Aylett’s Inferno

Ayletts Inferno Kindle cover 1.jpg

An Essay by Bill Ectric on Steve Aylett’s Shamanspace

This essay first appeared in the book Steve Aylett: A Critical AnthologyPublished by Sein und Werden Books, Copyright 2016 by Sein und Werden and Bill Ectric. All rights reserved.

WARNING: This review contains spoilers.

—∞—

“Of making many books there is no end,
and much study wearies the body.”
– Ecclesiastes 12:12

Ecclesiastes is unique among the books of the Bible. It boasts no giants, no flaming chariots, no Satan, and people all go to one place when they die – into the earth. Just the fact that this book is included in the Bible is a miracle in itself. Ecclesiastes is a mirror image to the rest of the canon because its viewpoint is mortal and earthly as opposed to divine and celestial, and that is why I thought of it while reading Steve Aylett’s short novel Shamanspace, with its symbolism of the “mirror book,” introduced early in the story and reappearing at regular intervals.

In Shamanspace, two rival factions, the Prevail and the Internecine, want to assassinate God. They are angry and indignant about all the suffering. The Prevail believe that if God dies, the universe will continue to exist, separate from the creator. The Internecine believe that upon God’s death, the universe and everyone in it will be no more, and they consider that outcome “a small price to pay” (Aylett 119). Both factions have agents/assassins called “edgemen” who are capable of leaving their bodies and merging into matter, travelling as atom swarms along the planes of surfaces like buildings, roads, and even air. Entering higher dimensions through hidden “angles” in the fabric of the universe, they move through cities unseen, like stealthy noir detectives. Edgemen can also enter other people’s bodies and disguise themselves in “shell bodies” to go undercover in the normal world. People born with the DNA for edgework are detected, selected, and recruited by either the Prevail or Internecine for training.

The origin of the edgemen is explained in an Appendix at the end of Shamanspace. Aylett mixes actual history with his own fabricated events and characters, tracing an authentic-sounding timeline of religion, alchemy, astronomy, physics, secret societies, and intrigue. In a way, it reminds me of Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum or Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, but, in classic Aylett style, condensed into a few pages and punctuated by sardonic humor. The Appendix contains just enough truth to seem logical, to give one the impression of discovering a secret history. “Slavers cross-fertilized Yezidism with toxic wicca during the Roman conquests, resulting in angry faces all around” (115), “…see Basil Valentine’s ironically codified text The Triumphal Chariot, in which cypher generates the request ‘Just kill me’ more often than the number of words in the manuscript” (117).

Some readers will be appalled by the idea of “killing God” and may prefer to see Shamanspace as metaphor for the suicidal urge (more on that later) or a commentary on the arrogance of deluded mortals. As always happens when I read Aylett, several thoughts went through my mind almost simultaneously. I thought of Nietzsche’s “God is dead” spiel, and how one of my high school teachers tried to play it down by saying that Nietzsche was only commenting on the growing trend toward atheism. In that regard, she was correct; Nietzsche did not believe God was dead because he did not believe in God. His message was that when people realize they no longer have God as a standard, they either become stronger and take responsibility for themselves, or become nihilistic and open to despair. Of course, you don’t have to lose your faith to be nihilistic. The author of Ecclesiastes moans about “all the days of his meaningless life which he spends as a shadow” (Ecclesiastes 14), but he does seem to rally in the last chapter and ends on an encouraging note. Shamanspace also reminded me of Greek mythology; specifically the story of how giants tried to overthrow Zeus, throwing rocks and flaming trees at him. Zeus turned to Heracles to help him defeat the giants. But let us return to the immediate plot.

The book’s Preface introduces two “edgemen” as they navigate South London, flowing through angular dimensions of “otherspace” on a quest. One of them is Sig, a trainee, young and inexperienced. The other is Melody, a French girl and a well-tuned veteran. Their goal is for Sig to meet Alix, a “living legend” among their kind, for Sig to glean whatever information or advice he can from the damaged hero. Alix had been a brilliant edgeman. “They said Alix could enter the face of a guitar without making a sound” (Aylett 14), but now he was burned out. “(Alix’s) eyes were turns of liquid gold, glistening and unseeing” (16). Eyes like liquid metal is a recurring characteristic of edgemen who have gone off the deep end.

