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Monthly Archives: May 2020

“Inland” by Tea Obreht

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I loved Tea Obreht’s debut novel, The Tiger’s Wife, so I was eager to read her new offering. Inland is set in the American West in the late 1800s, and one of its two main plot threads concerns a little-known piece of history: the attempt to use camels as pack animals for the US Army. The fictional main character Lurie joins up with the Camel Corps after being caught stealing from one of the camel drivers, a real historical figure known as Hi Jolly (because no one in the 1800s can be bothered to pronounce Hadji Ali). Lurie has two secrets: he’s a wanted outlaw, and he’s haunted by the ghost of his foster brother.

The other story thread concerns a woman living in the tiny town of Amargo, Arizona. As the book opens, Nora is waiting for her husband to return to their homestead with much-needed water. Her youngest son insists he’s seen a strange beast on her property, and a feckless relative of her husband claims to have seen the ghost of a “lost man.”

I’ve quoted William Faulkner’s line about how the past isn’t dead and isn’t even really past in a couple of other reviews because it’s a common theme in literature. Lurie and Nora are both haunted by their pasts, and in at least one case, that haunting is literal. In the hands of a lesser author, that premise could easily become trite, but Obreht makes you feel for the characters and infuses the idea with real meaning. Similarly, she reinvigorates the conventional trope of “a boy and his dog” by making the dog a camel. The way she turns stories we’ve all seen before on their heads is one of the greatest strengths of the book. It doesn’t hurt that the camel-drivers have some truly hair-raising adventures along the way.

The section of the book set in Amargo is also compelling. We see first-hand how hard life there is, but we can also understand why people like Nora are unwilling to let it be swallowed up by the larger and more successful town of Ash River. Tobey is an endearing character, and a revelation late in the book about the depth of Nora’s husband’s love for her is genuinely moving. None of the main characters are without flaws—sometimes serious ones—yet we can’t help wanting them to succeed.

The one major flaw in the novel is that it takes so long for the two story threads to join up. Reading Inland feels a bit like reading two different books with similar themes at the same time, rather than reading a single coherent narrative. But those narratives are engaging enough that I still enjoyed the book, and I’m looking forward to whatever Obreht does next.

“Cold Print” by Ramsey Campbell

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Ramsey Campbell is Britain’s answer to Stephen King. He’s written dozens of novels and short story collections, the vast majority of which fall into the horror genre. Cold Print collects a number of his short stories written from the 1960s through the 1980s. Many of these are Lovecraftian or cosmic horror stories. One of the most interesting parts of reading this collection is watching Campbell’s development as a writer. Many of his earlier tales are direct pastiches of Lovecraft’s work, and while Campbell’s talent is still in evidence, the later stories are more rewarding. He references “my struggles to be myself” in the introduction, and reading through these stories in order shows that struggle playing out.

One of the ways in which Campbell makes Lovecraftian themes and ideas his own is by transplanting them into different settings. While Lovecraft did set some of his stories in cities (“Pickman’s Model” takes place in Boston, for example), most of his well-known stories are set in small towns (“The Shadow over Innsmouth”, “The Dunwich Horror”), isolated farmsteads (“The Color Out of Space”), or even more remote locations (“At the Mountains of Madness”). Cold Print, by contrast, places a surprising number of its tales in urban locations. The action of “Before the Storm” occurs entirely in a high-rise office building, and the main character of “The Tugging” is more likely to be found on a bus or in an office than sitting on the porch of a rundown farmhouse. But the best example of Campbell’s ability to evoke transcendental horror in a mundane urban setting is the title story, “Cold Print.” Campbell identifies this as the story where his struggles to be himself finally succeeded, and I would have to agree. He paints a vivid picture of a city coated in slushy, grimy snow—and the city’s inhabitants seem just as grimy. They’re perfect servants and/or nourishment for the unearthly entity Y’Golonac, and therein lies the real terror of the story: not in the sheer alienness of the Great Old Ones, but in the idea that deep in our hearts, we might have something in common with them.

Another example of Campbell’s original take on the Mythos is his willingness to use non-human entities as viewpoint characters. In “The Insects from Shaggai,” the human main character is possessed by one of the titular insects. It proceeds to show him the journey of its people from the distant reaches of the universe, and so a large chunk of the story is told from its point of view. “A Madness from the Vaults” goes even further, being set entirely on a distant world called Tond, with all its characters being inhabitants of that world.

There are two stories I want to give special mention to as being particularly unique. “The Plain of Sound” posits an alternate dimension in which physical objects can be formed by sounds made in our dimension. In addition to that intriguing premise, the tale is notable because of its ambiguous ending. Are the inhabitants of the other dimension truly as malevolent as the human characters come to believe, or are the tragic events of the climax due to the humans’ own paranoia and fear of what is different? The last story in the book, “The Voice of the Beach,” is one I had read before in another anthology, and I was happy to find it hasn’t suffered on rereading. The narrator’s growing sense of claustrophobia and isolation makes for a wonderful ratcheting up of dread, and the lyrical descriptions of the “patterns” on the beach enhance the terror rather than lessening it.

Overall, this is a great collection. Readers new to Campbell might appreciate the later stories more because they’re more polished and original, but longtime Campbell fans will enjoy following his growth over what amounts to the length of a single novel.