Sunday, April 25, 2010

Christine Feehan's Dark Symphony (2003) review

Dark Symphony is erotic paranormal fiction. It is an excuse to write sex scenes and to indulge in impossible fantasies of impossibly beautiful people doing impossible things and having an impossibly perfect relationship. Gag. It is really such a perfect world that it becomes nauseating. There is no desire with any real obstacles, and just in case the reader might want to imagine that there is a real obstacle to - I blanked out on the names, it is that memorable - oh, yes Lord Byron's (original - snort) and Antoinetta's love, Feehan reminds the reader incessantly that they are fated to be lifemates. At the merest hint that something might prevent this affair from blossoming - though how it is possible to improve on what is perfect from the beginning is a mystery Feehan does not solve - Feehan is quick to reassure the reader by having Antoinetta be accepting of everything and Byron blind to any fault. Does Antoinetta have a fault? Does Byron? Feehan does not let us see them in case this will ruin the effect. As I said, gag.

Without any real desires (objectives) and without any real needs (weaknesses) and a mystery that runs like a subplot and is never developed to any believable degree, this novel is a poor excuse to indulge in the cheapest sort of romantic erotic fiction. It's a pity really because the mythological ideas behind the Carpathians and the race of Jaguar shapeshifters are intriguing. My favorite part of the novel is the Gothic passage ways leading to the room with the carved walls with the Jaguar history. Unfortunately, the Carpathian's are perfect good little vampires (they are not vampires Feehan points out because they aren't undead but they have fangs, need blood to survive and sleep in the earth so it is splitting hairs as far as I'm concerned but it could become interesting if they had a real weakness). The two most interesting things about the Carpathians are that they are almost extinct and have a paucity of women and thus difficulty in reproducing. Notice the sexual bent even there but I can accept that if something real was done with it. Unfortunately, the fact that Byron binds Antoinetta against her knowledge because finding a suitable lifemate is next to impossible is a problem that is quickly and painlessly solved. Too bad.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Christine Feehan - paranormal at its worst?

I'm currently reading Christine Feehan's Dark Symphony (Jove Books 2003). It has some of the poorest narrative prose I've read in a long time: "The fog was the perfect cover for the predator as he moved silently across the sky, searching for prey" (1). Wordy and overly dramatic. If he's searching for "prey" than "predator" is redundant. Succinctness can carry drama and does a better job than trying to be dramatic. Here is another example of this not so wonderful prose: "He had even gone so far as to purchase several CDs and a machine on which to play them, keeping his purchases deep beneath the earth in the lair he kept to be close to the woman he knew belonged only to him" (3). Snort. The phrase "deep beneath the earth in the lair" is cheesy paranormal fiction. Fan writers generally get that some things are too cliché.

Feehan obviously has readers since it's easy enough to find her books. I can't help but wonder who the return readers are. I understand picking one of her novel's up, the back was promising, but this is one time I wish that I had read the first few pages. If I had, you would have been spared this post and I would have been spared the type of prose that gives formula writing its bad name.

Feehan's work is the paranormal variety of dime store romance novels. No one who reads and actually enjoys writing or a good story would pick her up a second time if the writing doesn't get better than the first few pages of Dark Symphony. Don't get me wrong, I'm fine with an Elizabeth Lowell or Nora Roberts (romance) or even a J.R. Ward (paranormal romance - not the best but okay even if the stereotyped gender roles are irritating) but don't go so cheap on me that I have to endure poor writing just because I like a formula romance - or in this case formula paranormal romance - once in a while. Lowell and Roberts can write. Feehan can't.

Okay after just a few pages, maybe I shouldn't judge. Who knows it might improve. I will persevere through this one novel but that's the one chance she's going to get. I suspect that she has some hooks in her material, i.e. good ideas, but I sincerely hope she can deliver the goods and actually tell the story so that somewhere along the line I forget that I'm reading cheap prose and get caught up in the story itself. So far, no joy.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Kelley Armstrong's Men of the Otherworld - review

Kelley Armstrong has a strong imagination and is good at storytelling - when she has the patience for it. When she shows what happens by painting a scene and letting things unfold with interaction and dialogue, she is at her best. Unfortunately for large chunks of Men of the Otherworld, she tells the story and it reads like an abbreviated journal, giving few details and compressing time. Telling things in this way is not storytelling -ironically enough.