Aylett’s vibrant prose makes the action super-vivid. Sometime I followed the literal plot of the story, but there are impressionistic passages I cannot quite put into words. Some of the impressions I will share in this essay may or may not reflect Aylett’s intended meaning.

Legendary Alix tells young Sig his story, beginning in Chapter One. He recounts how he once entered a bar, disguised in a shell body, “self-brainwashed so that a mind-reading enemy would still be fooled” (Questions). In the bar, he meets a girl, also a disguised assassin, and a doomed relationship begins. He is Internecine; she is Prevail. Spy and detective stories are brimming with men and women from enemy camps getting together for a tangled mix of attraction and espionage. “We went up in a cage elevator somewhere. Her hair hides the phone. After that I lost track of time for a while” (Aylett 22). He wakes up in someone’s apartment. Alix is so deep undercover he has forgotten who he is. He’s been “washing one drug down with another” (21), but a vague memory stirs an instinctive impulse. There is a smudged stamp on his wrist – the kind they stamp on you when you enter a bar – and Aix slits his wrist at that spot.

It is here that we examine the parallel meanings in Aylett’s work. I’ve written before about Aylett’s work having at least three meanings at once. On one level, Alix could be a weary man, tired of living in the fast lane, wanting to end it all. On another level, maybe he is using the knife blade to “wake himself up” or shock himself back to the reality of who he is. Think of the lyrics by Trent Reznor, “I hurt myself today, to see if I still feel” (Nine Inch Nails). Perhaps he needed to cut an exit wound to leave the shell body behind. All these things can be true at the same time. It’s like the Interzone concept of William S. Burroughs, as distilled by David Cronenberg in the film Naked Lunch: Bill Lee may be an Inspector on a mission in the Interzone to track down members of the Nova Mob, or he might be a drug addict moving through the streets and alleys of Tangier, Morocco to track down smack. Or both, simultaneously.

Alix gets his bearings and finds the girl asleep in a back room, suspended in a “biomechanical bag, like a cocoon or a closed hammock, which she uses to maintain herself” (Questions). She is an undercover assassin (so is he). He slices open the cocoon and accesses her brain for secrets, any intelligence she may have gathered that would facilitate the mission of locating and assassinating God. In the process, he picks up memories of her childhood, of getting ostracized for being different, able to see things that were invisible to ordinary people: “structures in events…armatures of human need and fantasy anglepoising between the people, linking them in a jagged scaffold” (Aylett 24), her dreams crushed, scooped up by the Prevail as a trainee, and something else: Alix recognized her as a human being. “Something of herself was left, a miniscule mischief which rifled a secret and took it away. Sacred telemetry” (25). The girl dies as her secret thoughts rush into Alix’s brain. It is not clear if this was intentional on his part, and Alix is racked with sobs. He had seen her beauty, identified with her pain, his guilt and sense of loss. It’s interesting that in one sentence, there seems to be a moment of shared thought. We look at the words, “Something of herself was left, a miniscule mischief which rifled a secret (25),” so her mischief included rifling secrets, as if a secret loaded into a chamber ready to fire; or, rifled as in vigorously searched, just as he is rifling secrets from her, and for a brief moment, the middle of that sentence applies to both her and him simultaneously. This is how he obtains the coordinates to the heart of God.
Back at Internecine headquarters, known as “the Keep,” Alix needs some recovery time. Exercising one’s power as an edgeman takes a toll on a person. Physical and emotional. “I was ghostburnt, in mourning and voiding lumps of the cover personality” (29). After a few days, he is sitting in the office of his boss, Lockhart, who is like a father to Alix, for a kind of debriefing. Lockhart tells Alix that Melody is in France, spying on the Prevail headquarters there. They wonder, if the Prevail know the location of God’s heart, why haven’t they made the “hit.” Is it pity? Procrastination? Are they afraid of failure or afraid of what will happen if they succeed? Lockhart wants Alix to visit Quinas, a veteran “has-been” edgeman who is kept in a cell under guard because he is insane. Alix does not relish this suggestion. “I’ve met shamanic burnouts. Some shivering leftover with weird eyes? I haven’t got the patience to hear about some gold-rimmed yesterday” (33). But Alix acquiesces and goes to see Quinas:

