Inspired by Murder

On Murder Considered As One of the Fine Arts    Guilty Things A Life of Thomas De Quincey

This review was written by Colin Dickey for New Republic, November 2, 2016:

“Murder, in ordinary cases, where the sympathy is wholly directed to the case of the murdered person,” (De Quincey) reasons, “is an incident of coarse and vulgar horror; and for this reason that it flings the interest exclusively upon the natural but ignoble instinct by which we cleave to life.” This attitude to primal panic would never “suit the purposes of the poet.” What, then, must a poet do to elevate such a scene to high art? The only option: “He must throw the interest on the murderer.” Since 1823, this has become commonplace; from The Godfather to Silence of the Lambs to Breaking Bad, it’s become the default position of any serious drama to include the perspective of the murderer. Like it or not, our imaginative lives now reside in De Quincey’s dreamworld.

Fittingly, Frances Wilson’s new biography of De Quincey, Guilty Thing, begins not with his birth or his lineage, but with a murder: In the early hours of December 8, 1811, shopkeeper Thomas Marr, his wife and infant child, and his apprentice were all found dead, their throats slit and their heads bashed in. With no real suspects, the case fascinated everyone in England, but none more so than Thomas De Quincey himself. The Ratcliffe Highway murders, as they became known, inspired in De Quincey a “profound reverie,” according to his friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and would occupy his mind and his writings for decades to come. The murders, De Quincey would later write, “had an ill effect, by making the connoisseur in murder very fastidious in his taste, and dissatisfied by anything that has been since done in that line. All other murders look pale,” he concluded, by the “deep crimson” of the Ratcliffe Highway murders.

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Dead Men Naked, Book Review

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Dead Men Naked by Dario Cannizzaro

Dead Men Naked, a novel by Dario Cannizzaro

Review by Bill Ectric

Dead Men Naked  is the best novel I’ve read in while, satisfying to the end. All too often, books with supernatural overtones veer into preposterous territory, but not this one. Author Dario Cannizzaro achieves a near-perfect balance of realism and phantasm, humor and melancholy, the familiar and the uncanny. It is an incredibly fun read about soul mates, tequila, occult incantations, death, and visions of a giant crow. The somewhat flippant title derives from a poem by Dylan Thomas called “And Death Shall Have No Dominion,” and, indeed, there are people in Dead Men Naked who seek passage beyond death’s veil. Cannizzaro says on his website that while writing this book, he “pestered people with talks about religion, philosophy, death for an incredible amount of time.”

To get an idea of his background, consider this quote from an article Cannizzaro wrote for The Galway Review in 2016. The author talks about skipping school with his friends at age 15 while living in in Italy:

We would go in the city center of Pozzuoli, and hide into a dark alley. In the alley there was a tattoo joint, a hearing aid shop, and a very small library, called Il Nome della Rosa, after Umberto Eco’s book (The Name of the Rose). The owner, Gino, would entertain his guests with delicious comments about books, poetry, literature. It wasn’t long before we started spending our mornings there, talking with Gino and drinking Espresso, while watching the whirlwind of customers – lost souls on the lookout for human connection – writers, poets, mothers, sons; fishermen, shop-owners, unemployed hippies – the whole humanity passed in that library, 20 to 30 square meters of enlightened soil, much like the sacred ground of a secret church.

Dead Men Naked reflects that mixture of ancient mystery and youthful curiosity. The main characters, Lou and Mallory, seem like people I would hang out with for pizza and beer, or in Louis’ case, Tequila. He only sees his friend’s ghost while drinking tequila. Tequila has a mystique unlike any of the other major alcoholic beverages. A Huffington Post article presented by Patrón says, “In the mid-20th century, tequila sales spiked after California residents thought it was a psychedelic. They were just confusing mezcal with mescaline (the psychoactive alkaloid of peyote” (Huffington Post, Oct 06, 2014). Over the years, Jose Quervo has placed magazine ads that depict deeply surreal colorful sunsets over small gatherings of men and women, smiling as though in states of altered consciousness, with various taglines, including “It’s all true” and “Anything can happen.” Special limited edition bottles display gold and silver mustachioed skulls. One might argue that tequila’s mystique is a fabrication, but after all, most magic is about what one believes to be true. “The universe is what you observe,” the Grim Reaper tells Lou. “Whatever you experience in your life, you experience through your senses.” It’s all real.