Storytelling is showing not telling what happens. Its the difference between being there and hearing or reading an account. Storytelling is painting pictures, giving the very complete script for a film that the reader can imaginatively unroll in their heads - complete with setting, character descriptors, thoughts, but most importantly dialogue and action in such a way that the reader is a fly on the wall. For the first half of Men of the Otherworld, the story is shown in this way and it is easy to imagine both Malcolm and Jeremy Danvers and the child werewolf, Clayton.

In the second half, the story is often told in abbreviated simple this happened, then this, then this form. It is an outline for a story rather than a story and as such it is boring. The question is whether Armstrong ran out of patience or out of imagination for the details of her story or maybe she couldn't be bothered. She shies away from Clayton's darker talents for torture and killing. They are explained but not shown. Yes, it would be macabre to show them but it would make for a better story. Abbreviated recounting just doesn't do the trick.

It may also be that Armstrong's writing fails despite the good material because she does not distinguish between her main character's needs and desires. That's problematic. What I mean is first that while Jeremy and Clayton have needs, they are more psychological weaknesses rather than moral ones, i.e. it's a matter of individual development rather than social weaknesses. The result is that the stakes never seem particularly high. Nor is Jeremy or Clayton given strong objectives (desires), i.e. goals that they want to achieve. The novel is rather a story of their lives and day to day struggles - but by telling rather than showing, we finally don't even get that in a satisfactory way.

You would think in Clayton's case his needs would be social, but Armstrong never raises the stakes for Clayton's need to pass as a human in the world of humans. It's all accomplished with relative ease. Very little human interaction with Clayton is shown aside from one event in school when he dissects a guinea pig, and the party he attends where he is contemptuous of everyone. He literally doesn't need humans in the novel which defeats the whole idea of passing. In addition, everyone in the Pack who doesn't immediately take to Clayton is demonized or severely marginalized.

What is Clayton's objective in life aside from protecting Jeremy? We are told that he wants a mate but nothing is made of this. So what does he want?

The same is true for Jeremy. The reader finds out that he has visions and is far from comfortable with them, but his discomfort never seriously threatens either his sense of self or anyone's safety so it's not a real weakness in terms of a good story. The reader learns that he doodles mystical runes but unfortunately even though the end makes it clear that these runes have protective powers this connection is not foreshadowed. This is a missed opportunity.

Jeremy has a social goal that is eventually revealed - to become Alpha of the Pack. The problem is that his desire to become Alpha is not motivated except maybe as a desire to protect Clayton - but this protective instinct is not made much of in relation to the struggle to become Alpha. His protective instinct thus reads as paternal love but not as a broader social need. He becomes Alpha as the most suitable werewolf for the job but it is neither portrayed as his quest nor as a motivated struggle. His succession of Dominic is shown in terms of violence but it is not motivated at the social level since his efforts for the Pack are never shown - only his efforts for Clayton (who is a young mutt) and Peter who leaves the Pack. This means that the reader never gains a strong feeling that Jeremy cares about the Pack members.

The plot pulls in two directions which may be why it is called Men of the Otherworld but because Armstrong has a series called Women of the Otherworld where each individual book has a title, a title seems amiss for the men. And who is the focus, Jeremy or Clayton or both? The story is not balanced enough for the latter in terms of space. Clayton's story is told from the first person so it isn't possible to argue that their stories are parallel either. The conclusion, it isn't both. So who is the focus?

