The Early Novels of Kathe Koja, Part Three: Skin



Book cover illustrationbad-brains


The Cipher, Kathe Koja, 1991, 2012.

Bad Brains, Kathe Koja, 1992.

Skin, Kathe Koja, 1993.

Kink, Kathe Koja, 1996.

Essay: The Early Novels of Kathe Koja: Skin

I won’t spend too much time on this novel since I’ve covered its theme of artistic obsession and destructive transcendence elsewhere.

Of these four novels, it is the purest example of that theme.

Surprisingly, for a writer and theatrical producer married to an artist, you wouldn’t expect Koja to deal so extensively with the downsides of artistic endeavor. Or, perhaps, you would. Who better to know that the muse can become a hag riding your back than an artist?

The Cipher has a bad and lazy poet as its narrator. The hero of Bad Brains regains his artistic passion as his fitful visions and violent madness increase. The ex-lovers in both end up dead or on the verge of death, the weirdness that has infected their heroes bodies nudging them to their evitable doom.

Koja eschews the fantastic for this novel. The weirdness here comes entirely out of the human mind.

But the body count is even higher in this novel, dead at the witting and unwitting hands of Bibi. Lovers Bibi and Tess survive the novel, but they’re not going to be together.

As with The Cipher, this is another novel with the characters detached from family.

This novel features another version of the Malcolm character from The Cipher. Michael is an instigator and agitator, lover of both Tess and Bibi, manipulating them to achieve his artistic visions:

His motto is “If you don’t grow, you die.”

His scorn for Tess’ good sense at not walking Bibi’s path of body mutilation:

“Afraid to go as far as you can go, as far as you have to go, to make your art? Bibi knows. Bibi’s the one who isn’t afraid.”

Of Bibi’s final transformation, Michael says:

“She’s a crazy saint. She can’t leave herself alone, she’s cutting on places that haven’t even healed yet, she keeps talking about the skin being the gate, like she has to keep cutting to get somewhere — she is so close, Tess, I mean she is really on to something here, and the last thing she needs is you stirring her up.”

Michael is a very toxic mixture of instigator, art theoretician, and manipulator. And he pays for his sins in the end.

Bibi clubs him to death.

But Bibi’s final words to Tess, “We were supposed to go together. He was supposed to take me, too.” Michael, it’s implied, is a sort of cult leader for Bibi, whispering the promise of final change and transcendence in her ear.


The Early Novels of Kathe Koja, Part Two: Bad Brains

Book cover illustrationbad-brainsskinkink

The Cipher, Kathe Koja, 1991, 2012.

Bad Brains, Kathe Koja, 1992.

Skin, Kathe Koja, 1993.

Kink, Kathe Koja, 1996.

Essay: The Early Novels of Kathe Koja: Bad Brains.

The claustrophobic air of Koja’s first novel, The Cipher, is gone  with her next. It’s something of a road trip novel — though those long hours protagonist Austen (another one of Koja’s androgynous names) spends in the car have a similar affect.

The weirdness in this novel just shows up like the Funhole in The Cipher. And there’s bodily transformation here as in that novel. But Austen himself is the main weirdness. Nicholas, in The Cipher, accidentally shoves his hand in the Funhole. Austen’s capering about after leaving a convenience store leads him to take a fall in the parking lot, a blow to the head, and the bad brains of the title results.

Austen, like Nicholas, is one of Koja’s passive males. But, whereas Nicholas, by his own admission, produces crap, Austen is a talented artist who had some measure of success. But his morbid taste in portraiture won no great favor. He gave up art, and Emily, his wife, gave up on him and moved away.

His passivity and fearful pride comes into play when he won’t tell the many doctors he sees in uncountable months of treatment and therapy that he’s started to see things:

. . . in the near comer of the room, closest to the door, came a movement, a dustdevil of fluid, liquid, mucus; silver, almost scalelike, delicate as fish skin and stretching out, elongating.

At him.

Watching as it was watched.

Not a human figure.

And he staring back as coldly, as mutely inhuman, as incapable of fear as of flight as, capriciously, it compacted, slipped back into the confines of shadowless square, the empty corner of the empty room.

Returning to work at a T-shirt shop to pay his medical bills and with a Tegretol prescription for his seizures, he reads obsessively about brain disorders and has a spectacularly unsuccessful meeting with a potential patron and hook-up partner.

So, about a third of the way through the novel, Austen goes to visit his mother Cyndee in Fort Worth. As with any encounter with living family members in these Koja novels, the results are awkward and unsatisfactory — though we learn Austen is Austen because “Bront” is “not really a name”.

But Austen does meet, in a bar, Russell. He’s a low-intensity, less malicious version of Nakota in The Cipher. When Nicholas has one of his visions in a bar, Russell recognizes what’s happening since his late father was also given to seizures and visions. As Nakota sees Nicholas as a gatekeeper to “transcursion” in that novel, Russell sees Austen as gatekeeper to Russell’s dead father and the visions he had .

The two go on a road trip of long hours, Austen taking up art again, drawing in the back seat or blacking out and undergoing visions — he almost kills Russell during one. Russell claims he’s taking him to the one doctor who helped his father.

