October 15, 2012
All writers are influenced and inspired by other writers, and we all know writers who echo those influences, running the gamut from subtly to obviously, but I don't think I've ever read an author who is capable of blending/bending his influences quite like Joseph S. Pulver, Sr. As impacting as a violent train wreck, the resultant explosion of mellifluous ethereality onto the page is something so totally different that it's almost a completely new art form. Sure, you've got your Lovecraft, Robert W. Chambers, Ramsey Campbell, William Burroughs, Richard Brautigan, Raymond Chandler--even T. S. Eliot--but jam them all together into Pulver's psychotic centrifuge, and the resulting velvet-swathed, running-the-guts spatter pattern ends up as a collection like Portraits of Ruin (Hippocampus Press). I have already expounded at length on Pulver's most recent works, SIN & ashes and The Orphan Palace, so I was certainly primed and ready for another dose of his mind-bending/expanding work.
There are a handful of reprints in this volume, mostly from 2010 and 2011, culled from small press and magazine releases, but the majority of material here is new. Cover art and design by J. Karl Bogartte and Barbara Briggs Silbert (respectively) are dark, imaginative and evocative. The introduction by Matt Cardin is an excellent prelude to the stories (Cardin tells us how to read and get the most from Pulver's unique style; it took my third reading of SIN & ashes to finally figure it out on my own). The early proof I read was well-laid out and easy on the eyes. Hippocampus Press is a stickler for detail and seldom missteps in presentation or content. There are nearly forty juicy morsels here to drool over, at 376 pages.
The collection kicks off with a chillingly muted bang with the story "No Healing Prayers," first published in Dead But Dreaming 2 (Miskatonic River Press, 2011). This story is compact but deadly, chock full of antediluvian Lovecraftesque references to things like the Piper Man, the Black Goat, the Thing That Sails on Tears, wolfspell; and cleverly interspersed with modernisms: the Mossberg 590 Persuader, front porches, the big wars and coffee. "Lena...cries" is a lyrically beautiful, relentlessly bleak paean to pain of the emotional variety, relationships--and dying--in a number of all-too-familiar permutations. In this dissonant masterpiece, evidently inspired by the ambient/experimental work of cellist/instrumentalist Lena Griffin, Pulver effortlessly (or so it would appear) shifts from a Stygian fantasy landscape to a dimly lit, but grimly detailed modern reality. From there, the reader is treated to a diverse trove of devastating, personal vignettes. Some worked better than others for me, but none could be considered less than 'very good', and others were totally astonishing. I particularly enjoyed "My Mirage" because of the unexpected side trip into screenplay formatting toward the end. The collection closes with "And this is where I go down into the darkness," one of the longer included works, fittingly dedicated to beelzeBOB and the estimable Thomas Ligotti. It is a gorgeous laudation of writers and writing and inspiration and influences and muses and...
and an apt conclusion to this highly imaginative mix.
Here's the thing: As I've stated in previous reviews, Pulver's work will not be everyone's cup of hemlock; it consistently defies/violates structure and most traditional trappings of the short narrative. And that's fine; nothing should appeal to everyone. In Cardin's introduction, Pulver is quoted as saying: "I never know what to make of my stuff." If that's true, it may be the scariest thing I've ever read, since each word, every slice of darkly cadenced phrasing seems perfectly placed after being lovingly stressed over, ending in a saturnine elegance. Nothing seems oblique; nothing left to chance. That's why Pulver's stories work for me; in the hands of a lesser, inexperienced talent, this style might seem forced, too self-aware. However, if you choose to enter these literary gates with an open mind, checking your preconceptions at the door while allowing the words to envelop you (and vice versa), you will understand what Pulver fans already know: it's an exhilarating, deeply personal experience that will grab you by the throat (brain, body and soul) and won't easily let go. For this jaded reviewer, reading Pulver is like discovering Poe, Lovecraft, Kenneth Patchen, Bob Dylan--even Hieronymus Bosch--for the very first time.
He's that good.