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Book Reviews

The latest books that caught my eye.




September 2007              

To make up for the lack of reviews while I wrote Knowing Fear, I bring you three new reviews.


Supernatural: Nevermore

Keith R. A. DeCandido, 2007, New York: Harper Entertainment, 315 pp., ISBN: 978-0-06-137090-8




In general, I don’t care much for television tie-ins, usually because a concept developed for television has a certain set of qualities adapted to its medium and which rarely translate to the printed page as nicely as they manifest on screen. The obvious exceptions to this admittedly loose rule are programs anthology programs that originated in the world of short stories, and shows whose storylines are loose enough to provide elasticity for writers to exploit. That stipulated, the first novel tied in to the CW television series Supernatural, Nevermore by Keith R. A. DeCandido, ought to have been able to build off the show’s rather loose combination of stand-alone episodes and continuing storylines to craft an entertaining enough tale to pass its three hundred pages. This book reaches that bare minimum of enjoyment and stubbornly refuses to go even a hair’s breadth beyond.


Briefly stated, the plot of Nevermore finds ghost-busting brothers Sam and Dean Winchester visiting the Bronx to rid an aging tribute band leader’s haunted house of its undead occupant and to solve a series of murders inspired by Edgar Allan Poe stories. The former plot is a rather dull affair filled with second-rate characters of obviously cardboard consistency. It is, however, constructed skillfully enough to keep the story moving at a sufficient pace.


The title plot is a bit more complex and involves ritual murders aimed at resurrecting Poe from his tomb for reasons that become evident only when it is too late for their preposterousness to really matter. However, Mr. DeCandido makes a number of Poe-related gaffes that mar this supernatural retelling of the story in Sheldon Rusch’s mediocre 2005 Poe-murder outing For Edgar (careful readers: note the coincidence of the stories chosen for the murders, and the identity of the villain once revealed). First, Poe’s tale was “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” not “on” the Rue Morgue as Mr. Candido claims a dozen times. Secondly, Mr. DeCandido has Poe scholars declaiming any knowledge of the meaning of Poe’s poem “The Bells,” in which a couple marry and die in a fire, arguing instead that there is no death in the poem and it just might have something to do with fire. Perhaps Google or Wikipedia might have aided the research.


Speaking of gaffes, a good editor could have noted that agoraphobia has nothing to do with the fear of heights (acrophobia), and other minor errors that give the book the feel of a draft rather than a polished copy. Then again, when you write several TV tie-in novels per year, every book is likely quite close to its first draft condition.


I shall finish with a thought for those of you who actually read the book: Consider the ending, and tell me whether the writer missed an opportunity to create something more, well, supernatural by failing to have the climactic encounter with the villain coincide with the ritual night that was to have completed the plot driving the Poe story. One would think that staging the encounter then would have led to a tidier, or even more haunting, ending than the otherwise clichéd scene.


Of course, the bottom line for a TV tie-in is how successfully it recreates the feeling the show it purports to capture. Here, Mr. DeCandido largely succeeded (though again not without continuity errors and a few howlers). For the most part, the characters sound right, and within reason the novel could have been an episode of Supernatural, though not necessarily a good one.



The Immaculate

Mark Morris, 2006, New York: Leisure Books, 342 pp., ISBN: 0-8439-5670-4




Mark Morris may have published a dozen novels, and his The Immaculate may have garnered some good reviews, but this may say more about the publishing industry and the taste of contemporary reviewers than it does the quality of the book under consideration. The book’s cover cheerfully informs us that the Times of London enjoyed the novel’s “mind-boggling” twist, and inside we learn from blurbs that both Ramsey Campbell and Clive Barker, past masters of horror, hail Morris as a worthy heir. I admit, the book is scary, but only insofar as readers mistake lists of products consumed for character development and strung together clichés for plot.


The story, briefly told, involves Jack Stone, an abused child who grows into a horror writer after leaving his alcoholic father, who blames him for his mother’s death during his birth, and escaping his schoolyard bully, who like all bullies of literature exists with single-minded menace to perpetrate acts of cartoon violence. Jack returns to his small hometown many years later to attend his father’s funeral, reluctant to reengage the life he left behind and more reluctant to leave behind the girlfriend he came to love during a drawn out description of a cheap Italian dinner.


I cannot begin to describe the bizarre machinations of the plot, which mostly concerns Jack feeling ambiguous about his love-hate relationship with his father. Meanwhile, the former bully, Patty, has waited more than a decade to seek revenge on Jack for a time when Jack’s father hit him. To accomplish this, Patty has trained his own daughter since childhood to become a Venus flytrap in order to sexually entrap Jack in order to falsely claim rape in order to lure Jack to a doom fostered by an army of a hundred motorcycle punks. This is the realistic part of the plot.


The ridiculous part involves the true identity of Jack’s girlfriend, which I must unfortunately leave to masochists to discover on their own. However, if you do happen to enjoy self-flagellation and uncover the secret, ask yourself this: If your significant other turned out to be who this one was, would you declare it a love beyond “conventional morality,” or would you take a cold shower and go into therapy? The final twist makes “it was all a dream” look good by comparison.


That said, the novel’s writing is fairly crisp when not listing endlessly the characters’ favorite consumer goods, and much of the dialogue is a step above the ordinary. Otherwise, The Immaculate is far from a perfect novel.


Capsule Review

Arkham Tales

2006, Chaosium, 296 pp., ISBN: 1-5688-2185-6




Chaosium specializes in Lovecraftian fiction for the role-playing set, and Arkham Tales is an anthology set not in Lovecraft’s world but in the world of the role playing game based upon Lovecraft’s fiction city. Like all anthologies, there is some good and some bad, but as a pleasant surprise the tales actually get better as one reads through the book. If you skip the first third or so, this would be an excellent anthology, but as it is, it still ranks among Chaosium’s better efforts.



