psychological

Review, On Dissent: Its Meaning in America

On DissentNot many books from Cambridge University Press make it to the summer reading list, but On Dissent: Its Meaning in America is one of the better ways to revolt against the light-hearted beach-readers out there. Hell, it’s patriotic. America was born in dissent, and we celebrate it still. With fireworks—even illegal ones (though from now on I argue that M-80s are not outlaws, but rather the tools of dissent).

But why is dissent so much of our DNA? What does it even mean to dissent? These were the questions nagging at Ronald K.L. Collins and David M. Skover, two esteemed political scholars who were surprised to find that there was no true analysis of the concept of dissent.

That’s what they set out to create with this short, thought-provoking work.

For the most part, Collins and Skover accomplish their goal. The tone is philosophical in nature, and the authors begin by attempting to define dissent and identify its practitioners. Sure, anyone can point to the examples of Thoreau, King and Paine, but the authors take on trickier issues, such as how clear the line is (or isn’t) between civil disobedience and criminality. What role does violence play in dissent, or does an action cease to be dissent once it becomes violent?

Collins and Skover do a great job, and scholarly service, by identifying the fundamental traits of dissent, such as its being goal-oriented and indicative of a power dynamic. They buttress their definition by exploring hypotheticals and philosophical dilemmas (is a hired protester a dissenter?), and they do it all with an accessible writing style that will appeal to non-academic readers who might not otherwise seek out this book.

Of course, it’s not perfect, and the biggest issue I have is with the authors’ overreliance on expert commentary, such as that of Howard Zinn and Ralph Nader. The quotations are often redundant and unnecessary. The collective intellect of Collins and Skover is authoritative enough, and I recommend skimming through the offset commentary.

But there’s nothing else I would skim over in this book—particularly the epilogue. Here, the authors move away from definitions and thought experiments and present their own take on dissent—that contrary to rebellion, dissent is a vital and cohesive component of a democracy:

“Consent and dissent are two sides of the same coin. Without dissent, consent is meaningless; without consent, dissent loses much of its animating purpose” (152).

On Dissent is a quick and wonderful read. It will get you thinking. It will get you talking. It will remind you that though we may disagree, the freedom to disagree and express opposing viewpoints is what makes us strong.

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June Recommendations

In another day we’ll be heading off to London, and around this time Transgress will publish its annual summer book preview/review. In the coming days, we’ll be dishing out smaller portions of the issue, beginning with today’s blurbs about some books you may have missed this past month.

Joyland, Stephen King

I plan on devouring this little beauty on the first leg of the transatlantic flight. As joylandyou know, we at Ensuing Chapters and Transgress Magazine are all about funhouses and noir. So, a Stephen King paperback original about a funhouse for the imprint Hard Case Crime?

Bring it.

King’s previous offering through Hard Case was The Colorado Kid, a wonderfully creepy tale about an unsolved murder in a small Maine town. Some of you may also know it as the SyFy program, Haven.

I’ve got my ticket, and I’m already chilled thinking of the horrors that await in Joyland.

Creation: How Science is Reinventing Life Itself, Adam Rutherford

I recommend Adam Rutherford’s Creation for any fan of science writingcreation. However, my endorsement comes with a disclaimer: The electronic review copy I downloaded was corrupted and difficult to navigate. The result is that I didn’t read this book front to back, as I normally do. However, I was able to access about half of it, and what I read I thoroughly enjoyed.

Of particular interest to Transgress readers are the graphic details of surface cuts when explaining how the skin recovers from a wound. The squeamish reader might want to tag this book as horror for this reason alone.

Though I doubt there are any squeamish readers this blog.

Stylistically, Creation blends wit and storytelling with fair doses of hard science. Fans of Sam Kean, Mary Roach and Malcolm Gladwell will find much to love in its pages.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaiman

Not since Joseph Campbell has an author had both a profound understanding oceanof mythology and the ability to present it to a general audience with such passion. I see Gaiman and Campbell as two sides of an intergenerational coin: the academic who deconstructs myths and the author who creates them.

His new novel, his first for adults since 2005’s Anansi Boys, concerns a young boy returning home–and reconsidering odd events from summers past.

