ballad of black tomThis is a little unorthodox: Before I start my review of this novella (short version: it’s very good), I first need to discuss H.P. Lovecraft’s story The Horror at Red Hook, upon which it is partly based. Spoilers for both are ahead, obviously.

Red Hook is H.P. Lovecraft’s work in microcosm; showing both his best–his tremendous talent for creating a chilling weird story–and his worst–his extreme and vicious racism. It’s both one of my favorite Lovecraft stories for its plot and its atmosphere, and also one I hate the most for the way he despises all the non-WASPs at every opportunity.

The plot follows police detective Malone, who is investigating the suspicious activities of a wealthy and mysterious old man, Robert Suydam. Suydam purchases tenement buildings in the immigrant district of Red Hook, New York.

As is often the case in Lovecraft stories, the foreigners populating Red Hook are depicted as sinister, inhuman figures, controlled by the corrupted “Aryan”, Suydam. (Even the bad whites still outrank the non-whites, in Lovecraft’s world.)

Malone’s investigations of Suydam leads him to join the police in a raid of the tenement buildings, where they stumble upon inconceivable cosmic horror that nearly drives them mad. (For those unfamiliar with his work, this is the underlying concept of all “Lovecraftian” horror.)

The denouement consists of people thinking the menace is over when the buildings collapse in the police raid, but Malone, one of the few survivors, knows better; and evil foreigners in Red Hook are still heard murmuring diabolical chants.

I love the atmosphere and pacing of Red Hook–Lovecraft did a good job insinuating  occult machinations to create a powerful sense of dread. Malone is also one of his most complex and carefully-drawn protagonists. (Admittedly, that’s not saying much–more on this later.)

But I loathe calling it one of my favorite Lovecraft stories, simply because of the many paragraphs just dripping with violent racial hatred.

This is the issue LaValle’s novella addresses. The first half of The Ballad of Black Tom is told from the perspective of Charles Thomas Tester, a black man in New York who hustles to support himself and his father.

Tester is tasked with delivering a book of magic to a mysterious woman in Queens, Ma Att. This sets off a chain of events that includes a run-in with Detective Malone and his associate, an ignorant officer named Howard. Both Malone and especially Howard treat Tester with extreme racism and cruelty.

Additionally, Tester also encounters Robert Suydam, who hires him to play his guitar at one of the gatherings at his mansion. Though Tester senses something odd about the old man, he cannot refuse the pay to support himself and his father.

When Tester goes to the mansion, Suydam speaks to him of “the Outside”–meaning, essentially, other dimensions–and demonstrates his ability to move the house at will through space and time while a shocked and frightened Tester plays his guitar.

(While most of the story and characters are derived from Red Hook, this particular scene had shades of The Music of Erich Zann–one of Lovecraft’s best stories. I don’t know if this was deliberate or not, but I loved it.)

Suydam concludes by speaking of “The Sleeping King”–it is not clear to Tester what this means, but all the Lovecraft aficionados will know. In a panic, Tester tries to flee, but opens the door only to see Detective Malone standing in a completely different room than the one that should have been on the other side. Suydam’s manipulation of space and time at work.

Ultimately, Tester is allowed to go home with his pay, only to find that Howard has murdered his father. The policeman saw him with a guitar, which he claims to have mistaken for a rifle, and shot him dozens of times. Malone backs up Howard’s story, and they leave Tester broken and furious. This drives him to work with Suydam.

The second half of the story is told from Malone’s perspective. He learns that Suydam is taking over tenement buildings, and that he has a new lieutenant–a man called “Black Tom”.

Malone then returns to Ma Att’s house to track down the mysterious book. When he arrives, Ma Att’s house has vanished–a witness reports that it was seemingly through the supernatural power of a man matching the description of “Black Tom”.

Terrified by the power Tom and Suydam apparently possess, Malone quickly organizes a raid on Suydam’s buildings.  Being well-versed in the occult, he is able to find a hidden passage to a secret chamber that the other police miss, and there he confronts Suydam and Black Tom.

LaValle shows us more explicit horrors than Lovecraft ever would, but the real difference between the climax of Black Tom and Red Hook is that the former balances cosmic horror with personal motivation–LaValle never loses sight of what draws Tom (or Suydam, or Malone), to the weird and the sinister. In the final chapter, Tom makes it clear it was the cruel racism he experienced that drove him to become a monster.

