Los Angeles Times

Was glam any different from pop? Simon Reynolds has the answer in 'Shock and Awe'

David Bowie in May 1973; a year earlier, he'd memorably performed "Starman" on "Top of the Pops." (Associated Press)

David Bowie in May 1973; a year earlier, he'd memorably performed "Starman" on "Top of the Pops." (Associated Press)

Myriad books have been written about the birth of punk, its cultural godparents in the Warhol Factory and Detroit, and distaff cousins in the United Kingdom, where Margaret Thatcher was punk’s evil stepmother. 

Yet with a few exceptions, punk’s gold-sequined older sibling, glam rock, has mostly been ignored by the critical establishment. Simon Reynolds’ “Shock and Awe” goes a long way to fill that void. If David Bowie’s death inspired more writers to tackle the subject, they’ll be hard-pressed to surpass Reynolds’ work. 

The best music criticism comes from equal parts love and obsession, often cut with a modicum of grief — the dissolution or slow decline of a once-great artist can break your heart as much as a great love song. Reynolds' behemoth (the book is 700 pages) grew from his exposure to Marc Bolan on "Top of the Pops" when Reynolds was 8.

Still—700 pages devoted to a self-consciously superficial musical phenomenon that blazed at the dawn of the '70s, then fizzled out in just five years? Reynolds states that his book has been cooking since 1985, which is a long time to contemplate what seems like a simple question: "What is it that makes the glamorousness of glam different from the standard-issue razzle-dazzle of pop music?" The answer can be summed up in two words: David Bowie, whose career runs through "Shock and Awe" like real gold thread among all the rhinestones and Lurex.

Glam was music for kids (mostly white) weaned on the Beatles, whose 1970 breakup opened a chasm between 1960s rock and whatever would come next. This rising generation of young teenagers formed a huge audience eager for a music to call their own. In the U.S., we called it glitter rock, and our exposure was mostly limited to scattershot AM/FM airplay and the occasional, much-anticipated appearance of a band like Slade or T. Rex or Mott the Hoople on the biweekly TV series "Don Kirshner's Rock Concert." The Brits, on the other hand, had weekly shows like "Top of the Pops" and "The Old Grey Whistle Test" that regularly introduced new acts to a mass audience.

Enter Bolan, whose platform shoes stomped all over the last remnants of the '60s. Formerly a member of the gonzo-styled band John's Children, Bolan went on to form the winsome folk-rock duo Tyrannosaurus Rex. After penning twee, occult-tinged songs ("She Was Born to Be My Unicorn"), Bolan ditched his acoustic guitar and picked up a white Fender Stratocaster, whereupon Tyrannosaurus Rex morphed into the hard-rocking T. Rex.

T. Rex's self-titled debut contained a few hippie holdovers, but glam finally made its entrance when Bolan sashayed onto the set of "Top of the Pops"  in 1971, bedecked in satin and his wife's glitter makeup, and warbled "Hot Love." The album "Electric Warrior" appeared soon after, riding on the success of monster hit singles "Get It On" (in the U.S., "Bang a Gong") and "Jeepster."

Meanwhile, Bowie, Bolan's brilliant frenemy, was struggling through a series of hitless albums, despite (or because of) his knack for relentless self-invention, leapfrogging from Anthony Newley-styled cabaret songs to the horrors of "The Laughing Gnome," finally penning the melancholy "Space Oddity," which became his first hit.

In 1970, he released "The Man Who Sold the World." Its sleeve flaunted a photo of a languid Bowie sporting pre-Raphaelite locks and a long blue-and-white satin gown. Later, an equally androgynous image adorned "Hunky Dory," though more Garbo than fin de siecle damsel.

Then came Bowie's historic April 14, 1972 "Top of the Pops" performance of "Starman." Bowie stood beside guitarist Mick Ronson, both gorgeously attired in outrageous outfits by designer Freddie Burretti. In a gesture that looks tame now, Bowie drew close to Ronson and suggestively snaked an arm over the guitarist's lamé-clad shoulder and then sang the line, "I had to phone someone so I picked on you," and with a sly, knowing smile, stared and pointed directly at the camera, beaming his message across the country.

For a generation awaiting their watershed moment—Elvis shaking his televised pelvis in 1956, the Beatles storming "Ed Sullivan" in 1964—this was it.

Americans missed that broadcast, one reason glam never caught on here the way it did in the U.K. But there were other factors as well, which Reynolds nimbly examines. U.K. glam's camp hearkened to the rollicking, tongue-in-cheek excesses of English music hall and panto dames, rather than the brittle irony of the Warhol Factory. Britain also retained remnants of a once-vibrant dance-hall culture, and unlike that other musical stalwart of the '70s, prog, you could actually dance to glam's 1950s-inflected rhythms.