August 2006                                               
Necronomicon: The Wanderings of Alhazred
Donald Tyson, 2004, Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn; 269 pp., illustrations. ISBN: 0-7387-0627-2.

Writing in May of 1932, H. P. Lovecraft disabused his friend and fellow horror-author Robert E. Howard of the notion that he might write the text for the fictional Necronomicon, that dread book of dark legendry allegedly penned by the Mad Arab, Abdul Alhazred, around AD 730: "I fear it would be quite a job in view of the very diverse passages and intimations which I have in the course of time attributed to it! I might, though, issue an abridged Necronomicon--containing such parts as are considered at least reasonably safe for the perusal of mankind!" Unfortunately for us, occult writer Donald Tyson has done Lovecraft one better and fleshed out a "full" version of the madness-inducing tome. This wouldn't be so bad were it not for the fact that Tyson claims his book is "uniquely accurate" and "faithful" to Lovecraft. Would that it were so!


A work like Tyson's Necronomicon: The Wanderings of Alhazred operates on two levels: as a work of art and as an embodiment of Lovecraft's vision. Therefore, we should evaluate the current "translation" on both levels before rendering a final judgment. First, let's take the art:


The Tyson text is a reasonably artistic recreation of eighth century writing, with the typically florid prose and mind-numbing boredom frequently found in compositions of the era. Each of the very short chapters covers an episode in the wanderings of Alhazred as he pieces together the lore of the Old Ones. This is all very detailed and carefully worked out, though sometimes contradictory. Tyson embeds paraphrases of Lovecraft's famous Necronomicon passages within his text, though not always seamlessly. In one place he has Alhazred ask (from "The Dunwich Horror") what man knows Kadath, but in another chapter actually goes there and experiences it! If only poor Randolph Carter knew how easy it was to get to Kadath, he would never have needed that darn Dream-Quest! In another place, he embeds Lovecraft's "cryptic couplet" ("That is not dead…") as a quotation, apparently following Robert M. Price's humorous "Critical Commentary on the Necronomicon" and its suggestion that the couplet is cult liturgy repeated by Alhazred instead of Lovecraft's own assertion that the couplet is part of an Alhazred poem. While logical, this development isn't "uniquely faithful" to Lovecraft.


On a more subtle note, the verisimilitude of the work is broken by the insertion of Tyson's name as the author of the volume (a better approach would be to list him as "translator"), but despite intricate working of the Greek and Latin translation chronology, there is no "author's note" giving a fictional explanation for how the tome came into the English language! For shame! Such a detail would have enhanced the book and provided a suitably ominous air of pseudo-scholarship not unlike Lovecraft's intentions.


But to get back to the professed faithfulness to Lovecraft: that is another question altogether. Here is where I have the biggest problem with Tyson's version. In Lovecraft, the Necronomicon is not an explicit guide to the Old Ones and their ethnography, but instead contains "terrible hints" which only the most adept and learned in cult lore can completely understand. In Tyson's version, everything is made explicit. Compare Lovecraft's description of the dread tome's references to Cthulhu and his cult: "No book had ever really hinted of it, though the deathless Chinamen said that there were double meanings in the Necronomicon of the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred which the initiated might read as they chose." And now Tyson:


Great Cthulhu is ever a warrior god, and of all the Old Ones he is the most terrible… It was he who together with his star spawn that defeated the Elder Things… He uses its [his mind's] power to send forth to men who are susceptible to his influence the command that they release the seals that bind his tomb… The color of his skin is green mingled with gray…


There follows a description of how and when Cthulhu will rise from his watery tomb. And that's just the chapter titled "Cthulhu." Other chapters spell out the exact role of each of the other major Lovecraftian gods (weirdly promoting Dagon to a top role) and their supposed relationships to one another. I'm pretty sure this is a bit more direct than what Lovecraft called the "fiendish elder myths which…the Necronomicon affrightedly hint[s] about."


Finally, the most important flaw in Tyson's Necronomicon is this: It lacks the sense of cosmic dread that animates the best of Lovecraft's horror. In this work, there is never a sense of horror or the terrifying otherness of the Old Ones, only a bestiary of vaguely powerful beings conforming roughly to the frequently mentioned Hebraic and Christian mythologies. Come to think of it, that's an awfully odd set of references for the mad Arab, since as a lapsed Muslim he should be writing in an Islamic frame of reference rather than a Judeo-Christian one. But then, the Old Ones never were too picky about those pesky humans and their affairs, so why should we be?



February 2006                                                            

This month I review two books offering different takes on the Neolithic period, the time between the Old Stone Age (Paleolithic) and the Bronze Age. It was a time of rapid cultural change and saw the introduction of agriculture and new forms of religion and architecture. In many ways the Neolithic was the most formative phase of human development.


Inside the Neolithic Mind: Consciousness, Cosmos, and the Realm of the Gods

David Lewis-Williams and David Pearce, 2005, London: Thames & Hudson; 320 pp., illustrations, index. ISBN: 0-500-05138-0




Soberly assessing the New Stone Age from the perspective of our current understanding of the human mind and its generalities, David Lewis-Williams and David Pearce analyze how our neurological makeup influenced and guided the remarkable explosion of culture that occurred during the Neolithic period. In this too-brief but fascinating study, the authors explore the possibility that Neolithic monuments like Newgrange in Ireland and Catalhoyuk in Turkey represent the physical manifestations of religious beliefs derived from universal human mental experiences. For this, they rely on the similarity between the iconography and architecture of these sites and the reports of people in altered states of consciousness ranging from religious ecstasy to drug use to daydreaming.


To avoid accusations that they reduce all culture to random biological derivatives, the authors clearly indicate the role cultures play in emphasizing, directing, and interpreting altered states of consciousness in their own unique ways. The same symbol may represent different things to different human groups, and in this way culture interacts with biology to invent culture. This process therefore accounts for nearly universal human beliefs in a tiered cosmos, in spirit beings, and so on, despite extreme regional and culture variation on these themes.


