CHTHONIC MATTER 2020
Edited by C.M. Muller
My reviews of works edited by or containing this editor: HERE
Stories by Seán Padraic Birnie, Brian Evenson, Elana Gomel, Douglas Ford, Shannon Scott, Timothy Granville, LC von Hessen, Mark Howard Jones, Rhonda Eikamp, Charles Wilkinson, James Pate, J.A.W. McCarthy, Christopher K. Miller, Selene dePackh, M.R. Cosby, Michael Kelly, Rebecca J. Allred, John Langan, Steve Rasnic Tem, Sam Richard.
When I read this book, my thoughts will appear in the comment stream below…
There may be some delay in commencing this review.
Lucida Seán Padraic Birnie
“…but all photographs are a kind of fiction.”
This author is possibly one of the most generally underrated of my favourite authors. And this is his relatively short work’s richly believable description of the narrator’s clunky but sensitively off-key camera that might break your toe if you drop it from the missing tripod. Where negative meets positive in the merest blink, creating a Polaroid dream of a palindromic selfie. Perfect texture and substance as meaningful prose, as well as pointless in a constructively throwaway manner. No mean feat of developing.
My previous reviews of this author: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/tag/sean-padraic-birnie/
Since starting this book yesterday, I seem to have developed an Oculus Sinister of sorts myself! A small stye on my left eye.
…and Navidson was a photographer or otherwise framer of memory and other stretched out dreams or visions — through his own slit of vanishing light? Also with seemingly uncanny premonition, I have already (for quite a while now) been real-time reviewing ‘The House of Leaves’ HERE before reading today the next story, as if being gradually primed for the latter by some visitant in the night…
The Other Floor Brian Evenson
“On those nights, he had the impression of someone looking into his room, through a door that didn’t exist.”
A truly classic, creepy, claustrophobic Evenson, with a disarmingly straightforward narration, as Doran in his bed before sleeping is kept by his mother’s presence from seeing that non-existent door and who or what is coming to take his wrist and lead him through it to the eponymous floor. But what was between that other floor and this floor? Doran’s door, but to what?
“…never letting his eyes rest on anything for long, cutting away from each thought…”
My previous reviews of Brian Evenson: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/tag/brian-evenson/
Pingback: Oculus Sinister & Dexter | The Des Lewis Gestalt Real-Time Reviews
Waking up in the dark, as the next story does, as if born from the previous one…in that area of no man’s land where darkness is disguised as a bunker of inimical whiteness or blankness…
Black-Eyed Susan Elana Gomel
“It is so calm and quiet under my eyelids. I hear no voices.”
My eye stye vanished overnight without treatment, as I would have predicted had I read this story first.
Yet that story’s start above turns out later to be ironic. And the woman narrator’s memory of her childhood trip to an art museum whereby her dislike of Dali seems appropriate to her end. A case study in her extreme synaesthesia and it needs to be read as possibly the only means to fully understand suffering this condition, as this woman faces her husband and sullen teenage daughter and their own concomitant colours.
It is searingly powerful. Stunningly expressed.
For me, it somehow paradoxically transcended my stigmatic hordeolum at the edge of sight by having the premonition of needing to outstare full in the face this work’s Thunbergia alata (or Rudbeckia hirta as it fails to tell us is the alternative name for the eponymous flower) — as well as facing all the other colour noises that are described. Sight and noise as a curative synergy. Or just my bespoke way of reading something?
My previous review of Elana Gomel: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/2018/10/04/nightscript-4/#comment-13917
Brad Dourif’s Tears Douglas Ford
“She stared at him, and he stared back. […] Such darkness there, a complete and perfect blackness.”
Another oustaring game for this book towards that dark place, this time with the visible product of the eyes as tears from the same actor’s eyes appearing on whatever film you happen to watch as part of the deepest interconnections of the Internet, self thus gaslighting self, as if tears were flammable enough to turn us into someone else’s ashes. An engagingly absurdist story of a man and his ex and her dead mother and his laddish mate who watched films with him and the scorpions in the darkness that were used to teach such pupils as ourselves how to forget the depths of the collective co-vivid consciousness we’d been to. The unwanted litter of our life and loves that we cannot turn out or off!
Hilariously, I have now had cause to rediscover this blog by Rhys Hughes in 2010 about a similar Brad Dourif syndrome vis à vis D.F. Lewis!