We get a hint that maybe Mallory has seen beyond the veil, too. She has a collection of books on the occult and she knows how to use them. Something weird happens, resulting in Mallory’s disappearance. Hoping to find Mal at her sister’s house, Lou goes on a road trip with the Grim Reaper in the passenger seat to keep him company and call the shots. They drive through a noir world of seedy bars until they find Mal’s twin sister, Angie. Death takes either a holiday or a back seat when Angie joins Lou on a ride through the desert to an out-of-the way abandoned house where the girls once lived with their mother. It is on this trip that Lou quotes the Dylan Thomas poem, forming an emotional connection between the two, in which “there was no car, no time, no road…no faith, no evil, no sun, no sea… nothing but the nakedness of the word, sliding from me to her and bouncing back from her eyes.” At the mother’s house, in the basement, they find the books and notebooks evincing an in-depth study of dreams, mythology, religion, and “Old Latin spells mixed up with Caribbean voodoo and African juju.” It gets weirder and better.

There are so many good moments in Dead Men Naked, it’s impossible to discuss them all. Worth mentioning are the beguiling passages about crows in chapter twenty-two. Around the world, crows represent, variously, a trickster, a harbinger of death, a sign of transformation, and depending on what direction they are flying, the imminent approach of either your enemy or your true love. The crows in this chapter punctuate Lou’s action as they gather, squawk, and seemingly mock his angst with gawking, open beaks. It’s a great image and better than I can describe it.

I would like to mention one more thing. Perhaps you’ve heard about writers who don’t use quotation marks. Cormac McCarthy comes to mind. When interviewed in 2008 by Oprah Winfrey, McCarthy warns other writers that if they plan to leave out quotation marks, they really need to “write in such a way as to guide people as to who’s speaking.” I’m here to tell you that Dario Cannizzaro pulls off this feat like an expert. Trust me on this: You will have no trouble understanding who is talking to whom in Dead Men Naked.

I highly recommend this book.

Click here to find Dead Men Naked on Amazon.com

A Psychological Drama set in France: Stranger Days by Rachel Kendall

Stranger Days book cover My book review of Rachel Kendall’s Stranger Days is on Empty Mirror.

I’m happy to report that Rachel Kendall does an exceptional job of keeping her novel, Stranger Days, fresh, fun and riveting. Kendall doesn’t shy away from the usual intrigue and romance of Paris, but she does it so well, Stranger Days is a pleasure to read. The edgy plot, with its dose of psychological darkness, held my interest from beginning to end.

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Galapagos Regained Reviewed

Galapagos Regained by James Morrow

Review by Bill Ectric

Galapagos Regained Book Cover  James Morrow, Author                                                                                            James Morrow

James Morrow writes with a great sense of fun and wonder. In Galapagos Regained, he regales us with a surreal 1850s adventure that is equal parts historical fiction, metaphysical treatise, and Pirates of the Caribbean spree. Fictional characters interact with actual historical figures, including Charles Darwin, Thomas Huxley, Gregor Mendel, Rosalind Franklin, Arthur Schopenhauer, and Samuel Wilberforce. The fact that some of these notable individuals were not contemporaries is resolved by a time/space anomaly, localized in a Turkish hookah den, which apparently acts as a hub for historical figures to weave in and out through swirling clouds of cannabis smoke.

The novels’ conflict revolves around a debate between Biblical Creationists and Scientific Evolutionists. The Percy Bysshe Shelley Society pledges a £10,000 award to anyone who can either prove or disprove the existence of God. Two competing groups embark on expeditions – one to Mount Ararat in search of Noah’s Ark to confirm the Genesis flood; the other to Galapagos, hoping to discredit the Genesis creation story with evidence of evolution. Morrow is a scientific humanist and a critic of the Church, but his satire is not unkind. He seems to understand the mindset of people on either side of the argument. Almost everyone in this novel, atheist or Christian, mystic or scientist, fictional or historical, is vividly human. For the most part, they are capable of civilized debates and peaceful coexistence. I say “for the most part” because anytime money and power are at stake, blood will be shed, and this exploit is no exception.