I went through the ivied gate to the locked quarters, a guard allowing entry. Quinas was meant to be batshit crazy and acquitted himself well. He sat at the center of his cell like an albino frog, working on some obscure cabbalistic grid, probably a malice puzzle. Proceeding around him was a polychrome exchange, the walls trancing with sickly refractions. His head was sprouted with white death-hairs, and when he turned my way I saw his eyes were liquid mercury, the surfaces flowing like oily water (39).

Alix meeting Quinas can be seen as Alix looking at a mirror image of what he might someday be, just like Sig meeting Alix in the preface of the book.
Quinas suggests that if God is everything, and we are a part of God, then we are God’s suicidal impulse. He tells Alix, “God made us conscious for a reason. It knew that when its cells became self-aware, they’d experience a pitch of pain that’d send them for revenge. We’re nano-assassins” (45).

Quinas gives Alix a book as a going-away gift. It is a book of mirrors called Acqueville’s Flightless Land Without Clouds (46). As Alix is leaving with the book, he stops just outside the door and glances back to see Quinas flickering and fading from sight. Quinas then emerges from the mirror book as a red electric outline and escapes into the city.
Alix track Quinas to Paris, where the Prevail headquarters is located. “This suggested (Quinas) had some business with the Prevail,” says Alix. “I should have known when he referred to the world as God’s ‘moulted material’ – Prevail philosophy” (51). Alix joins Melody in a safe house in the Rue Fromentin. With his edgeman-heightened awareness of connections between essence and matter, he is unnerved by the “left-handed landscapes and cathedrals brittle as candy” (51). The cathedral description is apt – if you look at the Notre Dame Cathedral in Reims, the Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Nice, or the Metz Cathedral in Lorraine, they do have a cake-decoration-confectionary-sugar delicacy. The “left-handed landscape” comment is a little less clear, an example of Aylett’s impressionist style. To me, it brings to mind the Left Bank of Paris and the traditional “otherness” often attributed to France. The Right Bank of the Seine River is where one finds big businesses and professional buildings, an environment closer to the cityscape of Alix’s exploits in London. The Left Bank is traditionally for bohemian artists and writers (to overgeneralize).

Alix asks Melody for directions to the Prevail motherhouse (headquarters) and:

She pointed in the 9th direction. I took a very deliberate half-turning step which tilted an edge in the air, showing me a dense cross-section of several etheric miles. I raised an arm toward it, the funhouse-mirror limb stretching to infinity, and let it draw the rest of me into subspace like an elastic band (52).

At the Prevail motherhouse, an invisible Alix sees Casolaro, head of the Prevail, talking to Quinas, the turncoat, consorting with the enemy. As they talk, a young edgeman, Moon, senses Alix’s presence. Alix retreats as Moon crosses over into the etheric zone in pursuit. A splendid chase ensues.

Passing the mouth of an alley, I folded down to a single element and streamed sideways into the architecture…Moon sifted in also and we were fleshtones flushing through the walls on either side of the alley – branching up into roofs and undoing bundles of air before dipping into masonry again (57).

I won’t describe the entire chase, but it ends when:

(Alix) slammed to a stop inside a car, slipped upward through the roof and apported, jumping down to the tarmac. Moon materialized too fast, merging with a Volvo – the windows were instantly painted red from the inside and shattered as metal warped out (58).

After resting up in Melody’s hotel room, Alix decides to take his mirror book to a nearby antique bookshop. Alix is saying goodbye to his world before carrying out the hit, and his love of books is evident. I never tire of Aylett’s descriptions of books, bric-a-bac, and curiosities.