Dead Bread Head Shannon Scott
From the celebrity syndrome in the previous story to this one’s ‘self-diagnosed celebrity worship syndrome”, a grotesque marital force of farce that has belly laughs but also plenty of bakery ones, as a bread head, fashioned from amorphous dough by the wife and the homeless man who also plies her, becomes a voodoo doll with a yeasty force in that farce. The transcending of pareidolia and Rorschach shapes into something completely unique, if there CAN be degrees of uniqueness reaching towards a gustatory gestalt, involving a social satire mash-up of today’s mœurs and any literary apophenia risen along the way. Eyes merged into eyes during the sex act of giving head? Left eye into right and vice versa.
My previous review of this author: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/2019/10/04/nightscript-volume-v/#comment-17178
The Other One Timothy Granville
“He began frantically clearing the futon, not wanting to miss the credits, not wanting to miss the warnings.”
A disarmingly straightforward telling of Stuart’s tale, ostensibly of his renting a house with a locked annex he didn’t really know on the edge of Wiltshire, somehow on the edge of Alzheimers, indeed generally “on edge”, as it says, having settled back upon the visual 1980s traditions of popular films recorded on VHS, colourless insects upon a growing unfocus of image, an unfocus caused by some inferred or prophetic, if not explicit, lockdown, where you only tentatively talk to neighbours from pavement to pavement, or at social distance through the front door, the tree and plants in and around the house you live in somehow out of your jurisdiction, if not strictly. I was beguiled by this work, particularly as I am, I guess, by chance, already simultaneously re-reading and real-time reviewing or viewing by shaky film (here) The House of Leaves. A strange sluggishly suggestive coincidence. An oculus upon forgetfulness and mental migraine.
My previous review of this author: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/2020/07/24/crooked-houses/#comment-19629
From the VHS customising in the previous story to its apotheosis in both directions as DVD or Betamax … even streaming…even, unless I imagined it, ancient ‘what the butler saw’ type shuttling images … in the next story…beware possible spoilers…
The Obscurantist LC von Hessen
“…the strongest frisson of the pure uncanny that I believe I have ever experienced.”
“One might as well advertise the von Kempelen Mechanical Turk and display a Zoltar machine uprooted from Coney Island.”
“…but he didn’t want to encourage any false expectations.” Nor do I! But this story, as I expected from my recent reading of this author, is a wonderfully written exposition of a man interested from boyhood in lifelike models … and shuttling images to be kept forever beyond streaming, and obsessed with a certain actress from the past he glimpses in an early film. Now a woman growing old in his mind. But still a sexual object, rubbing his eye and then thinking of her wink, her direct communication with him through the camera, from the past, even from the present embodied in a self-consciousness induced in him by a model with a different name he had positioned in his room. Too much to cover in a short review; it is crammed with memorable images and thoughts, and makes the reader feel paranoiac under the gaze of one’s own scrutiny of the older concupiscent self via the oculus of the preserved past, I guess. One’s own throbbing “PEnnsylvania 6-5000.” (sic)
All those crime photo scenes in one’s brain, masquerading as a neighbour upstairs in the head. “So long as there remains at least one viewer, somewhere, unknown to him. Copying the evidence.”
“It’s, whaddya call it, ‘death of the author?’ And the author doesn’t get to write a will. Heh heh.”
My previous reviews of this author: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/tag/lc-von-hessen/
Doorgrave to the Bittersea Mark Howard Jones
“; his so-called life, the shell he inhabited that now passed for a life.”
Razor sharp, scrying lens, the woman he once loved buried and now seen askew migraine, poetic prose transcendence…
I can only retweet my tweet from earlier this morning, tweeted before reading this story; it felt almost as if all the story’s elements had already inspired me before my actually reading it! And its gestalt was already a ready-made.
“As a child, the sand had always infuriated and delighted him as it slid away under his soft shoes, his small feet. A million, million tiny creatures crushed to pieces and thrown upon the shore for his childish delight.”
My previous review of this author: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/2014/01/02/delicate-toxins/#comment-1550
The Eyedom Rhonda Eikamp
“When Claire was twelve, her father took the door off her bedroom. Evil dwelt in shadow, he said. Behind doors.”