Unfortunately, despite the genuinely interesting theories presented in Inside the Neolithic Mind, the authors restrict themselves to just two areas, the ancient Near East and the Atlantic seaboard. Further comparisons with additional areas would have strengthened their claims. It also remains to be seen whether the arguments the book derives from Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate, which held that biology defines more of human behavior than previously realized, will hold up over time. However, Inside the Neolithic Mind does a superb job of explaining the intersecting worlds of biology and culture, offering a unique insight into the development of human culture that will surely be talked about for years to come, even if you do not necessarily agree with the authors' contention that all non-material experiences are necessarily products of random brain function.


For those with an interest in "alternative" views of civilization, Inside the Neolithic Mind offers an intriguing way of viewing human culture. The similarities alternative authors tend to see in ancient civilizations may very well be the result of differing cultures interpreting and utilizing universal mental experiences in their own unique ways--no aliens or Altanteans needed.


Civilization One: The World is not As You Thought it Was

Christopher Knight and Alan Butler, 2004, London: Watkins Publishing; 258 pp., illustrations, index. ISBN: 1842930958




Originally published in Skeptic 11.3 (Winter 2005), pp. 94-5.


Civilization One reads like the notes for a much better book that could have been written by authors less awestruck by their own cleverness. Superficial and often unreadable because of a dense number of mathematical equations, the book commits the lust sin of popular literature: it is no fun to read. Crammed into just over 250 pages are so many unbelievable assertions and unproven speculations that it would take a book-sized rebuttal to do adequate justice to this triumph of numerology over science.


The book's thesis is built upon the supposed revealing dimensions of the Megalithic Yard--a hypothetical unit of measurement 82.96656 cm long (about 10 palm widths), originally identified by engineer Archie Thorn as the unit used to build the great Neolithic structures of Ireland and Britain such as Newgrange and Stonehenge. The precision claimed for the length of the Megalithic Yard is surprising given the poor condition of Neolithic monuments today. It is impossible to record their measurements to the ten-thousandth of a millimeter, the standard apparently used to derive this unit of measurement.


The claims of Civilization One depend on the authors' insistence that the Megalithic Yard is derived from an ancient civilization's knowledge of the precise dimensions of the Solar system.


Knight and Butler accept the Megalithic Yard (MY) uncritically here, as Knight did in earlier books like Uriel's Machine (2001), which claimed that ancient cultic ("angelic") knowledge has survived in present-day political elites and Freemasons. Here the two authors, speaking of themselves always in the third person ("Chris picked up the phone and told Alan ..."), use the MT as the basis for their own numerological investigation into the origin of ancient civilizations worldwide. They link the MY to the rotation of the Earth, asserting that the ancients viewed circles and the Earth as having 366[degrees], six more than today. This 366 is the number of rotations the Each makes during one revolution of the Sun (the difference between this and the 365 solar days is due to earth's forward motion around the sun) and because the Moon's circumference is 3.66 times smaller than earth's (a neat coincidence, but meaningless for people who had not yet invented zero and decimal places). The authors believe a lost civilization understood these facts and used them as the basis of their measurements, handing them down. For this to be true, the ancients would need to have known that the Earth was round, that the Earth travels around the Sun, and the distance from the Earth to the Moon. The authors give no evidence for this other than the presence of the assumed MY, their sole evidence for this lost civilization.


Knight and Butler freely admit that they began their speculation by assuming that the Megalithic Yard is geodetic: "This means it was derived from the geometry of the earth itself--specifically it was based on the polar circumference of the planet." The authors are then amazed to discover that if you assume the Earth has 366 degrees, each of which is divided into 60 minutes and then 6 arc seconds, you find that each second is 366 MY long. They provide no reason to assume these values other than "Alan [Butler] had reasons to believe" it was so. Nevertheless the fact remains: they assumed the MY was geodetic and used their math to prove their own assumption. They measured out their MY by using the rotation of Earth itself and were then shocked to discover that their measurements had a relationship to the Earth. This is something like watching a chicken lay an egg and then feeling shocked when a chicken hatches from the egg.


Building on their "findings," the authors correlate MYs with other historic units of measurement, demonstrating that cubes made from sides with fractional MYs produce known units of weight and volume, including pints and pounds. They then go on to make some outlandish claims based upon the recurrence of numbers like six and ten when cosmic values like the mass of the earth are converted into ancient measures. Even the authors admit that these arguments are unconvincing, but they believe they should be taken as part of a "holistic" approach to science and math. If it feels good, believe it.


Nevertheless, let us assume for a moment that all of these measurements are completely correct and genuinely ancient. What would they prove? They would only prove that people with the same geometric knowledge as the ancient Greeks invented some units of measurement that caught on in some parts of the ancient world. This is a far cry from Knight's and Butler's ultimate contention that so miraculous is the number 366 when used in "base 10" that it can only represent the legacy of a lost civilization channeled directly from the "Great Architect of the Universe." Further, the Megalithic Yard is so versatile that according to the authors, it also represents the note C-sharp when converted into sound, and the color blue when converted into electromagnetic waves. The authors claim that the magical properties of 366 have shaken their agnostic worldview.


But this is to be expected from authors who have clearly performed such limited research. They display no awareness that knowledge is a process of accretion, as they wonder why early people, with the same brains as today's humans, did not invent higher math. They seem not to remember that one must lust have giants before one can stand on their shoulders. Worse, their acceptance of so-called "facts" shows no evidence of any critical thinking. At one point the authors outrageously claim that 730 million Egyptians were mummified, misunderstanding the website they lightly paraphrase, whose own material was lifted verbatim from Microsoft's Encarta encyclopedia. The Encarta claimed 730 million bodies--cats, humans, ibises, etc.--were mummified, a number that is still high by other estimates. Such poor research makes it hard to trust their unreferenced information, and their over-reliance on the deus ex machina of a lost civilization destroys the few genuinely interesting arguments they present in the book.


