The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird Stories

the thing on the doorstepThe Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird Stories, H.P. Lovecraft

H.P. Lovecraft is a towering figure in genre fiction, a god father of horror, fantasy, science and fiction and world building in general. Really, in terms of horror stories, it’s probably Poe and Lovecraft that created the literary world we know. Writing primarily short stories in Weird Tales, Lovecraft created a whole world of Elder Gods and mysticism and alternate dimensions and an ageless time before ours whose influence can be seen in modern authors such as Stephen King and Neil Gaiman, shows such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer (anything with the idea that there are ancient Gods and demons from aeons before humans and in dimensions just off to the side owe a debt to Lovecraft) and even parts of culture that don’t even realize it, such as the Silurian Hypothesis.

The Thing on the Doorstep was a great showcase of Lovecraft’s writing. It centers quite often on the Old Ones/Elder Gods, humans mucking about with forces beyond our understanding, and calling forth horrors primarily through Yog-Soggoth, who features prominently. (While Cthulu is probably the best known of his mythology now, Lovecraft jokingly referred to his world as ‘’Yog-Soggothery”). It includes the chilling “The Thing on the Doorstep”, the eerie and sad “The Quest of Iranon”, the eerie and amazing “The Music of Erich Zann,” and “At the Mountains of Madness” and “The Dunwich Horror”, two of his most famous, in addition to several others.

Lovecraft is a masterful story teller, and given the similarities of all of his stories, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed reading them all in a row. “At the Mountains of Madness,” in which a group of explorers discover an amazing, gigantic city that looks like mountains created by Elder Ones millions of years ago, drags on a bit, but is incredibly creepy. It also showed off Lovecraft’s devotion to Poe, calling back as it did so much on The Narrative of Arthur Pym of Nantucket. And while Lovecraft’s books are clearly horror novels, filled as they are with an overall disconcerting sentiment even when nothing overtly scary is going on, and an eerie atmosphere, the stories are often reminiscent of other writers as well. “The Quest for Iranon” felt like a short story from golden age science fiction, that may have come from someone like Clark or Bradbury. And “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” in particular, the longest story that Lovecraft wrote, could almost be an Agatha Christie book with the mystery at the center, albeit one that seemed to go through a looking glass and pick up several supernatural elements.

Lovecraft has had such a strong influence on literary culture, and has picked up such an odd subculture of following, that he has almost become a myth unto himself. Given that, he is imbued with importance and a set of feelings and expectations and a weightiness that can be intimidating. But I strongly suggest that anyone interested in good short stories, mysteries, or soft science fiction and fantasy pick up one of his books. There’s a reason they have endured and influenced so many others. These stories stand up by themselves, and will fully creep you out. They’re an excellent October read.

Advertisements

Best American Science and Nature Writing, 2011

best sci and nature 2011

Best American Science and Nature Writing, 2011, edited by Mary Roach

The Best American… series are some of my favorite to pick up at the library book sale. They’re often there, usually only a couple of books, and they’re reliably interesting. I tend to go for the Science and Nature ones in particular. And this one was edited by Mary Roach, which seemed as good a reason as any to pick it over others.

This one was excellent, as always, with several essays that have stood out and had me thinking about them long after. Burkhard Bilger’s “Natures Spoils”, about the strange underground world of trading in raw milk and extolling the virtue of eating ‘high meat’ was bizarre and fascinating. “The Chemist’s War”, by Deborah Blum, taught me a piece of history I hadn’t previously known about, wherein the federal government systematically tried to poison people during prohibition to stop them from drinking alcohol. And Atul Gawande, common in many essay collections, has an amazing essay, “Letting Go,” that had me crying in the corner of a diner while I was reading it.

Many of the essays here, though, are about the destruction we have wrought and are continuing to wreak on the Earth. As is to be expected—there’s almost nothing else to talk about if you’re on the topic of nature. This one isn’t quite as full of such topics as the collection edited by Elizabeth Kolbert, but it still includes an essay on the tradition of eating migrating song birds in the Mediterranean that has all but wiped out several bird populations, the jumping Asian carp overwhelming midwestern lakes, and the destructive nature of fracking. And an essay on space debris that, while not as directly related to ecology, is still a symptom of the same problem as the others—a belief that one well, one person shooting song birds, one dumping of space debris, can’t have that much of an impact, ignoring that this decision is being made over and over and over again by a huge number of people.

