In The Great North there is thunder. Gemma Files, Simon Strantzas, Ian Rodgers, and RICHARD GAVIN! These titans rest on my shelves close to Thomas Ligotti, perhaps that tells you what I think of them and their ability to take away your breath . . .
Gavin is the acclaimed author of CHARNEL WINE, Primeval Wood, The Darkly Splendid Realm, and OMENS.
Earlier this year in "Dead Reckonings" (No. 9) the Review of Horror Literature that's edited by S. T. Joshi and Tony Fonseca, Richard Gavin reviewed my 2nd collection, SIN & ashes. To say I was pleased by the review is a vast understatement. With my new novel, The Orphan Palace, just out from Chomu Press and my 3rd collection, Portraits of Ruin, in the pipeline for a 2012 release from Hippocampus Press I wanted to post Richard's review for those who do not get to see or read the acclaimed "DR".
"Down Dark and Lonesome Highways"
JOSEPH S. PULVER, SR. Sin & Ashes. Introduction by Laird Barron. New York: Hippocampus Press, 2010. 325 pp. $20.00 pb.
If mimicry truly is one of the gravest dangers a writer faces when broaching weird tale country, then few writers are on safer ground than Joseph S. Pulver Sr. With Sin & Ashes, his second collection from Hippocampus Press, Pulver manages to further cement his reputation as one of the most daring stylists currently working in supernatural fiction. He is certainly no stranger to the realm of dark fiction, having built up considerable publishing credits over the years, primarily through the small and specialty presses. But his time as one of the genre’s best-kept secrets appears to be drawing to a close, as his books continue to reach an ever-broader audience and to garner fresh critical attention. With prose that hovers somewhere between the hard-boiled crime genre, poetry, and the sheer lawlessness of Dadaism, Pulver’s work is truly sui generis, so much so that it almost defies classification. This brazen originality is given a hefty exhibition in Sin & Ashes. Whether broaching more poignant fantasy (“Even Night” and “Long-Stemmed Ghost Words”) or the book’s hard-boiled forays into hexes and vengeance (“First There is a Mountain . . . Then”), Pulver invariably manages to impress his fingerprints upon the material.
The collection’s inaugural tale, “Love Her Madly,” intertwines the postmortem wanderings of Doors lead singer Jim Morrison and those of a young woman adrift in an anguished, almost elegiac modern-day California. It is a bizarre carousel of a story, one that suitably sets the tone for the forty-eight (!!) other tales, vignettes, and prose poems that comprise this gripping volume. “Love Her Madly” grants the reader a survey of many of Joseph Pulver’s interests and inspirations: psychedelic rock, the gritty underbelly of contemporary culture, and an almost unbearable emotional pitch of isolation and despair. Pulver then smoothly switches gears for the second story, “She’s Waiting,” a haunting, heart-squeezing gaze into one woman’s sense of loss. This mournful riff repeats in several other entries, such as “When the Moon Comes to Call” and “As the Sun Still Burns Away.”
The varied subjects and settings that comprise this book’s vast canvas, coupled with the sheer number of its pieces, make giving a tale-by-tale analysis all but impossible, for Pulver’s work is a gestalt, a tsunami of image and emotion. His words are unfailingly razor-keen, his tone beautiful and horrific at once. Stylistically, Pulver, with his penchant for fragmented, stream-of-consciousness narratives, is most strongly reminiscent of William S. Burroughs. One never sees all in a Joseph Pulver story; rather these narratives play out like scenes reflected in a shattered mirror. We are afforded glimpses and oblique representations, but are offered none of the pat comforts that a more conventional narrative might provide. For instance, in “Huddled in Rags in a Kingsport Alley . . .,” we see H. P. Lovecraft’s seaport town through the prism of one its dejected and broken inhabitants, a woman who has “no room for the devices of Christ-light in her fear-laced deeps.” For in the end, “the mouth of future closes. . . . No one is spared. . . . Little but the noise of the moon survives."
This is heady stuff, yet it also exposes what might be the only artistic debit of Sin & Ashes: its stories offer no light of salvation whatsoever. The reader has no breathing room, no denouement which carries promise of relief or resolution. In fact, Pulver’s characters seem to relate to hope only as a quaint and hazy memory, an oasis that is now irretrievably lost. All these characters—and by extension, we, readers as well—have left to do is wait for that mouth of the future to clamp its jaws and drag us all down. However, this is not necessarily an indication of a deficiency in the writing. Rather, it stands as a testament to its complexity and relentlessness.
Pulver is a demanding writer. The reader often has to work simply to navigate the murky, unnerving plots the book presents. The horrors of Sin & Ashes might often only be fleetingly illuminated by lightning flashes of words, but these hints are often brutal and are apt to haunt one well after the book’s covers are closed. Take, for example, this extract from the remarkable “Just Another Desert Night with Blood”:
Highway. Ditches full of seasons (and the cast-out containers of thirst quenchers). Winds traveling. Red taillights—moon sold souls—bound for somewhere (easy?). Night’s not going anywhere. Never does. The lies cooling. Not going anywhere . . . moth and spider goin’ nowhere . . . phone booth with a broken interior light . . . owl . . . clouds, not built or elaborate, flat on the dark rug of sky . . . asphalt—solid ground has no point . . . boots notch the dust on a road goin’nowhere . . . This nowhere land, a flat leviathan wearing blades and puddles and smudges of black, seamed with memories, holds no scavengers, no mirages, no vultures.
Here be a demonstration of one of Pulver’s greatest strengths: an almost uncanny ability to pull the reader into settings which are bewildering yet queerly familiar. We may not know who it is who wanders this highway, or indeed which highway it is, yet we do know this person, having roamed that roadway ourselves, if only in dreams.
Another pervasive characteristic of Pulver is the manner in which he dovetails the supernatural with the banal. Resisting the often disastrous technique of describing the otherworldly with flamboyant language, Pulver details the uncanny with the same edgy, matter-of-fact tone he uses to shed light on the underbelly of American culture, or indeed the fractured spirits of his characters. Forbidden grimoires, ghosts, and dark gods do indeed lurk in these narratives, but they are presented as elements no more or less startling than neon signs or strip clubs or a long vacant road at night. In this respect, Sin & Ashes might be thought of as an extension to the mythopoeia of William Blake—whose London streets were populated simultaneously by merchants and criminals, angels and demons—as it is a current spin on the mythos of H. P. Lovecraft or Robert W. Chambers (a visible influence here). We need not find the cursed grove or the haunted farmhouse, Pulver seems to tell us; the powers of darkness are in fact roaming right alongside prostitutes and gangsters, working-class loners and wrecked dreamers.
If you are a reader who seeks lulling escapism, this book offers no such creature comfort. Pulver tales are not the kind of stories one slips into like a warm bath. They are splashes of frigid water, which constantly jar and twist rather than flow headlong. This is what makes Sin & Ashes such a potent volume. Pulver is a writer who takes risks with each story he fashions, which in turn makes reading them exceptionally rewarding.
(C) Richard Gavin 2011
RICHARD GAVIN http://www.richardgavin.net/
HIPPOCAMPUS PRESS http://www.hippocampuspress.com/journals/dead-reckonings/dead-reckonings-no.-9