Lovecraft rarely bothered to explore motivations. It was a deliberate artistic choice–he said in some of his letters that human concerns bored him, and so he preferred to focus on the horror of cosmic indifference.  That’s a legitimate storytelling decision; and many of Lovecraft’s successors have gone too far the other way, and overemphasize human emotions, to the point where it dilutes the cosmic horror. (Even the great Stephen King is sometimes guilty of this.)

LaValle gets the balance just about right, in my opinion.  The characters are human enough that we are interested in them, but the cosmic horrors are bizarre enough that we never lose that “dread of outer, unknown forces”, to quote Lovecraft himself.

I bought this book expecting it to be a “critique-by-way-of-story” of Lovecraft’s work and attitudes. And it certainly was that, but what I frankly did not expect was that it would also be a cracking good weird tale in its own right. Good cosmic horror is rare, and good cosmic horror balanced with other genres and techniques is even rarer.  As such, I highly recommend The Ballad of Black Tom to fans of the genre.

Surreality is a “hardboiled” murder mystery with a modern twist: much of the mystery takes place in the eponymous virtual online world.

Suspended Columbus Police Detective Keenan is tasked with investigating the virtual murder of Franklin Haines, one of the creators of the online game “Surreality” at the opening of his new virtual casino. You might think virtual murder isn’t such a big deal, except it also entails the loss of millions of real dollars.

Keenan, suspended for shooting and killing a murderer in an alley months before, is assigned to create an avatar in the world of “Surreality” and investigate the case. As he does so, he meets a variety of strange characters, including one expert hacker whose avatar in the virtual world is a penguin. He also encounters virtual thieves, thugs, prostitutes and other staples of noir detective fiction; all of whom practice their unsavory professions freely in the “pretend” online world.

But soon, the effects of the game world begin to spill over into reality; occasionally in lethal fashion. As Keenan moves back and forth between investigating virtual crimes and real ones that are bound up with it, he also begins to deal with his own demons.

I won’t spoil the whole mystery by summarizing the plot. It is complex and twisting, but not confusingly so. It is very much in the hardboiled detective story tradition, and competently done. I was able to figure out who the perpetrator was going to be a little before it was revealed, but it was an effective story even so.

While the dialogue is very snappy and never boring, even when explaining highly technical matters, the characters (especially Keenan’s friend and fellow officer Caliente) do tend to engage in snarky banter even in the most intense situations. I did not like that. In my opinion, professional police tend to be very terse and clipped when speaking while in action-they want to waste as little time as possible.

A related issue is that at times the mood of the story shifts too abruptly. It goes from witty wisecracks to investigating a homicide scene back to wisecracks again. The “serious” moments sometimes did not last long enough to work. My recommendation would be to have the story begin with the light mood, and steadily grow darker. The characters can start off bantering, and then become more intense to show that things are getting serious. (The neo-noir mystery film Chinatown follows this model.)

In spite of these issues, Surreality is a very strong, well-paced book. By mixing 1930s mystery tropes with a high-tech cyber setting, it creates a delightful atmosphere that reminded me of the “familiar-yet-alien” vibe of books like The King in Yellow or the game Deus Ex, which I love. There were many times when I would read something and think “I wish I’d written that!”

It also did not hurt that the book is set in my hometown of Columbus, Ohio, and much of the “real world” action takes place in areas I have often been to myself. Author Ben Trube is a graduate of the Ohio State University, as am I, and some of the scenes are set on OSU’s sprawling campus. Having seen much of it firsthand, I can say that Mr. Trube has a knack for describing buildings and scenery that I wish I possessed.

But even if you have never been to Ohio, you will enjoy this book if you like crime thrillers, or cleverly constructed plots in general.  I highly recommend it.

Via Paul Graham, a WSJ article on teaching kids to write by banning them from using certain “boring” words, such as “good” “bad”, “fun” and “said”.  To quote from the article:

“There are so many more sophisticated, rich words to use,” said (or affirmed) Ms. Shelton, whose manual “Banish Boring Words” has sold nearly 80,000 copies since 2009.

Her pupils know better than to use a boring word like “said.” As Ms. Shelton put it, “ ‘Said’ doesn’t have any emotion. You might use barked. Maybe howled. Demanded. Cackled. I have a list.”