Since so much of Civilization One depends on the numerological magic of 366, the book lives and dies on the validity of the Megalithic Yard and the 366 degree circle. This reality is never conclusively shown, but by simply repeating their assertions Knight and Butler want us to believe that it has been, cleverly promising still more information in a forthcoming book. The authors never really explain where those extra six hypothetical degrees went to leave us with a 360 degree circle, but perhaps they don't have to. It seems clear from their work that the missing six degrees are the six degrees of separation which link every actor to Kevin Bacon and every numerological coincidence to a lost civilization.

April 2005                                                                           

Michel Houellebecq (Translated by Dorna Khazeni)

Believer Books / McSweeney’s | ISBN 1932416188 | May 2005 | 150 pages | $18




Since I am unfamiliar with French novelist Michel Houellebecq's other works, I approached his 1991 essay "H. P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life" on its own merits. Available for the first time in English, the slender paperback is fleshed out with an illuminating introductory essay by Stephen King and pointless reprints of Lovecraft's "The Call of Cthulhu" and "The Whisperer in Darkness." Or at least that's what the press materials say. The publisher provided advanced copies of only King's and Houellebecq's contributions to the composite volume, so the final product may not be as described.


Houellebecq, described as the "bad boy of French literature," turns in an 80 page essay (in large type) that arbitrarily combines a loose biography of horror master Lovecraft with speculation and opinions about the current state of literature and abstract philosophy. Houellebecq contends that Lovecraft's life represents a great example of how to fail in life and succeed in work, drawing on Lovecraft's biography to make points about the value of art in human existence. For the author, Lovecraft represents the perfect acme of the poetic genius: an active hostility to life. If I am reading "Against the World" correctly, Houellebecq believes that the highest form of human endeavor is to stridently oppose the status quo since it is inherently unfair and worthless. Life itself, he says, is evil, so it is humanity's duty to oppose it and, Christ-like, turn one's life into a "living sacrifice."


The chapters of "Against the World" are only roughly connected; the whole of the essay (hence the quotation marks--it isn't quite a book) is less than coherent. Perhaps it reads better in French. Houellebecq quotes liberally from what seem to be the French translations of Lovecraft, and he proceeds to analyze Lovecraft's language and its import through the lens of these translations. The translator, Dorna Khazeni, has reinserted Lovecraft's original words, giving us the spectacle of reading an English translation of French commentaries on French translations of English-language stories. Somehow, the ideas don't quite survive the numerous permutations, and the result is a bit baffling. Stephen King's introduction, however, is preserved in its native language and makes for more satisfying reading.


Perhaps the best explanation of just what "Against the World" is comes from its "product description": "Houellebecq's insights into the craft of writing illuminate both Lovecraft and Houellebecq's own work." In other words, this is less a book about Lovecraft than one about Houellebecq, in which the French author reflects himself in the mirror of Lovecraft.



January 2005                                         


H. P. Lovecraft (edited by Peter Straub)

Library of America | ISBN: 1-931082-72-3 | February 2005 |

864 pages | $35.00






There is no surer mark that an author has entered the American literary canon than for his or her works to find their way into the Library of America. These uniform editions bring together the works of American masters and present authoritative texts for the scholar, critic, and student. After years of dwelling on the fringes of respectability, H. P. Lovecraft has finally crossed over into the American canon with the Library's publication of a thick volume of his fiction under the imaginative title Tales. Editor and novelist Peter Straub, best known for his collaborations with Stephen King, has entombed within the unadorned, black covers of the brick-sized tome 22 of Lovecraft’s 60-odd short stories and novellas.


Included are several of Lovecraft's most important and best-known horror and science-fiction tales, like "The Call of Cthulhu," "The Colour Out of Space," and "At the Mountains of Madness." However Straub has made some eccentric choices, including substandard Lovecraft like "Herbert West--Reanimator" and the inexplicably boring "He" while largely excluding Lovecraft's fantasy stories set in the distant past or the world of dream. Thus less horror-centric stories like "The Silver Key" and The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath are absent. The collection gives a colder and less complete overview of Lovecraft's range than earlier anthologies, like Del Rey's 1982 collection, The Best of H. P. Lovecraft: Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre.


In a terse note at the back of the book, Straub reveals that the Library of America's texts are taken entirely from Lovecraft scholar S. T. Joshi's authoritative editions, and the story selection reliably follows Joshi’s distaste for Lovecraft's more fantastic stories. Also from Joshi is the entirety of the notes to the text, mostly definitions of obsolete words, explanations of Lovecraft’s allusions, and references to his letters. These are largely abridged from Joshi's Arkham House editions, and dollar for dollar those books are probably a better value than the Library's redundant reprints.


Nevertheless, the true worth of the Library of America edition of Lovecraft's Tales is its canonization of Lovecraft as a Great Author. Ever since Edmund Wilson eviscerated Lovecraft's fiction in a 1942 essay, Lovecraft's fans and admirers have tried to have him petrified into the pantheon of American writers. It was this struggle--the sense that reading Lovecraft was in some way not quite approved by the teachers, professors, and experts--that induced generations of youth to delve down to R'lyeh in search of Cthulhu and his kin. Now safely tucked away on the shelves of the American canon, Lovecraft's controversial cosmic vision can be safely disposed of as a harmless "classic," one of those wholesome books we force unwilling children to read. Mark Twain knew it well enough when he said that a classic was "a book people praise and don’t read."


THE BOTTOM LINE: The Library of America's Tales is an important milestone for Lovecraft scholars and for Lovecraft's place in the literary world. However, the publication of Tales may mark the point where saying you're "reading Lovecraft" conjures about as much excitement and curiosity as "reading Jane Austen" or "reading Nathaniel Hawthorne." For the sake of future generations of Outsiders, let us hope that never quite happens.


