IMAGE: “Cosmic Vision” by `dinyctis @ deviantART

Ah, summertime!

The time when this weary teacher gets to kick back, recharge his batteries, and do two things in abundance that are severely limited during the teaching year: Read whatever I want and WRITE, WRITE, WRITE.

I’m working on SEVEN SORCERERS, the Third Book of the Shaper, but I’m also reading as much as I can, something I do every summer. When mid-August hits, I’m back into the world of essays, papers, lesson plans, and projects.

Teaching is as exhausting as it is rewarding. I love the job, but it can be all-consuming if you let it. During the school year there is precious little time left for reading the books in my “To-Read” pile, or for writing the novels and stories that have been swimming in my head for months (or years). That’s why summer is my Reading and Writing season. (I watch more movies during the summer as well, but this post is about what I’m reading; maybe I’ll do one on movies later…)

It’s also easier for me to keep this blog regularly updated during the summer. So I thought: What better way to do that than to post a Reading Log–a look at the stuff I’ve been reading and my thoughts on them. Not necessarily comprehensive reviews, just a peek into my world with some thoughts on the books I’m enjoying this summer. I promise no spoilers, no long-winded plot summaries, and no B.S.  Let’s do it!

THE CRONING by Laird Barron

The first book I read this season was Laird Barron’s debut novel THE CRONING, a tale of cosmic horror that I’ve been waiting about three years for. Laird is hailed far and wide as one of the best horror writers working today—and with good reason—he’s one of the only people whose work actually frightens me. More than once his stories have had me sleeping with the light on, or given me creeptacular nightmares.  I guess I’m a glutton for punishment, because I keep coming back for more.

THE CRONING delivers the creeping cosmic horror that makes Laird’s work so widely acclaimed. It is the very definition of a “page-turner.” He steeps the reader in such realistic sensory detail and such fully-realized characterizations that when the horror lurking beneath mundane reality rears its grotesque head, it is all the more terrifying. Laird’s work is often described as “Lovecraftian”–some have even called him “the new H.P. Lovecraft”–because the philosophy that permeates his dark tales of fragile humanity on the verge of abysmal revelations derives from Lovecraft’s own body of work. But Laird takes that philosophy—“cosmic horror”—and makes it his own.

Vast beings from beyond space and time seek entry to our world through black magic and ancient cults; extraterrestrial beings lurk between the stars hungry for warm flesh to rend and devour; human consciousness is an illusion that hides the reality of celestial horrors the likes of which our minds cannot truly grasp; our consensual reality is a lie mean to be shattered by those Terrible Things that lay in wait beyond our nightmares. All of this merely scratches the surface of THE CRONING, and none of it would matter if Laird didn’t create such enjoyable (or terrifying) and realistic characters to inhabit his fiction.

The book culminates in a sanity-shattering climax, but along the way it builds gradually toward madness with tantalizing glimpses of the otherworldly horrors that drive certain elements of humanity to worship and grovel before their dark majesty. This book is also notable for how it plays with time, beginning somewhere in “Antiquity” and ending in the modern age, but skipping around in between—flashing backwards and forwards–to create a strange fugue of warped reality and deranged senses. The alien and inhuman forces that infest the world are not bound to the dictates of linear time as we are, and neither is the narrative Laird Barron weaves so skillfully about his reader. There is also a statement here about the inherent power and potential cruelty of the Female, but interpreting that is best left up to the individual. Suffice to say that THE CRONING is a must-read for any serious horror fans, as well as anyone who simply loves a good scare.