This reminded me of novelist Elmore Leonard’s rules for writing, one of which was: “Never use a verb other than ”said” to carry dialogue.”

And people wonder why kids have trouble learning to write.

So then, who is right: the teacher or the novelist? My answer: it depends.

There are times when using something other than “said” is appropriate.  This is especially true with humor–saying “burbled” is so much better than “said” if you want people to laugh.

That said, you can go too far with it.  And since Leonard’s goal was to make the writer “invisible”, I would say in that case sticking with “said” is usually a good idea.

My rule of thumb: if it sounds right, use it.  If “said” doesn’t sound right, but “called” does, use “called”.  But don’t spend your time trying to find some other bizarre word if “said” will do.

Take this exchange from my novella, The Start of the Majestic World:

Maynard and Brett sat outside on the steps that led into the headquarters.  Brett was studying schematics of a sniper rifle on his tablet.  Maynard stared straight ahead, deep in thought.

“I’ve received no communication of any kind from anybody at the Bureau,” muttered Brett. “It doesn’t make sense.”

“Yeah, it does;” said Maynard slowly. “This is a Dead Zone.  They are blocking any signal they don’t want getting in.”

Brett nodded.  “And most likely any they don’t want getting out, too.”

“Yes.”

“But D.C. would know it was being blocked.  Any decent Intel machine would—”

“They want it blocked,” she said. “They don’t want to know, and he doesn’t want to tell them.  It’s better for everyone that way.  I’ve seen it a million times—I’ve just never been on the wrong end of plausible deniability before.”

The two agents sat in silence for a minute.

“They have to be listening to us,” said Brett.

“Probably,” said Maynard. “But they don’t give a damn what we say.  They figure there’s nothing we can do.”

The first time Brett speaks, I used “muttered” to indicate he was still looking at the rifle schematic, and not thinking fully about talking.  When Maynard responds, it becomes “said” because now they are just having a conversation.  And I dropped “said” or any variants after that, and left it to the reader to follow.

Leonard had some other interesting rules.  I took particular note of these two:

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.

As I wrote recently, I used to believe this too.  Then I wrote a collection of short stories that contained very little description, and my readers complained that there wasn’t enough description.

I thought there must be some other problem.  So I wrote a novella that contained very little description, and my readers complained that there wasn’t enough description.

Was Leonard just wrong? Seems unlikely–he was an award-winning novelist. I am guessing it’s more that once you are a really good writer, it doesn’t take much effort to describe someone or something.  It barely feels like you are doing anything when you know exactly what words to use.  There have been great authors (John Steinbeck, F. Scott Fitzgerald) who could take things that were not very interesting in themselves, and write gorgeous descriptive passages about them.

Philip Eil, writing in Salon, has a good article on “the genius and repugnance of H.P. Lovecraft”. It’s an issue that I think every Lovecraftian author has had to face at some point: how can we reconcile admiration of the “cosmic horror” genre that Lovecraft did so much to pioneer with his horrifying racial views?

It’s the old dilemma of separating art from the artist; similar to having to come to grips with the fact that Richard Wagner could on the one hand be enough of a genius to write “Ride of the Valkyries”, and on the other be an anti-Semitic bigot.  There are too many examples to count of cases where somebody is an absolute genius in their field, but a wretched person otherwise.

But there’s another, even more troubling question in the case of Lovecraft: what if the reason for his racism was also the reason for his talent for writing horror?

Racism, after all, is inherently based on fear of “The Other”.  Lovecraft was afraid of any and all non-WASPs, and it was probably that same xenophobia that made him able to concoct weird and terrifying creatures like Cthulhu.

Before anybody decides to quote me out of context: no, I’m not saying you have to be a racist to write horror.  I’m just saying Lovecraft’s racial fears and his horror often seem inseparable.  “The Horror at Red Hook” is, technically speaking, a good horror story,  but it also turns into one of Lovecraft’s most appalling racial screeds.

S.T. Joshi, the prominent Lovecraft biographer, is quoted in the Salon article as saying “There are perhaps only five stories in Lovecraft’s entire corpus of 65 original tales (‘The Street’ ‘Arthur Jermyn,’ ‘The Horror at Red Hook,’ ‘He,’ and ‘The Shadow over Innsmouth’) that have racism as their central core.”