I have never wholly subscribed to Kant’s categorical imperative, that one can only act according to the maxim that that action would become a universal law to be done by all, it seems increasingly clear that, in environmental issues this does need to be the rule. It’s the only way to govern the tragedy of the commons problem. Because whatever negative actions one takes, or actions done thinking it can be allowed because it is only one person, will be done so often that they may as well be universal laws.

The recent special report by the International Panel on Climate Change has highlighted again that we are in the midst of the most dangerous crisis humanity as a whole has yet faced, with unknown consequences if we cannot rapidly decrease or emissions starting immediately. And this can only be done by everyone taking action, and everyone recognizing that the universality of our actions is killing us.

This is obvious by perusing the news, but reading several environmental essays in a row drives it home. The common thread in all of them is each of us ignoring that our actions have consequences and that we are never just one. Hopefully we’ll realize that before it’s too late.

Library Book Sale!

library book sale 2018.JPG

 

♫♪It’s the hap-happiest time, of the year!♫♪ That’s right, it’s the weekend of the fall library book sale in my county. It’s one of the most magical places. They have rows and rows and stacks and boxes of books. Mass market paperbacks are fifty cents. Fifty cents!!!!! And the most expensive book I’ve ever seen there was $4, although I would never pay that for a book sale book. I usually go there with a $20 budget, and for the first time ever I managed to stay under it. Below, a preview of my haul:

Holy War: The Crusades and Their Impact on Today’s World, Karen Armstrong. Karen Armstrong might be my favorite religion/theology writer. Her History of God is amazing. I’m very much looking forward to digging into this one.

Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms: The Story of the Animals and Plants That Time Has Left Behind, Richard Fortey. A narrative history of evolution and the creatures that have outlasted all of the others of their time. And even it were just about horseshoe crabs and velvet worms I probably would have gotten it. Those things are cool.

The Pearl That Broke Its Shell, Nadia Hashimi. In 2007 Kabul, on streets still controlled by the Taliban, a young girl is supporting her family through an ancient custom that allows a young girl to be treated as a son until she’s of marriageable age, a custom her great-great-grandmother had used as well, and the way their stories weave together.

Dune Messiah, Frank Herbert. My husband just read Dune  (although he should have ages ago), and neither one of us has read further on in the series, so it seemed a good choice for us to read together.

The Green Brain, Frank Herbert. And I wanted to see if Frank Herbert was any good at writing books about forests, or if he could really just do the one ecosystem.

J, Howard Jacobson. This is a book that has been on my to-be-read list forever. J is a dystopia where there has been a calamity that no one mentions and collective memory has vanished. And it’s described as a darkly humorous tale. This very much appeals to my interests.

Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day, Ben Loory. A short story collection that looked intriguing (It’s the one up there with a tentacle and a UFO – I totally judged the book by its cover). But one of the blurbs on the back also described Loory as a combination of Mother Goose, Philip K. Dick and Richard Brautigan. I pretty much had to buy it.

Upon the Sleeping Flood and Other Stories, Joyce Carol Oates. I know I had to read something by Oates in school, but I honestly don’t remember it at all. And I’ve only read one short story since. She seems essential reading for anyone who likes American literature (which I do) so I wanted to give her a better shot.

Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel.  A bit of an impulse buy, as I knew nothing about this, but it caught my attention. Another dystopian future, this time when a devastating flu pandemic has completely disrupted civilization, and a small troupe of artists trying to keep the humanities and humanity alive.

The Guns of August, Barbara Tuchman. This is widely regarded as one of the best, if not the best books, on how World War I got started. World War I was such a ridiculous war that should never have happened, and it could use more discussion. Especially these days, when we regularly see people abdicating responsibility, making decisions everyone knows and agrees are wrong, and letting stubbornness and foolish allegiances make decisions rather than any sort of thought or sense. I increasingly think we don’t need the tales of pure evil to warn us for today so much as the tales of history’s great blunders.

Danubia: A Personal History of Habsburg Europe, Simon Winder. Basically, a humorous history of Central Europe and the Habsburg Empire, who ruled over the region for centuries (pretty much until World War I, so it’s sort of a companion piece to Tuchman’s book.)

Not Even Wrong, Peter Woit. I’m fascinated by physics and the search for a theory of everything, as I’ve written about before. And, having just read some critiques of string theory and how it doesn’t work with our current universe, I’m excited to read this book critiquing it in depth.