by Richard Corben and Jan Strnad

Richard Corben is a legendary artist who began as an underground sensation and today enjoys high-profile work with Marvel, Dark Horse, and other mainstream comics publishers. He has done some amazing HELLBOY tales, some HULK and CAGE, even an adaptation of classic horror novel THE HOUSE ON THE BORDERLAND for DC’s VERTIGO imprint. Yet there is nothing as terrific as Corben turned loose on his own unique creations. The best-known of these is probably DEN (a multi-volume masterpiece of adult fantasy that was born in the pages of the original HEAVY METAL); I already blogged about BLOODSTAR in a previous post; and his scads of tales for the classic CREEPY and EERIE magazines are being collected in a gorgeous new hardcover called CREEPY PRESENTS RICHARD CORBEN. His brilliant Dark Horse comic RAGEMOOR just ended its four-issue run and I can’t recommend it highly enough. However, MUTANT WORLD and its sequel SON OF MUTANT world are lesser-known masterworks that I was lucky enough to acquire recently thanks to the magic of eBay.

MUTANT WORLD is a short graphic novel (released in 1982) written in collaboration with Jan Strnad, who is perhaps Corben’s best writing partner (they’ve also collaborated on JEREMY BROOD and RAGEMOOR, et. al.). The two have an amazing chemistry and their sense of dark humor and savage irony shows through in all their shared projects. MW is a post-apocalypse tale of warped humanity trying to survive in the ruins of crumbled cities. The most prevalent theme in the book is the search for food that isn’t poison, radioactive, or able to kill you before you eat it.

The protagonist is a brawny mutant named Dimento who is dumber than a box of rocks, but not cruel in a vicious way as are most of the survivors he must contend against. Corben’s art is fantastic as always, in full color for the duration of the MW graphic novel, and there is plenty of violence as you would expect from a tale of post-apocalyptic survival. Strnad takes the raw elements of Corben’s creation and weaves them into a tale of underground scientists trying to clone a new breed of humanity adapted to survival in the MUTANT WORLD. You can’t help but root for Dimento as he stumbles into one terrible situation after another and tries to save a beautiful young woman from depraved mutant predators.

This grim tale ends with an ironic twist and a glimmer of hope. In 1990 Corben and Strnad returned to this world and released a five-issue comic series entitled SON OF MUTANT WORLD. Each issue features 12 pages of the title series and various back-up stories. At 60 pages, SoMW is nearly as long as the original and it is even more satisfying. Twenty or thirty years have passed in Mutant World, and the protagonist is now Dimenta, daughter of Dimento and a human clone escaped from a scientific enclave. Another character from the first book, Max, who escaped from the same enclave with another clone, founded a peaceful society that is threatened by the mutant hordes of a skull-faced barbarian called Mudhead. Due to financial hardships, only the first two of the five installments are in color—the last 36 pages are in black-and-white. However, it says a lot about the quality of the art and story that losing the color doesn’t diminish the reading experience in any significant way. Corben’s art is so spectacular, it transcends the loss of color.

SON OF MUTANT WORLD is actually better than its predecessor, perhaps because artist and writer both have another eight years of experience under their belts–or because they had developed these ideas for enriching the story over those years. In any case, we have brain-sucking plants, a pedal-propelled dirigible with a two-headed mutant bird, a massive grizzly bear with near-human intelligence, a gun-toting father-and-son team of survivalists, and a wide array of hideous, savage mutants ready to tear down the last bastion of civilization. There is a real depth of emotion here that is magnified by the dark setting, unlike the first MW where black humor and irony were the chief effects. I found myself rooting for Dimenta, her boyfriend Herschel, and the depressed Max; the reader’s investment in these characters is much deeper than in the original MW, which was steeped in savage nihilism.

Finding a copy of MUTANT WORLD and all five issues of SON OF MUTANT WORLD can be a challenge these days. However, eBay, Amazon, and online comics retailers are the best places to check. The bottom line is this: SON OF MUTANT WORLD is a thrilling classic that can only be fully appreciated by reading MUTANT WORLD first. The payoff is immensely satisfying after wading through such a dark world; but even when it’s dark, it’s completely gorgeous thanks to Corben’s spectacular art skills, color or no color. Some publisher really needs to collect MW and SoMW into a single volume—but don’t wait for that day to experience some of Corben’s best work.