Saturday, November 27, 2010

Beautiful horror, horrible beauty

First, a quick note: my new story, "If Wishes Were Horses," is all ready to post, but the EMCSA has been offline most of the week, so I decided not even to try sending it in. Hopefully, the problem will be fixed a few more days and I can e-mail Simon; but if it continues, I'll just post the story here next weekend.

And now on to today's main event.

I've been reading Perdido Street Station, my first dip into the widely-acclaimed fiction of China MiƩville; and while it's been very good so far, yesterday it suddenly became great. Lovecraftian-MC great. Now I'm even more interested in this book than I was before, and I plan to buy MiƩville's real Lovecraftian pastiche, Kraken, next. Let me tell you, folks, this guy knows how to describe what Lovecraft only hinted at.

Here's the bit I read yesterday, with a little setup. Perdido Street Station takes place on a world where several sapient species live in a magical/steampunk/Dickensian sort of city (sorry, that's the best I can come up with; this world is totally unique). The main character, Isaac, is a scientist who was given an unfamiliar caterpillar-like creature earlier on; and it grew to dog-size before cocooning itself inside its cage. Fortunately for Isaac, he's out of the office when the cocoon finally bursts. Instead it's his friend Lublamai and a nasty little creature named Teafortwo who get to meet the newborn.

Note that Lublamai's research space is downstairs, and Isaac's is upstairs on a wide landing that goes all around the building. This will help you picture the scene a little better.

And now on with the show.

Lublamai and Teafortwo looked up at the screech and discordant plucking of torn wire. The sound seemed to start above them and wash throughout the room. They looked at each other, then up again.

"Wassat, guvnor...?" said Teafortwo.

Lublamai walked away from the desk. He glanced up at Isaac's balcony, turned slowly, took in the whole of the ground floor. There was silence. Lublamai stood still, frowning, gazing at the front door. Had the sound come from outside? he wondered.

A movement was reflected in the mirror beside the door.

A dark thing rose from the floor at the top of the stairs.

Lublamai spoke, emitted some tremulous noise of disbelief, of fear, of confusion, but it dissipated soundlessly after the briefest moment. He stared with an open mouth at the reflection.

The thing unfolded. The sense was of a blossoming. As expansion after being enclosed, like a man or woman standing and spreading their arms wide after huddling foetally, but multiplied and made vast. As if the thing's indistinct limbs could bend a thousand times, so that it unhinged liked a paper sculpture, standing and spreading arms or legs or tentacles or tails that opened and opened. The thing that had huddled like a dog stood and opened itself, and it was nearly the size of a man.

Teafortwo screeched something. Lublamai opened his mouth wider and tried to move. He could not see its shape. Only its dark, glistening skin and hands that clutched like a child's. Cold shadows. Eyes that were not eyes. Organic folds and jags and twists like rats' tails that shuddered and twitched as if newly dead. And those finger-long shards of colourless bone that shone white and parted and dripped and that were teeth....

As Teafortwo tried to bolt past Lublamai and Lublamai tried to open his mouth to scream, his eyes still fixed to the creature in the mirror, his feet skittering on the flagstones, the thing at the top of the stairs opened its wings.

Four rustling concertinas of dark matter flickered outwards on the creature's back, and outwards again and again, slotting into position, fanning and expanding in vast folds of thick mottled flesh, expanding to an impossible size: an explosion of organic patterns, a flag unfurling, clenched fists opening.

The thing made its body thin and spread those colossal wings, massive flat folds of stiff skin that seemed to fill the hall. They were irregular, chaotic in shape, random fluid whorls; but mirror-perfect left and right, like spilt ink or paint patterns on folded paper.

And on those great flat planes were dark stains, rude patterns that seemed to flicker as Lublamai watched and Teafortwo fumbled with the door, wailing. The colours were midnight, sepulchral, black-blue, black-brown, black-red. And then the patterns did flicker, the shadow-shapes moved like amoeba in a magnifying lens or oil on water, the patterns left and right still matching, moving in time, hypnotic and heavy, faster. Lublamai's face creased. His back itched maniacally with the thought that the thing was behind him. Lublamai spun to face it, gazed directly into the mutating colors, the dusky vivid show....

....and Lublamai no longer thought of screaming but only of watching as those dark markings rolled and boiled in perfect symmetry across the wings like clouds in a night sky above, in water below.

Teafortwo howled. He turned to see the thing that was now descending the stairs, those wings still unfurled. Then the patterns on the wings caught him and he stared, his mouth open.

The dark designs on those wings moved beguilingly.

Lublamai and Teafortwo stood still and silent, agog, slack-jawed and shivering, gazing at the magnificent wings.

The creature tasted the air.

It looked briefly at Teafortwo, and opened its mouth, but the pickings were meagre. It turned its head and faced Lublamai, keeping those wings spread and enthralling. It moaned with hunger ... The air hummed with the taste of Lublamai. The creature salivated and its wings flickered into a frenzy, and Lublamai's taste grew stronger and stronger until the thing's monstrous tongue emerged and it moved forward, flicking Teafortwo effortlessly out of the way.

The winged creature took Lublamai in its hungry embrace.

So...what do you think happened to Lublamai? Pretty much what you'd expect. What you'd hope for. ;-) And the best part is, this creature isn't alone. In fact, it's the runt of its litter. I'm expecting Perdido Street Station to get a lot darker after this, and that suits me just fine.


Anonymous said...

Still having nightmares about the moths from Perdido St Station! It get's very very dark.

E said...

According to interviews, Mieville created the novel as a rebuttal to Tolkien-style fantasy, which he considered to be imperialistic and naive.

The result is a novel which while intricate and fascinating (not unlike the slake-moths) is ultimately calculatedly brutal and senseless in every way.

It's a poison dagger in the heart of the Joseph Campbell-ian Hero's Journey story structure, and for that alone it's brilliant-- but it is a very cynical story, and not everybody enjoys that.

thrall said...

Yes, "brutal" is exactly the word I was thinking of. That comes across early on, especially in the slaughterhouse scene, and there was nothing at all erotic about the second description of a slake-moth attack. But as long as the novel has at least a semi-happy ending, I'll be all right with it. ;-)