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Effigy of Eleanor of Aquitaine, Fontevraud Abbey. Image via Wikipedia
Here’s what the Haute Macabre writers have been reading for the month of May
Revival: Resurrecting the Process Church of the Final Judgement by William Sims Bainbridge
I recall first hearing about the Process Church of the Final Judgement, or The Process Church, when I became aware of the music of Sabbath Assembly, who, at their inception, formed to play the hymns of the Process Church (they have since moved on to write and perform their own, original music.) An “Apocalyptic religious sect in the 1960s”, The Process Church, from what I can glean, was a movement started by two former Scientologists who ascribed to the theory that people were divided into four types based on the four god forces (Jehovans, Satanists, Luciferians, and Christ, the unifier.) Each was an extreme, and the idea was to discover which path suited you and to follow it whole-heartedly. The Process Church appealed to the tensions of the time, and the mystical communalism of the cult “drew in refugees from suburban lawns”. William Sims Bainbridge’s Revival: Resurrecting the Process Church of the Final Judgement is a fictional account revolving around the main character, Robert Anson, perhaps the dorkiest character that has ever been committed to paper in the history of the world, discovering that a dear old friend has been murdered. When his friend’s uploaded AI is delivered to him at his office in the form of four mysterious metal canisters, what follows is a fictional restoration of the controversial group when Anson realizes that his dead pal was actually some sort of Process Church guru, and in attempting to get to the bottom of things, he begins to investigate the Church along with his sort of ex-girlfriend Cora and their equally dorky sociologist friends. This is such a strange, sincere little book which incorporates its facts in never-ending explanatory asides, and tosses around its ideas in the form of stilted academic road trip discussions and cumbersome conversations over late night Chinese food delivery (this book spends a weird amount of time on food and menus.) Almost everyone in this little group of investigators seems to be on the spectrum of severe social awkwardness and the dialogue begins to become beyond cringe-worthy the further along you read. And hey, I’m no social superstar, so I am pretty sure I know these things when I see them. However, it did answer a lot of questions that I had about the Process Church and its beliefs, along with providing me a template of how to never act at dinner parties if I don’t want to be outed as an insufferable bore, so the book was not entirely without value.
The Erstwhile by Brian Catling
Having adored Catling’s The Vorrh, I had high hopes for it’s successor, The Erstwhile… but even weeks after finishing it, I am still terribly disappointed and confused. I think perhaps it may suffer from middle story syndrome (I believe it is to be part of a trilogy?) Absent was the thrilling writing that so captured my imagination in The Vorrh, and which urged me to re-read the same beautifully crafted passages over and over again, as the exquisite prose invited second, and–sometimes–third looks. In retrospect, perhaps it is possible that The Vorrh was one of those experiences where a memory of a thing is so much richer and more wonderful than the thing actually was? The Erstwhile picks up somewhat where The Vorrh leaves off, and the continued story is so wooden and dull, I may have even skipped over entire passages just to hurry the book along. I realize I haven’t told you much about the book, but what can you say when it is ultimately so unremarkable? Many of the same characters return in book two, and I recall thinking that these characters were so gorgeously imagined and although flawed, they were so terribly fascinating the first time around. In this second book, they just seem downright terrible. The titular beings, the Erstwhile, are the angels that failed to protect the Tree of Knowledge, and they are reawakening. They are truthfully the most interesting thing in this book read about, with their reconstitution of themselves and their evolution…but to what end? Their story never seems to go anywhere. What was their point? What was the point of this book, even? Perhaps Catlin has some end-game in mind that will become clear with the third installment in the trilogy. I will hold out hope.
Borne by Jeff VanderMeer
Some books read too quickly. Or is it that some books end too soon? One hopes that an author gives us only as much story as they need to tell their tale, simply because extra might detract from the quality of the plot. But with my favorite books I wish I could pause the tale to spend more time with the characters and explore their world like the sandbox of a video game. Such was the case with Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy. That spellbinding series was very much about an uncanny place and how the people who encountered it were affected by it. And now the same is true for me once again with VanderMeer’s latest novel, Borne, which is instead about people, animals, personhood, and how one’s identity is affected by trauma. It’s about survival in a post-apocalyptic world forever altered by advancements in biotechnology. Here all survivors have become scavengers among the ruins of a city now ruled by a tyrant in the form of a gigantic flying bear named Mord (which sounds incredibly silly but is actually anything but). Here technology masquerades as life and the line between technology and life increasingly blurs. Borne is a post-apocalyptic, weird, science fiction fable. It’s relentlessly creative, fascinating, and poignant. I kept trying to slow down while I read it, but the end arrived all the same. And just like it did for me, Borne will break your heart, as only the best books can: beautifully.
The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington
The moment when, as a teenager, I first discovered the phantasmagorical paintings of Leonora Carrington and Remedios Varo was one of those rare moments that froze time and forever altered my perception of the world, both within and without. Their respective oeuvres revealed a door inside of me that had always been there, but I’d not quite noticed on my own. My love for their exquisitely beautiful and strange surrealist works knows no bounds, so you can imagine how elated I was to discover that Carrington was also an accomplished writer. To open the cover of this complete collection of her short stories, deliciously dark fairy tales that are nothing short of magical, is to accept Carrington’s proffered hand as she personally guides you deep into paintings she created with written words instead of pigment. They’re every bit as enchanting, unsettling, whimsical, terrifying, and singularly strange as one might expect based upon her painted works. I find that in talking about this book I don’t want to spoil a single image or scene by citing it here. No peeks for you! May each of these stories be as unexpected and bewitching for you as the were for me.