Well, let’s not forget that in Lovecraft’s best-known story, “The Call of Cthulhu”, the evil cultists are invariably swarthy, unlike the Anglo-Saxon or Nordic “good” characters.  I don’t know how you define the “central core”, but racism is certainly present in huge swaths of “Cthulhu”.

However, while Lovecraft’s general fear of everything that wasn’t born and raised white and in Providence may have sparked him to be a horror writer, I do think his best stories (“The Haunter of the Dark” and “The Music of Erich Zann”) are the ones that don’t have racism.  (“Haunter” has a little bit of condescension towards Italians, though they are ultimately proven right in their superstitious views.)

Whenever Lovecraft’s racial views crop up in his stories, it has the effect of bringing the reader “back to Earth”–sometimes literally, since it puts the focus on the transient prejudices of a 20th-century writer, rather than on the timeless, cosmic sense of alien fear Lovecraft sought to evoke.

So while it may be that Lovecraft’s xenophobic mindset put him on the road to writing horror, I take comfort in the fact that his most effective stories were the ones that he didn’t corrode with his racism, and stuck to exploring universal human fears of unimaginable and unearthly monsters.

A couple years ago, I blogged about “The Mothman”–the mysterious creature seen in West Virginia in the 1960s and associated with the collapse of the Silver Bridge.  I also featured the Mothman as a minor element in my book The Start of the Majestic World.  And so I decided I should watch the movie The Mothman Prophecies, starring Richard Gere, as this year’s Halloween horror movie.

“The Mothman Prophecies” poster, via Wikipedia, used under Fair Use.

Gere plays a reporter named John Klein, whose wife gets injured in a car accident. Right before the accident, she sees a vision of a winged creature.  At the hospital, it’s revealed she has a preexisting brain problem that will ultimately lead to her death. Before she dies, she makes sketches of winged creatures that orderlies at first call “angels”, but which Gere sees are far more sinister.

Klein goes for a long drive one night as he despairs over his late wife, and finds himself in West Viriginia, with no memory of getting there.  He goes to a nearby house for help, where he is held at gunpoint by the residents, who insist he has been there at the same time on the past several nights.  He is rescued from the situation by a police officer. (Laura Linney) She tells him that strange things have been happening in the town of Point Pleasant lately, and slowly they begin to get drawn into the mysterious events.

People in the town have been seeing visions similar to those of his late wife.  Soon, people start to get phone calls from a strange buzzing voice, (more shades of Lovecraft’s “Whisperer in Darkness”) identifying itself as “Indred Cold” and foretelling impending disasters.

Eventually,  Klein tracks down a mysterious Professor named Alexander Leek (the late, great Alan Bates) who has encountered these strange events in the past.  He gives Klein some info, implying that they are caused by preternatural creatures whose motivations are completely beyond his comprehension, but he ultimately advises Klein to stay out of it, for the sake of his life and his reason.

I won’t spoil the plot–to the extent that there is one–but I bet you can guess whether Klein follows his advice or not.

This was pretty much the very model of a Lovecraftian, weird tale/cosmic horror/mystery movie.  To quote Lovecraft’s definition:

The true weird tale has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule. A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain–a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.

Yep.  That is this movie.  I’ve complained before about movies over-explaining things, and Mothman Prophecies could never be accused of that.  Everything is weird and mysterious and unexplained.

Also, the atmosphere in the movie is just pitch-perfect.  It was filmed in Pennsylvania, but they captured very well the tired, depressing look of Point Pleasant, West Virginia.  It is a grim, eerie place, and the movie conveys that vibe wonderfully.

This was the film I’ve been asking for all these years: Scary, without being excessively violent.  Spooky and creepy, and never giving away too much about the threat.

So, given that, my verdict must be 5 out of 5, must-see, awesome, A+ movie, right?

Nah, not really.  It was good.  Better than I expected.  But not great.  There was something missing from it that prevented it from being truly great.  And I don’t know what it was.  It actually makes me feel bad, because it is almost as if they made a movie exactly to my specifications, and then I said, “meh, it’s all right.”  I feel like it’s more my fault for not knowing what I wanted.

I think the problem might have been that the weirdness wasn’t tied together adequately.  But that’s very tough to do, especially when you consider that doing so runs the risk of making it all seem too neat, and thus not weird.

It’s a good movie, lacking one unknown element that prevents it from being great.  My recommendation: watch it, figure out what that element is, and then you will know how to make a truly great weird horror movie.