Some Recent Cultural Highlights
by Timothy J Jarvis
I had meant in January to write a post of my cultural highlights of 2016, the things so good I’ve been driven to frenetically recommending them to near strangers buttonholed in a corridor or on the street, my eye glittering, while they make with the ‘Wherefore stoppist thou me?’ and their eyes go glassy and flat, like a hake’s. But the month got away with me, filled with writing and marking and a general post-festive slump. So instead, here, in no particular order, is a February list of stuff I’ve read/listened to/watched/seen in the last little while, that I would urge you to feast your eyes and ears upon (apart from the things that were live performances, and other things you simply can’t for one reason or another…). 2016 was a pretty crummy year, all told, but it was a great one for culture, so I haven’t been able to include everything I enjoyed. But here are the things that, with us already someway into a new year, have stayed with me.
Noon in Paris, Eight in Chicago by Douglas Cowie retells the long and fraught relationship between Nelson Algren and Simone de Beauvoir. It’s a beautifully written and poignant novel of life, literature, and love.
Nina Allan’s The Race is an extraordinarily moving novel, which is also an astute and insightful treatise about speculative fiction, it’s effects and potentials. It’s grounded in reality, but has moments of utterly other sublime rapture.
Also exploding the usual sf notion of a sense of wonder, Lavie Tidhar’s Central Station is an extraordinary mosaic novel, with an utterly compelling depiction of a post-singularity Earth.
DP Watt’s Almost Insentient, Almost Divine, is a collection that re-imagines what the decadent weird tale can do – stories so potently strange they set your pineal gland throbbing.
Matthew Bartlett, like Ligotti, is a North American weird writer more indebted to a decadent garish European sensibility, than to the Lovecraftian cosmicism. Creeping Waves is his best collection yet – wonderful, awful, remarkable.
Martin MacInnes’s Infinite Ground is an incredibly striking experimental novel, shades of Lydia Davis, Alain Robbe-Grillet, and Julio Cortázar, but very much its own remarkable thing.
Amelia Gray’s Gutshot is a brutally visceral collection of short stories, many very short – fragments of shrapnel whining through the air.
Rosalie Parker’s Damage is a collection of exquisite short stories – fragments of lives, often with a muted speculative element, gemlike and extremely poignant.
One of the last collections Joel Lane put together, Scar City is an incredible thing. A cohesive set of stories, melancholy and harrowing, fragile and beautiful, that explores the brutal, decayed landscapes of the inner city and of the human mind.
Adam S. Cantwell’s collection, Bastards of the Absolute, contains some powerfully odd decadent weird tales. ‘The Filature’ in particular is a masterpiece of strangeness and creeping dread.
Lynda E. Rucker’s takes on the ghost story in You’ll Know When You Get There are beautifully written, inventive, and utterly terrifying.
Michael Wehunt’s Greener Pastures is a beautifully written collection of weird tales. ‘October Film Haunt: Under the House’ is an extraordinary exercise in stifling dread.
James Everington’s collection, Falling Over contains understated, yet dread horrors – a great disconcerting voice in subtle horror.
Daniel Clowes’s Patience is a graphic novel that uses a speculative conceit to get at the mix of despair and hope that is at the heart of the human condition.
Stephen Volk’s The Parts We Play is a varied and compelling collection of horror stories, ranging from wonderful whimsical pastiche, though gut-churning real world horror, to terrifying hauntings.
John Langan’s The Fisherman is a novel as haunting on the human level as it is bone shuddering on the cosmic.
Experimental Film by Gemma Files is another novel that weaves folk and cosmic horror to harrowing effect – the depictions of creepy films and rituals at its heart are truly unsettling, those of a mother’s struggles, truly moving.
Jonathan Raab’s The Lesser Swamp Gods of Little Dixie is another outing for his sheriff/paranoid conspiracy theorist/psychic investigator Cecil Kotto – a character who is one of the most likeable you’ll ever come across. This is a ripsnorting pulp adventure that’s a hell of a lot of fun to read, and which also, like Kotto’s debut appearance, The Hillbilly Moonshine Massacre, manages to ask some serious questions about the state of the US – here exploring the terrible and divisive legacy of slavery.
Holidays from Hell is another typically brilliant collection from Reggie Oliver – compelling voices and inventive hauntings in various shabby genteel milieu. There’s no one writing in the English ghost story tradition who does it as well as this.
I loved Brian Evenson’s collection A Collapse of Horses, but I think my favourite thing from him last year was the novella ‘The Warren’, a bizarre and hellish post-everything tale.
Aliya Whiteley’s novella ‘The Beauty’ is another sui generis piece – a bizarre, harrowing future of fungal imposters.
Tom Breen’s Orford Parish Murder Houses: A Visitor’s Guide, is a brilliant pastiche of a lurid, yet homey guidebook to scenes of slaughter and haunting. This is horror comedy that manages to be both very funny and genuinely frightening at the same time.
‘The Devil in America’ by Kai Ashante Wilson is harrowing account of a late-nineteenth century racist massacre, that due to a speculative core and a powerful experimental structure, reverberates back and forth through history.