American glam trended darker, inspired in part by the divine decadence of Bob Fosse’s film “Cabaret,” with Joel Grey as the sexually ambiguous, demonic MC whose Pierrot whiteface looked like a death mask. Lou Reed’s detached, almost funereal litany of Factory drag queens in “Walk on the Wild Side,” its chorus fading into Bowie’s ghostly saxophone solo. And America’s obsession with violence provided fertile, blood-soaked ground for Alice Cooper’s Grand Guignol antics featuring dead babies and boa constrictors, as well as the (literally) self-lacerating performances by the ferocious Iggy Pop, frontman for the Stooges. 

British glam had its high-toned side, represented by Bowie, of course, as well as Roxy Music, with a legendary lineup that included Brian Eno, Phil Manzanera, Andy Mackay and Bryan Ferry. 

Still, much U.K. glam was self-mocking and seemingly impervious to embarrassment. "Shock and Awe" encourages YouTube viewing of performances by nearly forgotten bands like the Sweet and Mud, whose deliriously silly "Dyna-Mite" and "Tiger Feet" spawned a dance known as the shoulder jive. A beefy Gary Glitter rolled eyes and hips, lip-syncing "Rock and Roll Part 2," though amusement at his ludicrous prancing is undercut by knowledge of pedophilic crimes that he was sentenced for in 2015.

Indeed, the history of glam is haunted by the faces of the young female groupies, some barely pubescent, who came to be as much a part of a musician's wardrobe as feather boas and teased hair. On the Sunset Strip, Rodney Bingenheimer's English Disco drew all the name bands of the day, along with an army of camp followers like Sable Starr and Pamela Des Barres.

By 1975, glam's target demographic was aging out of red satin hot pants and into the monochrome palette favored by the Ramones and Patti Smith. As the decades passed, it seemed little more than the brief interregnum between the 1960s and the long shadow cast by punk. But Reynolds makes a good argument for glam representing an "individualized, privatized form of revolution" and "glamour as a spooky insistence of self."

Its most enduring cultural legacy is glam's open engagement with the fluidity of gender: with gay, bisexual and trans identities. Reynolds cites the mass popularity of Queen's Freddie Mercury, whose Beardsleyesque flamboyance somehow managed to elude the attention of the band's audience, enabling him to enrapture them in "an embrace that hovered somewhere between acceptance and ignorance." As Bowie wrote in 2001, "We were giving ourselves permission to reinvent culture the way we wanted it. With great big shoes."

"Shock and Awe" ends with a chapter noting glam's influences over the last 40 years. Unsurprisingly, it's a Bowie-centric list. Ultimately, "Shock and Awe's" examination of the glam era doesn't solve the mystery of who David Bowie was, or begin to fill the cultural black hole left by his death. "What if there is an afterlife, after all?" Reynolds ponders as he listens to the last track of Bowie's final album, "Blackstar." "Perhaps that's another definition of glamour: lustrous images generated by organic, perishable beings that live on in personal and collective memory, long after their source has withered."

Hand's most recent novel is "Hard Light."

"Shock and Awe: Glam Rock and Its Legacy, from the Seventies to the Twenty-first Century"

By Simon Reynolds

Dey St. Books: 704 pp., $18.99 paper

Originally published on LATimes.com.

'Leena Krohn: Collected Fiction' yields writing of strangeness and beauty


In the 11th century, the German historian Adam of Bremen wrote that the Finns “are to this day so superior in the magic arts or incantations that they profess to know what everyone is doing the world over…. All this is easy for them through practice.” Their command of words and sorcery is so legendary that modern Swedes who consult a fortuneteller say that they are “paying a visit to the Finns.”

Yet why is it that only a few Finnish writers — among them Tove Jansson, Elias Lönnrot (compiler of the “Kalevala”), Johanna Sinissalo and the Estonian Finnish Sofi Oksanen — are known to American readers?

The challenge of translation is one reason — Finnish is a notoriously difficult language for nonnative speakers to learn, with gender-neutral pronouns and grammar. The Finns’ often unconventional way of looking at the world may be another — think of Sibelius’ yearning symphonies, the quirky films of Aki Kaurismäki, Alvar Aalto’s undulating buildings, Jansson’s endearingly amorphous Moomins.

Cheeky Frawg, a small press specializing in the literature of the fantastic, often in translation, is publishing an omnibus volume of the brilliant, visionary modernist Leena Krohn — think Jorge Luis Borges intersecting with Isak Dinesen, Flann O’Brien, Milan Kundera and Italo Calvino.