But, like Nakota and Malcolm in The Cipher, Russell is an instigator and agitator. Or, as one of Koja’s dark-skinned dispensers of wisdom, Mrs. Olivia, says

You’re just a little shitkicker, that’s what you are.

And what’s he’s engineered, using information Austen babbled during one of his fits, is a reunion of Emily and Austen.

Though furious at being manipulated, Emily still has a remnant of sympathy for Austen. But it doesn’t include Austen going to Russell’s doctor, actually a bruja. Dr. Quiet turns out to be a Haitian neurologist turned witch doctor. Of all these Koja novels, Quiet’s office is her single largest incident of Catholic imagery:

Another long table, this one dressed in bright red cloth like a matador’s cape, covered, Scheherazade: Good Luck Dream Books, Magic Numbers cubes, green and purple spirit candles, some burning, some not, endless tiny bottles—” Vete de Aqui,” “Money Drawing Oil”— and square packets of powder. Hologram cards of saints, Saint Sebastian, Saint Dymphna, captured in their moment of sheerest Technicolor agony, turn the card just so and see the soul’s ascension, iridescent vapor ephemeral as holy steam.

Quiet, who also thinks Russell is worthless and just wants to be Austen “without the mess”, tests Austen. After Austen gets an unprecedented reaction from a vegetative patient of Quiet’s, a man Quiet said encountered a duende, the doctor says, “Duende is like God.”

Here, in the conclusion of the novel, explanations for the weirdness get a little sketchy even in terms of mystical metaphors.

Austen embraces Quiet’s suggestion he become a healer. “Duenda” is defined as “a quality of passion and inspiration” deriving from a Spanish phrase meaning “owner of the house”. Passion and inspiration have certainly moved back into Austen’s soul. He describes it to Emily as “a force that rides you”.

But, whether it’s healing or art, she sees it as the same old excuse, the newest manifestation of his passivity, his latest obsession:

Oh God, Austen, no wonder you’re swallowing this shit. It’s your same old rap, remember?” Narrowed eyes into the wind; cruel eyes. He felt tears in his own, it was colder by the minute now, her stare was flat as the edge of a cliff. “We had this conversation ten years ago: your art’s simultaneously at fault for everything and in the driver’s seat. You’re a driven man. It’s the same old Art 101 bullshit that I thought you grew out of. Can’t you take responsibility for anything? Ever?

But Austen doesn’t listen, perhaps can’t listen at this point in the story. The novel is told solely from Austen’s point of view, so the final tenth is a flickering set of manic scenes, outbursts of violence or painting.

The novel concludes with a epigram possibly pointing more to Koja’s inspiration for the novel than its theme. It’s from Federico Garcia Lorca (a Spanish poet we’ll hear more about in the context of a Koja short story I’ll be looking at):

The duende does not come at all unless he sees that death is possible.

The dangers of pursuing transcendence or art at all costs are here like in The Cipher. Austen isn’t just a case of obsession. The silver in Austen’s vision is

revealed at last to be far more than monster or delight, to be work itself, art’s goad, despoiler of waste, dispenser of sorrow to sorrow for a greater good.

… Silver, the color of the knife that heals.

But there’s no healing here, just the knife. Austen kills Emily in one of those blackouts before dying himself.

And it’s not Lorca who supplies the novel’s most memorable line.

It’s Koja: “Each man kills the thing he loves, for the thing he loves more.”

Yes, like The Cipher, this is love ending the worst way possible.

The Early Novels of Kathe Koja, Part One: The Cipher

Book cover illustrationbad-brainsskinkink

The Cipher, Kathe Koja, 1991, 2012.

Bad Brains, Kathe Koja, 1992.

Skin, Kathe Koja, 1993.

Kink, Kathe Koja, 1996.

Essay: The Early Novels of Kathe Koja: The Cipher.

Like the Ambrose Bierce reading project of a couple of years ago, I’ve spent the past four months reading Kathe Koja on and off.

Like the Bierce project, I did it preparation of this year’s local Arcana convention. Alas, things came up, and I’m not able to attend.

Koja’s name has been lurking in mind since reading her story “The Neglected Garden” (1991) in its original magazine appearance. From her appearance on the Lovecraft ezine podcast, she seems like a fun person, and her guest appearance at Arcana was finally a motive to seek out some of her short fiction, which I’ll be looking at in a future posting, and her early novels.

The order I read them, Skin, The Cipher, Bad Brains, and Kink, was not their order of publication, and I skipped Strange Angels, so keep that in mind.

Koja is, at least in these novels, one of those literary writers who tends to write variations on the same story. Her sentences are unobtrusively long but unclotted. No Henry James-like piling of subordinate clause on subordinate clause or long descriptions. Certain quirks, like the words “rebus” and “freshet”, are present, and, like most such writers, it’s not always a good idea to read one of her novels right after another. The palette can get a bit sated on her style.

These novels often, if not always, have these elements: passive male characters, non-white characters that dispense succinct wisdom, an alienation from family, a character who delights in agitating others, a greedy and destructive quest for transcendence, androgynous names, artists living in economic if not creative squalor, ending epigraphs that present the theme, Catholic imagery and allusions, and a skepticism of art theories.

