Book Review – The Unstrung Harp by Edward Gorey

The Unstrung Harp

★★★★ 4 Stars

Genre: Dark Comedy / Fiction
Publication Date: 1953 / 2000
Publisher: Bloomsbury

“Even more harrowing than the first chapters of a novel are the last, for Mr. Earbrass anyway. The characters have one and all become thoroughly tiresome, as though he had been trapped at the same party with them since the day before; neglected sections of the plot loom on every hand, waiting to be disposed of; his verbs seem to have withered away and his adjectives to be proliferating past control.”

As writers, our beloved craft is often the catalyst of our madness. Our novels drive us crazy. If only it were as simple as writing it down, but even that defies us sometimes. Our stories lurk around in our heads begging and nagging constantly to be written, but when we have the time and materials to do so, they latch their claws to the dark corners of our minds and refuse to come outside, no matter what we try to tempt them out with.

I’ve always gotten the feeling that people who don’t write have no way of understanding this difficulty, even if they read, and especially if they work in publishing. Publishers, ironically enough, seem to have a history of undervaluing and not understanding the very people who keep them in business. It’s cathartic to see the troubles of writing reflected in such a funny, charming book, with Gorey’s signature lovingly detailed, Victorian artwork. Though it can be a little bit depressing how close the trials of Mr. Earbrass and his weird novel that refuses to come out right are to reality.

The Unstrung Harp is a self-aware, very true-to-life portrait of the demon that is writer’s block, among other curses bestowed upon someone just because they were born with the urge to tell stories – pitiful publishers, peer envy, bad criticism, fake criticism, cruel deadlines, the whole gamut. One has to wonder if that’s what Gorey himself had gone through with his early books, and makes me thankful that the indie press has blossomed into what it is.

(Even if it comes with the downside of people trying to pass off shoddily copy-and-pasted Wikipedia articles as actual books.)

Follow my reviews on Goodreads.

Book Review – Dolly by Susan Hill

★★★★ 4 Stars

Genre: Suspense / Horror
Publication Date: October 5th, 2012
Publisher: Profile Books

“All, all of it I remember. Then I relived, my heart pounding again as I stood at the window and through the fog-blanketed darkness heard the sound again. Deep under the earth, inside its cardboard coffin, shrouded with the layers of white paper, the china doll with the jagged, open crevasse in its skull was crying.”

The atmosphere in Dolly is so heavy and intense that it’s almost its own character, perfectly at home in its loneliness. Dolly recalls pieces of Burnett’s The Secret Garden, but twisted. It’s like the marshy underside of the Secret Garden, where you would expect fairytale things to be waiting in the bog.

After the death of his aunt, a man, Edward, recalls his childhood staying at Iyot Lock, her manor house decaying out in the middle of the moor. The house is straight out of a gothic novel and nobody much enjoys being there save for the aunt, and especially not Edward’s cousin, Leonora. He tries to get along with Leonora desperately, but sometimes she just turns into an evil stranger with no warning or transition, and Edward becomes afraid of her. The aunt buys Leonora a baby doll that she breaks, and afterward the doll becomes kind of… vocal, but only late in the night when it’s only Edward there to hear it.

I really appreciate the oddness of the characters. Edward and Leonora have a weird dynamic – they start off like you’d expect they’re going to end up being best of friends. They hate each other on a subtle level from square one, even for the moments they get along. I think that they had always enjoyed seeing each other miserable, and that’s probably why, even though Edward wasn’t insufferable as Leonora was, they are both doomed to be bound to each other through horrible occurrences that they can’t explain to anybody else. Their relationship is surprisingly bleak for being children through most of the story. Continue reading “Book Review – Dolly by Susan Hill”

Book Review – Doll Vol. 1 by Mitsukazu Mihara

★★★ 3.5 Stars

Genre: Science Fiction / Drama
Manga Demographic: Josei
Publication Date: August 10th, 2004
Publisher: TokyoPop

What are the consequences of creating a person who cannot bleed? Who has no natural will, someone to do your dirty work or the things biologic humans wouldn’t dare? Doll, the lacy, angsty brainchild of artist Mitsukazu Mihara, attempts to answer such a question.
Doll is a prime example of a good mature graphic novel – it’s discomfiting and can be deeply off-putting with its dichotomy of feminine, soft artwork while probing into brutal, cruel themes. It’s a somewhat obscure gem with sharp observations about what makes something sentient “human”, but has some issues which detract from its good qualities pretty strongly. At least enough to make it more difficult to like than it should be.

I get that it’s the whole point that you’re supposed to be sympathetic to the Dolls, who are more or less android slaves with limited human senses and emotion. The consequences of synthetic life do feel real and overwhelming, but did the human characters have to be so insufferable?
The born-of-flesh humans in this series are vile, pampered, bundles of dysfunction waiting to get even worse and are just miserable to read about. They cause most of their own problems and leave their androids or in some cases, other real people to take the blame.

