack Kirby-style cosmic gods and rural family drama—a story about memory, loss, death, and chopping up space-demons with a sentient 12-foot sword. It’s pulp, but well-done pulp, with enough world-building to feel fleshed out but not so much that it’s bogged down in its own mythology.
Cates’ take on the cosmic realm is more coherent and grounded than Kirby, for better and worse—I’m a sucker for that Kirby krackle, and the incomprehensibility of his mythos was part of the charm. But God Country’s groundedness is a nice spin on the subject matter, and there’s no denying the book does everything it sets out to do.
If I were able to write fiction, I think this is the kind of fiction I’d like to write. The first book in the Monk & Robot series is gentle and thoughtful, but manages to pick at some anxieties I’ve been having for a long time, about purpose and direction and satisfaction. There’s not much in the way of conflict, but plenty in the way of insight, and it’s short enough that I basically inhaled it.
Even more than the characters, I want to spend more time with the book’s religious system, which is revealed in small details but still largely mysterious by the end of the book. The best fictional religions have a way of concisely showing what’s important in a given world—which I guess real religions do, too, but those are so much more multilayered and convoluted from centuries of revision and interpretation that it takes real scholarship to that heart. A religion in a fiction is more concentrated by necessity, but still abstracted enough to have that feeling of mystical importance, a distilled philosophy dressed in metaphor. I’m hoping Chambers delves into it more in the sequel.
BookWyrm says I’ve read about 6,500 pages this year (which probably includes a bunch of appendices and end notes that I didn’t actually read, but I’ll still take it). I feel like a very slow reader compared to some of my more literary friends, so making it through 20 books (including a couple of novellas and essay collections) feels like an accomplishment. Especially considering all of the other books I’ve started and set aside, or skimmed with the intention of returning to, or am still chipping away at when the mood hits, of which there are probably at least another dozen. I’m a very inconsistent reader, is what I’m getting at.
Which means the books I actually finish tend to be ones I’m genuinely enjoying—and that makes ranking into a pretty arbitrary task. So instead, just assume that if the description seems like something you’d be interested in, it’s probably worth the time investment. Keeping in mind my reading tastes can tend towards the dry and semi-academic.
I still need to do a better job of diversifying my reading. Of the 19 authors below, nine are women or people of colour, which means more than half are neither of those. Something to work on in the new year (and most of the books on my immediate to-read list will help with that, at least).
For a writer who’s often put at the forefront of optimistic sci-fi, Robinson’s near-future look at how humanity might navigate climate change still feels mighty bleak. I guess we’re at the point where “making it through will be incredibly difficult but not completely impossible” counts as optimism.
One of two authors I had a chance to interview at Wordfest. Apocalyptic fiction from an Indigenous perspective, with the resilience and practicality that comes from having survived other cultural apocalypses already.
Adapted from King’s sermons, so more overtly Christian than most of what I read, but it seemed overdue to try to get a better sense of his actual thinking vs the sanitized hand-me-down version in popular culture.
Another of those “reframing human history and experience” books, this time through the lens of the brain’s two hemispheres, in a much more nuanced manner than the usual pop-sci “left vs right brain” way. McGilchrist is impressively well-read in (Western) history, art, and philosophy, to an extent that the book suffers a bit from his thoroughness, but it’s argument is a profound one.
Liu has a skill for explaining interesting concepts, but so far I’ve found his storytelling a bit stiff, which made the cynicism of Three Body Problem harder to take. I’m glad to have read it, but not sure I’ll follow up with the sequels.
Some wonderful moments, and a fantastic title, but these short essays on a range of topics don’t quite have the impact of Rovelli’s more focused works—which are some of the most approachable and thoughtful explanations of quantum physics that I’ve ever read.
Another way of contextualizing human history, this time by looking at four key technologies—fire, language, beauty, and time. Optimistic and thought-provoking, and the only book I’ve read that encourages humanity to act more like a slime mold.
An attempt to find a more generous definition of “intelligence”, one that goes beyond “the thing that humans do” to encompass the perception and cognition of the natural (“more-than-human”) world. I think Bridle and I have been reading a lot of the same authors lately, as a lot of the anecdotes felt quite familiar. Still, I appreciated their interpretations, even if I didn’t always agree with them.
