Letter From The Editor - Issue 58 - August 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
Another Dimension
  Book Reviews by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro
March 2017

Title: The Twenty Days of Turin
Author: Giorgio De Maria
Publisher: Liverlight

The nameless protagonist of Giorgio De Maria’s disturbing, utterly fascinating novel The Twenty Days of Turin (originally published in Italian in 1977; first translated into English by Ramon Glazov in this 2017 edition) plans to write a book about the bizarre phenomenon referred to in the book’s title, “neither a war nor a revolution, but, as it’s claimed, ‘a phenomenon of collective psychosis’—with much of that definition implying an epidemic?” Many were killed during this strange outbreak, and the novel’s episodic chapters chronicle our would-be writer’s various research attempts, as he interviews survivors, relatives of the deceased, witnesses and in general anyone who might be willing to discuss what really happened.

By the end of the first chapter we’ve learned that the investigation will not proceed along habitual lines: “I sensed that she pitied me—pitied that I was still searching for truth with the limited means of the mind, when the way to reach it was so very different!” We’ve entered a labyrinthine, metaphysical realm where ratiocination may hinder more than help, and this “case,” like certain inquiries by the characters of H. P. Lovecraft, Samuel Beckett, Alain Robbe-Grillet and China Miéville, will ultimately lead not so much to “objective” answers as to chilling personal revelations.

Within Italian literature, an author whose work would appear to have bearing on De Maria’s is Leonardo Sciascia, something I surmise based on The Cambridge History of Italian Literature: “The detective may be read as an alter ego of the first-person researcher who appears in other works, in which, on the basis of scanty and often incomplete documents, and of usually not more than circumstantial evidence, Sciascia seeks to put together again a long-neglected historical event or chain of events. . . .” That’s a pretty apt description of the work at hand. Other possible influences are Italo Calvino (who spent much time in Turin), Cesare Pavese (who committed suicide in Turin in 1950) and the crime authors Carlo Fruttero and Franco Lucentini, whose well-known novel La Donna Della Domenica (1972; translated into English as The Sunday Woman in 1973) deals with a Turinese murder investigation.

Throughout the course of the novel we learn only basic information about our protagonist, such as the fact that he plays the recorder but has recently lost the ability to be moved by the music of Vivaldi and Albinoni he once loved. Emphasis is given instead to the various parts of Turin he visits and the often eccentric people with whom he interacts. “In this city,” we’re told in Chapter 2, “demons lurk under the ashes,” and indeed, one of De Maria’s strengths is to render the city intimately alive. Peter Berard opines that “Turin is arguably the most fleshed-out character in the novel.” Besides Turin’s literary heritage, we should recall too its prominent place in Italian cinema. Dario Argento, for example, directed seven films in Turin, one of which was the splashy Profondo Rosso (1975), and De Maria was working in the wake of such dark expressions.

A proxy, or perhaps channel, for the city’s “deep imbalances” are its secretive and paranoid inhabitants, and one of the novel’s brilliant imaginative strokes is a library in which participants are “not interested in printed paper or books. There’s too much artifice in literature, even when it’s said to be spontaneous. We’re looking for true, authentic documents reflecting the real spirit of the people, the kinds of things we could rightly call popular subjects. . . . Is it possible that you’ve never written a diary, a memoir, a confession of some problem that really worries you?” Several reviewers, and the novel’s translator, have astutely pointed out how this fictional construct anticipates the Internet and contemporary social media. Another dimension I think worth examining is the Catholic interpretation of this intensely confessional activity. De Maria was not religious in his youth but became fervently Catholic in later life, and the Library may anticipate, in fictional form, some of the urges leading to such a conversion.

Ramon Glazov’s translation is a pleasure to read, and he provides a thoughtful Introduction, though I recommend reading it after the novel, as he undertakes a fair amount of detailed analysis. This book also contains a short story and essay by De Maria, bringing further insight to his creative inclinations. The psychic tension of De Maria’s novel gives way to a kind of cosmic horror that justifies invoking Thomas Ligotti and T. E. D. Kline, in addition to the writers mentioned earlier.

Though De Maria was far from prolific, we can take solace in this new translation bringing about a wider awareness of his work. And ambitious weird fiction, in broader terms, is alive and well today. Some unusual and inspired novels, like Paolo Giordano’s La Solitudine Dei Numeri Primi (The Solitude of Prime Numbers, 2008), continue to be set in Turin. It is a shame that this was De Maria’s last novel, but given its ending, perhaps silence was inevitable after this particular statement. Where else was there for him to go?

