Discover more from IF YOU GO AWAY - News from P M Buchan
Howling into the abyss 🌒🐺
Mother Howl - Where All Light Tends To Go - Higurashi
If you’re looking for recommendations of pitch-black neo-noir or the return of one of the most interesting novelists of the twenty-first century, you’ve come to the right place. I want to share my thoughts on some spellbinding books that I’ve read recently, including Mother Howl and Where All Light Tends To Go, with a digression via the newest volume of my favourite manga.
I’m P M Buchan and you might know me from my former columns for Starburst or SCREAM: The Horror Magazine, or you might have seen my own work reviewed in Times Literary Supplement, Fortean Times or Famous Monsters of Filmland.
I’m currently finalising an edit of a novel I’ve been working on since September 2021. Until that’s finished, I’ll be using IF YOU GO AWAY as a platform to recommend work by other dark artists, to interview people who’ve led interesting lives, and generally remind the world that I’m still here.
Mother Howl by Craig Clevenger
If you forget everything else that I say today, remember only that Mother Howl is a spectacular novel and I urge you to read it at your first opportunity. Beyond that, I hardly know where to begin. Author Craig Clevenger’s first book, The Contortionist’s Handbook, was released in 2002. The story of an exceptionally gifted forger trapped by circumstance between a rock and hard place, The Contortionist’s Handbook is a tour-de-force in neo-noir, documenting Kafkaesque attempts to escape incarceration by a man whose existence is predicated on telling lies.
Clevenger’s second novel, released in 2005, was Dermaphoria, a dizzying reconstruction of the life of a chemist who creates a hallucinogen that synthesizes the feeling of human touch and loses himself when he can no longer distinguish between dream and memory. Dermaphoria takes neo-noir to another level, comparing most closely in spirit to David Lynch’s Lost Highway.
For a long time, it seemed unrealistic to hope for another novel from Craig Clevenger, but 18 years later Mother Howl hit shelves. Mother Howl is another account of a fractured soul driven by circumstance to create a new identity for himself. Also thrown into the mix is that his life is heading on a collision course with a messenger who thinks that he’s the earthly incarnation of Icarus, fallen to earth after flying too close to the sun. This is neo-noir with a dash of magical realism, more crime-adjacent than strictly crime, but very recognisably from the same author as Contortionist’s Handbook and Dermaphoria.
I enjoyed Mother Howl from the outset, reading about a protagonist who acts as a refugee from his own past, trying to build a new life with the woman who he loves, but it took me a while to really warm to. There’s a thread that runs throughout Clevenger’s fiction of documenting the absurdity of bureaucracy and the inescapability of the American legal system as soon you enter it, and that soul-destroying abundance of administration underpins a lot of Mother Howl.
For the first half of the novel, I was resigned to accept that it couldn’t reach the dizzying heights of Clevenger’s earlier works. Like the first two novels, an accumulation of stressors and complications builds from chapter to chapter, but I struggled to see the urgency of it all. As the story progressed, however, I became more and more enthralled. By the time I got to the end, I literally couldn’t put Mother Howl down, no matter how many important things were waiting.
Mother Howl, in many ways, is a story about families and the relationships between fathers and their children, between husbands and wives. Ultimately, that’s what drew me in. These are believable people with relatable relationships and when the shit hits the fan, there was an emotional honesty to the way that the characters connected to each other that got its hooks in me. I recommend Mother Howl wholeheartedly and unequivocally.
Higurashi: When They Cry – Gou Volume 1
One of the only constants since I started writing publicly has been my love of the manga series Higurashi: When They Cry, which I’m pretty confident I’ve reviewed in the pages of every magazine that I’ve written regularly for, probably multiple times. We’re now onto at least 28 volumes of the English translation by my count, not including the fact that the last ten volumes or so have been at least double the size of the earlier ones.
That I’m still happily reading Higurashi and haven’t got bored yet is down to the incredible concept, which takes traditional harem manga tropes and juxtaposes them onto a looping horror story about a teenager moving from the city to the isolated Japanese village of Hinamizawa and joining a community plagued by recurring murders. The pattern of deaths is almost always the same, but after every story arc time resets and the victims change, as does your perspective, painting the characters in a new light and gradually uncovering the (ever-changing) truth behind what’s happening.
Filled with unrequited teen romance, conspiracies, curses and dismemberment, this is a fabulously sincere and heartfelt manga that can be sweet and open-hearted in one scene and gratuitously violent and disturbing in the next. It’s a perfect combination and I was completely satisfied with the resolution of the main manga series when it ended. I find the majority of sequels to be laboured, whatever the medium, a cheap excuse to prolong the profitability of an existing story rather than doing the work to create something new. In the case of Higurashi, however, looping repetition is central to the premise, so I had no qualms about revisiting Hinamizawa.
I loved Higurashi Gou Volume 1, the first book in a new sequel series, but would not recommend it to anyone who hasn’t read the originals. So far the story plays out like a kind of greatest hits, revisiting some of the most fractured relationships and pushing ahead to their worst possible outcomes. There are hints at a wider story, but as with the early volumes of the main series, these violent delights have violent ends and there are more questions posed than answers. I’m not objective when it comes to Higurashi, but all the same, totally loved it.