Thematic echoes with Bridle’s Ways of Being and McGilchrist’s Master and His Emissary, in that all three want to rebalance the analytical, fragmented, computational mentality of modern Western thought with other, more holistic ways of knowing. Lent provides a quick gloss of a lot of philosophies, not always convincingly, but it’d make for a good jumping-off point for a lot of further reading.
Applying Buddhist teaching to develop resilience and compassion. An excellent companion to Thich Nhat Hanh’s Being Peace, with slightly more focus on personal well-being. Not sugar-coating the nature of reality (the title is when, not if), but making acceptance a little easier.
In alphabetical order, 100 albums that made my 2022 a bit more joyful. Nearly all of these have been featured on The AM, so expect a mix of experimental electronics, ambient jazz, shoegaze, dream-pop, and other less easily classified sounds. There’s also the AM Gold 2022 Spotify playlist if you want to listen to a track from (almost) all of them—and while you’re at it, feel free to browse through the past lists here: 2021, 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017, and A Decade of AM Gold.
Cancon is labeled for those who are interested in such things.
As with every year, even 100 albums isn’t enough to include everything that resonated with me at some point in the year, and I’m already feeling guilty about some of what’s been left out (god forbid an unknown Canadian community radio broadcaster’s list not be fully comprehensive, right?). Never let anyone tell you there’s no good music out there—there’s more being made every year than anyone could possibly listen to.
I can’t deny this was a bit of an indulgent Schlocktober — not a lot of highbrow viewing, but definitely an enjoyable amount of campy horror. This doesn’t include Guillermo Del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities anthology, mostly because I feel like I have more to say about what that series shows about the state of modern horror, but I’ll need to stew on that for a bit.
John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness
I’m a huge fan of the other two films in Carpenter’s Apocalypse trilogy, but this one doesn’t really live up to the other two. The ideas are there, but the execution isn’t. The pacing feels off—there’s no ebb and flow to it, just a steady pulse established by the opening credits. Which could be interesting, as a way to create a feeling of relentlessness and inevitability, but it just feels choppy. There are no real conversations, no real moments, just fragments after fragment.
You can definitely see how it’s meant to be a culmination of themes and styles that Carpenter has explored, how the tension of Assault on Precinct 13 and the inner threat of The Thing and the Donald Pleasance grappling with physical manifestations of evil in Halloween are meant to fuse into something more profound. And I’m here for any film that’s grappling with the fundamental nature of reality—that heady blend of pop science and Christian mysticism and occultism and high strangeness is a place I’d love more movies to end up. But this one feels like it aimed higher than it can achieve—not the worst crime, but it lands with a bit of a thud.
Most effective moments: The dream broadcasts Insect-voiced “pray for death” And Calder’s laughter was 100x more eerie than any special effect
The Blob (1988)
The practical effects in this are incredible; the optical effects a little less so but still pretty effective. The pacing is relentless, exactly what you want out of a popcorn flick, and even the half baked conspiracy plot can’t slow it down.
I know we’re supposed to be down on remakes, but between this, the Fly and the Thing, the ‘80s really showed how to do ’em right—apparently the key is rubber tentacles and biological acid.
Delightfully ridiculous. Amanda Donohoe commits far beyond what the movie deserves, and it pays off every time. Hugh Grant less so—he seems a little embarrassed to be involved—but Peter Capaldi playing bagpipes and pulling a hand grenade out of his kilt more than makes up for it.
Is any of the ridiculous Freudian “sub”text remotely successful? Not really. But I think the movie knows that—it seems pretty likely that Russell is poking fun at the clunkiness of the novel. Is it campy and fun and great late-night viewing? Absolutely.
Terror Train (1980)
An ok but fairly unmemorable slasher, distinguished by a more than reasonable amount of time spent speculating about the role of trains in America’s future intermodal freight systems, and an entirely reasonable amount of David Copperfield doing his thing.
The remake better still use Crime as the house band.
One of those VHS cases that was burned into my mind as a 10-year-old browsing the horror racks at my local video store, but I never got around to seeing it. The films-within-the-film are great in their low-budget campiness, but that same goofiness becomes more grating when it bleeds into the “real” world of the film, especially given the more sinister tone before the big reveal.
I would still 100% go to the gimick-horror marathon in that gorgeous old theatre. The film introduces it like it’s run-down and awful, then take the dust covers off and it’s basically immaculate.