The Rise and Fall of Rome

October 2004


Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic

Tom Holland

Doubleday | ISBN 0-385-50313-X | 2003 | 408 pages | $27.50


A masterpiece of style, Rubicon beautifully captures the facts and feelings in the years when the Roman Republic inexorably converted into the Roman Empire. Tom Holland tells the familiar story with the skill of a novelist, integrating ancient sources into a near-seamless, if somewhat subjective, whole. The household names -- Caesar, Augustus, Cicero, Pompey, etc. -- are all here, brought to life as rarely before. However, Holland does occasionally overstep his conceit that the fall of the Republic has parallels in today’s world when he applies modern-day military and political jargon to ancient events. These occasional lapses break from the otherwise fluid tone of the text but should not distract from what otherwise is one of the most cogent and exhilarating descriptions of an event people have been writing about for over 2,000 years. RATING: BUY IT


The Closing of the Western Mind:

The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason

Charles Freeman

Knopf | ISBN 1-4000-4085-X | 2003 | 432 pages | $30.00


On the other end of Roman history, Charles Freeman's Closing of the Western Mind describes the fracturing of the Empire in the years following its adoption of Christianity as its state religion. Freeman would like very much for us to believe that Closing chronicles Christianity's brutal oppression of the Greek rational tradition and shows the way unblinking faith replaced open minded inquiry under the aegis of power-mad prelates and emperors, corrupting them and their doctrines in the process. Closing's most useful passages demonstrate how accepted Christian doctrine was a result of political expediency. All of this is very likely true, but Freeman's Closing is a rather dry chronicle of the rise of Christianity to its medieval predominance. Largely free of analysis and only loosely connected to the stated theme, most of Freeman's book simply regurgitates names, dates, and lengthy descriptions of various philosophers' and theologians' ideas without demonstrating exactly how they caused the death of reason. RATING: FORGET ABOUT IT



July 2004                                                                               

The Rape of the Masters:

How Political Correctness Sabotages Art

Roger Kimball

Enounter | ISBN: 1-893554-86-4 | July 2004 | 186 pages | $25.95






Is it possible to agree with a book almost completely and yet still think that the book is almost worthless as a piece of literature? According to the writers whose work is skewered in Roger Kimball's The Rape of the Masters, the answer is a definite "no" because art and literature are only politics, and the only good art or literature is that with whose politics you agree. According to Kimball, the answer is "yes," because the work must be seen as a whole, free of ideology. Therefore, in keeping with the spirit of the author, this review will proudly proclaim that Kimball's ideas are quite correct, and his book is quite bad.


Kimball, a distinguished art critic and editor of the New Criterion, believes that academia has destroyed humanity's collective sense of its artistic heritage by over-analyzing artwork and reading into classic pictures politically correct interpretations that support the academics' liberal political and social ideologies. Kimball marshals some good examples of this process, including a hilarious chapter eviscerating David M. Lubin's outrageous interpretation of a John Singer Sargent painting. Lubin apparently believes that a capital E is a phallic symbol ready to rape the lowercase ("feminine") letter next to it and that a "i" with a circumflex over it represents an impregnated and circumcised female. Thus paintings whose titles can be translated into French with those letters clearly are all about kinky, incestuous sexual domination. If that makes no sense, you have not been exposed to modern academic psycho-sexual interpretation.


For all the self-evident correctness of Kimball's deconstruction of outrageous claims like the one above, The Rape of the Masters never really comes together as a book. Separate chapters present an individual painting by a master artist and one critic’s outlandish interpretation, followed by Kimball's exasperated and snide comments. The book feels slap-dash and has no overall structure. It has no sound methodology to demonstrate just how wide-spread idiotic interpretations really are. Part of the problem derives from Kimball's own belief that "theory" is bad and has no place in the art world; therefore, it has no place in his book, and the lack of a strong intellectual backdrop for his ideas is a problem. How can the reader know what the general consensus is about the works of art except through Kimball's own assertions? Worse: if Kimball's interpretations found their way to print, logically the book's thesis that only psycho-sexual interpretations are available for students to learn from cannot possibly be true.


The book also has some other odd quirks, Kimball's insistence on using the book's title in the book itself: "It pleases me to think that The Rape of the Masters will help counteract that anesthesia, prompting more people to object to the objectionable." Ultimately, Rape feels much more like an extended review of a longer, weightier, better book that Kimball did not have the patience to write. Even if you agree completely that modern academia is obsessed with race, class, and gender and reads post-modern messages into everything, Rape will do little to enlighten you further and nothing to help redirect art criticism to a new, more grounded level. Ultimately the lesson both the academics Kimball criticizes and Kimball himself need to learn is that criticism tells you much more about the critic than the work being criticized.*


THE BOTTOM LINE: Individually the book's eight brief essays are often quite entertaining, especially the aforementioned essay on Prof. Lubin and Sargent. For no other reason than the humor of that one essay, The Rape of the Masters is worth checking out, as long as you don't expect too much other than a good laugh.


* Yes, I am aware of the irony of saying that in a critical review.



May 2004                                                                                

Europe's Last Summer: Who Started the Great War in 1914?

David Fromkin

Knopf | ISBN: 0-375-41156-9 | March 2004 | 349 pages | $26.95






If you will forgive the pun, I knew I was in for a rocky ride when David Fromkin's new book on the First World War began with a description of some strange turbulence on a routine flight that briefly made news in 1997. This forgettable minor incident cannot compete with the lofty importance of Fromkin's subject matter, and its use as a bookend here raised some questions since the author holds that it is the only metaphor he can think of to explain the chain reaction that destroyed Western civilization in August 1914.