Eric

ericFaust Eric,Terry Pratchett

At the end of Sourcery, Terry Pratchett had a slight problem. Rincewind had ended up stuck in the dungeon dimensions. But as the hero Discworld deserves, if not necessarily the one it wants, Rincewind will obviously have a greater role to play and can’t just remain exiled to a different plane. So what to do? Oh, sure, Pratchett could have just started the next book by saying that Rincewind had been saved by, oh, let’s say Moe, but Pratchett is no slacker. He’s a professional, so he went ahead and wrote a ministory to explain how and why Rincewind had returned.

And, well, that really seems to be the purpose of this book. Eric is quite short, clocking in at just over 100 pages, and tells the tale of a teenage boy who decides to become a great demonologist, attempting to summon a demon that will grant him his three wishes of having dominion over all of the world, having the most beautiful woman in the world, and living forever. Unfortunately, when he opens the door to the dungeon dimensions for summoning he brings forth Rincewind instead.

Eric was not the greatest of the Discworld novels, but it was fine. It had some bits that were quite clever, such as the Discworld variant of the Trojan Wars, and an always appreciated cameo by Death. (As well as The Librarian, who is the true history of Discworld.) But it also seemed to be a bit dashed off. There is more than one quip that is fine at first, but wears thin quickly and one has to assume would have been changed out in subsequent drafts if time permits. The horrible deity Quetzlovercoatl, for instance, is a play on words that would be fine once, but more than that and it seems to be a place holder but nothing better came up.

All in all, though, I thought it was a perfectly cromulent Discworld book, and at its short length, one may as well read it just to complete the series. I’m looking forward to getting back to Death and The Witches a couple of books on, though.

Focault’s Pendulum

foucault's pendulumFocault’s Pendulum, Umberto Eco

Do you remember when The Da Vinci Code came out? And people were amazed by it. Everyone talked about how amazing the book was, how mind-blowing, how amazingly well researched. It covered so many topics, and it really made you think. It spurred a whole series of think pieces, Church responses and seminars, and ‘documentaries’ on the National Learning Channel of Discovering History.  And then, if you’re anything like me, you finally read this life-changing book and it was, you know, fine. It was alright, I guess. I mean, Dan Brown knows how to write a page turner- I finished the book in one afternoon. But, well, it was just your average thriller. Shocking and mind-blowing it was not.

Foucault’s Pendulum, by the ever brilliant Umberto Eco, written in 1988, is the book that I thought Da Vinci Code would be. It truly is amazing, it is an amazingly well-researched book on the occult and conspiracies, it is actually suspenseful with twists one never sees coming, and it really does have something to say about the world that should make one think.

The book centers on a man, Casaubon, who had been a history student studying the Knights Templar and attempting to write a serious thesis of the history of the Knights. He makes the acquaintance of another man, Belbo, who works at a vanity printing press, which unsurprisingly attracts a large number of conspiracy theorists, and asks if Casaubon will review a manuscript on the Knights Templar and their plan to take over the world. Shortly afterwards, Casaubon decides to abandon his studies, and travels to Brazil, where he has some other interesting experiences with people interested in the occult and mysticism, including an encounter and somewhat friendship with an older man, Agliè, with a wealth of knowledge in the subject area and who strongly implies he is hundreds of years old and perhaps the immortal Comte de St. Germain.

Upon returning to Italy, Casaubon again connects with Belbo and begins working as a freelance researcher for their printing press. With a third friend, Diotellevi, and inspired by the many occult documents and conspiracy manuscripts that have come their way, they decide to amuse themselves by coming up with their own Plan, with which they can outdo even the previous manuscripts they’ve seen and identify the true leaders behind all of it, those pulling the string so the many secret societies. The ur-conspiracy. They eventually decide to test how well they’ve created their hoax by sending it to Agliè, after which things spiral. The book opens with Casaubon hiding in fear for his life and recounting how they arrived at this point, so it’s only a matter of reading to find out how this conspiracy has sucked them in.

In Foucault’s Pendulum, Eco plays with ideas that he will come back to in other books, such as Baudolino and Prague Cemetary, to unfortunately much diminished effect in the case of the latter, ideas such as the accidental and mundane truths behind conspiracies, which never the less imply a lack of coincidences and an inability for many of us to perceive the full truth. He toys with the idea of why there is this pull from conspiracies and occult. And, in something that should be more relevant today, in the world of QAnon and ‘ironic’ racism or sexism or hoaxes, how deeply can you be immersed in something and stay above it? When does something veer away from being a hoax? Throughout the book (and many of the modern controversies) I returned over and over again to the Kurt Vonnegut quote, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be.”