Title: Black Feathers
Editor: Ellen Datlow
Publisher: Tor Books

Ellen Datlow’s Black Feathers, a bevy of avian-inspired horror fiction, will delight connoisseurs of the genre and anyone who cares to explore the darker aspects of birds’ relationships, real or mythical, with humans. Readers who derive enjoyment from finely-crafted, disquieting fiction should, ah, flock to pick this one up.

This brilliantly culled selection includes one poem—“O Terrible Bird” by Sandra Kasturi, which sets the book’s tone—and fifteen stories, of which two are reprints and thirteen are original. Perhaps the two that hit me hardest were Mike O’Driscoll’s eerie, harrowing “Blyth’s Secret,” in which a young man with a troubled past tries to help with a missing children’s investigation by conferring with a corvid in a way only he knows how, and the anthology’s devastating closer, Priya Sharma’s sparsely-written, heartbreaking “The Crow Palace,” wherein Julie returns home after a long absence not exactly to roost but rather to deal with the aftermath of her father’s death and the care of her sister Phillipa, who has cerebral palsy. Both of these first-person stories, as do others in the anthology, deal with fractured relationships and how the past can dismayingly claw its way into the present. In a serendipitous touch, the first paragraph of Sharma’s story—“Birds are tricksters. Being small necessitates all kinds of wiles to survive but Corvidae, in all their glory as the raven, rook, jay, magpie, jackdaw, and crow have greater ambitions than that. They have a plan”—provides an almost diametrically opposed sentiment to the final line of O’Driscoll’s story, illustrating this book’s wide wingspan. I think I’ve mentioned elsewhere in these reviews what a joy it is to discover writers previously unknown to me, and that joy continues unabated here with the highly skilled O’Driscoll and Sharma.

Three other stories I found exceptional: Paul Tremblay’s “Something About Birds” explores culminating obsession with both birds and fiction in an elegant, playfully postmodern and at times mordantly funny meditation on loneliness, ambition and the price of a definitive interpretation. Alison Littlewood’s “The Orphan Bird” probes the life and impulses of a recluse named Arnold, whose childhood scars have engendered twin passions for art and nesting bitterns that blend in uncanny and unwholesome ways. A. C. Wise’s “The Secret of Flight” cleverly employs stage directions, transcripts, newspaper clippings, a list and various bits of correspondence, as well as an embedded fable, “The Starling and the Fox,” to untangle the enigmatic, tragic history linking Owen Covington, Raymond Barrow and the disappearance of Clara Hill.

Livia Llewellyn’s “The Acid Test” is another standout that perhaps deserves to be singled out for its breathlessly delirious prose, its raw eroticism and mesmerizing, hallucination-induced dread. Here is one of the story’s shorter, more reigned-in sentences: “I reach out and let the galaxies drift and settle across my skeleton fingers, and out of the gray night fingers touch mine, long and smooth and autumn brown, and I hear the words hey girl as his face floats up from out of the crystal-white mist of the stars and snow and my breath, and there he is like a statue, eagle-nosed and black-eyed and that cool sardonicus grin.”

There’s a lot of other notable work here, including Jeffrey Ford’s “The Murmurations of Vienna Von Drome,” about a years-long murder mystery in the invented land of Pellegran’s Knot, aptly named for its inextricable interweaving of tantalizing weirdness and all-out terror; Nicholas Royle’s “The Obscure Bird” (one of the reprints), which in a few tightly focused scenes builds to a horrific, head-turning finale, and Stephen Graham Jones’s “Pigeon from Hell,” whose colloquial, teenage first-person narration hatches a deceptively simple plot that hides its horrors in plain sight.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention additional contributors. Joyce Carol Oates’s compelling “Great Blue Heron” mines themes of widowhood, grief and panic that will be familiar to her readers; Usman T. Malik’s richly textured, darkly fantastic “The Fortune of Sparrows” takes us to a girls’ orphanage in Pakistan; M. John Harrison’s “Isobel Avens Returns to Stepney in the Spring” (the other reprint), delves deep into codependency and body dysmorphic disorder; Seanan McGuire’s “The Mathematical Inevitability of Corvids,” which I expect may become a reader favorite, tells of a young girl’s need for numbers to make sense of the world; Richard Bowes’s “The Season of the Raptors” and Pat Cadigan’s “A Little Bird Told Me” both provide welcome changes of pace, the former with its reminiscence-driven, urban episodes, the latter with its overtly quirky supernaturalism.

As I hope this review has made clear, the writers in this selection are birds of prey, operating at full kill. Allow me to close with some alliterative bird-speak; what we have here is a murder of literary murders, a nest of nightmares, a parliament of phobias, a volary of viciousness, a gaggle of grotesqueries, an exaltation of evils, a charm of chills and a clutch of curses, a new taxonomic talon of terror, and, finally, a fine feather in Datlow’s editorial cap.

Read more by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro


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