Morrow chose to write this book in a style reminiscent of 19th century authors, without sacrificing ease of readability, which helps to set the mood and is often quite entertaining. Chapters have titles like “The Pigeon Priest Moves From His Parsonage to a Madhouse, Even as Our Heroine Arranges to Circumnavigate a Continent,” and “Recruited into an Unlikely Army, Our Heroine Ponders the Doctrine of Just War and Savors the Virtues of Hallucinogenic Snuff.” The combination of style and subject matter triggered my memory of an M. R. James short story, “Two Doctors,” written in 1919, in which a doctor asks a minister if he believes in the existence of satyrs, given that those mythical creatures are mentioned in some versions of the Bible. The minister replies, “I am not seldom called abroad pretty late; but I have no mind of meeting a satyr in our Islington lanes in all the years I have been here; and if you have had the better luck, I am sure the Royal Society would be glad to know of it.”

At least one character in Galapagos Regained observes that neither the existence of an ark nor evidence of evolution can ultimately prove or disprove God’s existence. It is the twists and turns of the quest that make the book such a pleasure to read. There are strange encounters, a hot air balloon, high chicanery, romantic interludes, philosophical enigmas, and even a couple of mind-flips that reminded me of Philip K. Dick’s VALIS. Galapagos Regained is the best book I’ve read so far in 2015.

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Fortean Melancholia and Paranormal Mourning

TamperDeskBannerTwo-600x124

Many thanks to Andrew Wenaus for his review of my novel, Tamper!

Tamper is like the Hardy Boys in that it is a kind of mystery novel in clear/concise language, and it is like (William S.) Burroughs in the sense that there is a presiding desire to break free of some kind of invisible system of control. Yet, the system of control in Ectric’s novel is not the oppressive and determinate force of language (as it is in Burroughs); instead, it is memory, nostalgia, and melancholia. “Tamper” is, in this sense, a coming-of-age novel that is unwilling to ascribe to the rigidity of the coming-of-age narrative. Whit, the central, character does mourn his lost past but continues to revolt against the loss of wonder, imagination, and the possibility that the strangeness of life is more nuanced than we are often enthusiastic to admit.

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The Madonna and the Starship, by James Morrow

James Morrow is one of those writers whose books I buy without hesitation as soon as they are available. He never lets me down. Here’s a review by The Little Red Reviewer of Morrow’s latest book:

the Little Red Reviewer

madonna and starshipThe Madonna and the Starship by James Morrow

published in June 2014

where I got it: received review copy from the publisher (thanks Tachyon!)

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With a cover like this and promises of provocative satire, how could I not read it?

Kurt Jastrow has the best day job a science fiction writer could ask for. In the 1950s, at the peak of live television, he’s the lead writer for Brock Barton and his Rocket Rangers.  A show every nine year old loves, Jastrow writes three shows a week (with Monday and Wednesday’s shows ending in cliffhangers, of course), and squeezes in a few minutes of actual science at the end of every episode.  It’s not a glamorous life to be sure, but Kurt has plenty of time to polish his science fiction stories, harass his shellshocked editor, and try to convince fellow…

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S. T. Joshi Chides Again

Unutterable Horror

Today via Wormwoodiana I learned of this book review by Michael Dirda of S. T. Joshi’s new book, Unutterable Horror, at The Weekly Standard’s Book Review

Because Joshi  is so opinionated, Dirda suggests that we “trust Joshi on the books he praises, but look for yourself at those he dismisses or disdains.”

Here’s an excerpt of the review: 

Nothing human is alien to supernatural fiction. Transgressive by definition, it ventures into the dark corners within all of us, probing our sexuality, religious beliefs, and family relationships, uncovering shameful yearnings and anxieties, questioning the meaning of life and death, even speculating about the nature of the cosmos. It’s no surprise that almost every canonical writer one can think of has occasionally, or more than occasionally, dabbled in ghostly fiction: Charles Dickens, Henry James, Somerset Maugham, Elizabeth Bowen, John Cheever, even Russell Kirk, to name just a few outstanding examples. The genre’s best stories are, after all, more than divertissements. They are works of art that make us think about who and what we are. 

And, yes, they are also scary. Sometimes really scary.

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