Thursday, November 12, 2015


a review of MEDUSA'S WEB by Tim Powers
For me, few literary activities are more satisfying than the reading of a new Tim Powers book, except perhaps the reading a new Tim Powers book several months before publication. (Full disclosure: I found an Advance Reading Copy on Ebay).
Powers doesn't crank them out. His last standalone novel was Three Days to Never in 2006. His last novel, Hide Me Among the Graves in 2012, continued a revivification of the vampire genre begun in 1989 with The Stress of Her Regard, and in addition to being a wham-bang horror novel it was a splendid portrait of pre-Raphaelite London. It should have won the World Fantasy Award. Equally powerful was the 2013 novella Salvage and Demolition, a dazzling farrago of Beat Poets, pulp SF and ancient Sumerian anti-Gods, wrapped up in a time travel tale to rival Heinlein's “By His Bootstraps.”  His latest, Medusa's Web, delivers a high octane dose of Powersian weirdness and secret history, set in a modern-day Hollywood given to chrono-seismic upheavals from Hollywoodland of the 1920's, with Powers tackling spectral cinema in general and the Old Dark House Tale in particular.
The novel's first half concerns the reunion of four typically-wounded Powers protagonists, a brother and sister, and a pair of cousins, reuniting in the crumbling Hollywood mansion where they grew up. In line with the old chestnut, they're forced to spend a week in residence per the last will and testament of a recently departed relative (out of line with the old chestnut, she blew herself up with a grenade on the mansion's roof).
Aunt Amity was a novelist who spent her earnings making odd renovations to the house, fusing the structure with bits and pieces of old Hollywood landmarks. The resulting edifice is appropriately spooky and weird, with doorways fixed to walls, a prop UFO in the basement, and an abandoned apiary receiving much screen time. Poe is heavily foregrounded, with a character named Madeline and the crumbling estate referred to as the “House of Usher in the Hollywood Hills”, but it's the Poe of Roger Corman and other horror movie iterations that I was most reminded of, with Powers' pale and ageless Claimayne (though bald) a stand-in for Ernest Thesiger from James Whale's classic 1932 The Old Dark House (“It's only gin, you know. I like gin.”), as well as more questionable properties like House on Haunted Hill (1959), or the 1966 Don Knotts vehicle The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (Instead of a haunted pipe organ, Powers gives us a computer keyboard clacking away to ghostly fingers, transcribing the aunt's final tome, written, Powers tells us, not in first or third person but last person). Perhaps there's even something of the 1966 theatrical release Munster, Go Home!, where Herman, Lily and the gang inherit a lavish estate in Shroudshire, England and must battle jealous relatives trying to scare them out of hallowed Munster Hall. Then again, this might reflect my own dubious tastes in entertainment.
Needless to say, as always with Powers, there's a gonzo MacGuffin—here a lost film containing the essence of the Spiders, two-dimensional creatures that are graphical doorways into a dimension beyond Time. Copies of Spider-signs are black market fodder among the cognoscenti in La La land, and a mere glimpse of them on a slip of paper will jolt the user into Non-Being and Non-Time, where they can experience the Before and After of other addicts, feeding on their experiences and living, theoretically, forever. As one character explains, the Spiders see “every event here as the same event—and they impose that discontinuous experience on anyone foolish enough to participate in their perspective.”  It's a conceit that Powers pursues in head-spinning ways. Addicts can wear warped glasses to remain immune to the Spider-signs; 'Spiderbit' stores crop up randomly along obscure L.A. streets, offering accoutrements to those in recovery; the rhythms of the tarantella—18/8—is one of the only ways to free yourself from an overdose (this last morsel delivered up by Rudolph Valentino, no less). Like the bottled ghosts in 1996's Expiration Date, Spiders are a potent metaphor for uber-rarified addictions, and a great enabler of complex and recomplicated plotting, better dramatized than synopsized (“When you lay it all out that way, it sounds—insane,” a protagonist states at one point).
The latter half of the book swaps out the Old Dark House chassis for that of a paranoid 'Seventies thriller, complete with a motorcycle chase along the L.A. river that Don Siegel or John Frankenheimer might have staged. Throughout, drama veers into melodrama and parody and back, with a healthy dose of humor and silliness, and a bittersweet core that grounds it. And all this is heightened by Powers' vivid sense of place. He's always been especially good at depicting Los Angeles and its environs, past and present, and here he lays it all out with the obsessiveness of, well, a Powers protagonist.
For me the first half, where we're dropped pell-mell into recomplicated complications without a net—shades of Powers' brilliant “Pat Moore” and “Itinerary”—overshadowed the second which, while entertaining, seemed the more conventional. But the finale crackles with genuine frisson as all the Spiders come home to roost, Past and Present duke it out, and a character is perhaps lost forever to the siren song of the silver screen.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

In the months before the 1920 premiere of his opera, The Excursions of Mr. Broucek (as John Tyrrell tells it in his recent biography), Leoš Janácek was battling a lingering flu.