Of the four, only Koja’s first two novels, The Cipher and Bad Brains, have fantastic elements.

The Funhole, a mysterious violation of space, a hole in the floor in the basement of a squalid apartment building, is at the heart of The Cipher.

Koja gets right to the weirdness on the second page:

Black. Not darkness, not the absence of light but living black. Maybe a foot in diameter, maybe a little more. Pure black and the sense of pulsation, especially when you looked at it too closely, the sense of something not living but alive, not even something but some—process. Rabbithole, some strange motherfucking wonderland, you bet. Get somebody named Alice, tie a string to her…. We’d discussed it all, would discuss it again, probably tonight, and Nakota would sit as she always did, straight-backed as a priestess, me getting ripped and ripping into poetry, writing shit that was worse than unreadable in the morning, when I would wake—more properly afternoon, and she long gone, off to her job, unsmiling barmaid at Club 22 and me late again for the video store. She might not come again for days, or a day, one day maybe never. I knew: friends, yeah, but it was the Funhole she wanted. You can know something and never think about it, if you’re any good at it. Me, now, I’ve been avoiding so much for so long that the real trick becomes thinking straight.
After discovering it, our passive narrator, sometime poet Nicholas, and his ex-girlfriend Nakota start performing experiments. They lower insects, a mouse, and a severed hand into it, and all are transformed. When Nicholas’ hand accidentally is plunged in, it is also changed. Nicholas can levitate and melt iron with his bare hands in the presence of the Funhole.

Nakota becomes obsessed with the Funhole, repeatedly watches a recording, which changes over time, made by putting a video recorder in the Funhole. She yearns for the transcendence, the possibility of “transcursion … a passage beyond limits; extraordinary deviation” it offers. And Nicholas, still in love with the manipulative and uncaring Nakota, isn’t about to let her plunge into it.

Eventually a group of people starts to hang about Nicholas’ apartment to catch the spectacle of the Funhole including Malcolm, a player in the local art scene from which so many of the characters come from or drift about. Like Nakota, he is one of Koja’s instigators and agitators though even more stupid and dangerous than Nakota who seeks just her own ends. She moves back in with Nicholas and fervently couples with him after episodes of escalating Funhole strangeness. She is furious at Nicholas thwarting her desires to enter the Funhole.

Nakota sneers that Nicholas has been gifted with an “avenue to change” but

“In fact you’re not even worthy of what’s happening to you. Saints and idiots, angels and children.”

Nicholas has realized the Funhole is a “negativity, an absence, a lack”. His passivity infuriates Nakota. His “lackadaisical acquiescence to conditions she was convinced could and must be altered” enrages her.

Randy, tow truck driver and metal sculptor drawn into the turmoil about the Funhole, exhibits a skepticism of art theory: “I always hated art class in school, bunch of shit.” His girlfriend, Vanese, is one of Koja’s dark-skinned dispensers of wisdom when she warns Nicholas away from his plan to stay beside the Funhole and prevent anyone from entering it. She is described as a kind sister in every way different than Nakota possessor of “that special selfishness that can barely recognize the existence of others.”

The novel is claustrophobic, mostly set in Nicholas’ apartment building, and goes on a bit too long for my taste though the opening, with those Funhole experiments, is quite effective. In terms of sheer menace and weirdness, it surpasses Koja’s Bad Brains. Already, with this first novel, she shows a command of observation, characterization, and dialogue.

Malcolm and Nakota and followers end up trying to break through into the storage room where Nicholas has barricaded himself to protect that Funhole.

The novel ends with Nakota finally getting through that barricade, and Nicholas kills her to prevent her going through the Funhole.

The novel, like all these Koja novels are, is a story of love gone horribly wrong. Cradling her mutilated body, Nicholas’ last words to Nakota are

“I never wanted to hurt you.”

“Then you fucked up.”

And, as all these novels are, this is a tale on the dangers of obsession, particularly the drive toward transcendence. And, like all these novels, it is on the dangers of the head not mastering the heart.

Nicholas, early in the novel, explains his unreciprocated love of the unworthy Nakota:

Because in the end we are what we are, we want what we want, whether we know it or not. Whether we care to resist or not, or whether in the end it’s worth resistance after all.

Nakota and Nicholas are of a type we will see in other Koja novels. Isolated from family (Vanese is described as a kind sister) with their hearts locked in decaying orbits towards an apocalyptic crash.

Koja’s concluding epigraph, the thematic statement, is from Ben Hecht — an author mostly forgotten today except for his link to Charles Fort though Nakota is a fan: “Love is like a hole in the heart.”

Nicholas realizes, as the novel fades out to his uncertain end, what the Funhole is:

… what if it is me? What if somehow I’m crawling blind and headfirst into my own sick heart, the void made manifest and disguised as hellhole, to roil in the aching stink of my own emptiness forever?


The Ultimate Werewolf

This isn’t Halloween programming. It contains a story by Kathe Koja, and I’m working on a couple of postings of her work.

Raw Feed (1993): The Ultimate Werewolf, eds. Byron Preiss, David Keller, Megan Miller, and John Betancourt, 1991.ultimate-werewolf

Introduction”, Harlan Ellison — Ellison makes an interesting case regarding the movie The Wolf Man as the inspiration for most modern werewolf tales, the reason the sub-genre became popular, and the source of most of the werewolf folklore movies and literature.