The novel begins and ends as the story of Jeremy. Jeremy's story has real promise, but neither his desires nor his needs are made the focus of this novel. What there is is really good storytelling but any reader who is drawn in would want a story of how the visions affect his life and his feelings about the runes he doodles to be more elaborated, and for the story of how Jeremy and Jaime meet to be shown not told, and the story of the Kitsune shown at some length rather than everything being told so quickly. It is ultimately unsatisfactory, which is a shame since Armstrong has a good imagination for original combinations of romance and myth.

Men of the Otherworld is set up as if for a sequel so perhaps there will be one about the Kitsune but for this novel which seems to focus on Clayton you would figure that we would get the story of Clayton meeting Elena since we are told that he wants to mate. Armstrong sets the reader up to anticipate reading about his meeting Elena and their relationship up until the point where he bites her - since the aftermath of the bite is in Bitten - but no. This makes the novel ultimately unsatisfactory in this respect too.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Kelley Armstrong's Bitten

I finished reading Kelley Armstrong's first novel Bitten yesterday. It's also the first novel in the Women of the Otherworld series. I enjoyed it more than I thought I would - sometimes paranormal romance/urban fantasy novels have an implied audience that is too young for my tastes and sometimes the stories are just too sentimental, too poorly written, or too formulaic.

Armstrong does three things with the werewolf legend that I find interesting because they work in Otherworld, i.e. the world is believable:
  1. she doesn't follow the silver bullets theory. If it can kill a human, it can kill a werewolf in Otherworld. It just takes more and they heal faster.
  2. she sets up a hierarchy with the Pack (a very small group of organized werewolves) vs independent 'mutts'. The Pack consists of men (and one woman, Elena, who was bitten by a Pack member). The Pack leader is a man. The Pack teaches control over the powers inherent in being a werewolf and polices mutts. The Pack enables its members to live in the world if they want and to have semi-normal lives. Mutts are inherently set up to be anti-social loners.
  3. she contrasts hereditary werewolves with bitten werewolves. Only sons can become werewolves. They are taken from their human mothers and all contact with their mothers is severed when they are born. They are raised by the Pack. The bitten rarely make it, either going mad from the physical or mental agony of the Change or they are hunted and killed by the Pack for killing indiscriminately and risking the secret of the existence of werewolves.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Horror vs terror

In his book on the history of Gothic fiction from 1762-1820, The Gothic Flame (1966), Devendra Varma phrases the difference between terror and horror this way, "The difference between Terror and Horror is the difference between awful apprehension and sickening realization: between the smell of death and stumbling against a corpse." The images are telling and can serve as a mnemonic device to remember the difference, but Anne Radcliffe was the first to theorize the difference between horror and terror.

In her essay, "On the Supernatural in Poetry" (The New Monthly Magazine 7, 1826, pp 145-52), Radcliffe writes that terror is the possibility of the horrible, and that it is characterised by "obscurity" or indeterminacy where horror is the realization of that which is dreaded.

Radcliffe makes the further distinction that terror "expands the soul and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life" as the senses become hyperactive. This is particularly significant because she makes no difference in this capacity of terror in relation to negative and "positive horror" fictions. It is the indeterminacy (terror) in positive horror which makes the experience of the sublime possible, the dreadful awe that is evident in poems such as William Blake's "Tyger."

Negative horror is its realization, and in opposition to the effects of terror, actually experiencing horror "freezes and nearly annihilates" the faculties as the dreaded event paralyzes the mind.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

More women horror writers

Sometimes it is the obvious ones that are missed:

  • Angela Carter's collection of superb stories in The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories
  • Lost Souls or Exquisite Corpse by Poppy Z. Brite
  • Dead in the Water by Nancy Holder
  • The Between and The Good House by Tananarive Due
  • Skin by Kathe Koja
  • (Tanith Lee also wrote Dark Dance but I don't think it is still in print)

    Canadian women horror writers

    This is a note to self to check out Susie Moloney's 361 Belisle St. and Kelley Armstrong's The Reckoning. Both are Canadians - another underrepresented group of authors on international lists. Usually, they are just subsumed under Americans. Think of Douglas Coupland and Saul Bellow. They are the two most prominent Canadian novelists to rarely get credited as Canadians.