Tales from the Darkside
The gargoyle segment was the only one I remembered from watching it way back when, and it’s also arguably the weakest segment (with the best payoff, those transformation effects are incredible). That’s not much of a criticism though, as this is impressively consistent for a horror anthology. Even the wraparound story is solidly entertaining. Goofy, fun spooky-season viewing.
Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight
Casting Dick Miller in anything is already a win, so Demon Knight didn’t need to do much to win me over. Billy Zane is clearly having a blast bouncing off a stacked cast. ’90s HBO does have a feel to it, doesn’t it.
Wendell & Wild
I’m not totally clear who this is aimed at? It has the general feel of a kids movie, but also on-screen murder, a plot that revolves around the for-profit prison industry, and a surprising amount of ska. Plus tardigrades, naive demons, origami theme parks, and proof of the cultural and economic importance of microbreweries. There are a lot of things happening with this movie, is what I’m saying, and as a geriatric millennial third-wave-ska-surviving stop-motion fan, by and large I enjoyed it.
Weils’ brand of blues demands—and rewards—an almost excessive degree of patience. Their songs consist of minimal riffs expanded to the point of absurdity, sometimes stretching minutes between a single chord change. But where that should create sheer monotony, they’ve somehow managed to invert the formula, tapping into something supremely comforting and occasionally even transcendent. The shortest song here is 13 minutes, the longest clocking in at over double that, and while the old “no wasted minutes” trope doesn’t exactly apply, it’s hard to see how anything here would benefit from being more concise. The shimmering bridge of album-closer “Ode to Joy” wouldn’t have the same impact if it was stripped out of context, but it’s not just the contrast that comes when the repetitive structures are interrupted that makes Fugue State so engrossing. It’s the weight of that repetition, the chance to get lost in slow music that drifts along without any concern for expectation. These are sounds to be savoured, a glistening structure built from the gradual accretion of gentle tones.
(A transcript of an interview on the Oct. 17 episode of The AM on CJSW)
Peter Hemminger Ann Marie MacDonald is an award-winning novelist, a playwright, actor and broadcast host who in 2019 was made an officer of the Order of Canada in recognition for contribution to the arts and her LGBTIQ2SI+ activism. Her writing for the stage includes the plays Goodnight, Desdemona, Good Morning Juliet, and this year’s Hamlet 911, while her novels include Fall on Your Knees, The Way the Crow Flies, Adult Onset and the brand new release Fayne, a tale of science, magic, love and identity set at the border of England and Scotland in the late 19th century.
She’s going to be joining WordFest on October 28th for a conversation there, but she is also joining us this morning for The AM. Ann-Marie MacDonald, thank you so much for calling in.
Ann-Marie MacDonald Thank you, Peter. I’m delighted to be here, and I can’t wait to be in Calgary.
PH Have you done a WordFest appearance before?
AM Oh yeah, yeah. A few years back with Adult Onset, and I did, at that time I did what was called like the High Speed… Oh, hi something rodeo, what was that?
PH Oh, the High Performance Rodio. With One Yellow Rabbit.
AM Thank you—High Performance Rodeo, for which I was decorated with a medal.
PH What was the medal they gave you for that?
AM It was, I don’t know, with some kind of fun game show format thing and it was completely undeserved. Actually, I think I like someone broke a tie and it really belonged to Michael Crummey. But we’ve made-up since then. It’s OK between us.
PH No long-lasting grudges from that.
AM It felt really OK. And I know sometimes that’s how juries work, right? I was the recipient of that flawed process, and this time it went my way.
PH So you’re going to be coming this just next week, I guess a little over two weeks to talk about your new novel Fayne, which—I know that it’s difficult to describe a 700 page work in a minute or two, but for folks who aren’t familiar with that it, can you give just the high-level summary?
AM Sure, sure, sure. Remote, windswept, moor. Spooky, crumbling mansion. Mysterious widowed barron. Ultra-charming, brilliant young daughter upon whom he dotes. She has mysterious condition. There are secrets in the house and in the past, many of which are kind of pulsating in this great oil painting portrait that dominates the great sweeping marble staircase. So there is this portrait hangs on the landing and it’s of this gorgeous Irish American heiress, who was Charlotte’s mother, Charlotte being the brilliant 12-year-old. So that’s her gorgeous Irish American mother, who was really rich. And it also depicts Charlotte’s baby brother. And both of these people are dead of course, ’cause it’s a Victorian novel, so the portrait on the stairs has to feature gorgeous, important dead people.