 

The Hole, William Meikle

And what summer would be complete without a subterranean adventure? This twisted treat comes from one of my favorite publishers, DarkFuse, and concerns a chasm (literally, not figuratively) snaking through a rural town. What comes next promises to be delightfully morbid. I’ve got this on my to-read list and can’t wait to descend into its depths. A review will come later this summer.

Come back tomorrow for a review of The Unrest-Cure and Other Stories by Saki, illustrated by Edward Gorey.

Steven Schwartz: Little Raw Souls

Here’s a link I forgot to post last week. Steven Schwartz’s Little Raw Souls. We’ve got a review, an interview and full audio on this one. Enjoy!

http://transgressmagazine.com/2013/02/07/interview-steven-schwartz-little-raw-souls/

Review: Legion

Author Brandon Sanderson is one evil dude. That was my reaction to finLegionishing his novella, Legion, concerning the peculiar (and haunted) Stephen Leeds. To be clear: Sanderson is a master storyteller, and this is one of the greatest works of short fiction I’ve read in years.

What makes Sanderson evil (in that bad-ass writer sort of way) is the fact that the story came to an end.

In December, Audible offered a free copy of Legion, which I greedily downloaded and enjoyed in one sitting. This story is compelling on so many levels that when it ended I needed complete silence to process everything.

Leeds is a peculiar man with a mental condition akin to dissociative identity disorder (a dubious diagnosis; see Debbie Nathan’s Sybil Exposed). However, Leeds doesn’t have multiple personalities. He has what he calls “aspects,” sort of like imaginary friends with benefits — meaning they sleep in their own rooms, require seats on a plane and bail you out of jams.

In truth, the aspects are the manifestations of Leeds’ genius. He is smart to the point of insanity, and, in my opinion, his aspects allow him to maintain his self-view as a “regular guy.” For example, he doesn’t perform critical analysis of arguments. He leaves that to Ivy. He isn’t a skilled marksman, so he leaves the self-defense to his munitions expert, J.C. And when he attempts to learn Hebrew during the course of a transatlantic flight, he manifests a new aspect who is already fluent.

This is a master stroke, in my opinion. A functioning protagonist who had all these skills wouldn’t be credible, unless they were super-human. And a functioning human who had all these skills would be, well, dysfunctional if they had to store all this knowledge and know-how in their brain.

So Leeds, in cerebral self-defense, delegates the multi-tasking to his apparitional A-Team, and they are a source of depth, humor and revelation. This is a great device, but something of a literary high-wire with little room for error.

Sanderson deftly manages the narrative so that it never becomes silly or gimmicky. In fact, the presence of the aspects deepens the protagonist, as his inner conflicts and contradictions play out before us.

This is played to maximum effect when the novella takes a philosophical turn. The premise of the story is that a scientist has invented a camera that can photograph the past — and now he has gone missing. Leeds determines that the scientist has gone to the Middle East in search of photographic evidence to confirm or deny Biblical history.

The nature of this quest, by a scientist in particular, leads to an interesting discussion among his various aspects, each offering a different take on religion. Here, Sanderson captures the internal struggle that comes with asking the big questions: How does one reconcile science and spirituality? Theological desire and empirical evidence?

No matter your conclusion, I’m sure we’ve all had similar conversations in our heads.

In Leeds, the discussion is thoughtful and entertaining, and enriches the story with a pensive undertone. And mention must be made of the terrific narration of Oliver Wyman.

Featuring compelling action, organic dialogue and complex characters and situations, Legion is a must-read (or must-listen).

I’m not surprised. As a longtime fan of the podcast Writing Excuses, which Sanderson co-hosts (along with Dan, Howard and Mary… who are that smart), I’ve joked that I’ve learned more from Sanderson and company than I did during my three-year MFA.

And I’m only sort-of kidding about that.

But I’m serious when I say that we need more Stephen Leeds adventures. And soon. A full-length novel, series of stories, film, TV… all of the above.

Leeds is a character brilliantly devised and fully realized. I didn’t want this story to end, and I hope to read more of Legion in the (near) future.

Review: The Mourning House

Ronald Malfi, The Mourning House (Delirium Books)

Dr. Sam Hatch is a soul adrift. Since losing his wife and child a year before, mourning_househe’s tried to outrace his pain, literally, with a series of taped-together cars and sometimes his thumb. Now a transient, he squats for a night in a “vacant shell of a house” in Maryland.