Adrift Just Off the Islets of Langerhans: Latitude 38° 54’ N Longitude 77° 00’ 13”, Harlan Ellison — It’s a great title and some of the writing and ideas are very good. I particularly liked Lawrence Talbot’s much hated fish and the idea of minituarizing yourself to travel a literal and fantastic inner landscape. Ellison does a good job with the scientific sounding doubletalk. However, the story bored me, and I found it alternately trivial and incomprehensible. Clearly, Ellison is trying to say something. The various images are designed to meet symbolic and thematic purposes: Talbot’s thoughts of mother link to entering his body through the navel and blood red placenta-like sea, his much hated pet fish links to the deadly fish of his interior landscape who kills dreams and dies at story’s end for lack of a worshipper, Talbot has the same name as the protagonist of the movie The Wolf Man but that end is unclear, or, worse, trivial. In his interior landscape, Talbot finds alls sorts of toys from a 30s and 40s childhood in a burst of nostalgia that reminded me of Ellison’s “Jefty Is Five” but not nearly as well-used here. (If Talbot is really that young, why does he want to die so badly? He can’t be an unnaturally old man at the time of the story. Is it the guilt? Another failing is no dealing with the relationship between Talbot and Victor’s father.) The point of the story is that it’s only one’s soul that makes life valueable but this soul quantity is unknowable and symbolized by, of all things, a “Howdy Doody button” (and, no, Ellison doesn’t assign specific human attributes like humor, naiveté, or innocence to the button). My reaction was much like Victor’s: “What the hell’s that supposed to signify…”. A story that never really gelled into anything.

Wolf, Iron, and Math”, Philip José Farmer — A slight story but better than I expected. The two major points of interest in this story are Farmer dwelling on the many details of the werewolf transformation experience, and a pleasant experience it i,s and the werewolf magazine complete with personals section in which people promise not to eat their date’s children. Continue reading

Apocalypse Pretty Soon

I’m off working on new stuff so you get old stuff.

Pretty good old stuff too, if I do say so myself.

Raw Feed (1999): Apocalypse Pretty Soon: Travels in End-Time America, Alex Heard, 1999.apocalypse-pretty-soon

This book, in its travels amongst and personal meetings with various fringe believers (and background on those beliefs) reminded me of a combination of Philip Finch’s God, Guts, and Guns and Ed Regis’ Great Mambo Chicken, two of my favorite books. Heard also strikes a ground between the two in that his subjects of a scientific, religious, or political nature.

Heard has an odd but useful stylistic quirk of alternating personal reporting with historical background or a completely different topic. Heard is usually sympathetic to his subjects quest for a new world even if usually skeptical of their means or some guru’s motives. I had heard of all these groups to one extant or another except for the Christian ministers and Jewish rabbis cheerfully breeding the “apocalypse cow”, an all-red heifer, necessary for sacrifices in the Restored Temple of Jerusalem prior to Christ returning. The heifers are referred to in the Old Testament and require special breeding to make one without blemish. I’d heard of the Gordon Michael Scallion (one flaw of this book is no index) et al Earth Changers, but Heard revealingly describes the emotional context of their apocalypse mongering. They envision, at least many do, good feelings preempting these Earth upheavals or a better world emerging. Many also seem to have a Heinlein-like “competent man” air about them in that they assume only they and a few others will survive and woe unto those who aren’t wise or rich enough to heed their warnings.

I liked (and these were the author’s favorite) the groups trying to build artificial nations/islands in the sea. They come across as enthusiastic, naïve polymaths. Heard briefly describes the founding of Minerva in 1968 on some tidal atolls in the Pacific. I’d only heard of them and the whole nation building (in every sense of the world) notion in an article for replica (I think) Minervan gold coins. Its fate points to a problem with forming your own countries: if you’re successful, somebody will conquer you as Tonga did Minerva. (Somebody has even written a book on this very subject suggesting the do-it-yourself country needs a do-it-yourself nuke.) Heard also surprised me by relating several episodes of violence by Jewish apocalyptic groups in Jerusalem. (They hate the Dome of the Rock being on the site of the Old Temple.) Continue reading

Night Voices, Night Journeys

More Japanese weird fiction while I work on new stuff.

Raw Feed (2007): Night Voices, Night Journeys: Lairs of the Hidden Gods, Volume One, ed. Asamatsu Ken, 2002, 2005.night-voices-night-journeys

Foreword:  Recollections of Tentacles”, Asamatsu Ken, trans. Edward Lipsett. — Perfunctory, metaphor laden account of how popular H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos are in Japan. This is described as an anthology concentrating on Lovecraftian tales with an historical element. Asamatsu notes that the only American sf authors with a “solid bibliography” (Whatever that means exactly:  consistently worth reading or most of their works translated into Japanese?) are Edgar Rice Burroughs, Philip K. Dick, and H. P. Lovecraft — and only the latter has TV adaptations and publishing houses devoted to it.