This is, without a doubt, the most thoughtful and original “secret society conspiracy suspense” book I’ve ever read (it’s a genre and a topic I actually really like.) However, like all of Eco’s books, Foucault’s Pendulum can be a bit difficult to get into, you have to be willing to put in some work with his books. But for anyone who does stick with it, you will be richly rewarded. This book will stick with you for years to come.

The Elegant Universe

The Elegant UniverseThe Elegant Universe, Brian Greene

After rereading The Fabric of the Cosmos last year I decided I should go back and reread Brian Green’s first book, The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory, an explainer on string theory for the layperson. It covers the search for a theory of everything, back from Newton’s day, and explaining some of the revolutionary theories we’ve had in physics before, and whether or not string theory can finally answer some of our fundamental questions, such as, is there any particular reason particles seem to cluster in categories with three specific properties, what is everything made of anyway, and gravity, how does it even work?

Greene, as always, is an excellent author, and I think this is a fairly good book to pick up to get enough understanding of the lay of the land, string theory wise, to not be completely lost when you’re reading science articles online. He gives a fairly good overview of quantum physics, of the challenges between quantum physics and particle physics and why they don’t ever work together, and the disagreements with even these models early on in their existence. And I feel like I have a good grasp of what exactly string theory is and what it says, although I still don’t understand at all the why. What I’m not clear on is if I don’t know the why because it would take a good deal of math I wouldn’t be able to understand, or if it’s because there really isn’t a good explanation of why—it was just physicists playing around with some math theorems and saying, well, this might work!

And, as before, I still have a good deal of questions after reading this, although I suppose that’s how it gets after one learns just a tiny bit of physics:

  • I still don’t understand why, according to quantum mechanics, particles would only decide where they are when *we* observe them. I guess the cat could be both dead and alive until we open the box, but even if we didn’t observe the particle, the cat is still interacting with them, right? Wouldn’t any other interaction other than a scientist’s still make the particle decide where to be?*
  • Greene says there’s a possibility of identifying a string that hasn’t been shrunk down to Planck length floating out there in the universe at some point. If this is the case, would it also be wrapped around dimensions that weren’t shrunk down in Planck length? Would this mean there’s a possibility of actually observing these other dimensions?
  • Everything about string-theory always refers to several space dimensions (latest seems to be 10) and one time But I have never seen anything that explains why it would have to be lots of space ones and only one time one. Could more time ones be possible? What would that even mean? Do we only assume it would be multiple space dimensions and just the one time dimension because we can’t define what more than one time dimension would look like? Because everything about this is insane anyway, we may as well just pretend there are 6 time dimensions and 5 of space or whatever.

As you can see, I still don’t understand *anything*, but I also don’t think anyone else does, either. The Infinite Monkey Cage had an episode aeons ago on whether cosmology is a science. I don’t remember where they came down on it, but it is hard to see how cosmology or advanced physics are science more than philosophy with extra equations that may or may not explain anything.

And yet I will continue to read these things, and Greene is a fairly good instructor for them. As for this particular book, I didn’t think it was as good as Fabric of the Cosmos, for a rather counterintuitive reason: Elegant Universe focused far more on areas of Greene’s personal research. That could have made it better, but unfortunately, he goes on more than one long aside on how he and others had worked out the details of a theorem rather than explaining exactly what the theorem can be. I know that movies make scientists discovering things with the amazing flash of insight as they see a reflection on the highway look exciting, but Greene sadly explains things realistically and reading of how people went out to dinner, went for a walk, sent some e-mails, waited for a computer program to load, fixed some computing errors, etc. is less thrilling. And by the end, as he’s looking at M-theory, which was still being developed at the time, and a few other aspects of string theory the level of understanding in science has not caught up to the point that it can be explained with words, not math.

But it was a good refresher, and, from my lay perspective, still one of the most useful books to help understand what all these terms even mean. It provides some good groundwork on what the physics articles are talking about. I find it incredibly useful.

I still don’t understand anything about the why, though.

 

*My favorite explanation for this is that we actually are in a simulation. It’s a rendering issue, you see. The bits don’t decide where to be and fully come into focus until we observe them, and that cat isn’t actually a player, so it’s interaction with the simulated particle doesn’t really matter.^

^This is also why the arrow of time can only move in one direction, even though the rules of physics (as we’ve identified them, that is) say that time should move in either direction. We can’t move backwards due to a lack of save points, and we’re all sort of shunted off towards the main direction of the end. It’s a very advanced sand box game, but it still has constraints.¹

¹Okay, listen I don’t *really* think we’re in a super-advanced simulation. It’s just, it does provide a disturbingly simple answer to some big mysteries.