Here is where the past catches up with Hatch.

Ronald Malfi’s The Mourning House (published Dec. 18 by Delirium Books as an e-book and limited edition hardcover) is a short tale of grief, obsession and the fragility of physical and mental structure. It is also a haunted house story, if there is such a thing (I’ll explain in a moment).

Malfi, whose previous novels include the IPPY-award winners Floating Staircase and Shamrock Alley, adds to this great literary tradition, and The Mourning House is a thoroughly enjoyable tale that is more of a character study than a plot-driven thriller. It hooked me with the opening chapter and kept me burning through the pages to the end.

It also got me thinking about the lure of the haunted house. Why is it such an enduring trope? There are the familiar literary explanations: the house as manifestation of the self (“The Fall of the House of Usher”); the lingering energy (aka back story) of past inhabitants (The House of the Seven Gables); the narrative tale that leaves you wondering whether the characters are occupying the house or the other way around (The Shining).

But The Mourning House is part of a lesser-discussed subgenre: the malleable or ever-shifting house. This also happens to be my favorite kind of haunted house story.

I don’t subscribe to the supernatural. I’m not afraid of ghosts, and I’ve yet to fall victim to a family curse. But “The 5 1/2 Minute Hallway” in Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves is one of the most terrifying passages I’ve ever read. Here, new residents of an old house discover that the interior and exterior dimensions of a hallway are incongruent. There is a geometric dissonance that disturbs the occupants (and the reader).

Malfi taps into that feeling of dissonance. Hatch isn’t visited by apparitions in The Mourning House, and there’s nothing a poltergeist could do that would torment him as severely as his own memories. What is troubling is that items around the house have moved while he was out; his closet seems to be of variable dimensions; and a curious subfloor is revealed beneath his feet.

Each morning, Hatch awakes in, essentially, a new house, and that, my friends, is the crux of great horror fiction. It tickles that spot in our lizard brains that burns for shelter. It’s why the haunted house is a timeless premise—and why I argue that there is, ironically, no such thing.

At the core of every haunted house story is a protagonist troubled long before they ever set foot in the house. The house becomes a metaphor, a hallucination, a projection of mental disturbance. The nature of the haunting reflects the nature of one’s troubles. For Hatch, the ever-shifting house is symbolic of helplessness and fragility. He was a successful doctor with a happy marriage, but in an instant it was taken from him.

Our homes are extensions of ourselves. That’s why home invasions are more traumatic than street muggings. For Hatch, it’s only natural that his haunting plays on his vulnerability. At any moment, the place where he should feel safest could shift forever. And he is helpless to do anything about it.

Malfi handles this masterfully in The Mourning House. The beginning and ending are magnificent, as is the bulk of what comes between. For the most part, the novel is well-paced, the prose solid and the action compelling. Here and there, scenes feel rushed or we get an overload of description without the emotional interiority that anchors us to the story (see chapter two).

But there’s no sense nitpicking over these few moments. Malfi is an excellent storyteller and a demon of description. This is a great piece of writing, and I recommend it for any fan of quality horror fiction or anyone who may fit that description on your holiday shopping list.

For more information, visit the Delirium Books Web site.

Unsettling Chapters: Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?

As promised, we’ve come back to one of our favorite authors, Joyce Carol Oates–the queen of disquieting literature. For this Halloween installment of Unsettling Chapters, we’re discussing the Holy Grail of dark fiction, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?

Nearly a half-century since its publishing in 1966, this remains the most disturbing story I’ve ever read. I was introduced to “Where Are You Going…” in college, where it was read aloud by our English teacher, and my former employer, Julie Papadimas.

What I remember most is gripping the side of my desk, trying to keep from screaming at Connie.

This is as visceral a reaction I’ve ever had to a work of fiction. I wasn’t just affected by this story. I was pissed. I felt sick. I wanted to dive into the pages and lock the front door.

Though a lot of readers, I’m sure, are familiar with the ending, I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t read it. I will only say that halfway through the story, it dawned on me just how it had to end. You feel the bile rising in your throat, yet there’s no looking away. There’s no putting it down. There is only the suffocating gaze of Arnold Friend and his sociopathic schmooze.