The malaise developed during what the composer called those "damp days in Prague." He was never very happy in the Republic’s capital — the setting of his latest opera — and he would find much woe there in the months to come. Back home in the Moravian capital of Brno, the composer treated himself with slivovice, a heady mixture of horseradish, honey and camphor. Later, when the brew hadn’t cured him, he turned, ominously, to "electricity."

Professor Tyrrell doesn’t elaborate, leaving us to picture Tesla coils and mysterious midnight lightning in the Maestro’s garden house.

Eventually, Janácek overcame the flu, but another kind of malaise would forever linger over The Excursions of Mr. Broucek (full title: The Excursions of Mr. Broucek to the Moon and into the Fifteenth Century). On 23 April 1920, it premiered at the National Theater in Prague to a deafening indifference, and soon retired from sight. Audiences then and now — even ardent Janácekians — have never quite known what to make of The Excursions, with its diptych of improbable stories featuring the bourgeois, beer-swilling Mr. Broucek and his drunken encounters with ardent Moon beings and stout Medieval-types. Janácek’s inspiration had been cautionary, a warning to his countrymen on the eve of World War I against becoming lazy Oblomovs like Mr. Broucek. Any timeliness departed long before the opera’s premiere.

Since 1920, in spite of sporadic productions (its American premiere came in 1981) and a marvelous Supraphon recording in 1980, poor Mr. Broucek was shunted off to the margins of Janácek’s works. Consensus told that the first excursion to the Moon, written over a tortuous period of nine years with as many librettists, was packed with charming music and uncharacteristically fanciful moments, while the second excursion to 15th Century Prague contained thrilling pageantry soured in a heap of knotty historical longueurs that only a native-born Czech would care to puzzle out.

Yet, to this listener, at least, the Supraphon recording, and a subsequent performance in Brno, revealed it as one of Janácek’s most lovable operas, brisk and beautiful, full of beery humor, wistful and farcical by turns; a proto science-fictional artifact whose first half, written from 1908 to 1917, roughly contemporary with Georges Méliès Le voyage dans la Lune, 1902, brims with the pleasures of Janácek’s mature style -- that "driven patchwork onomatopoeia," as John Clute calls it, coming of age in the composer’s fiftieth year.

"So my dear Broucek gets drunk again," writes Janacek, to his beloved and indifferent muse, Kamila Stosslova. "Somewhere on Hradcany he falls asleep and has a dream — he is flying to the moon! There he lands. Horrors! People there feed only on the scent of flowers! They give him only flowers to smell! And now a female Moon-Being falls in love with him! She’s bloodless, and a body like lint."

Note the exclamation points — ever plentiful in his correspondence. They’re analogous to the brusque, hectoring gestures in Janacek’s music, shaking up the stately paragraphs of 19th century music.

Think: Electricity. Rather than the cure-all for the Maestro’s flu, think: the galvanizing impulse. Disembodied frog legs hammering at the air.

As for the "female Moon-Being", Etherea; in Janácek’s music she’s anything but "bloodless" (bloodful and crazed come to mind). Along with her mad lover and Lunar Prince Azurian, she’s given rapturous moments underpinned by the waltz and the polka, which underlie and drive that patchwork onomatopoeia, however subtly. Here, in his mature style, Janacek has his characters talk and interrupt one another, as in real conversation, an impulse carried into the orchestral accompaniment, which can just as easily portray gossamer moonlight on Prague, or the mighty wing-beat thrashings of Pegasus, or the Moon’s serene smile.

In Prague and Vienna, conductors were always meddling with Janácek's scores, plumping up and sanding down the strangenesses or inadequacies of Janácek’s orchestrations. Over the last twenty years, a Critical Edition has restored the original scores. Now the Edition has caught up with The Excursions of Mr. Broucek, and the results, captured in a new recording — with Czech singers and the BBC Orchestra under one of the foremost Czech conductors — is a happy affair. Though not revelatory, the new edition somehow sounds more rustic; more of Brno and less of Prague, and full of slivovice and Tesla coils.