    361 Belisle St first, I think. Haunted houses are a favorite of mine. I'm unsure why but I think it has to do with the psychology of houses. Homes are supposed to be safe. When they are not, where do you go? Whether it is domestic horror or supernatural horror, houses are symbolic of so many things: boundaries, thresholds, windows, doors, floors, ceilings, passageways, niches. All of them have symbolic abstracted meanings as well as concrete ones.

    I often dream of rooms and houses. Sometimes they're fairly empty. Sometimes they are overflowing. Sometimes I know who owns them, sometimes they are mine, and sometimes they just are. Some of the dreams are dark and some are nostalgic. I am fascinated by what the dreams mean - if anything. Sometimes bits and pieces of memory are woven into the dream. Sometimes it is just sorting out the debris of a full day. Sometimes I wake up and know I need to change something in my life.

    I had a dream once that I was at the bottom of well or in a cave or basement or some such space and there was a rope dangling above my head. I managed to pull the rope and dislodge the stones and everything came tumbling down on top of me, but I was free. Confining spaces and getting out; typically Gothic, and a typical feminine trope.

    Horror poetry

    Reading original dark poetry on-line is fun. Much of it is bad, but even not so good poetry can have good lines. Here are a few lines from two poems and two full poems that I like for their macabre imagery or pathos. The poets are women of course.

    ...lets twist and pull
    we'll bend and break
    see how much our dolly can take... from "Broken Toy" by Beautiful Illusions

    ...My sleeves rolled down today,
    Cuts kept under linen and lace.
    Want to scream that I'm hurting,
    But I keep the emotions off my face... from "It Was Me" by I am Mouse

    "Vampire Cat" by Aharris
    Glistening fangs and gleaming claws,
    Teeth that pierce and jaws like saws,
    Its blood red eyes that pierce the moon,
    My fate is awaiting it will be here soon.

    "Dreams" by Cherise
    I dreamt of you again
    last night
    we were curled
    around each other
    like twins in the womb
    protected and stregthened
    by the other
    it must be obsession
    that causes me to dream
    so often of you
    the only other dreams i have
    as frequently
    are swift black spiders
    spinning down towards me
    i awake
    i have considered
    the possibility
    they are the same dream

    Friday, April 9, 2010

    Who are the women in horror fiction?

    I was just rereading an article on the book In Conversation: A Writer's Perspective, Vol. 1, Horror published in 2009 by the British Fantasy Society and how it focused solely on male writers. I know from experience how difficult it can be to find a list of the female authors that write horror, but here is mine - or the beginnings of it anyway. I'm having trouble finding the Word file as I write this... I am a bit disorganized lately... not good...

    Anyway, start with these:

    • The Missing or Virus by Sarah Langan
    • The Feeding Ground or The Reckoning by Sarah Pinborough
    • Slights by Kaaron Warren
    • Threshold by Caitlin R. Kiernan
    • The Secret Books of Paradys by Tanith Lee
    • Interview with a Vampire by Anne Rice (she has to be listed)
    • Haunted (a collection of short stories) by Joyce Carol Oates
    • The Sineater by Elizabeth Massie
    • The Price or The Unseen by Alexandra Sokoloff
    • Come Closer by Sara Gran
    • Generation Loss or Bibliomancy (contains dark short stories) by Elizabeth Hand

    Then there are some classics:

    • Mary Shelley's Frankenstein: or the Modern Prometheus
    • Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca
    • Charlotte Perkins Gilman's short story "The Yellow Wallpaper"
    • Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" (a must read)
    There are also the paranormal romance/detective/urban fantasy writers:
    • Charlaine Harris's series about Sookie Stackhouse (vampires and weres)
    • Laurell K. Hamilton's series about Anita Blake (vampires and weres)
    • Kim Harrison's series about Rachel Morgan (witches, demons, vampires)
    • Stephanie Meyer's Twilight Series (young romance)
    • L J Smith's Vampire Diaries (young romance)

    For a more comprehensive list see Paula Guran's September 2009 blog on