This is not a trick-or-treat brand of spooky, but the essence of true fear. The rare story that forces the reader to accept their vulnerabilities and realize that we can’t always protect the ones we love. Can we even save ourselves?

“Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” unnerves me in a way similar to Flannery O’Connor. It’s fiction that replicates that moment on a roller coaster when the train is briefly suspended at the top, about to descend, but seemingly frozen in place. When you feel the bottom drop underneath, but you have yet to tumble after. The breathless space where time knots into an excruciating paralysis.

This is the way Oates entwines and consumes us. With the patient grace of a constrictor. And her grip has yet to slack.

I pray that it never does.

And finally, for a Halloween treat, you can read (or re-read) “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” at the University of San Francisco’s Web site.

Enjoy, my Samhain sweets.

…And sadly, that brings us to the end of our 31 Days of Dread series. Tomorrow, like a post-rampage Hulk, we will return to our proper form as Ensuing Chapters, where we’ll produce a monthly column for Transgress Magazine and write semi-weekly blog posts.

Thanks for reading. If you have any suggestions for disturbing books or stories we may have missed, please send them along. We’re always looking for a new unsettling read… and we’ve got 11 months to kill until next October.

Unsettling Chapters: The Fall

I’ve always felt a deep kinship with Albert Camus. We both come from working-class roots, and we each found our way to journalism. That’s about where the similarities end. While I broke into newspapers as a music and features writer, Camus was editor of Combat, an underground political paper that was part of the French Resistance to Nazi occupation during World War II.

He and his co-workers were jailed and sometimes murdered. If you want to read some amazing and inspirational writing, pick up Between Hell and Reason, a collection of his war journalism. There is an immediacy to his writing, because he knew that every article could be his last.

If this book doesn’t get you up and off the couch (at least to go to the voting booth), nothing will.

However, that’s not the book I want to discuss today, although there is plenty disturbing about Nazi occupation. Truly, any Camus offering is unsettling, in the truest sense of the word, because that’s his intent. These are not pastorals. Camus does not soothe the reader with hugs and rainbows. He couldn’t care less about your spiritual nourishment.

Camus challenges the reader. He inspires the reader. Discomfited? Good. That’s a natural way to feel. The question is: What are you going to do about it?

So it goes in all his works, both fiction and non. My two favorite books of his, and two at the top of my all-time list are The Myth of Sisyphus and The Stranger. The Plague is one of his darker (and classic) works, but for our purposes at Unsettling Chapters, nothing matches The Fall.

Here we have the long-form confessional of Jean-Baptiste Clamence, who haunts the smoky confines of a lowlife bar in Amsterdam’s Red Light District. He tells his story to an unknown, unseen audience, and that juices the narrative with an intimacy and informality we don’t always get from Camus.

It’s also inherently unreliable. What do we make of Clamence and his wild tale of falling from grace? Can we believe it to be true? Is it the ravings of a madman or a drunkard? Clamence even says, when describing a motto for his house, “Don’t rely on it.”

I’ve read The Fall twice, and I’m still not convinced that “we’re” even there. At the end, there is a shift suggesting that Clamence has been having a dissociative episode and talking to himself the whole time: “Are we not all alike, constantly talking and to no one…”

Clamence takes us on a guided tour of Amsterdam, which is designed, he says, in the nature of Dante’s rings of hell. We move through the city via his dramatic monologue.

But though setting has an important part to play, it is the narrator’s interior landscape at center stage. Clamence presents the anxieties of his time, and they look very similar to modern anxieties. He speaks for the fragility of man, and how one’s descent is incremental.

Camus nails the pathway of anxiety and how we are our own worst interrogators. He touches on thought perseveration, self-sabotage and even has an incident of road rage—perhaps its first mention in literature?

In turns hopeful and hopeless, Clamence is a man buried under the rubble of his failings, held down by his own hand. It’s a reminder that we make poor choices, focus our attention on the things that scar us, and ultimately, author our own demise.

Now that’s an unsettling premise.

I don’t imagine a film version will displace It’s a Wonderful Life as a holiday tradition, but for anyone curious about the workings of a mind in distress, you should wind your way into this twisted narrative.