*I’m also reading The Complete Stories of LC this month, and it’s so wonderful that I never want it to end. – Sam
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
This month in “Maika Reads Books She Ought to Have Read Years Ago”, another masterful tale by Shirley Jackson, this time a ghost story. Having grown up with an endless supply of horror fiction and films, The Haunting of Hill House might’ve seemed tame in comparison. Certainly it’s nowhere near as gruesome as more modern ghost stories, but it was gripping from start to finish, thoroughly creepy, and contained one scene in particular that honestly frightened me. The particularly nasty thing about Hill House is how it singles out the internal torments of its visitors and then plays people against each other, simultaneously unraveling them and drawing them into its own narrative until everyone is doubly haunted. As time passes in the house, the characters’ interactions with each other become just as troubling as supernatural events unfolding in the house itself. Jackson is so skilled at conveying the chilling atmosphere of forbidding places, making even the smallest details seem disquieting. And sometimes what isn’t seen is the most frightening thing of all. A quintessential ghost story.
Power & Magic: The Queer Witch Comics Anthology edited by Joamette Gil, Independently published by Power & Magic Press
I loved this book and have more feels about it than I am currently prepared to put into words. Much like The Other Side: An Anthology of Queer Romance, which I wrote about for Stacked back in January, these are comics I wish I could’ve read when I was growing up. It makes my heart swell to think about queer occult-minded kids, particularly queer kids of color, finding representation and inspiration in these stories about life and death, love and friendship, and discovering one’s power and practice as magical beings. If you’re interested in comics, witches, diversity, and representation, then this collection of 15 original witchy comics, created by 17 women, demigirls, and bigender creators of color, is for you. And I hope you, in turn, share it with someone else who might not otherwise have found it either.
One Second After, William R. Forstchen
I put off reading this book for a long time. I did this, even though it tops almost every ‘Best Of’ list for dystopian fiction, for one simple reason. It has a foreword by Newt Gingrich. But, as Trump’s America tips us ever closer to real-life dystopia, I’m starting to feel like these books are less escapism and more study guides. So I sucked it up and braced myself and read a dystopian novel written from The Other Viewpoint. And you guys? It’s good. Really good. And absolutely terrifying.
The storyline follows in the wake of an EMP attack on the US, as our technologically reliant world crumbles without a power grid, communications, medicine, or transport. I didn’t know much about EMP attacks, and found myself putting the book down a lot in the beginning to google something or another to see if it what I was reading was more science or more fiction. FYI, this book is impeccably researched. Sure, there’s some parts when you’ll likely roll your eyes as the author’s politics lumber into view- but you’ll go right on reading it. And next time the power goes out, you will absolutely glance out the window to make sure the cars are still moving.
Pairs Well with:
Nuclear War Survival Skills, Cresson H. Kearny
Note: this is not a novel. This is an actual guide to surviving a nuclear attack. Originally written at the height of the Cold War in 1979, it was updated a bit in 2012- but much of it is still aimed at the kind of war we expected with the Soviets. And a lot of it is dedicated to building fallout shelters and other useful skills that are fairly dull reading and yes I skipped those chapters. But still, it is FULL of the answers to questions I’d had in the back of my mind since we started playing Nuclear Chicken with North Korea (How long does fallout take to fall out? Where is the best place to take cover? Should I stay put at home or go somewhere safer? Will my food still be edible?).
If you’re a fan of dystopian fiction, you may find that you are also a fan of dystopian facts. This book has found it’s home in my Go Bag, just in case, along with the supplies it suggests for building a homemade fallout meter. Because you never know. Maybe it won’t be zombies, after all.
image via Bess Lovejoy’s blog
Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses by Bess Lovejoy
This was my airplane read on my trip to Paris. I’ve known Bess for a while and there’s a strange sort of awkwardness when your friends are authors and you didn’t read their book before you were friends so you know you need to read it but also reading it means admitting you haven’t already read it and this is why I don’t leave my house — because my brain does this nonsense all the time. Anyway, I sucked it up and bought Bess’s book and surprise! It’s great. Bess has a talent for telling tales with just the right amount of detail so you’re sated but not bored, which can be a bit of a feat with nonfiction. One of my favorite things about the genre is it can’t be saved with turns of phrase and really needs wrangling of not just words but stories; this book in particular conjured up amazing images of Bess hunting down historical records and hassling archivists with questions about Rasputin’s willie. Definitely recommend.
Annihilation: A Novel (Southern Reach Trilogy I) & Authority: A Novel (Southern Reach Trilogy II) by Jeff VanderMeer
Maika and Sarah have been raving about the Southern Reach Trilogy for a while but two books in, I’m not totally convinced. Part of the issue may be unmet expectations — someone had mentioned that TANIS, the podcast I’ve been obsessively listening to for a few months, was fairly Southern Reach-y, and based on the first few chapters of Annihilation this was definitely true: there’s a mysterious area you can only access through a kind of hypnosis, and a team that abandons names for functions to better withstand the uncanny magic of the breach. I read on expecting more TANIS and instead things got a bit… Atwood’s MaddAddam. The prose is skillful and there are definitely bits I love but ultimately I think the author and I are intrigued by different parts of the story; I’m reminded of an interview Peter Jackson once gave about the Lord of the Rings where he mentioned how excited he was to create and work with the monsters of Middle Earth and that just wasn’t going to produce the perfect film for yours truly who liked the stupid elf songs and the appendices and hanging out in Rivendell. It’s not you, Jeff, it’s me.
Tell us in the comments what you’ve been reading this month!