The Boston Globe reviews SERPENTS IN THE COLD. “Through it all, these descriptions are laden with the dark foreboding that typifies hard-boiled crime fiction. Nothing is innocent, and nobody is what he or she seems.” Check the full review here.
While volume one highlighted Wagner’s more expansive work, this 2nd collection goes for the throat, or should I say, it kicks a steel-tipped boot deep below the belt. This is not high fantasy, or literary horror with a wide scope. Most of these stories are reclusive, depressing, grotesque, violent and unrelentingly sadomasochistic. It’s as if Wagner is no longer channeling the pulp-era icons of Weird Tales but instead traveling into the same desperate, raw-knuckled universe that Hubert Selby Jr. wrote about. Whether a prostitute or a drug-addled actress, his characters here get lost in their own addictions, and the brutal sex in some of them comes across so lurid, you’ll either laugh in shock, or gag in nauseous reflex. There is no comfort or desire in the sexual act here. ‘The Kind Men Like’ is a tale of a succubus-type Bettie Page where the bondage goes beyond titillation into brass-knuckled territory; ‘The Picture of Jonathan Collins’ is a sordid take on ‘Picture of Dorian Gray’ and features turn-of-the-century porn with none other than a sadistic and cruel Oliver Wilde starring as the villain; and ‘Brushed Away’ introduces us to a beaten-down man who grew up fantasizing about the air-brushed anatomies of early pin-up models, only to turn into a psychopath with hopes of recreating the human body in accordance with his own desires (quite a predictably sick ending in this one, but still entertaining).
There are some other stories that are quite eloquent, sad and well-envisioned. High school reunions are lined with darkness and regret in ‘Passages’. ‘Into Whose Hands’ shows the ragged and depressing life of a round-the-clock psychiatrist who knows a thing or two about death and how easy it is to manipulate and control. ‘Lost Exits’ takes the fragmented story lines of a budding relationship, and meshes the good times and the bad times with a razor-blade tenacity, one in which rivals the alternate-universe, head-fuck climax to Jim Thompson’s phenomenal classic, ‘A Hell of a Woman’.
An important collection despite its excess. Coupled with memories and eulogies written by Wagner’s friends and peers, the stories show the unhappiness, fear and abuse that Wagner inflicted upon himself in his later years. And with that, it feels as though we are reading a crypto-biography, a demise told by the author’s own short stories. The medical world, the writer’s scene, the city as purgatory for a lost soul, each tale has the knack to pour salt in the wound, in which Wagner exposes to the readers unflinchingly, and almost with a sadistic glee.
The last story, ‘Lacunae’ brings the return of his titular anti-hero, the immortal Kane. But no longer is he high up on the chain; now he’s just a scumbag drug dealer, and with that, a hero who has clearly fallen wayside with the passing of time. And that was perhaps what Wagner realized when writing this story, in that he too couldn’t rise to the top again, so he simply wallowed in the bottom until the end. Wagner was a brilliant writer and editor, and understood the genre top to bottom, and it’s a shame he didn’t stick around a bit longer. As his good friend, David Drake states, “He could have been so much more.”
Written by Alan Ryan during the start of the Tor Horror line, which back in the beloved and crudely-neonized 1980s, covered the paperback shelves in the horror sections of so many stores (in my case, a Waldenbooks, where I’d stand as a young teen and ogle the lurid covers and those shimmering raised fonts that boldly highlighted the title as if borrowed from the Las Vegas strip), this novel is so minimally written, so restrained and tempered, that it makes the work of Charles Grant not only seem ‘quiet’ but downright mute. The prose is the equivalent of Weight Watchers, as Ryan seems to be aware that adding stylistic flourishes and deep ruminations of character will only fatten the page count, and not really accomplish much for the story. Even chapter size is stripped to a minimum, some merely a half a page long, and the longest being about five pages. But while it may appear that there is nothing to the novel, there is a growing sense of doom from page to page, a subtly menacing unease that grows as it moves ahead toward the climax. And don’t get me wrong, there actually is some outward terror – c’mon, floating clowns playing in the snow, looking at families through ice-caked windows, doubling over in laughter and walking on air through the blizzard. Yes it is a horror novel, and it isn’t a waste of time as some may believe.