The comparisons help put Krohn’s body of work into context but do nothing to capture the ineffable, melancholy strangeness and beauty of her writing. This is great literature: Shame on us for only now discovering it.

Krohn has written more than 30 books for adults and young readers. A variety of works published between 1976 and 2009 are collected here, including six short novels and novellas, short stories, critical essays and novel excerpts, some of which have been difficult to find in the U.S.

The volume opens with “Dona Quixote and Other Citizens. Portrait (Tales of the Citizens of an Unusual City).” The book consists of a series of chapters, most only a page or two in length, which can also be read as individual stories — a technique similar to that of Lydia Davis and a hallmark of nearly all of Krohn’s fiction here. The “unusual city,” never named, is recognizable as modern Helsinki but a Helsinki at once as commonplace and marvelous as Gabriel García-Marquez’s Macondo. Here is the narrator’s first meeting with the eponymous protagonist:

“I was sitting on the pedestal of a statue when something passed me by. It was as long and thin as a piece of straw, and it moved so lightly that it seemed to slip along above the dust of the road. It had a pair of binoculars at its neck and it stopped by the railing and began to look out at the sea.”

The piece of straw is an old woman known as Dona Quixote, and so odd yet acute are Krohn’s descriptions of the city and its denizens that a reader is at first not quite certain whether the story is set on Earth or indeed if the narrator (or Dona Quixote) is human. It’s as though the story was told by a member of another species, amazed by even the most mundane things.

This sense of mingled strangeness and recognition reverberates through all of Krohn’s work, most clearly in “Tainaron: Mail From Another City.” The narrative is framed as a series of letters, never answered, written by an unnamed woman to her distant lover, describing the city where she now lives — where the residents are insects.

Many of them are human-sized and possessed of human speech, their behavior a distorted mirror held up to that of Homo sapiens. In a vast, teeming beehive, the narrator has an audience with the immense queen, who, ceaselessly giving birth to her offspring, shrieks, “But what is a mother? … She from whom everything flows is not a someone …”

Later, at a funeral parlor, the narrator is shown the exquisite coffins that hold only “a single organ, often an eye or antenna [or] part of a wing, a part with a beautiful pattern.” Told that there is no crematorium in Tainaron, she insists on knowing what happens to the rest of the bodies. The funeral director takes her to an underground chamber, where she is at first sickened and then exalted by the sight of dung beetles devouring the dead. “And here, then, was their work: to distill pure nectar from such filth, to extract from the slimy liquid of death health, strength and new life.”

This singular vision of a transcendent connection between species also shines in “Datura,” where ingesting the seeds of the titular poisonous plant subtly changes the way a woman perceives the world, and “The Pelican’s New Clothes,” in which a pelican befriends a lonely boy named Emil. Only children recognize him as a pelican: dressed in human clothing, the pelican calls himself Mr. Henderson. He gets a job taking tickets at the opera and is enthralled by “The Magic Flute.” (He especially likes the birdcatcher, Papageno.) Reminiscent of Roald Dahl’s work, it’s a book that deserves to be called a classic.

As do nearly all of the extraordinary tales collected here. “Beauty is the universe’s most enduring quality,” Krohn, now 68, states in her afterword, “it is repeated in atoms and galaxies, numbers and relations and the way a tree grows.” This is a writer whose work can rewire your brain, leaving you with an enhanced, near-hallucinatory apprehension of our fragile planet, and of all the beings that inhabit it.

Leena Krohn: Collected Fiction
Leena Krohn
Cheeky Frawg Books: 850 pp, $36.99

Originally posted on LATimes.com.

New books on Salem's trials and modern pagans offer bewitching reading this Halloween season


In “The Witches: Salem, 1692,” a masterful account of the epidemic of paranoia and religious fervor that overcame residents of Essex County in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Pulitzer Prize winner Stacy Schiff takes on “America’s tiny reign of terror,” the Salem witch trials. Most Americans know of the trials only through fictional accounts like Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “House of the Seven Gables” or Arthur Miller’s play “The Crucible,” which conflated Salem’s vicious persecutions with those of the McCarthy era. Schiff painstakingly reconstructs not just the events of 1692 but the world that birthed them: Puritan New England, where Wabanaki raids and massacres were common, food scarce, and the winter darkness inescapable for months on end.

Her accomplishment is all the more remarkable because there are no records of the court sessions — Schiff sifted through archival material as well as historical accounts written by witnesses years after the epidemic.