Introduction:  Rush Hour of the Old Ones”, Robert M. Price — Price, who has edited several Lovecraft inspired anthologies and who, I understand, has a degree in theology, purports to find some similarity in the broad mythology of the Cthulhu Mythos and Aum Shinrikyo (humanity must be purged from Earth to make way for supernatural beings who will be worshipped by the worthy members of the cult — Price provides some interesting material on how the group’s theology evolved) and also Buddhism (specifically August Derleth’s corrupted interpretations of the Cthulhu Mythos).

The Plague of St. James Infirmary”, Asamatsu Ken, trans. R. Keith Roeller — This story shows what I’m told is a characteristic Japanese love of icon — kami in their extreme from. This is sort of interesting mélange of American icons fixed in the Japanese mind:  Chicago and its gangster. The entirely predictable revelation is that cunning Scarface is Al Capone. The less obvious revelation that Eliot is the future Eliot Ness.  I have no idea if his girlfriend was a real character.) Taro, the Japanese bodyguard, turns out to be Kaitaro Hasegawa (I assume a real Japanese writer) who created a beloved fictional one-armed, one-eyed samurai (which Taro temporarily is, due to injuries, in this story.) Price’s notes reveal Michael Leigh, the occultist character, to be a borrowing from Henry Kuttner’s foray into the Cthulhu Mythos. There is a certain unintended humor here — besides the improbable assertion that Michael Leigh’s implied ancestor, Judge Leigh of the Salem Witch Trials, moved to Chicago (my research says the first whites arrived in the 1770s there) with it being noted that the Japanese “have an exceptionally keen spiritual sensitivity”.

The Import of Terrors”, Yamada Masaki, trans. Kathleen Taji — This story effectively combines the firebombing of Kobe — and less obviously its devastating earthquake fifty years later — with some of the elements of H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Whisperer in the Darkness” (I was reminded how rich this is in Cthulhu Mythos elements when I went back and looked at it) and “At the Mountains of Madness”. Two Japanese boys, fleeing the firebombing and starved, enter the mysterious house of a Russian immigrant. They encounter a strange creature who urges the boys to eat it. But they also see the maimed body of the Russian. Still living, he tells them not to eat the alien, that to do so will let a parasite live in their bodies for fifty years, and, when it emerges, catastrophe will result. He even kills one of the boys to stop him from eating the alien but then dies. The narrator, the surviving boy, tells at story’s end how he feels strange impulses and must return to Kobe. Price brief introduction actually helps appreciate the story. He reminds us that Lovecraft’s tale linked the aliens in the Vermont woods with Indian myths and the Mi-Go of the Himalayas and that they feared other aliens. That enemy they feared is implied, believes Price, to be the parasite infecting the alien (seemingly one of the Old Ones from “At the Mountains of Madness”). Price also points out the timing of the narrator’s return to Kobe and the portent of disaster would have been understood by a Japanese audience to mean the Kobe earthquake. Price also compares the state of the boys to the “hungry ghosts” of Buddhism and Hindu reincarnation, a state two notches below being reincarnated as human. However, I don’t quite buy all of Price’s implications.  Yes, the Mi-Go are linked to the Himalayas but they aren’t in this story though, admittedly, the parasite may be one they feared.  (Russian Nikolai’s maiming seems to reveal a man, and not a Mi-Go, horribly injured by the parasite bursting from his body — though how it got to be the size and shape of an Old One is really explained). Nevertheless, it’s an effective story. There’s no reason why a Lovecraftian tale has to slavishly and precisely link itself to the details of the Cthulhu Mythos to work.

27 May 1945”, Kamino Okina, trans. Steven P. Venti — An interesting mythos story set during the midst of the Battle for Okinawa. A priestess of the island’s Cthulhu cult undertakes a mission to release, seemingly, some nascent Deep One forms from beneath Shuri Castle. There is a nice bit at the end of the story tying the destruction, that day, of the castle by an American battleship, the secret nuclear testing two years later on a South Pacific island, and the reluctance of American to have a G8 summit in 1992 at the restored castle to the events of the story.

Night Voices, Night Journeys”, Inoue Masahiko, trans. Edward Lipsett — Forgettable story that invokes the old sex-death link to little effect. The story explicitly mentions Yog-Sothoth.

Sacrifice”, Murata Motoi, trans Nora Stevens Heath — An odd story with a happy ending. A lot of stock horror elements are there:  an unfriendly village with a strange ritual/cult, an urbanite retreating to said village to heal an ill (bad skin), and the village has unusually large and prize vegetables due to their special soil. The protagonist fears his sick wife may be being prepared as some sort of human sacrifice to the Soil God who produces a soil so good that it may be eaten. Said soil may be the product of human sacrifice or, editor Price speculates, the excrement of the Soil God. Because of this speculation and because ingesting such large quantities of soil makes the protagonist’s wife youthful and beautiful and cures her dermatitis, I was reminded of the peculiar Japanese sexual fetish (not widespread) of eating human excrement.

Necrophallus”, Makino Asamu, trans Chun Jin — A sadomasochist tale that has a certain emotional believability and consistency. A sadist who likes to beat women and encounters a mysterious alien, figured like a woman, who may have been born on Yuggoth, her mother disfigured by her grandfather wielding the alien dagger Necrophallus, which maims the narrator and gives him ecstasy at the same time.