The eye has a eyelid like a door that filming removes, filming upon the brain as spying for gossip fodder? A turtle withdrawing its head into its shell can still see you? That celluloid and acetate in the hidden annexe, from earlier above in this book, rediscovered. An original and disturbing work about Claire in the future, having an affair with her ex-husband, thus betraying her second husband, also caring for a a small child called Teddy who shares visits with her for tea drinking and spliffing with an octogenarian neighbour, an old hippy, himself a reprise of her childhood toy turtle’s wrinkled neck, who literally sows her with the fairy story kingdom of eyes, Royal agents and double agents like food tasters who also poison the food, I infer, like a chess game of bluff and double bluff, each eyelid a door to the secret of her body and mind, somehow physically implanted like open-and-shuttered bruises so that the other more run-of-the-mill neighbours and gossipers can share Claire’s life through these flickering-lashed eyes, making their lives less boring… this story being by somebody who has put eyes in every word she writes to hide in plain sight, as it were, her own ‘death by surburbia’, I wonder? Her own eye camp, tents with open flaps for doors?
My previous review of this author: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/2016/01/23/playground-of-lost-toys/#comment-6296
From the death by suburbia in the previous story to new mutabilities of the suburbs in the next…
The Visible Changes Charles Wilkinson
“…the strange acoustics and the mist in the café.
The street in the suburbs where he lived was filled with semi-detached houses built in the Arts and Crafts style: bay windows, low eaves and stained glass.”
…via the vague senses of sound, sight, smell, even the taste of different wines as different inter-nested house-parties, with layers of swimming pools, or none.
“Is this feigned immutability?”
Well, it is shockingly appropriate that I have read this classic Wilkinson the day after finishing Priest’s The Evidence (here), as we follow this male protagonist who has seemingly retired from his job as an architect into the mutabilities of retirement at his forgotten age of 39, dislocated by the people he once knew as well as even in his own house as well as those in the neighbouring area! – to the extent that he resorts to a small box room with a nostalgic barred electric fire, nearer a small square of the sky’s changing light, a new lockdown in this age of lockdowns, I guess. Premature dementia perhaps — or is he being the one-eyed in the otherwise “blind empire”, thus the wisest man of all in his changing country of past standards to stand by or die?
My previous reviews of this author: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/charles-wilkinson-christopher-harman/
Aptly, I also happen to be real-time reviewing The House of Leaves here: https://etepsed.wordpress.com/938-2/ where this mutability is rife, and just now, after reading the Wilkinson, read this in it –
“Due to the wall-shifts and extraordinary size, any way out remains singular and applicable only to those on that path at that particular time. All solutions then are necessarily personal.141”
I have just specifically mentioned my review of this Wilkinson work in my later review entry for HoL here: https://etepsed.wordpress.com/938-2/#comment-2270
From the above hidden ‘in camera’ box room and the other VHS annexe now in plain sight …to…
Director’s Cut James Pate
“Old people talked in strange ways sometimes.”
I should know, being so old myself. And I find this disarmingly plain-spoken horror story chilling with the shards of art (here the cinema art of vampire films in the ancient 1990s) – the subsumption of self. The acting within and those who watch the actor being the same now and then. And perhaps it was preordained by another car accident last night in real-time before I read this…
“He suddenly swerved to avoid a deer,…
“The oldest oldest touching fingertips with the newest newest.”
Contrition (1998) J.A.W. McCarthy
“His age was probably the only thing he had in common with my grandfather—“
The narrator who in 1998 had not come out as a ‘lesbian’… or not. Memories of a creative writing class where her work was once humiliated (“under the guise of constructive criticism”) by a fellow cohort, the narrator now getting her own back, with this story? A story that is about a “really bad, sad movie that’s attracting people who are already depressed and messed up.” For ‘bad, sad movie’ there, put ‘bad, sad story’. ‘Sad’ in 1998 meant ‘pathetic’. As was the act of severely self-harming one’s arm which bears a brother’s memorial tattoo upon it and later asking someone to sign your plaster cast, both of which happen separately in this bad, sad story…
‘Two days only, exclusive screening of A. Todesfurdchten’s Contrition.’
‘Todesursache’, though, being ‘cause of death’ in German. Only constructive critiques like mine would dream that up as being even slightly relevant!
Yet, I was deeply affected by being allowed into this story within the dark auditorium of this book, alongside all you other few no-hopers, to see my own reasons for contrition. A neatly clogged story that hangs on the lullaby of an old man like me and like the one in the type of personal self in a projected film as presaged by the actual immediately previous story in this darkened book. Continuous performances, not separate, as in the old days when you could stay in the clotted smoky furred up auditorium to see the film through again or watch it from middle back to middle, or howsoever.