PH Of course.
AM And then we find out what became of them and what will become of Charlotte. And there are major questions of identity.
PH Yeah, and I’m only about five chapters into the work right now, but it very much has the feel of a classic Gothic novel. And you’re a writer who has worked in so many different mediums, written for so many different time periods, has played with metafiction. And I mean Hamlet 911—I didn’t have a chance to see it but the descriptions of that is a piece that plays with a play within a play and commentary on the festival that it’s taking part in—with that kind of breadth of areas that you’ve tackled, how did you land on this? What was it about the Gothic novel that appealed to you?
AM Well, the Gothic novel is really, for me, foundational. It’s where I began to read as a kid, right?
I was about 10 years old when I read Jane Eyre for the first time. I was also steeped in Bugs Bunny and The Beatles, and those continued to be like a triumvirate. Those are my triangular points of reference and everything, it can be kind of found within that.
But I loved the size, and the sweep and the passion and the language. I loved that everything is ultimately connected. That no matter how vast and disperate this world seems to be, everything is intimately connected.
And that really appeals to me also, I suppose, at a spiritual and political level and at an urgent environmental level. We are connected. All of us, animate and inanimate, right? I think they’re all part of earth and we’re all part of Earth’s consciousness, and that it matters. Everything we do matters.
There’s also an urgent environmental cri de cœur running through the book, because of course, the moor, the supposedly useless barren moor upon which this story unfolds, is a peat bog, right? And now we understand that peat bogs really are the most important and critical carbon sink in the world as well. They harbor so much about life, and how life burgeons at the margins of the indefinable, soupy primordial margins.
And that’s what these kinds of landscapes are full of. They’re full of stuff that we haven’t discovered. Stuff that people called magic not too long ago, which we call science now, which we might call magic again tomorrow, you know, and that intersection of—what is magic? What is science? What is spiritual, what is physical, and how are all these things simply a continuum, right? And I feel the same way about identity.
And then that gets us into the other, you know, I call it my queerest book because it really does take on compulsory heteronormativity, gender, enforced gender norms, and the Victorian era. I mean that was the era of categorization and definition. We’re going to name every species and subspecies, and we’re going to define absolutely everything. And that’s when sex roles become really ironclad, and that’s when class, wealth and class has always been a factor, but certainly gender roles and sex roles become incredibly distinct around that time, too.
PH One contrast, and I do want to talk about the gender roles that come into the novel, but even just still talking about the landscape that you talk about, that being the era of trying to classify everything, but there’s also been, if you look at the language that used to be used to describe the Moors, I think Robert McFarlane has talked about this wealth of landscape terms for incredibly tiny distinctions of different kinds of land that have been lost over the years and reduced to… I mean windswept moor is a great phrase, but it’s always “windswept moor.” There’s so much specificity that you come to in your language. When you were developing the language to speak about the land, does that affect the way that you’re seeing the world around you?
AM Oh, absolutely. I mean, that sense of urgency has been with me, I can’t remember when it wasn’t with me, but now I feel it’s it in this book. It’s really impassioned. I feel like the Earth speaks. The Earth is a character. The mud, the very mud is a character in this book. And when I think of that landscape and especially when land turns liquid, almost imperceptibly, when does land become liquid? You know, when does one thing transform into another, and I think of it as a liquid library. You know. Just the richness and the generosity today of our Earth and how she is endlessly—how she-they-he as I make it in the book, which kind of ends with a prayer in that way, really, of gratitude to this entity which continually regenerates and continually escapes our attempts to pin it down. You know, and that’s why I think of it as a liquid library, that mud puddle, you know, we don’t even know what’s in there. Not really, actually.
PH Yeah, I haven’t really thought of the land in those terms. But I feel like—again, I’m only about five chapters into this book—but there’s so many themes that are already tying together. It’s set in a manor house that exists on the border between England and Scotland, so it’s not really in either. It’s a between place, and the moors themselves are a between place. The time that it’s set in is the emergence of science from a more classical education in some cases, or more folklore based. At what point did you realize that you were writing a work that was set so much, that was so much to do with transitional periods or transitional spaces?