Love for Who Speaks”, Shibata Yoshiki — A reworking of H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”. Both stories feature “people” who find that they are really hybrids of humans and Great Old Ones, heredity calling them back to the ocean and an aquatic existence in the deep. But, whereas Lovecraft’s story is a horrifying revelation, genes pulling the hero to a repulsive fate (his cousin, after all, shoots himself rather than go to the ocean with the inhabitants of Innsmouth), the protagonist here finds freedom in not only realizing her biological destiny but escaping from the control of her unloving husband. It is the character of the husband — a gnostic like figure, editor Robert Price notes, who has become enamored with the pleasures of the surface world rather than attending to his calling of finding “women” who are daughters of the Great Old Ones –that has no comparable analog in the Lovecraft story.


More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

The Best Japanese Science Fiction Stories

Since the recent Kaiki posting generated some interest, I thought I’d get out this Raw Feed while I worked on new material.

Raw Feed (1989): The Best Japanese Science Fiction Stories, eds. John L. Apostolou and Martin H. Greenberg,

“Foreword”, Grania Davis — An account by one of the consulting editors on the book’s genesis and the translation of the stories.

“Introduction”, John L. Apostolou — A brief overview of the genre in Japan (it started surprisingly early with, as in many other places, the translation of Jules Verne and progressed, not surprisingly — especially in Japan — with military/future war sf), its character there (surprisingly unconcerned with technology and the future — it is caught up in the present and future and social commentary), and its major practioneers.

The Flood”, Kobo Abe — It’s pretty clear this story of “workers and poor people” being turned into a strange, unruly, unpredictable liquid that travels en masse, diverges into individual forms, and threatens rich folk is an allegory for class struggle and, like most Japanese sf I’ve read (not very much at all — one story or two) concerned with individualism (a natural stance for an author) versus conformity. Abe seems to take swipes at the vagaries of Japanese media, the ineffectiveness and isolation of Japanese politicians, nuclear energy. I liked the humorous bit with Noah yelling at people (a swipe at capitalism given the socialistic/Marxist flavor of the story) to get off his boat.  This story can in no way be called sf despite some scientific jargon. Continue reading

Breaking the Skin

Essay: “Breaking the Skin: Two Visions of Destructive Transcendence”

Antibodies, David J. Skal, 1988.

Skin, Kathe Koja, 1993.

At least two horror writers of the late 1980s and early 1990s weren’t entirely keen on the whole human transcendence project via tattoos or technology

In Skal’s case, his near future science fiction novel deals with what we would call transhumanism.

In many ways, it’s an oh-so 1980’s novel.

There’s a cult. There’s a cultist. There’s a deprogrammer.

There’s CIA nefariousness in Central America, here in the fictitious country Boca Verde, “a whore, dispensing favors equally to tourists and terrorists”. There’s even a repeat of the 1980s conspiracy theory that the CIA created the HIV.

The cult is the Cybernetic Temple based in Boca Verde because U.S. law won’t allow its medical procedures and devices. (And one is reminded of another San Francisco cult based in Latin American jungles, the People’s Temple.)

The gospel of the Cybernetic Temple is spread, in this pre-internet age, by videocassette, and it promises science will actually deliver the promises of immortality made by conventional religion. The technologies to do this do not sound, apart from no mention of mind uploads and nanotechnology, all that different from what the Extropians talk about:

Artificial replacements for vital organs … myoelectric prosthesis … biocompatible silicon rubber … fluorocarbon substitutes for blood itself.

And, like Extropians, there’s a strong libertarian element to the propaganda of the Cybernetic Temple. They rail against government regulations:

More deregulation is required, not just in medicine but in all matters of trade and free choice. America’s laissez-faire dream has yet to be realized. If we cannot make decisions as basic as the control and disposal of our own bodies, then we cannot truly be considered free.

At a party, there’s an amusing bit where one Temple follower has said he’s tried scientology and read Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged fifteen times and has last found something that works.

Ed Bryant’s cover blurb does a good job at summing up the flavor of the novel:

Antibodies is a film by David Cronenberg from a screenplay by Harlan Ellison based on stories by J. G. Ballard and Joyce Carol Oates.

I’m not that familiar with the work of Oates, but there is definitely the flavor of sexual fetishism directed toward the unhuman you see in Ballard’s Crash. There’s a scene where a boy humps a garbage disposal while taking his hand off in it.

The desire of the main character Diandra is to become like the steel eyed mannequins in the famous window displays she does for a San Francisco department store, is not initially sexual. In fact, she has resisted the sexual advances of both men and women. Her rejection of the body stems from early sexual abuse by an uncle. (This easy go-to of childhood sexual abuse to explain mentally damaged characters seems to have gotten its start in the 1980s, the same decade that gave us a lot a modern witch hunts in numerous prosecutions in the U.S. of supposed abusers at childcare facilities.)

But this connection between fetishism and the transcendence of the flesh is strengthened when Diandra finally finds sexual pleasure in the mechanical grasp of Venus Tramhall, the famous sculptor who is the symbol and leader of the Cybernetic Temple, a woman with two very sophisticated prosthetic arms.