Also I have often been genuinely intrigued by those in a cinema foyer, who cater popcorn, issue tickets, and so forth, and what goes on in their minds when they see us coming out of the dark blinking and tearful at what we had just seen. This sad story has answered many questions. Gone over the top with it all, but remained constructively true, whoever wrote it, whether freehold author or leasehold narrator, or possibly both in collaborative contrition. Sad, if not bad.
My previous constructive criticism of this author: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/tag/j-a-w-mccarthy/
Angelica’s Elegy Christopher K. Miller
“Beethoven composed his 9th Symphony, considered by many to be his greatest masterpiece, after he lost his hearing.”
In this relatively short story, there is an enormous amount of both disturbing and eventually inspiring prose that I can quote from it or strain to itemise, so as to deploy for you the nature of this absolutely staggering achievement in portraying three female characters, one a girl, the other two women working within the deaf-blind field of activity, and to deploy each of their own respective permutations of blindness and deafness, with the backdrop of Helen Keller, and if I did, the whole story would be this review! I am somehow humbled into my own silence in trying thus to review it. It would be like reaching, with a literal reading sense of touch, into my own eyes towards the actual brain, via the optic fuse, and also reaching within the auditory channels of the ear as another route to my soul. I should leave it at that. But none of that can give you any real idea of what has touched me via my reading of this work, but I hope it entices you also to open yourself to being touched by reading this work yourself. I hope that just two disarmingly atypical quotes from it will be deemed sufficient to top and tail my thoughts. And I have not even mentioned this work’s olfactory elements!
“Many believe that God impregnated Mary through the ear. This is why the traditional nun’s habit covers the ears.”
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The next story seems to be a companion piece to ‘Passed Pawn’ by the same author that I earlier reviewed here:
When This is Over Selene dePackh
“My version is built on Lewis Carroll’s Alice books, and Rowena is a child-pawn becoming a queen in her own right at the end of the Looking-Glass chessboard.”
The power of the face-mask during a pandemic to be removed as a weapon… or a very complex portrayal, akin to the equally complex blind-deaf syndromes in this’s book previous story, but here about a disabled mother as its narrator with a form of autism or neurodiversity, a daughter called Rowena and a cat…this mother also being a person with a special left eye and going deaf. With bystanding people who somehow try, as charities, to help…
I do not dare to interpret this substantive story; it seems very special, and personal, and I can say I was deeply moved by it. The author will simply have to trust me. And me, her.
A woman with her “tiny, loyal little pale orange ball-and-chain” and who was determined not break up her Nabokov while trying to share Borges’ Aleph.
A story of lockdown.
“The panopticon has been known to go blind at certain times.”
From the above mentioned Borges work: “Sometimes learning a fact is enough to make an entire series of corroborating details, previously unrecognised, fall into place;” (my review of it here: https://nullimmortalis.wordpress.com/2011/11/13/the-weird-5/)
The Bells Line of Road M.R. Cosby
“Fran’s eyes soon lost focus as she stared at mile after mile of ghost gum trees.”
A newly dating couple, Fran and Zac, find themselves on a route from Sydney towards a recreational stay in Bilpin, a disarmingly plain-spoken and page-turning journey for the readers, as if humouring us, but gradually morphing strangely, ominously, along a straight road in the outback, as it darkens and lengthens unnaturally towards what turns out to be a small insular community, with optical sudden blinding flashes and the increasing sense of a draining sort of photography, as one sidles along the dangerous edges and sporadic ricochets of an enforced reading curfew to blot out what one realises might be happening here, the forming of images to challenge us with ourselves later… photographic images that can be fanned by the fingers like cartoons, I wonder?
Significantly and ominously, only yesterday I wrote here about hoax and horror in the ‘light’ of Ligotti…and of the House of Leaves that now one can never leave… https://elizabethbowensite.wordpress.com/580-2/#comment-1200
But unlike in Scooby-Doo, there is no hoax to save us, I fear!
“Here we are, going through the motions, day in, day out, just to keep hold of something we’re not sure we even want any more.”
My previous reviews of this author: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/tag/m-r-cosby/
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
— Walt Whitman
Your Desolation Will Be Great Michael Kelly
“Our love will be worth any sorrow.”
A very moving storylet.
Especially for an old man like me.
“The light begins to shrink, like a camera shutter slowly closing, or the eye of an ancient creature slipping forever shut. Then there is nothing but darkness.”