In Europe's Last Summer, Fromkin lays out his case for why the Great War began when and where it did. Placing blame on the leadership of Germany and Austria-Hungary (the "Central Powers"), the author demonstrates that World War I was the result of Germany's deliberate attempts to provoke a war to destroy France and Russia before they became powerful enough to destroy imperial Germany. The Austro-Hungarian war to crush Serbia following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand was merely the excuse for Germany to launch its own fight. Thus there were really two wars in 1914, Austria's and Germany's. This, Fromkin says, is the key to understanding the Great War.


None of this is particularly new, but Fromkin's aim was not to revolutionize the field but to bring to popular attention the recent research of the past twenty years. Perhaps thinking of his audience, he limits most chapters to fewer than four pages; many are only a few paragraphs. This leaves little room to develop either characterizations or themes. Instead, a vast array of names go by--Moltke, Berchtold, Grey, Pointcare--with little insight into who they were or how they thought. The most attention went to Kaiser Wilhelm and the slain Archduke, a consequence of Fromkin's reading. His admiration for Frederic Morton's Thunder at Twilight is evident in the amount of detail he borrows from it virtually undigested. On more than one occasion it was easy to tell which book Fromkin read as he wrote a particular chapter.


Europe's Last Summer is divided into several sections, many of which seem to belong to different books. The first few sections take a long view of the run-up to war, exploring long-term causes. The middle section provides a day-by-day, but not too detailed, account of the July Crisis, and the last section returns to the big-picture view to analyze the events again. The book would have been improved by melding together the different sections to tell the story of the July Crisis in a deeper, more fluid narrative that gave background and analyzed actions all at once, rather than in parts. But that book has already been written: William Jannen's 1997 The Lions of July, which Fromkin cites as a source.


Fromkin's previous book, the superb A Peace to End All Peace, told the story of how the years following the Great War created to modern Middle East, but in attempting to work backward to the root causes of the great 1914 conflagration, Fromkin traded the literate, eloquent style of the earlier book for an uneasy hybrid of the journalistic and the academic. For the general reader it is wholly unnecessary to discuss which historians found which papers and analyzed them how. Instead, tell us what happened and why. It was hard to imagine that the same man wrote both Peace and Europe's Last Summer.


THE BOTTOM LINE: Europe's Last Summer is occasionally insightful, but its odd structure and brief chapters provide little room to develop the deep, complex thoughts necessary to understand one of the most complex wars the world has ever seen.



March 2004                                                                       

The Encyclopedia Cthulhiana

By Daniel Harms

Chaosium | ISBN: 1-56882-119-0 | 2003 | 425 pages | $17.95






Daniel Harms' massive Encyclopedia Cthulhiana aims to be the most useful guide to H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos since Lin Carter first collected some of the same information in 1956. A lot has changed since then, and the first edition of Encyclopedia broke new ground in cataloguing the people, places, and things that make up the Lovecraftian universe, as told by H.P. Lovecraft and those that followed him. In 1998, the second edition expanded on the first and became a must-read for anyone who wanted to get a handle on the exploding array of gods, monsters, and tomes used in Mythos stories. Unfortunately, the "new" release of the Encyclopedia is only a reprint of the 1998 edition, though with a few corrections and revisions.


Harms catalogues each Mythos entity with a Britannica-style entry by name, defining the entity and providing a brief list of references to its major appearances in fiction and Call of Cthulhu role-playing game material. He perhaps overdoes the gaming side a bit, and for readers who are Lovecraft fans but not game players this might seem excessive and confusing, introducing an array of terms and ideas not found in Lovecraft or his literary successors. Otherwise, the Encyclopedia is a useful reference for all things Cthulhu and makes a handy guide for understanding obscure references in Mythos stories. However, if you already have the first edition, you may want to borrow the second edition first to see if the new(er) content is worth your money. If you have the second edition, this printing is the same thing. If you have neither, borrow one from a friend to find out trivia such as what Mnomquah is or how the Fishers from Outside differ from the Old Ones.


THE BOTTOM LINE: The Encyclopedia Cthulhiana is epistemological fun for Lovecraft die-hards, but for the casual reader (and writer), systematizing the Lovecraftian universe limits the intrigue to be had from mystery and uncertainty.




The White People

Arthur Machen

Chaosium | ISBN: 1-56882-172-7 | May 2003 | 284 pages | $14.95


*** (out of four)






Shadows Over Baker Street

Michael Reaves and John Pelan (eds.)

Ballantine/Del Rey | ISBN: 0-345-45528-2 | October 2003 | 446 pages | $23.95


** (out of four)


At the time that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle began writing his most famous tales, those of the ultra-rational detective Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Machen, an inspiration for H.P. Lovecraft, was creating tales of cosmic horror that at first glance seemed entirely opposite to Doyle's ordered universe. But Doyle himself was an ardent believer in the supernatural, so it is not entirely surprising to see a new collection of stories bring Sherlock Holmes into the world of H.P. Lovecraft not long after a new edition of Machen's stories hit bookstores. However, comparing the two books reminds us of the startling difference between Victorian literature and literature about Victorians.


On the Victorian end, The White People collects around twenty of Machen's tales of the supernatural, including the title story, dealing with unspoken sexual themes, and the short novel A Fragment of Life, about the slow realization of a London man that city life is an abomination. Also here are the prose poem collection Ornaments in Jade and Machen's famous story "The Bowmen," which told of the ghosts of the British soldiers of the Hundred Years' War returning to aid their World War I compatriots in France. "The Bowmen" became so notorious that many in wartime England thought the tale true; as editor S.T. Joshi notes, this was in part due to Machen's own scheming.


A sequel to Joshi's earlier collection of Machen's stories, The Three Impostors, reviewed here in 2001, The White People shares the previous book's virtues. It makes accessible some truly great late Victorian writing of a style and quality likewise unseen since that age. However, it also shares the earlier book's flaw: Joshi's introduction gives too much away. For those who have not yet read these tales, it is best to save the introduction until after reading the stories. Also present is the bizarre floating potato on the book's cover, a mirror image of the same strange creature on volume one. This charming collection hints at the subtle horror underlying the calm surface of Victorian and post-Victorian life.