Here and there were books produced by cabinet-makers, passwords under the blurbs… Spreading the mirror pages to those of the old books, reflections showed the snail trail left by the author’s bile, invisible behind the print. ‘Our secret broken law,’ a law so irretrievably broken it had to be retroactively denied. Medicine is the Slightest Species of Magic, the true title of a treatise on the Napoleonic wars…tasting hidden chapter names behind the visible…(62-63)

Alix reflects on his life, possibly for the last time:

Picking up history like coloured flavors… railway furnaces, chestnut anciency, pistol cloaks, hooded horses in a dark tunnel, a symphony of something through long corridors of wide avenues… a seat by the shore… chairflap beaches of afternoons… children at a distance change, yellowing, momentariness (63-64).

He returns to the hotel, where he and Melody inject tears into their arms to experience hallucinogenic ecstasy. Blissful intimacy. When Melody is asleep, Alix prepares to enter the heart of God for the kill, aided by directions he pilfered from the girl in the cocoon back in the first chapter. But before he can take off, someone strikes him from behind, knocking him unconscious, and he is kidnapped by the Prevail.
He wakes up on a Prevail sub called the Bluetooth, confined in a sarcophagus-like box that blocks his power to flow through matter. The sub brings him back to England. I won’t recount his escape, but suffice it to say, he ends up back at the Internecine headquarters – the Keep. He finds Lockhart, his boss, who seems strangely uncomfortable. Alix talks about the irony that both factions, Prevail and Internecine, want to assassinate the same target, yet they continually delay one another. He has a theory as to why this stalemate exists. “(The Prevail) think we’re out to stage-manage the death of the universe,” he tells Lockhart, “whether it ensues naturally from God’s death or not” (77). He is correct about the Prevail’s concerns, but his theory hasn’t gone far enough. Apparently the Prevail have persuaded the Internecine to see it their way. Alix is shocked to see Casolaro, the Prevail leader, enter the room, soon followed by Quinas, and someone named Dreva, “a young Prevail techy and strongarm” (82). It seems that Lockhart, the Internecine leader, has joined forces with Casolaro and Quinas behind Alix’s back. Quinas no longer seems like a burnout, “looking smart and healthy in a white leather coat, his death-hair slicked back to the skull” (82, 83). Weakened from his recent exertion, Alix is unable to prevent them from fastening him to:

an upright aura-rack at the far end of the chamber. The motherhouse basement was an etheric runway. The old ascension containment cross had been dragged out of storage and stood on the cocoon platform between amplifier housings. The cross was an ancient but effective trip preventer which worked in part by keeping the subject spread and unable to focus inward – like trying to sing low with your head high. An electrostatic discharge closed the etheric airlocks and threw me back against the main spar. It was Saturday morning (82).

Obvious imagery of Jesus on the cross here. It’s possible that the mention of Saturday morning is, if not merely one of Aylett’s non sequiturs, a way of saying Alix was poised halfway between Good Friday, when Jesus was crucified, and Easter Sunday, when he was resurrected.
“You think it’s coincidental,” asks Quinas, “that at precisely the time that the greatest number of people feel indignant at God’s works, the fewest ever people believe in it?” (86)
Alix realizes that his captors aren’t so much worried about the world ending as they are simply “bone scared” (86) of making God angry.
“We’re reduced to stupid intrigues,” chides Alix, “hitting each other around the head in hotel rooms – the First Mystic Renegades would be ashamed” (87).
Melody enters the room, apparently part of the betrayal.
Casolaro approaches Alix with a hypodermic containing a fatal dose of poison.
Melody hands an old book to Quinas.
Quinas opens the book with casual curiosity.

Melody had put the mirror book into an old cover. A scream tore in half as Quinas was drawn eyes-first into the object, a cloud of blood sizzling across the floor and ceiling, drenching the onlookers. Casolaro looked back as Melody whacked down the generator switch, breaking the current to the rack (96).

It is interesting that the etheric containment device is referred to as both a rack and a cross. Ironic that Medieval church states employed the rack to compel heretics to confess.
With the containment device disengaged, Alix quickly launches his etheric essence free from his body and into higher dimensions, hurtling into God’s domain to carry out the hit.
Alix finally approaches the heart of God, within striking distance.
He is horrified:

But when the thing grew near, it precipitated from all directions in a vastness of intricate, nonrepeating evil. A slow spectacle of dark vanes and complex underside…(103)

Several interpretations went through my mind as this passage unfolded, much quicker than it will take to write about them.
The first interpretation is simply that Alix is looking at God, and if that is the case, then the Almighty is god-awful:

a titanic black insect floundered on its back at the center of an infinite nerve net, fiddling a millions legs amid the ferocious stench of vomit and scorching wires (103).