All mention of the hangings were omitted or expunged from Salem’s official records; the court transcripts were supposedly destroyed in a 1765 fire. An exception is the evidence of witches, which included accounts of luminous jellyfish coming down the chimney, talking cats, satanic visitors, magic apples, and nocturnal flights over the Essex countryside.

The crisis began in the household of the Salem village minister, 30-year-old Samuel Parris. Salem village (the site of present-day Danvers) consisted of 90 isolated families, at a time when Boston had only 8,000 residents and the entire population of New England “would fit into Yankee Stadium.”

Salem’s villagers were a disputatious bunch, and Parris, their fourth minister, seems to have been unpopular — in 1691, his congregation voted not to collect his salary. Parris had grown up in an affluent merchant family in Barbados; he had no prior pastoral experience when he took the pulpit in 1689, for reasons that remain murky. Providing the incubator for an epidemic of witches was probably not among them.

Parris and his wife lived with their three children in a crowded household that included Parris’ 11-year-old niece, Abigail, and two Indian slaves, Tituba and her husband, John Indian. Sometime near the end of January 1692, first Abigail and then Parris’ 9-year-old daughter Betty began to act out: twitching, babbling, leaping into the air and pretending to fly. Salem’s Puritans had few amusements besides cultivating spite and nursing a grievance — no festivals or holidays enlivened the bitterly cold winters. Within weeks, the antics of the children fulfilled the role of reality TV, with as many as 50 visitors crowding the Parris house to gape at the girls.

A month after the onset of Abigail’s frenzy, Mary Sibley, a neighbor, watched the children while the Parrises were away. In their absence, Sibley decided to employ kitchen witchery to discern who or what had possessed the girls. She ordered John Indian to make a cake, mixing the girls’ urine with rye flour, and fed the resulting mess to the family dog. Parris was understandably enraged when he found out, but the damage was done.

A few days later, Abigail and Betty made the first false accusations of witchcraft. The devil began his rampage through Essex County.

More adolescent girls and two adult women joined ranks with Abigail and Betty, writhing as they jabbed accusatory fingers at those assembled in the courtroom. Neighbors accused neighbors, family members each other. Under questioning by a bench whose members presumed guilt, 55 people admitted that they were witches. The youngest confessor was 5 years old and spent nine months shackled in jail before her release. Her mother, a bellicose beggar imprisoned with her daughter and a newborn infant, was among the first to be executed.

By the time the epidemic ran its course late that year, 20 innocent people were dead. Among those executed were a highly respected, devout mother of seven, and an engaging minister accused of being a wizard. He recited the Lord’s Prayer before he was hanged, moving onlookers to tears.

Schiff dispels some common misconjectures about the trials, and ferrets out intriguing facts. Those thought to be witches were usually not people of color. Half of the Salem girls who were possessed were refugees or had been orphaned by the French-Indian wars. The median age of the accusers was 19, and well-educated girls were more likely to be major players — they would have read the gruesome captivity narrative of Mary Rowlandson, a bestseller of its time, as well as what Schiff calls “martyrdom porn,” literary sources awash in blood, torment and demons.

Longtime border disputes between neighbors seem to be another instigation for the mass hysteria, along with the brutal weather and steady diet of hellfire preaching that provided jolts of lurid energy in an unbearably bleak environment. But ultimately, as Schiff puts it, “Salem is in part the story of what happens when a set of unanswerable questions meets a set of unquestioned answers.”

And only one person taking the stand points out what the exasperated parent of any modern teenager would know: “We must not believe all that these distracted children say.”

Compared with Salem’s punitive, backbiting Puritans, the real-life pagans and Wiccans who populate Alex Mar’s entertaining “Witches of America” are a cheerful bunch, even if they indulge in the occasional blood offering. Mar’s 2010 documentary “American Mystic” followed three devotees of alternative religions. In “Witches of America,” she continues and enlarges upon that quest: “I want to understand the strange confidence necessary to climb onto the roof and sing to the moon, or to write out commands in your own blood … I want to grasp the moment when that confidence becomes conviction …”

Her journey takes her back to one of the documentary’s subjects, a young woman named Morpheus whose practice is centered on a Celtic battle goddess who often takes corvid form. Mar also travels to New Orleans in search of “the heavier stuff” practiced by adherents of Aleister Crowley’s darker strain of “magick,” and to PantheaCon, an annual convention attended by thousands of pagans. There Mar encounters BNPs (Big Name Pagans) with rock star charisma and entourages.

“Do you ever get people you think want to be your new friend,” one BNP wonders, “and then instead you realize they’re just hanging around waiting to ask for an initiation?”