Sans metaphor, time shifts and multiple narratives, Ryan creates a highly economical tale about a circus train invading a small upstate New York town during a freak blizzard which locks down the inhabitants and makes them easy prey for an evil presence, led by a ringmaster adorned in the black top hat and the cape. It’s all up to the young sheriff incapable of handling all the chaos, and the old doctor who senses something wrong right from the get-go, to put an end before the whole town disappears off the map in a white-wash of snow. Okay, I admit it sounds standard horror pulp fare, but stick with it. It’s all atmosphere with this one, but instead of relying on the tricks of the trade, Ryan really keeps things simple, and relies on the reader’s imagination (yes, the ‘I’ word) to paint the landscape and scope with creeping dread. Of course, he doesn’t leave us completely void of description, and when he does, it is in restrained doses, describing the wind, the starless sky, the snow changing direction as if sentient. Horror readers are not going to get overflowing grue and outright ‘in your face’ horrors, nor are they going to get the epic widespread panic that many 80’s novel strived for, and lesser times, achieved.
While reading this, I was aching for more suspense, more descriptions of the invasion. I wanted more incidents of the villagers encountering glimpses of the clowns – I wanted to be chilled to the bone, fucked with (for example, checking out my window to see if a pale-faced clown was floating there), but I was simply teased with all the tension the book alludes to but really never fulfills to its potential. All in all, Ryan turns out a solid horror novel. And especially if you llike tales of seclusion by way of winter storms, then this is a future read for you. Perhaps as an appetizer to other works of ‘winter horror’, King’s ‘The Shining’, Ramsey Campbell’s ‘Midnight Sun’, and Peter Straub’s ‘Ghost Story’.
Balls mad, Flann O’Brien’s highly-acclaimed, but often misunderstood, 1939 novel is one that doesn’t bode well for contemporary readers who demand narratives that stay the path. What begins as a tale about a mopish student at University living with his preachy Uncle eventually loses its wheels (intentionally rigged) as the reader falls into the meandering manuscripts of this bored student, who rarely finds much inspiration in his daily life besides the pint of plain and the occasional studious chat with his college mates. Then the novel takes a full-knuckled idiosyncratic twist, and the pantheon of O’Brien’s imagination springs a leak as the story moves into myth and madcap territory. We meet Finn Mac Cool, the giant of Irish lore, who contrary to legend is one sad bastard. We watch King Sweeney, imprisoned for murder, jump the treetops never to touch mortal ground again, picking thorns from his arse and waxing on about old loves and missed opportunities. And that clubfoot devil, the Pooka, also plays a pivotal role in this narrative, accompanied by a wise-ass, invisible fairy who takes shelter in his coat pocket. Some of the dialogue between demon and fairy is priceless, full of sharp banter with spot-on comic timing as though filtered from some unholy union between Monty Python and Howard Hawks.
But by the 2nd half of the novel, O’Brien is consumed less with breaking down the boundaries of narrative progression, and as he cuts and pastes, zooms in and stretches the structure (a tongue firmly planted in cheek as he mocks and pays respect to James Joyce) he also amps up the duel that is the underpinning of the novel: the creator vs. his creations. O’Brien pours a whole bottle of whiskey on the Pirandello concept, and watches it trickle down in a whole manner of wild concepts and subplots.
The narrator gives birth to Dermot Trellis, a sloth of a writer who works on Western novels, and one of his characters John Furriskey meets two other creations, the blowhard, Shanahan, and the sly, tempered Lamont. In an idle state, all three conspire to fuck with their creator, Trellis, and soon take charge. They create their own character, a writer named Orlick. With the help of Orlick, they plot their revolution against Trellis by writing him into a story where they actually gain a stronghold and eventually bring him to court (in a scene that rivals the nonsensical bleakness of Kafka’s ‘The Trial’, no matter how absurd it gets) where he is tried for being negligent and cruel to his own creations. Beware, unexpectedly, O’Brien shows a cruel edge, seemingly out of nowhere. And he manages to still be hilarious while playing the sadist.
And that is just one thread. For the other thread has all the mythological creations joining in typical ‘quest’ fashion, moving through the forests towards the Inn where Trellis and his mates take shelter. This side-story is where O’Brien seems to be having fun toy with myth. Not only does he throw in MaCool and Sweeney, but also creates a nationalistic poet by the name of Jem Casey (‘a pint of plain is your only man’), who carries on with two trigger-happy cowboys from the States. Making this group even more diverse is the Pooka and his invisible fairy. Yes, Flann was out of his f’in mind. Thankfully.
One word of warning: to enjoy this novel to the fullest, don’t put it down and take a break. Flow is very important, and by sitting on it for a bit, it does take time to break back into the multi-layered worlds. I myself made that mistake.
O’Brien’s first novel is a true classic of the ‘anti-novel’ and while not perfect or ‘easy’, it is an important piece of fantasy literature (also, experimental and Irish) that will inspire future writers to toss aside others rules and play by their own. Vulgar, hilarious, frustrating, hauntingly sad (read the last page) and epic all in one. Truly a unique piece of literature.