It can’t quite erase the fondness I have for the older, plumper Supraphon, where the tenor Vilem Prybil immortalized Mr. Broucek’s brusque befuddlement, his drunken ardor, and his hyper-aversion to vegetarianism. Yet the new CD has much to recommend it, including the simple fact of being obtainable, in a striking package. And both versions capture the Moon Excursion’s memorable finale, the rapturous hush of its last moments, a lullaby in moonlight, breathing out its farewell.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Gregor Mendel, A Strange Nightmare, and Stalking the President

I'm continuing the immensely enjoyable voyage through Tyrrell's Tsar of the Forest (see below). I thought I might offer up a few random highlights from Volumes 1 and 2.

Certainly for me, one of the coolest revelations of Volume 1 regards Gregor Mendel, the famous Father of Genetics.
I'd become accustomed to the charming fact that most everyone in the Czechoslovak Republic (and the Austrian suburb that preceded it) knew one another; that here, there were no six degrees of separation, only two or three at the most. I could accept (gladly) that Janáček's foremost champion, Max Brod, performed a similar chore for his friend Franz Kafka, and that Brod also enjoyed playing Mozart duets with Albert Einstein. Or that Karel Čapek, whose sister worked with Janáček at the Brno newspaper, was also a close friend and acolyte of the Republic's President, Tomáš Masaryk, and that Čapek's anti-fascist science fiction novel The White Plague was made into a film by Hugo Haas, the brother of Pavel Haas, Janacek's student.
But Mendel, who died when Janáček was in his (relative) youth? When not experimenting with peas and bees in his garden, Mendel was Abbot of the Augustinian monastery in Brno. I knew this, and knew also that Janáček had spent his youth at the Monastery, but one of the marvelous nuggets of Tyrrell's exhaustive research, hitherto unknown, was this from Volume 1:

Saturday, May 30, 2015

A book report.(from 2008)

Yes, I finished Volume 2 of Professor John Tyrrell's magnificent biography last night.

I thought I'd toss out a few tidbits:

Janáček's endless tweakings.

Like any great artist, Janáček was meddling with his creations up to the very last moment -- in this case, his adaptation of Čapek's science-fictional stage play The Makropulos Thing. As he put it (in uncharacteristically clumsy syntax), "When one hears one's things, here and there [extra] filling in the orchestra occurs to one." He began to send insertions to the score up to and during rehearsals. According to a witness:

"Even at the final dress rehearsal he was still interposing with suggested alterations. At last the conductor lost his temper, 'This is impossible,' he shouted. 'No more changes!'

"Janáček appeared to accept the situation and disappeared. But on opening night, at a certain point, the cello leader looked up at the conductor in astonishment; the conductor maintained his beat, but in equal bewilderment -- both were hearing music they had never heard before. Although Janacek appeared to have been defeated, what he had done was to go to the library after the music was put away, and write into the cello part a solo that he felt should be in there."

Janáček's prose style.

The composer was always brilliantly -- and strangely -- expressive, especially in his later years. Not only in his music (as John Clute puts it, "the driven patchwork onomatopoeia of his mature music), but in his writings. Here is part of a feuilleton unearthed by Tyrrell, regarding how the composer felt at the end of Makropulos:

"I think of Abel's sacrifice -- an upright column of fire blazing up and disappearing high in the air in acrid smoke. [...] How many mosquitoes, wasps and beetles have had their wings singed. I was able to finish Makropolus. [...] I feel as if my pen wanted to drop out of my hand. Breathless, run off my feet -- I wait to see whether some little distant star will fall ringingly into my mind. [...] Tame as a dog, fierce as a vulture, dry as a faded leaf, crackling like a breaking wave, sputtering like brushwood consumed by fire. Receptive to every stirring of the mind -- and silenced in the holy stillness."

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

from SFRA Review #251 March/April 2001


review by Phillip Snyder

Readers of Gene Wolfe may find much to admire in Ceres Storm, a first novel by Clarion West graduate David Herter. So might fans of Samuel R. Delany’s Nova-era space operas and John Varley’s early clones-across-the-solar-system extravaganzas. But it is chiefly with the far-future sagas of Wolfe that readers of Herter’s debut will feel an unmistakable resonance. The armature for the novel is a hero’s quest across a colorful and mysterious solar system. Young Daric, along with fellow clones Yellow and Black Daric, Jason, and the golden Grandpapa, sweeps across the starlines in quest of the lost technologies of their ancestor Darius the Leader, legendary ruler of planets and creator of the nanotech storm of the title. In the course of Daric’s journeyings, he is kidnapped by agents of a powerful cartel headed by the Krater-Tromon Clan, escapes on the haunted Starswarm Pyre, and gradually begins to piece together both his heritage and his destiny.