In contrast to Machen, the new collection Shadows Over Baker Street offers characteristically blunt twenty-first century imaginings of how Sherlock Holmes might have dealt with the minions of H.P. Lovecraft's Old Ones. The eighteen stories, each by a different modern author, offer eighteen different takes on the same premise: the gaslight detection of Holmes and Watson meets the transmundane terror of the Old Ones. At their best, these tales are genuinely terrifying and giddy fun. At their worst, they cram the worst excesses of Lovecraft imitators into pale pastiches of Doyle's style. Shadows is reminiscent of Victorian "supernatural detectives" like William Hope Hodgson's Carnacki and Algernon Blackwood's John Silence. Overall, however, the collection is fun to read, but it is best if you are among that subset who is intimately familiar with all of both Doyle's and Lovecraft's tales and their later imitators, too.


Hands down, the best of the stories is F. Gwynplaine McIntyre's "The Adventure of Exham Priory," which manages to combine Lovecraft's "Rats in the Walls" with Holmes' depression after his return from the "dead" and turn it into a truly amazing synthesis. McIntyre's story perfectly captures the tone and style of Doyle's stories and transports Holmes into a frightening world where cosmic horror wreaks a toll on the great detective's faith in reason itself. This story alone is almost worth the book's hefty cover price. Other strong entries include James Lowder's "The Weeping Masks" about Watson's terrible time in Afghanistan and Paul Finch's "The Mystery of the Hanged Man's Puzzle," about subterranean goings-on in London.


However, Shadows has a serious flaw that detracts from the book. In nearly all of the stories (except, notably, McIntyre's entry), Sherlock Holmes is already familiar with Lovecraft's Old Ones and knows all their secrets and how to vanquish them! He is intimately aware of the cycles of the stars and knows when the extraterrestrial beings can plunge from world to world. This is a striking contrast to the man who once told Watson he did not know the earth went around the sun because that information wasted valuable brainpower he could use for deduction. That such a man would already know the esoteric secrets of Cthulhu seems off. Also, the tales have very little deducing and a much action-hero theatrics at the expense of anything truly Lovecraftian. One could imagine a better book where Holmes had to grapple with startling challenges to his rationalist world-view in the face evidence leading toward conclusions of cosmic terror.


Instead, we are too often given stories like Sandman author Neil Gaiman's "A Study in Emerald." That story postulates an alternative universe where the Old Ones live as human royalty, but the story presumes knowledge of post-Lovecraft authors of Lovecraftian horror and an ability to forgive dozens of historical errors (like having Victoria's consort Albert alive twenty years after his 1861 death). I'm sure Gaiman has an explanation for each anachronism, but a story has not succeeded if it needs explanation. Besides, the story, billed with the others as "tales of terror" on the cover, produces more giggles than chills. How scary can the Old Ones be when, as in "Emerald" people are putting on plays and puppet shows about them?


Roman Sex

John R. Clarke

Harry N. Abrams | ISBN: 0-8109-4263-1 | 2003 | 168 pages | $35.00


****(out of four)

(contains graphic sexual images)


Reviewed November 2003


The Romans are often mythologized as noble statesmen and master soldiers. For the better part of two millennia Roman government and Roman military prowess has served as the benchmark against which the West measures itself. However, sex in ancient Rome is not one of those areas where moderns look back fondly on their ancient predecessors. Most treatments of Roman sexuality superficially cover Imperial orgies and otherwise dismiss Roman lovemaking as essentially the same as the Victorian morality that governs modern sexual convention.


John Clarke's Roman Sex takes a fresh look at the role of sexuality in Roman life and finds surprising evidence that the Romans had a much different attitude about sex than modern Americans, one that has not been understood: "Perhaps the greatest barrier to our seeing ancient sexuality clearly is one that we ourselves erected only a century and a half ago. It is the creation of 'pornography.'" By classifying sexually explicit images to the category of pornography, it meant that Western archaeologists downplayed or sometimes destroyed explicit paintings and sculptures from the Roman Empire. As Clarke demonstrates, these pictures were not "bad" for the Romans; in fact, they were often prominently displayed in the houses of the rich and famous.


Clarke discusses all the complex facets of Roman sexuality, which we today might call hetero-, homo-, and bisexuality, though the Romans had none of these distinctions and saw sex only as the pursuit of beautiful partners, whatever gender they may be. He also discusses Roman attitudes toward different sexual positions and differing numbers of partners. It seems the Romans had basically one rule for sex: an elite Roman man may have sex with anyone of inferior social status but must always be the partner who penetrates the other(s). Aside from this, Clarke presents Roman sex as a lusty free-for-all in the quest for the ultimate satisfaction and bliss, good sex with the most beautiful women and men and Roman man could find. The Romans also considered sex between adult men and adolescent boys to be proper and desirable, a custom imported from the Greeks.


Roman Sex is lavishly illustrated with rare scenes from Roman painting and sculpture. The photographs present stunning evidence that the picture of the ancient world presented in textbooks and on television is a sterile, sanitized version, not unlike Bowdler's "expurgated" Shakespeare. While the pictures are explicit, they demonstrate a joie de vivre that reaches out across the centuries and humanizes and puts life back into the cold marble statues of the "noble Romans." It seems that the old Romans had a lot better time than the girls of Sex in the City.


The Lost Secret of Death: Our Divided Souls and the Afterlife

Peter Novak

Hampton Roads | ISBN: 1-57174-324-3 | October 2003 | 332 pages | $15.95



* (out of four)


Reviewed November 2003 



Twenty-five hundred years ago, the Greek philosopher Plato proposed that the human mind was composed of three distinct parts that needed to act in harmony to produce a healthy life. These were roughly equivalent to the three parts of the mind that Sigmund Freud discovered one hundred years ago: ego, id, and superego. Happy to dispense with this tripartite division, former psychological counselor Peter Novak claims in The Lost Secret of Death that the human mind is not three parts but two, and these two parts are halves of our souls that are separate but equal in the living body. Only by ensuring that these two parts are united at death can we hope to achieve the type of immortality promised in the world's great faiths.