Skal doesn’t entirely rig, in emotional or factual terms, his argument of revulsion against the Cybernetic Temple. His deprogrammer character, Julian, head of an organization called Resurrection House, is a detestable character. He sexually abuses some of his subjects. He masturbates while doing a tv interview. He brings women over to his house for bondage sessions while his wife is there. He incites some of his more unstable patients to kill his wife’s lover. He’s a bad example for the flesh-should-stay-flesh side of things.

His wife, Gillian, is something of a covert saint for the Cybernetic Temple. She has pseudonymously penned the science fiction novel Helen Keller in Space. It’s something of a manifesto for the Cybernetic Temple followers. (Her agent quips to her: “You understand the science fiction reader perfectly. Terrified of sex but desperate for romance … craving military structure in relationships … and yet, so vulnerable and afraid!”). Its plot is somewhat reminiscent, in a cyborg spaceship, of Anne McCaffery’s The Ship Who Sang.

Still, Skal doesn’t show any genuine cripples who want the Cybernetic Temple’s technologies (though Tramhall lost her arms, allegedly, in an accident). They just want to escape the universal prison of normal human biology.

And its ending, where it is revealed that all the Temple’s adherents who make their way to Boca Verde, as Diandra tries to do, end up being chopped up for parts or lab rats in experiments to benefit Tramhall and governmental elites, doesn’t address the serious philosophical questions or efficacies of the Temple’s goals. The whole movement seems to come to an end at the novel’s conclusion when a CIA acquaintance of Julian unleashes a plague that kills Tramhall. (An interesting and cautionary philosophical discussion of transhumanism goals is Fred Baumann’s “Humanism and Transhumanism”.)

Skal places the Temple’s goals on a continuum of attempts to “revolt against biology”. A psychotherapist in the novel says:

In all places, at all times, the human body has been considered an object for decoration and alternation. In more primitive societies, lacking our scientific sophistication, the procedures have been limited to such things as ritual scarification, circumcision, tattooing, foot-binding, and, in more ‘civilized’ times, corseting and costume. We really shouldn’t be surprised that our new technologies will generate new fetishes.

The more primitive manifestations of that drive are at the theme of Koja’s Skin. (A book titled Modern Primitives and Industrial Culture Handbook is acknowledged by Koja.)

At the heart of the book are two obsessive artists and their turbulent relationship. (I’ll be examining Koja’s early novels in another posting.) Tess is a welder and works in metal sculpture. Bibi is an artist of the body. At first, that’s just a dance troupe. Tess is recruited by Bibi to create moving props for the troupe’s show, a project brought to an end when Bibi’s increasingly extreme shows end in the death of a troupe member.

Bibi’s is obsessed with body modifications and bloodletting. She offers no real coherent explanation for this obsession other than “Chaos must be met with greater chaos.”

The novel is told through Tess’ point of view, so we never see inside Bibi’s head.

“And to Tess Bibi’s obsession with piercings and cuttings was a kind of unfortunate sidepath, a sideshow, a descent almost into – say it; you think it don’t you?: the freakish: it was for nothing, wasn’t it, but the hectoring of limits? Which was interesting, certainly, and liberating in its own way but ultimately a deader end: my friend got her clit pierced; yeah; so? Do you modify to improve or empower, or simply to feed the greedy black scorn of the human boundaries that succor flesh to blood to pulse and contraction of the emperor mind within? To her questions – rare, but she asked, she made herself ask – Bibi was purely elliptical: soft breath on her shoulder, quiet beside her in the dark: Tess, listen, it’s not something I can explain in words, you have to do it, it’s something you have to feel.

“And for Tess the feel of Bibi’s own desire, the need to share with her, to steep her in the bright blooded ecstasy of pain; in the service of the most capricious god of all, Change.

After the two become lovers, it is Tess’ refusal to get body piercings or see Bibi’s done that precipitates their final separation.

Koja opens her novel with a quote from Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.: “Every idea is an incitement.” At novel’s end, at Bibi’s final show with even more deaths and her complete descent into madness, we see that incitement manifested in Bibi’s body:

her sculpture, raped of its frame, razor wire and bent sparrowbones: the blond hair gone, false gray eyes excised and in the sockets of the hedgehog itself a pair of human eyes, goggle-eyes wet and brown and smelly in the smooth metal clasp, small mouth jingly bright with safety pins circled tight as a cinching gag, the whole of it wrapped in hardware-store chain, the kind you use for a dog, and overdressed again in sloppy pink cellophane; like a candy grotesque; a sweet treat; a jest.

At that moment, Bibi does explain herself to her audience:

There exist so-called primitive tribes who practice and have practiced a variety of rites that our modern society calls aberrant, and wrong; the piercings, the negation, the wearing of the Ituburi – the waist-binding – the sharpened sticks and the heavy stones. In Australia, in certain puberty rites, they used the tip of a flint to rip the penis open, from head to testicles. This was done to prove through the power of pain that we are not our bodies. That our bodies are subject to our wills. That with enough pain, and enough practice, you can use the body to transcend the body. …

This is the lesson that we forgot. This is the lesson of the knife. …

We can learn the lesson again, but it isn’t for fun, it isn’t for pleasure, it’s because we need to, because there’s a place we need to get to and nothing else can take us there, not fucking or drugs or learning, not even the people we love can take us there. We have to go alone.