AM Well, that’s really the key word, isn’t it, transitional? Transitional and transformative.
I think I intuitively knew that from before the beginning. I wrote a play called Belle Moral back in the 90s, and I became obsessed with transitional species at that point. And then I apply that to everything else, right? Because I think that truth is found in dynamism. We are constantly changing, right? And there are many ways of describing that, whether it’s the second law of thermodynamics or God knows what else, right? But transition is our state. Dynamism is our state. Balance is anything but static. It’s the opposite of static, and that implies uncertainty. But uncertainty can make people feel. It can lead to fear, and fear, of course, is the enemy of thought, is the enemy of curiosity. It’s the enemy of life. It’s the opposite of love. And I think of, really, when I think of it, I think of love as being probably the greatest, most fearsome force that’s going on. Because that’s… Somewhere, Earth is regenerating, constantly, and I I choose to think of that as love. And incredibly powerful.
PH That curiosity that you speak of… I’m going to bring it back now to talking about the character of Charlotte, and I think this is going to be the last bit that we have a chance to talk about, but she is such an insatiable learner, a person with this, not just a curiosity, I mean curiosity is absolutely what drives her, but this incredible memory as well. She’s well versed in Greek classics. She’s devouring the new cutting-edge science of the late 19th century. How do you keep up with that character’s curiosity as you’re writing them?
AM Well that just was an excuse to immerse myself and learn. You know, I’m pretty passionate about learning as well, myself.
She’s way smarter than I am. Luckily, all I had to do was capture and follow her thoughts and back them up with the research that I did, and then get them all together between the pages of a book where they can be on record and experienced by other people. But don’t ever ask me to speak like Charlotte, ’cause I just don’t have her intelligence. I don’t have her audiographic memory, which I really, really had so much fun with.
I love her passion for learning. I love what kind of a geek she is in that she has to learn how to have a sense of humor, and just her joy and her insatiable curiosity. Yes, I share that, and I have gone very passionately into all the various questions from whether or not—and this is all in my quest to immerse the reader in a world that becomes theirs, such that they forget they’re reading, and they forget that anyone wrote this. That this belongs to them, but they know they’re going to be guided through this story.
And I love Victorian tropes because we’re familiar with them. And yet they provide a structure for endless surprises, right? What is the mystery behind that big portrait on the stairs? Well, this is a Victorian novel. We know that’s going to be important. And moreover, you as the reader know that this book will fulfill your curiosity and take you somewhere, right? So for me, those are readerly delights.
Those are the delights that the audience hopes for in the theater, and that’s also why I write. I love to welcome people into a story. I wanted to write the kind of book I would have fun reading, you know, so… And that turned out to be a pretty tall order because I did have to immerse myself into the time and place. But there’s enough that’s very recognizable, and then enough that’s very, very strange, I think, to keep people on the journey.
PH I’m very much looking forward to taking that journey myself. And for listeners who are eager to learn more about the process of writing this book, there’s so much conversation that can be had around this, and that’s going to be taking place October 28th, 7:00 PM at Memorial Park Library thanks to WordFest, so anyone who wants to check that out can head to wordfest.com to find out the details. Ann-Marie, thank you so much for joining this morning.
AM Thank you so much Peter. I look forward to it, and all best.
A pair of contemplative releases from the prolific Panfilov, who has also released a Zamrock stomper, a library-groove collaboration with Shawn Lee, and an oddball short-film score over the past few months. The Sea Will Outlive Us All is pitched in a lower key than that trio, blending gentle surf and exotica with soft psychedelia; Momentum is a breezy set of light jazz melodies, more drifting than propulsive in spite of the title. Unlike his groovier releases from the first half of 2022, the focus in each of them is on mood rather than body-moving.
Sea is the darker of the two albums, occasionally treading darker terrain, embracing the existentialism of the album title and coming across like Pink Floyd stranded on a desert island, but by and large, it’s still quite balmy, a dose of seaside sunshine. Momentum hardly has a dark side at all; it’s a soundtrack to a pleasant stroll down winding roads, wandering without a care in the world. Both are excellent showcases for Panfilov’s effortless strain of library-groove jazz—appealing, accessible, and casually accomplished.