‘We are Nothing but Reeds’ by Gary Budden explores the damage that cities can do to those who live in them, but has, amid the bleakness, a wonderful sense of the transmutative and of hope.
Helen Marshall’s ‘One-Quarter Dreaming, Three-Quarters Want’ is a staggeringly poignant short story. Marshall’s prose is extraordinary – a complex, experimental, exuberant, poetic dancing.
William Curnow’s ‘I Decided Things Had Become too Complicated’ is that rare thing, a story of ideas, that works on literary and emotional levels too. It’s an uncomfortable read because it cuts very close to the bone.
‘White Elephants’ by Malcolm Devlin, in Nightscript II is one of the strangest stories I’ve read recently, a weird, very English fever dream that has a structure so daring and strange it really shouldn’t work, but somehow does, and is incredibly disconcerting.
James Machin’s PhD thesis, Determined to be Weird, tells a fascinating story of the origins of weird fiction in British fin-de-siècle decadence, and is a really compelling and astute bit of criticism.
Mark Valentine is on typically erudite form in his book of wonderful essays about literary ephemera, Haunted by Books.
Last year, I also attended some great events. In August I went along to the ‘Dublin Ghost Story Festival’, organized by Brian Showers and John Connolly, which was of the best conventions of its kind I’ve even been to – a wonderful weekend of discussions of the supernatural and drinking Guinness and whisky. And in November I was at Loughborough University’s ‘A Weekend of Weird’, an fantastic event hosted by Nick Freeman and Dan Watt, where I talked on a couple of panels and gave a reading. It was a great couple of days of thoughtful and engaged discussions of all things weird, with some brilliant readings and performances.
I’ve also seen some excellent poetry readings of late, including compelling and powerful new innovative verse from Keith Jebb, whose poetry deforms semantics and syntax in such a way as to make one question all of the power structures embedded in discourse. Clive Gresswell’s work also powerfully unpicks the structures of language to potent political effect.
I’ve also read some truly superb yet to be published fiction from a range of folk, including Lesley McKenna, John Coulthart, Tom Startup, and Liam Garriock (not to mention great fiction from students I teach, and which I always enjoy reading).
Recent months have been great for music, especially atmospheric drone/ambient stuff. Remote Sympathy by Sevendeaths, AKA Steven Shade, which I had the privilege of hearing in advance of it’s release later this month, is at once austere and profoundly affecting. Shade’s is a weird alchemy – he mixes brutal noise, shimmering synth drones, throbbing bass, and burbling arpeggios into a soundtrack for a dead earth where machines babble and thrum amid toxic chemical sloughs.
Ruaridh Law’s latest TVO project, Wind Die, You Die, We Die, also powerfully evokes this sense of desolation. It’s an incredibly potent set of four long pieces of Burrough’s inspired end-times scorched earth techno. The thrumming of the empyrean monochord, a melancholy air on a derelict squeezebox. A rising hubbub, technological junk yammering and yowling. In a tank, in an derelict aquarium, the last whale, dying. The gnarled music of dim jerky far away stars.
In 2016, I discovered the wonderfully strange sounds of Watch Repair. On records such as The Polarities these musicians mix acoustic composition (predominantly picked strings and chimes, though the instrumentation is incredibly dense), with musique concrète, and some found sound and serial elements. Plucks, decaying chimes, creaks, harsh bursts of static, slides rubbed on wound strings, spectral radio broadcasts, rumbling bass, unnerving electronic textures, beautiful guitar picking, all intermittently smothered in drones, by turns ominous and shimmering. Sublime stuff.
Palehorse’s Looking Wet in Public is a record of nasty, sordid, brutish skronk, both exhilarating and terrifying.
Troller’s record, Graphic is a great set of sleazy gloomwave.
Kemper Norton’s Toll mixes drone, techno, and weird folk elements into a compelling meditation on British landscapes.
United Bible Studies The Ale’s What Cures Ye is a set of traditional songs from the weird folk Irish collective, and is filled with jawdroppingly beautiful moments – quite the loveliest record of the year – and it ends with version of ‘Good Ale’ as melancholy as it is rousing.
One of the most striking art exhibitions I’ve seen in a while, were the spirit drawings of Victorian medium, Georgiana Houghton, displayed at the Courtauld Gallery. Beautiful, intricate, and very, very strange, they have a real odd charge to them.
I’m not much for video games, but have been completely compelled by Failbetter Games’s Sunless Sea, a strange exploration game, with a New Weird feel, in which you pilot a ship around a subterranean ocean. The text is beautifully written, quirky, eerie, and mesmerizing.
And I’ve watched some great films in the last little while. Aleksei German’s Hard to Be a God depicts a planet Arkanar, a grim place where culture and progress are supressed by rulers who wish to maintain a submissive and ignorant populace. Scientists from Earth travel there to attempt to foster enlightenment and tolerance, but end up getting sucked into the mud, shit, and blood.
Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon, shows us an LA fashion industry every bit as alien and brutal as Arkanar.
And I also loved Ben Wheatley’s High Rise which is louche and decadent and incredibly stylish. The descent from civility to hellish maelstrom is brilliantly done. Three very grim films, but sadly, very apt…