On a carpet of blood.

Koja’s certainly, in her novels, sympathetic to the obsessive artistic impulse and the transcendence it can offer. But this novel is not sympathetic to Bibi’s concluding statement,

There are all kinds of ways to get there, as many ways as there are people. I found the way that works for me, and for my friends.

Bibi’s way ultimately doesn’t work for her; it destroys her mind and leaves her friend and lover Tess bereft

I expected William Blake to show up sometime in Koja’s novel, specifically his famous line “The road to excess leads to the palace of wisdom”. (Fittingly, it’s from his “Proverbs of Hell”.)

Blake does show up, though, in the novel’s concluding line to remind us the wisdom to take from Bibi’s story. “We never know what is enough.”


Reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

Kaiki: Uncanny Tales from Japan: Vol. 1: Tales of Old Edo

My desultory ways are catching up with me, and the supply of retro reviews is getting sparse.

However, while I’m off writing up new stuff, here’s a retro review from November 4, 2013.

By the way, I reviewed a collection of Miyabe Miyuki’s fiction over at Innsmouth Free Press.

Review: Kaiki: Uncanny Tales from Japan: Vol. 1: Tales of Old Edo, ed. Masao Higashi, 2009.kaiki

With haunted houses and haunted fishing poles, sinister monks and a battle of wills with a ghost, samurais and serving girls, these nine stories and one short manga are not always horrific, often enigmatic, and always a delight. Add a Lafcaido Hearn essay on “The Value of the Supernatural in Fiction” and a very useful introduction on the permutations, tradition, and history of Japanese weird fiction, and this is a definite must read for those interested in the supernatural tale of Japan or even just non-Anglophone weird fiction.

The tales all have some connection with Edo – though many stories are not set there – and range in age from 1776 to 2005. Some are retellings of classic Japanese ghost stories, some are influenced by European and American horror stories, and some are entirely original.

In a Cup of Tea“, Lafcaido Hearn – Hearn’s retelling of the Japanese tale “A Young Man’s Face Appears in a Cup at a Tea Shop”. Masao notes Hearn brought out the “tale’s fantastic and nonsensical nature by editing out the last parts”. Continue reading

The Two Georges

If I would have been thinking straight yesterday (I’m blaming my cognitive disability on a incipient migraine), I would have posted this in honor of Columbus Day (or, as it’s called in my native South Dakota, Native Americans Day) and Yorktown Victory Day (a state holiday in Virginia celebrated the same day).

Raw Feed (1996): The Two Georges, Richard Dreyfuss and Harry Turtledove, 1995.two-georges

This novel about the recovery of a famous painting symbolizing, with the presentation of George Washington to King George III’s privy council, the continued union of North America with England, was ok as a thriller with tours of the militarized frontier (the Queen Charlotte Islands and the border with the Russian), the semi-autonomous Iroquois Six Nations, the hellish and impoverished coal mines of Virginia, and the capitol of Victoria.

However, the treachery of Sir Horace Bragg was obvious about two-thirds of the way through, and the book had one of the oldest clichés in thrillers when Kathleen Flannary and Colonel Thomas Bushell fall in love.

As an alternate history, there is something lacking here, but I don’t know what exactly since there are lots of touches showing how different – and, generally, more pleasant – the culture of this world’s British Empire is. Policemen don’t regularly carry guns, and the vicious criminal that uses one is rare. TV exists but only as a communal activity. The rare person who can afford a private TV is regarded as odd for wanting one. While we can sympathize with the Sons of Liberty, they are a violent, racist lot and definitely regarded by most as a violent fringe group. John Kennedy is one of their leaders, and Irish in general are looked down on. (And Richard Nixon, murdered early on, is a notorious used car dealer.) The Irish are the main workers in the awful coal mines that power the North American Union. Unions seem totally absent, and the miners are naturally resentful of their horrible conditions, and Bushell, at novel’s end, will perhaps be involved in reforming their conditions. Blacks, after freed from slavery sometime in the 19th century, form a sizeable chunk of the civil service and have a reputation for fussiness. Not only have blacks fared better but so have the Iroquois (though the book is noticeably silent about the fate of other Indians). George Washington is remembered fondly by the Iroquois’ for enforcing a 1763 ban on white settlement west of the Appalachians. Whites eventually move into the land, but the Iroquois have time to reform their culture and learn modern ways and hold their own in the North American Union.

The neatest part about this alternate history is the maps of North America and the world. They show a world largely divided between three power blocs: the British Empire, the Franco-Spanish Empire, and the Russian Empire. The French revolution seems not to have happened (a reference is made to a Beethoven work written to commemorate those killed by Napoleon Bonaparte’s cannon while he served Louis XVI in quelling a revolt). In the absence of an independent America and the two World Wars, technological progress has been greatly slowed. Computer technology (and its effect on long distance phone calls which take a long time here as they used to do in our world) seems non-existent. Air transportation is done by charming dirigibles with aeroplanes (no one needs to be in that much of a hurry is the general consensus) reserved for military use. Military weapons seem stuck about 100 years behind ours. Continue reading