Where All Light Tends To Go by David Joy
Another spellbinding novel that I’ve read recently was Where All Light Tends To Go, a coming-of-age noir set in Cashiers, North Carolina, which is depicted as being very much on the edges of civilisation. It reads like a bleak interpretation of what it would be like to grow up in Breaking Bad country. Like all of my favourite novels, at heart Where All Light Tends To Go is a love story, but a stunted one, capturing the longing of hoping for something better and not knowing whether you deserve it or not.
The central character, Jacob McNeely, is the son of the country’s most notorious meth dealers and has been compromised by his associations with that world, after dropping out of school and following his father’s instructions ever since. The only glimmer of hope in Jacob’s dark world is his childhood sweetheart, who seems destined for better things, but most everybody in Cashiers is compromised to some extent by virtue of having lived there, and the last thing Jacob wants to happen is for his love to become trapped by circumstance.
Like Scalped, another favourite neo-noir (with an equally brutal world-view), the narrative begins close to the end. By the time the first chapters close, you can already feel the noose tightening. That claustrophobic tension only increases as the novel progresses.
This a contemporary crime novel of guns and police corruption and dirty politics, but it has a timelessness that I think will help it to age well. I’d credit that to the romance at the heart of the novel. There’s an honesty and a yearning sincerity that can’t be forced, and I don’t believe that anybody could write a novel like this one without really feeling it. That heart gives Where All Light Tends To Go a real edge.
A brief scan online has led me to a couple of brutal reviews of the film inspired by the novel, which is a shame but has no bearing on the brilliant source material. Where All Light Tends To Go is a beautiful, bittersweet book that combines optimism and hope with the bleak disappointments of reality. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
As an aside, after reading Mother Howl I came across an interview with Craig Clevenger that I can’t find again, but I’m sure that he mentioned disliking the label “transgressive fiction”. This has made me interrogate the reason that I choose to actively describe myself as a transgressive writer. After some deliberation, I still think that the description is apt.
I grew up obsessing over writers who broke down social norms, reading and re-reading American Psycho, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and Exquisite Corpse. I’ve had a lifelong love of horror but when it comes to reading fiction, I prefer stories about the human animal than I do fantastical monsters, so I’d be more likely to recommend Hubert Selby Jr or Chuck Palahniuk than I would someone like Stephen King.
The art that moves me most is art that says the unspeakable or questions accepted wisdom. Rarely a day goes by that I don’t think about philosopher John Gray’s 2002 book Straw Dogs, which argues that any notion of human progress is a myth, a fairy tale that for many has replaced religion as a new article of faith. Growing up, it felt natural to me that great writers would question everything, would explore unpopular ideas and would strive to capture the humanity of monsters and the fallibility of gods.
Living through the very online 2010s and even worse 2020s, I have no confidence that Western society values the notion of questioning authority any longer. The world burns around us and our response seems to be the gleeful acceptance of a totalitarianism where we each agree to think the same things as each other, to police imagined differences of opinion and to come down brutally on anybody who asks questions in a public forum.
The Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gave an excellent BBC Reith Lecture about the importance of freedom of speech at the end of last year and I’d thoroughly recommend listening to it if you haven’t already. There’s something vital and intangible about the right to offend that will be lost if we all agree not to say out loud anything that our peers might disagree with, or to bite our tongues for fear of causing harm.
If we can’t explore abhorrent ideas or transgress within the confines of fiction, how will we ever learn to live in this hellish world that we’ve created? How can I, in good conscience, raise children in an environment where its frowned upon to ask difficult questions?
I reflected on why I describe myself as a transgressive writer and found that those are the reasons. Save me from echo chambers and anybody whose goal is to find themselves on the right side of history. Spare me from moral certainty and social censure.
I want to transgress, I want to take risks and I don’t want to always be right. The world can be a cold, uncaring place, but to pretend that through self-censorship we could ever find our way to safety is absurd. I want to be a transgressive writer.
My musical recommendation for the day is The World’s a Girl, a Spotify playlist of dark, predominantly female-fronted rock, goth and industrial tracks, including a spectacular cover of Nirvana’s ‘Been A Son’ by Softcult, plus songs by Anita Lane, Lana Del Rey, Destroy Boys, The Cranberries and The Veronicas.
I’m coming to the end of two weeks of family holiday for the summer, which were just about the coldest, windiest and wettest weeks of August that I can remember encountering in England since relocating to the south west. Predictably, as I publish this newsletter the sun has come out and summer seems to be returning.
Thanks for reading and as always, get in touch if you want to talk about anything mentioned in IF YOU GO AWAY. For better or worse I have very specific tastes in art and I’m always happy to hear your recommendations if you think that I’ve missed something that would change my life.
P M Buchan
Thanks for reading IF YOU GO AWAY - News from P M Buchan! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.