In 1976, psychologist Julian Jaynes proposed the theory of the bicameral mind. He believed that up until a few thousand years ago, when one side of our brain ‘spoke’ to the other side, early humans did not recognize the thoughts as coming from their own mind. After reading Jaynes’ book, Rabbi James Cohn wrote The Minds of the Bible, suggesting that Old Testament accounts of people “hearing the voice of God” are explained by the bicameral mind theory, and that is why we rarely hear of this phenomenon today (except in the case of schizophrenics). In this light, one could infer that the mirror imagery in Shamanspace is symbolic of Alix looking deep into his own monstrous psyche.

Its mouth rimmed with lashes like an eye, biting in space at an end, it was eternally frantic in its convulsions, evils tangling and stretching about its mindless ratcheting (103).

Or, maybe both things are true, that God is our mind but is also a god who exists separate from each individual, in a “wave or particle” construct. Carl Jung coined the term “collective unconscious” as a way of saying all people share universal symbols, or archetypes, in the DNA of our subconscious minds. But it goes further than that. Some researchers have applied Erwin Schrödinger’s unified field theory to the functions of the brain, based on the generally accepted fact that our thoughts generate from a physical process of chemical and electrical synapses. In this way, our minds are truly connected, not just by sharing the same unconscious archetypes, but joined in a quantum grid along with space, time, and mass. This may be what we call God, living inside and outside our brains at the same time.

Shackled by its own influence. Seeping cold corrosion in a night of oceanic tragedy. No cure ever, a constantly breaking heart. And before this thing I felt the blossoming of total exposure. All resolves atomized by horror. One particle of poison in a sea of poison. No guts in a zero. No hero. On the cross, my eyes turned to gold (103).

A mirror image of Christ, perhaps? Christians believe God came to Earth and allowed us to kill him. Alix went chasing God. Both ended on a cross. Both were still alive at the end of the book.

I emailed Steve Aylett, asking, “When Alix finally sees God, is he simply too appalled to kill it? Or too anguished or broken-hearted, with the brokenness feeding back into him?”
Steve’s reply was, “Yes, Alix is overwhelmed by the horror of that vision, and the fact that the god insect seems to be tangled and caught in its own horror. Alix experiences a universe-sized depressive breakdown” (RE: Questions):

And his eyes turned to gold, like the others.

Alix finishes his story in tears and Sig is awestruck, saying, “But you are sort of a hero. You found the heart despite everything, everyone.”
Alix tells Sig:

You don’t get it…the whole thing was stage-managed. The whole deal had been to send me off with passion. My friends. To save me from being a mere dry aeronaut, easily turned. Quinas knew he’d get it in the neck – but he welcomed it as a burnout. He had more mischief in him at the end than a lot of us start out with (107-108).

But Sig doesn’t quite believe it. He is a young gun with stars in his eyes, chomping at the bit for front-line action, to take on God and finish the job.

Melody stands in the doorway and Alix, now blind, senses her presence. He tells her, “I know it’s you brings the flowers” (109). This is a touching scene and makes me lean toward the theory that Shamanspace is a metaphor for a suicide attempt. Waking up in a hospital room.

But, no. I’m with Sig. I want to believe in super-powered edgemen flowing through matter and into other dimensions.

Peter Wild, in his review of Shamanspace on Bookmunch, compares the end of the book to “coming down from a trip” (Wild), and I agree. The book enthralled me, heightened my senses, and although nothing had changed, I felt different when it was over. I think of the old Zen axiom, “Before enlightenment, I chopped wood and carried water. After enlightenment, I chopped wood and carried water.”