The only exceptions are the heiress in the first story, and the strict mother. Those two women have some of the strongest scenes and their narratives showcase how destructive society can be to women and assault victims, not helped at all by the introduction of what is essentially a new sub-type of human that anyone can destroy and abuse without consequence.
The most memorable part of Doll was “Maria” by far, though. A callous businessman falls in love with his Doll, so much that he has her illegally transplanted with human skin, nerves and parts to seem more real. Suspecting that she is a robot, even after the transplant, his jealous employees have no problem attacking their boss’s new “girlfriend”.

“Maria” alone is worth reading it for, even if a lot of this series’ characters so far are hideous people. I feel “Maria” says it all.
When something sentient, something living in every sense, is that close to a human eventually the differences will blur. Doll portrays a dystopia and a miracle of science at once.

Follow my reviews on Goodreads.

Book Review – Winterwood by Patrick McCabe

★★★★★ 5 Stars

Genre: Psychological Thriller
Publication Date: January 23rd, 2007
Publisher: Bloomsbury

“Here we both lie in the shade of the trees, my partner forever just him and me. How long will we lie here O Lord who can tell? Till the winter snow whitens the high hills of Hell.”

What a man fears with obsession, he eventually becomes. Winterwood is a quiet novel, like the underside of a tomb is quiet. McCabe takes the already unsettling notions of lost childhood trauma, hidden animosity between relatives, and brings the raw, writhing form of these out into the light where it was not meant to be seen. It is uncomfortable and surreal as a true psychological horror needs to be.

Redmond Hatch is a journalist who is driven to madness after an old family acquaintance, who turns out to be a depraved murderer, plants the seed of doubt in his mind that one day Redmond will become the lonely, grotesque sort of man that he ended up in the end.
Winterwood spans his private thoughts over about a decade, from his return to his rural hometown to raising his daughter to living in sordid depression after his wife divorces him. Redmond grows gradually more and more obsessed with this murderer he knew in his childhood and never once suspected, much like nobody else did. He grows obsessed with getting back into his daughter’s good graces, while believing the ghost of a killer’s stalking him. Continue reading “Book Review – Winterwood by Patrick McCabe”

Art Book Review – Autopsyrotica by Chad Michael Ward

★★★★ 3.5 Stars

Genre: Photography / Horror
Publication Date: May 1st, 2006
Publisher: NBM Publishing

Ward’s art is daring and sinister. Its human skin is sepia, like an antique photograph found in a secondhand music box stolen from a dead woman’s vanity.
As for horror, it’s subtle and leans more towards gothic burlesque and steampunk than anything, with a touch of Victorian occult smeared in there. I found Autopsyrotica (how exactly is this pronounced?) by chance. My buglike antennae start beeping whenever oddball horror artbooks are present, so I was intrigued when they scouted this out.

The positive is of course, the photography. It looks straight out of a back alley surgery or a seedy velvet-curtained stage in an alternate early 1900s. Wherever Ward found all these rotten experiment chambers and unhallowed vampire tombs, his work on capturing their residents is darkly beautiful.

Image result for chad michael ward autopsyrotica

For the negative, it seems awfully small for its cover price. The paper quality is decent, but half of the book is blank-ish pages with a small blurb of commentary on them. As if to tease you further, the last page is a collage of artworks that weren’t fully pictured in the book. Cruel.

Book Review – The Haunting of Saxton Mansion (Book 0) by Roger Hayden

★★★ 3.5 Stars

Genre: Mystery / Suspense
Series: The Haunting of Saxton Mansion
Publication Date: November 2nd, 2017
Publisher: Independent

The Haunting of Saxton Mansion has a pretty atmosphere and engaging suspense, but holy goodness, it needs a thorough, surgically precise typo scrub. There are really frequent typos that detract from what otherwise is a promising gothic suspense novel. They’re more malapropisms than misspellings, things that Spell Check alone wouldn’t catch, so I can see how they slipped through. But still, there’s such a number I don’t see how some weren’t noticed. In one instance, it causes an accidental paranormal moment where two men seem to be having a psychic conversation with each other.

If the editing was glossed up, I feel like it would’ve been quite beautiful. It’s still not a poor story underneath its surface flaws. Saxton Mansion has an original premise and it reminds me rather nostalgically of Fear Street.
The plot revolves around a man and his wife who purchase a strange mansion in rural Florida that was a strong but somehow forgotten part of the man’s childhood. It’s slow burning rather than visceral, which works for it, and the twist ending is rewarding. I probably would read the second to see where it takes me, but I really wish they had cleaned up the grammar. It’d do a world of favours to its world of ghosts.