Novak's thesis would be interesting, if only his conclusions followed from his facts, or if his facts were true. Novak, who says he has devoted fifteen years to researching life after death following his wife's suicide, delves into every New Age tome he can find in an attempt to synthesize their contradictory accounts of the afterlife into one system. He does not consider scientific research or anyone whose ideas might contradict his own. Building on dubious reports of out-of-body and near-death experiences, he proposes that the two halves of the mind, the conscious and unconscious, split after death and that the conscious mind goes into a black abyss of reason while the unconscious goes into a tunnel of light and emotion. Uncritical of his less than definitive source material, Novak never considers the simplest explanation for his "discoveries," namely that instead of representing transference to an afterlife realm, these experiences instead reflect brain phenomena during the process of death, when sensory input ceases.


Nevertheless, Novak claims his Doctrine can explain all the different views of the afterlife, from reincarnation to heaven and hell in one system. He calls that system the Binary Soul Doctrine, and he claims that it was the religion of Atlantis. He bases this on the authority of Graham Hancock, the alternative historian whose claims for a lost civilization have been refuted by traditional science. His description of the Toltec belief system is based solely on a New Age shaman who claims he can channel the Toltec, who have been dead for 600 years and left no records.


Novak tries to back up his claims by distorting myths, legends, and science to fit his preconceived notion of humanity as pairs of binary opposites. Light and dark, heaven and hell, Pepsi and Coke (yes, he really says that), Novak sees the world as binary pairs. However, binary opposites are not a human universal but a unique social construct of the Western mind. Darkness is the mere absence of light; heaven and hell once had purgatory between them, and there are innumerable other sodas competing with Pepsi and Coke, which aren't opposites at all. Freud, Novak claims, saw the mind as ego and id. Conveniently, he leaves out the superego.


From flawed premises, Novak draws illogical conclusions. His "discovery" of a divided soul is nothing more than a religious mind trying hard to fit a Freudian framework into a supernatural guise. Since Novak is a Christian, it should surprise no one that he concludes that the path to reuniting the two halves of our souls is through Christ, and he announces that his doctrine demonstrates that Christ has taken over the unconscious minds of every human, making even the infidels followers of Christ.


His final thought is equally disturbing: "The BSD [Binary Soul Doctrine] can only be true if Jesus' accomplishment is as well (emphasis in original)." For a book that claims to discuss souls and the afterlife, his new science of the afterlife is nothing more than that age-old hope of Christians world-wide, a proof of the existence and resurrection of Jesus. Unfortunately, Lost Secret of Death is not that proof, or proof of anything other than the author's (and humanity's) need to try to find an explanation for the unfathomable.



Jean-François Revel

Encounter Books | ISBN 1-893554-85-6 | October 2003 | 176 pages | $25.95



** (out of four)


Reviewed October 2003



In France, where books are still something more than promotional brochures for celebrities, the latest release from an intellectual or philosopher is still a big deal. Now in his eighth decade of life, French philosopher Jean-François Revel returns to a topic familiar to readers of his 1970s opus Without Marx or Jesus. In his new book Anti-Americanism, Revel seeks to uncover the underlying reasons for Europe's growing hatred of the United States over the last 25 years. Now in English translation, Anti-Americanism became a number one bestseller in France. However, Revel's book ultimately says nothing useful about America and little useful about Europe.


Revel's thesis is simple: Europe's growing anti-American feeling derives from its own failures between 1914 and 1990 that cost the continent its central role in world affairs. Further, European intellectuals and government officials have a continuing love affair with communism that originated in the 19th century and continues to produce a primal loathing of the democratic process and liberal values, epitomized par excellence by the United States. Thus American intervention throughout the Cold War was "imperialism" while Soviet intervention was merely philanthropy. Now that the philanthropic Soviets bankrupted themselves into oblivion, America is more powerful than ever and thus the central focus of Europe's own angst about its multiple political, social, and economic failures. As this is the only useful part of Anti-Americanism, its repetition here will save most American readers the dirty American royalties that the Europeans would gladly prefer not go to France.


Revel's slender volume purports to explore these issues, but it merely uses them as coloring for what is essentially a text berating Europe in general and France in particular for policies with which Revel disagrees. The United States is not so much the subject of Revel's book as the great alternative that he can employ as an example of another way of doing things in France. It is tempting to argue with him over some of his more outrageous assertions. For example, he argues that globalization increases diversity and battles standardization because citizens of any city on earth can have access to Italian, Chinese, Tex-Mex, or Thai foods. While this is diversity as far as an individual is concerned, he fails to note that this globalization standardizes not just the foods themselves but also the choices that an individual encounters in Oslo, Ankara, or Peoria. This is hardly diversity. Yet in other places, Revels genius occasionally shows through his hardened rhetoric about the infallibility of free markets. His analysis of Europe's role in creating American unilateralism, which Europeans then decry, is a useful antidote to much political rhetoric, and his analysis of the failure of the educational system will produce nods of understanding in American parents' ears.


While Revel can destroy straw man arguments with great wit, he never gives credit to those with opinions opposing his own, nor does he examine his opponents' arguments with any depth. For him the equation is simple: America is good and France is bad. Most egregiously, Revel refuses to examine American policy or society with the same withering sarcasm that he reserves for France. He takes America at face value, assuming that every public pronouncement of George W. Bush is free of politics, and every action of the American government is beneficial to the world. In the autumn of his life, Revel has found in America the earthly paradise he hates France for failing to become. If he wishes to see perfection in the United States, I suppose it does no one any harm to let an old man have his illusions. 

© 2003-2007 Jason Colavito. All rights reserved.