September 11, 2014
One shouldn”t let oneself get too excited by book reviews. There are many bad habits, ground into modern writing like a bloodstain, that reviewers eat up without question, and when overly high expectations get crushed they threaten one’s enjoyment of what is great about a book.
I confess the reviews of Ana Kai Tangata, the debut collection of weird fiction by Scott Nicolay”whom Laird Barron in his intro to the collection called “as good a debut author as I”ve ever read””had me drooling. The horror genre in general seems to be doubling down on its cerebral elements, and I enjoy the puzzle-like elements of horror far more than I do its insomniac visitations of terror. Nicolay’s book is subtitled “Tales of the Other the Outer the Damned and the Doomed”; the academic buzzword “other” should have warned me there might be a good deal of cultmarx boilerplate lurking within. But it’s also the way you”d expect a trained archaeologist specializing in caves, as Nicolay is, to write a subtitle. The study of ancient peoples is a deep field in which classic horror fiction has solid roots, so I was looking forward to getting plenty of learnin” in with my Lovecraftian entertainment.
And I did get to it eventually, accompanied by some great, jaunty prose. There’s much material on Native American folklore; in the tale “Phragmites,” Nicolay does a great job of elucidating the layers of traditional history over the course of the narrative. The modern Navajo’s perception of the more primitive mores of the Pueblo people brings vividly to mind the classical Greeks” myths about the mysterious Myceneans who preceded them. As the Zeus Lycaeus tales hint, the older culture may have used human sacrifice to appease the gods before the enlightened move toward offering up animals and incense; the North American development is a fascinating parallel. Nicolay’s fictional denouement in this case is both logically strong and shocking, bringing out the mingled awe and horror in which we hold the unfathomably long history of the preliterary human mind.
But I almost tossed the book aside before I got there due to the bad and lazy dialogue that marred the first section of this same story (and the three opening stories that preceded it; the cultmarx boilerplate all seems to be packed into the first third of the book).
As a technical detail, Nicolay already frays the nerves by embracing the stupid modern tic of abandoning the comma before the vocative: Writing “Hey Cuz” instead of “Hey, Cuz” over and over again is not economical, it’s stupid. Dialogue overall is not Nicolay’s strong suit; I had only begun to be annoyed by the punctuation when the protagonist was suddenly accosted by a facile, cardboard redneck:
“Listen guys, I”m not looking for any trouble.
The forward Okie responded “Well thas” juss too damn bad, “cause we loves trouble. And we fuckin” hates gut eaters. He turned to his partner. “Sounds like we got an educated one here.
This guy sounds like Golem. He’s the sort of cheap stereotype you can only get away with using for poor whites these days, so people use it to death; we all love a bargain when we can get it. To paraphrase Roy Griffis, how lazy can you be? And how uncreative? If you”re going to use Okies as stock retards for the millionth time, at least put them in clown suits to really make your purpose clear”or have one of them toss the other one fish for standing on his hind flippers and doing tricks. That would have been hilarious.
This garbage was already played out in the 1990s, when Jim Goad wrote the Redneck Manifesto“but apparently someone, somewhere, is still telling writers this is an inoffensively efficient way to establish a character as a lousy peasant. It’s the literary equivalent of a guitar teacher telling kids in 2014 that it would be a great idea to learn some Spin Doctors covers.
I guess characters are not Nicolay’s focus, however; his three types are the well-drawn main guy, the weird, menacing sidekick (often paired with a girl he and his weird menacing sidekick are fighting over), and then come those bargain-basement stock characters, incongruously awful in what are often beautifully written narratives. He might consider leaving out the minor characters if they”re too much trouble and just try to be Horror Beckett.
But I”m lucky I even got to the beginning of that story, frankly. The first story in the collection is by far the weakest; aside from some facile Christian bashing”they hate heathens, did you know?”the denouement was so vaguely connected to the rest of the story it seemed like more of a dumb story about coincidences than a horror tale.