My previous reviews of this author: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/tag/michael-kelly/
When You See It Rebecca J. Allred
An ostensibly nasty story with implications of Nazi programming and torture porn, as two female friends try to fathom a GIF as part of the on-line craze of otherwise static images, whereby once its nasty secret clicks into place is ‘when you see it’…
This story is its own such ‘when you see it’ with a hoax as decoy involving a look back at this book’s Eyedom, but that is not when you see it. Each reader will have their own bespoke or personally targeted ‘when you see it’, I sense. Hopefully, not a spoiler, but my own tailored ‘When you see it’, after several repeat readings, was the above two words culled from among “other dimensions” explicitly within it, also. Doubly sic.
My previous reviews of this author: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/tag/rebecca-j-allred/
Vile Jellies John Langan
“….holding the contact lens vials by the necks.”
An enormously outrageous optometrist story, with the sympathetic narrator employed dispensing contact lenses and training customers to use them. The boss himself of this multi-optical divergence-marketing organisation seems acutely keen-sighted enough about the slightest dings on his jeep when parked in the car park, but seems careless in the opposite direction with the customers he personally deals with and what goes in or comes out of their eyes! With his skirting the edges of some trade I dread even to start imagining! Some wonderful character studies here, including a woman with a large handbag and a feisty baker as a customer with a false left eye (whose eventual ‘giving head’ resonates with the baking story ‘Dead Bread Head’ above) is this story’s extraordinary climax…
Almost frighteningly well-written. And making larger-than-life grotesqueness minutely focusable and keen-sighted enough to blow one’s optic fuses to the brain.
My previous reviews of this author: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/john-langan-nathan-ballingrud/
E is for Eye Steve Rasnic Tem
“Houses shrank once the furniture was moved in—that’s what his mother used to say.”
It is almost as if the House of Leaves becomes the one he cannot leave! Seen clearly at last by Sean, Sean seen as with not even room for himself in his retirement bungalowhouse where filmic adventures in outer space are more confusing or constricting than the threat of claustrophobia in a hoped-for Heaven, I guess.
This story tells of Sean from childhood with his left ‘lazy’ eye, and eventually retiring to routines like picking fiction from the local library and watching movies on his own in the movie place. “Everyone seemed so suppressed, so flat in affect.” In between, we experience his youthful and adult tussling with his various accumulated spectacles to suit the day’s bespoke waywardness of his mutually confusing eyes. Eventually becoming more generally disorientated, even in this his own story. Writing in his diary about the fictions he reads, as, you can see, I do too. As I am, too.
“In his own story he feared the author was frequently on the verge of losing the plot, seduced by a variety of irrelevancies sure to engulf him if he were to lose focus.”
My many previous reviews of this author: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/steve-rasnic-tem/
“The Big Blue Marble” et al.
“…each and every day there are things, vast and complicated things, which we miss.” — Steve Rasnic Tem (from OUTSIDE)
We Are Eternal Sam Richard
“‘Well, we live in a fallen world . . . ‘”
“Galaxies filling us with power and esteem, our veins pumped with the blood of royalties from burned out, distant planets. Our eyes shimmered as stars swallowing themselves.”
… and that compounding contrast seems the perfect companion of pathos with similar elements in the Tem immediately above. Here, the body-constricted mother ironically meets other matter as her end, and her bereaved but strangely unloving son, the story’s narrator — feeling guiltily estranged from her, sensing he had abandoned her, an absence now her ghost — returns to the house to sort out her residual effects, like unwashed coffee cups et al. The antique photos she collected on the walls, especially one of a small girl called Anna with whom he had fallen in distant love as a small boy, and the flick-book on the old unused piano of a Victorian dancing couple that he now dreams he was ever due to become with Anna. But did his eyes ever manage to see the unseeable? Some beautiful goal, amid its beautiful expression here.
“We reached the end. We reached something, I couldn’t see it. Or maybe I could, but it won’t stay in my brain; like I only know of it when I’m staring directly at it.”
…and I seem to feel the same as that final quotation about this whole book, with its wondrously pervading gestalt: its Eyedom upon the separate paths of our lives, our dislocated and poignant hopes and fears ….all now focusing together. A synergy, too, of horror with something else unseeable that transcends it, transmutes it, even enhances it. Starting with the optics of photographs and ending with them.
On a particularly personal note, I have suffered intermittently, for most of my life, the serious condition of iritis in the left eye.