Fairly pulpish, this. But ultimately, Ceres Storm is more redolent of Iain M. Banks than of Doc Smith, and more reminiscent of Wolfe’s Fifth Head of Cerebus than either. Set in a future so distant that its science and technology seem like magic, the novel is a rich blend of myth and machine, of ancient wonder and modern marvel. The timescale alone is gratifyingly vast: it is 8,000 years in the story’s past that Darius the Leader’s thousand-year reign carried humanity to the edge of the solar system and beyond. It is a time of interplanetary telepresence ("doppeling"), of insectile surveillance devices called "weeforms," of "information drinks" permitting the liquid infusion of nanotech databases, and the fabled "Machineries," unimaginably powerful technologies capable of transforming entire planets. It is also, however, a time where far future meets distant past in the Moebius strip of science fantasy. Ceres Storm is a world where characters bear names like Quintillux and Penthesilia, where judgments are rendered by the Scales and enforced by the Pain Dragon, where castles are buried within planets, and a hero may (or may not) be transmogrified to an oak. Most of the time, the result is magical indeed, albeit a bit chilly.

Herter presents the reader with an array of narrative artifacts, their meanings layered like sediments through multiple levels of understanding, and the reader may (or may not) make sense of the pattern. Occasionally, like young Daric himself, the reader is overwhelmed by surfaces and blind to patterns. Amid the novel’s shimmering bits of crystal, of Tyrian purpose, of century roses and eidolons and avatars, it’s not always easy to keep one’s bearings, partly because Herter has yet to learn the trick of deeper, warmer characters to stand out against his exotic backdrop. And for all the similarities otherwise, Herter’s fantasy lacks the passion of Delany’s space operas, the engaging wit of Zelazny’s, the brashness of Varley’s. Minor cavils, perhaps. Ceres Storm is not only a first novel, after all, but also merely the first installment of a series, and its sequels may begin to emulate Herter’s models not only in their density, but in their richness of character, as well

Monday, July 02, 2012

Locus reviews the First Republic Trilogy

In the new Locus, Paul Witcover devotes his column to my First Republic trilogy (On the Overgrown Path, The Luminous Depths and One Who Disappeared).  He calls the trilogy "deeply affecting," and sums up in part, "Herter. . . poses profound questions about the morality and responsibility of survival, the origins of evil and of art, and the mysteries of science and religion.  It's a dazzling display both of historical verisimilitude and the spec-fictional retconning of history."  But it's also a review that doesn't condense easily into bites, so I recommend you pick up a copy of Locus, on newsstands this week.

Mr. Witcover is allowing me to quote from an email I received from him today, in response to my thanking him, which condenses quite easily into a bite or two: "Thank you for one of the most engrossing and stimulating artworks I've encountered recently.  Truthfully, I'm still unpacking it, still thinking about all the ramifications and implications."

Books One and Two, On the Overgrown Path and The Luminous Depths, are available in revised and expanded editions for Kindle and Nook, and in lovely domestic physical editions at Third Place Press, and on the Espresso Book network nationwide.  One Who Disappeared is available at PS Publishing UK.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Weird Old Weird

I'm hard at work on The Cold Heavens, an epic old weird planetary romance (150.000 words, so far). It's the first half of a double decker sparked by C.L. Moore and Leigh Brackett, as well as Kurt Weill, Béla Bartók, G.W. Pabst, Fritz Lang and the sadly-unknown Austrian fantacist Gustav Meyrink (author of The Golem and the brilliant The Opal and Other Stories and the brilliantly disturbing The Angel of the West Window).
My protangonist is part Jirel of Joiry, part Louise Brooks, part Tolstoy heroine. From her crumbling chateau on a lush, Austro-Hungarian Venus (called Krasopani by the Cechs) she embarks on a quest for revenge that becomes a quest for gnosis in a solar system which is also, somehow, a magic-lantern projection of Europe before the first World War. Angels exist here; or rather, they existed in the last century, often interacting with mankind in glorious and terrifying ways. Now, the Heavens are in retreat, and the worlds occupied by Austro-Hungarians, Prussians, Serbs and Russians are hurtling toward apocalypse: a Götterdämmerung (minus Richard Wagner).
In addition to Brackett, Moore and Meyrink as major influences, I'd include H.J.C von Grimmelshausen's Simplicissimus, Robert Musil's Man Without Qualities, Alexandra Ritchie's Faust's Metropolis: A History of Berlin, as well as a boatload of books on Weimar. The results might be termed German-Expressionist Space Opera.
Or how about Weird Old Weird?