Aylett told me, “It’s understandable that Shamanspace is hard to understand at times, Bill – it’s my most obscure and tortuous book, all meaning and no jokes. It’s sort of the opposite of The Inflatable Volunteer, which was all jokes and no meaning. It’s informed by total agony and despair” (RE: Questions).

“God is a concept by which we measure our pain.”
– John Lennon

—∞—

Works Cited

Aylett, Steve. Shamanspace. UK: Codex Books, 2001.

Ecclesiastes, or, the Preacher. The Pocket Canon Series. New York: Grove Press/Atlantic,     1999. Print.

Lennon, John. “God.” John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band. Apple, 1970.Vinyl record.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for All and None. Trans R. J. Hollingdale. UK: Penguin Classics, 1961. Print.

Nine Inch Nails. “Hurt.” The Downward Spiral. Nothing/Interscope Records, 1994. CD.

“RE: Questions about Shamanspace.” Message to Bill Ectric. 10 June 2015. Email.

Wild, Peter. “Books You Should’ve Read By Now.” Bookmunch. 19 June 2016. 20 June 2016.

Go to Steve Aylett’s Website

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D. Harlan Wilson’s excellent book on J. G. Ballard

Book Review by Bill Ectric

Bill Ectric holding J. G. Ballard book by D. Harlan Wilson

Bill Ectric holding J. G. Ballard book by D. Harlan Wilson

D. Harlan Wilson has made a literary mark in the field of cultural theory, focusing on the loss of humanity in the inescapable rush of accelerating technology, with books like Technologized Desire: Selfhood and the Body in Postcapitalist Science Fiction and Cultographies: They Live. While his fiction tends to be disorienting (a trait his fans enjoy), his non-fiction has the clarity and delivery of a seasoned educator, as in his most recent study of the life and work of J.G. Ballard. 

Ballard was a vital force in the British New Wave of science fiction whose novels and stories inspired the cyberpunk subgenre, but he is most famous for writing Empire of the Sun (1984) and Crash (1973), both of which became movies, directed by Steven Spielberg and David Cronenberg respectively. D. Harlan Wilson makes a convincing case that even Empire of Sun contains elements of science fiction.

Wilson writes brisk, lucid text that flows like quicksilver. Clearly respectful of Ballard as an author and a man, his new book analyzes Ballard’s singular style, dystopian themes, and sometimes disturbing plots in a relatively simple, but smart, well organized, and skillfully researched masterwork.

Wilson describes how Ballard was less interested in flying saucers, aliens, and outer space than he was in the inner space of our minds, as we become the future, with relentless input from the internet, television, radio, billboards, working and playing inside mega-malls, gated communities, and high-rise apartments. We are the cyborgs, perceiving reality as dictated to us by the very media we covet. Ballard explores how these conditions affect the evolution of life, society, sex, and death. His influences included surrealist painter Salvador Dali, psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, transgressive experimental “Beat” writer William S. Burroughs, and media visionary Marshall McLuhan, who predicted the Internet 30 years before it existed. Wilson demonstrates, with fascinating examples, how the landscapes and cities in Ballard’s novels are often extensions or reflections of his character’s mindscapes.

Critics have complained about the violence in some of Ballard’s books. Wilson says, “Ballard didn’t want to see it happen in the real world” and quotes Ballard’s explanation that “notions about the benefits of transgression in my last three novels are not ones I want to see fulfilled. Rather, they are extreme possibilities that may be forced into reality by the suffocating pressure of the conformist world we inhabit. Boredom and a deadening sense of total pointlessness seem to drive a lot of meaningless crimes.”

In 1924, Andre Breton described Surrealism as thought or art created in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern. This launched an array of weird, dreamlike paintings and theater. But on a darker note, Breton also said that the ultimate surrealist act would be “to go out into the street and fire a revolver at random into the crowd.” Chillingly, we recall Donald Trump’s words on the campaign trail in Iowa: “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters. It’s like, incredible.” As Ballard said way back in 1971, “Everything is becoming science fiction.”

If you are new to Ballard, this book is a good place to start. If you’re already familiar with the man’s work, you will appreciate what Jonathan Lethem calls “a new comprehensive standard.”

Read More at the website of D. Harlan Wilson

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.

Read More

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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