 

All the Light We Cannot See

all the lightAll the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr

This was a beautifully written, sprawling, modern(ish) day fairy tale that I absolutely devoured. Anthony Doerr’s story of a young girl, a young boy, a gem, and WWII is a page-turner, the kind of book that it is impossible to put down. It may not seem that a large doorstopper of a book like this would be read in a single sitting, but this came very close.

All the Light We Cannot See tells the story of a young, blind girl, Marie-Laure LeBlanc, whose mother has died years ago and whose father, Daniel, is the locksmith at the Museum of Natural History in Paris. He has crafted a scale model of their neighborhood for her to navigate with her fingers, memorizing their routes, regularly buys her books in braille, and creates intricate puzzles for her to solve by touch. Worlds away is young Werner Pfennig, who lives in an orphanage with his sister, Jutta, in the poor, coal-mining town of Zollverein, Germany.

The book follows their very separate paths, until coming together at the end. Werner and his sister find an old short-wave radio which he is able to fix, and he quickly shows a natural aptitude for engineering. Through this, he is sent off to a training school for young Nazis, where the students are set against each other and against the weak, to train them to be ubermensch. Werner keeps his head down and does as he’s told, no matter how distasteful he finds it, to pursue his one dream of being an engineer and working on radios. He proves excellent at discovering the location of radio transmissions, which becomes his job on a small team during the war. Marie-Laure, meanwhile, is forced to flee Paris with her father, who takes her to Saint-Malo on the coast to live with her great-uncle Etienne, who once broadcast radio lessons with his brother, Henri, until he passed away, from their home and now lives with a recluse, with only his long-time maid, Madame Manec, visiting regularly. Marie-Laure’s father is one of four people from the museum who has been given either the Sea of Flames or a replica, an incredibly rare and sought-after jewel that is also craved by the Reich, a jewel which it is said brings long life to whoever possesses it, but curses to their loved ones.

The plot of the story proceeds along these lines. Marie-Laure’s uncle’s house becomes a site of the resistance, Werner continues hunting down the Nazi signals. The beauty relies almost entirely in Doerr’s writing and his storytelling, which some have said is overwrought but is still beautifully descriptive. The story is imbued with magical realism in the form of the jewel, but primarily grounded in the characters and their reality. It was a lovely book, which pulls the reader entirely into its poetic, somewhat surreal world. The characters were not always the most developed, as many seemed to fit into their roles rather cleanly, but this is to be expected in a book that is far more a fairy-tale for the twentieth century than a realist novel. I can forgive this easily in a book I enjoy reading. Still, I would have enjoyed for some of them to be a bit more fully realized. Werner’s colleague and assigned protector in school, Volkheimer, is never really investigated but seemed the most interesting. A large man who is defaulted into a position of being the muscle, who goes along with the Nazi training and regime with no introspection, but who is moved to tears by classical music and is quite protective of Werner. He seems to be there mostly as a character who can highlight these contradictions, but I would have liked to see him and others more fleshed out.

Still, despite how much I enjoyed this book, I must criticize it for one particular thing, something that far too many artists and readers and moviegoers etc. are guilty of. Using World War II as backdrop. World War II is overly romanticized, and it has taken on its own feel, almost, its own color in our Western civilization memory and tale, particularly in this country, that is independent of the fact that this was a horrific thing, that the rise of fascism came with the rise in technology that presented a unique opportunity for oppression, that these are terrors that can happen again and are, sadly, not confined to this time period, and that includes the most well-documented and terrifyingly bureaucratized example of genocide. It is a convenient backdrop—we all know how we are supposed to feel about the war. It colors the story immediately. It is a useful shortcut—we know who is good, we know who is bad. The writer can ascribe any villainy to the Nazis and it will be believable. All the Light does not really deal with the Holocaust, but the pieces of WWII are still going to impact how we think of all of this.

I think that we need to dispense of this literary, and cinematic convention. As much as I loved this book, I wish it had been in a different era, although I suppose the technology would have been completely different, or a different part of the war, Spain, perhaps, or anything else. It is not that nothing new can be said about WWII, or that it should be avoided. But we have so much art on this topic, and so much is a crutch. What I do want to see is a moratorium on using WWII, Nazis, the Holocaust, etc. as background, as a setting. If you want to write about these things if you have experience, a connection, something new to say, then do so. But if you want it only for the feelings that it invokes, as a setting for your story, please find something new. This was a time of horrors, a time of a fascism, a time that we need to think critically about. It is its own thing. Please don’t reduce it to scenery.