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Monthly Archives: June 2017

“This Census-Taker” by China Mieville

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China Mieville’s wildly inventive settings are undoubtedly one of the reasons why his work has met with as much acclaim as it has. From the metropolis of New Crobuzon, where magic and technology coexist; to the city of ships grafted together in The Scar; to the endless train tracks of Railsea; the vivid sense of place is one of the pleasures of reading a Mieville novel. Although the town in which the action of This Census-Taker occurs is much smaller than a typical Mieville location, it still has the imaginative, eerie quality of his other settings. The sense of the town as a real place is bolstered by small details: a group of street urchins fishing for bats off the bridge over a gorge, a lizard raised in a green glass bottle, and the social distinction between town-dwellers and “uphillers.”

I’ve always loved stories in which the fantastical elements are understated or subtle—or those in which the events of the story could have either a magical or a mundane explanation. Another distinction between This Census-Taker and Mieville’s earlier work is that the possible supernatural elements are only hinted at, and they definitely take a backseat to the human drama. The narrator’s father, for example, makes keys that are implied to be capable of altering reality, but we never directly see them in action. (Whether or not certain events might have been facilitated by a key “off-screen” is another question.) There’s an early mention of “bigger and more intricate things than birds” that fly overhead, but we’re never given a more specific description of them. They could be dragons or airplanes or something else entirely.

But while Mieville has once again knocked it out of the park in terms of setting and atmosphere, I found the actual plot of this novella frustrating. Based on the description of the story, I expected it to be about the main character’s travels with the census-taker, but the title character doesn’t even show up until about three-quarters of the way through the book. Also, while leaving some mysteries unexplained can be a perfectly valid approach, Mieville takes it too far here. We’re never given a concrete resolution on whether the traumatic event the narrator witnesses at the start of the story truly is what he thinks it was. An important secondary character disappears, and we’re never told what happened to him. And we never find out the significance of a person who appears to be pursuing or spying on the census-taker. Instead of drawing the reader deeper into the story, these unresolved questions just feel unsatisfying.

“The Ballad of Black Tom” by Victor LaValle

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H.P. Lovecraft was undoubtedly one of the most influential writers of horror fiction, having inspired such modern masters as Stephen King and George R.R. Martin. His stories are not only still read, but still reworked and reinterpreted by other authors. But it’s possible to find flaws even in work that has clearly stood the test of time. One of the flaws most often cited with regard to Lovecraft’s stories is his tendency toward “purple prose.” The other is simply the fact that Lovecraft was solidly a man of his time—the 1920s—with the views of non-white people that one would expect from someone living in that era. The main character of his novella “The Horror at Red Hook,” for example, evinces a fear of the “mongrels” and “swarthy, sin-pitted faces” that frequent the Red Hook neighborhood of New York.

In The Ballad of Black Tom, Victor LaValle retells “The Horror at Red Hook” from the point of view of Charles Thomas Tester, a black street musician. For him, the views of the city’s neighborhoods are reversed: the majority-minority Harlem and Red Hook are home, while the mostly-white areas are places where he has to be careful not to attract too much notice from residents or police. Of course, all humans, regardless of race, are equally insignificant to the Great Old Ones, and the true horror begins when Tester is drawn into Robert Suydam’s attempt to wake one of them up.

The characters in this story are vividly drawn. I really liked Tester’s father, Otis, and enjoyed reading about the way he mentors Tester both in his official profession as a street musician and in his unofficial profession as a courier of occult objects. I also loved the creation of Ma Att: a woman to whom Tester delivers a particular book early in the novella and who is strongly implied to not really be a human at all. That said, Tester’s decision to withhold something from her—an act that has plot-important consequences later on—confused me a bit. Tester seemed to believe that he was deceiving Ma Att because she was dangerous, but her name and the hints about her nature clearly suggest her to be Ma’at: a personification of justice and righteousness derived from Egyptian mythology. (The feather against which Anubis weighs a deceased person’s heart belongs to her.) It’s particularly odd for a character whose anger at systemic injustice fuels many of his later actions to treat Justice Itself as an adversary.

One of the moods Lovecraft employed most often in his stories was that of alienation: the sense that one has been set adrift from everything familiar and rational. LaValle captures this mood excellently as Tester finds himself increasingly isolated from other people and starts to grasp what Suydam is doing.

The Ballad of Black Tom is obviously told from a very different perspective from the original “Horror at Red Hook,” and overall this new take on the story is very well done. However, there was one major change that I wasn’t happy with, because it serves to make the story less interesting, and perhaps even works at cross-purposes to the author’s intent. In the original story, Suydam’s efforts culminate in the appearance of a “phosphorescent thing” that his fellow cultists refer to as Lilith. (“Lilith, great Lilith, behold the bridegroom!”) In LaValle’s retelling, the being that Suydam and the others contact is—spoiler alert here—Cthulhu. While Cthulhu is the most iconic of the Great Old Ones, he may also be the least interesting, specifically because he’s so well-known and has been used in many stories by other authors. Switching out Lilith for Cthulhu thus detracts from the otherwise splendid originality of the story. Also, in the original myth of Lilith, she’s banished from Eden for refusing to be sexually submissive to Adam and thereafter mates with demons and becomes a child-stealing demon herself. LaValle clearly put a lot of thought into reframing the narrative of the human characters in the story, and it would have been interesting to see him do the same with the sexist aspects of the Lilith myth. I was a little disappointed to see that instead, Lilith was simply replaced with a different being. That flaw aside, this is a thought-provoking story and a worthy addition to the cosmic horror genre.