Mar is an often amusing guide to the household altars and henges of 21st century paganism, in which Wiccans conduct classes via Skype and online distance learning. But what will resonate most with readers is her genuine and touching search for transcendence, which leads to a conviction that all of these strands of belief are “strategies for staying alive. Some are simply more elaborate and inexplicable than others.”

The Witches: Salem, 1692
Stacy Schiff
Little, Brown: 512 pp, $32

Witches of America
Alex Mar
Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 274 pp, $26

Originally posted on LATimes.com.

Close encounters with feminist science fiction in 'Sisters of the Revolution'


Mary Shelley usually gets mad props as the progenitor of feminist science fiction for her 1818 "Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus." But pride of place arguably goes to Mary Cavendish, who in 1668 penned a feminist utopian novel, "The Description of a New World, Called the Blazing-World," in response to Robert Hooke's "Micrographia," which in 1665 put microscopes on the map and coined the biological term "cell." Cavendish delved into speculation as to what might exist beneath and within the world we know, or think we know (alien life forms played a role). She was given the sobriquet "Mad Madge" for her pains.

FOR THE RECORD: Margaret Cavendish: An Aug. 9 review of "Sisters of the Revolution: A Feminist Speculative Fiction Anthology" incorrectly said 17th century author Margaret Cavendish's first name was Mary.

Nearly 300 years later, things had improved … barely. "Women are writing SCIENCE FICTION!" trumpeted the flap copy for Margaret St. Clair's 1963 novel "Sign of the Labrys." Women, it went on to say, "are conscious of the moon-pulls, the earth-tides. They possess a buried memory of humankind's obscure and ancient past which can emerge to uniquely color and flavor a novel."

Those who don't possess a buried memory of humankind's obscure and ancient past are condemned to repeat it. So thank the Goddess for "Sisters of the Revolution," a superlative new anthology of previously published feminist science fiction by female writers, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer. Noted editors of numerous anthologies of speculative fiction, the VanderMeers have compiled one of the best volumes of feminist — or any other — science fiction in years. "Sisters of the Revolution" reaches back to the late 1960s and extends to 2012, with the lioness' share of tales originally published between 1980 and 2000.

There are classic, much-anthologized stories by well-known writers here. "The Screwfly Solution," a brilliant, terrifying tale of global femicide by James M. Tiptree Jr. [pseudonym for Alice Sheldon], carries even more impact in our own age of rampant violence against women than when it first appeared in 1977. An off-world feminist utopia confronts its own destruction in "When It Changed" by Joanna Russ, whose "How to Suppress Women's Writing" was a touchstone for second-wave feminists. Ursula Le Guin is represented by "Sur," in which a group of bluestockings mount an early 20th century expedition to Antarctica. "The Evening and the Morning and the Night" by Octavia Butler explores the global effect of a fictional neurovirus, and "how much of what we do is encouraged, discouraged, or otherwise guarded by what we are genetically," as she states in her short afterword to this poignant tale. Angela Carter's "The Fall River Axe Murders" follows Lizzie Borden on the sultry August morning of the day that her "Sargasso calm" notoriously erupts, suggesting motives that were ignored at the time.

But much of the pleasure in "Sisters of the Revolution" derives from encountering work by writers who aren't household names. The stories are arranged as to how they "speak to one another rather than chronological order". So Anne Richter's "The Sleep of Plants," deftly translated from the Belgian by Edward Gauvin, segues into Kelly Barnhill's dreamy and dark magical realist tale, "The Men Who Live in Trees," which slides into Hiromi Goto's "Tales From the Breast" ("You want to yell down the hall that you have a name and it isn't Breast Milk").

Readers can also compare depictions of maternal love in Kit Reed's viciously funny "The Mothers of Shark Island" and Nnedi Okorafor's "The Palm Tree Bandit," whose narrator tells her young daughter of her namesake great-grandmother's daring nocturnal exploits, and delight in riffs on such oft-told tales as Kelley Eskridge's gender-bending "And Salome Danced" and Nalo Hopkinson's creepy Bluebeard story, "The Glass Bottle Trick." And these are just a handful of the stories contained in this distaff treasure chest: Every single one is a gem.

Forty years ago, in her essay "American SF and the Other," Le Guin wryly observed: "The women's movement has made most of us conscious of the fact that SF has either totally ignored women, or presented them as squeaking dolls subject to instant rape by monsters — or old-maid scientists desexed by hypertrophy of the intellectual organs — or, at best, loyal little wives or mistresses of accomplished heroes."

There are no squeaking dolls or loyal little wives here, no old maid scientists — and if there were, woe betide anyone who took them at face value.

Sisters of the Revolution: A Feminist Speculative Fiction Anthology
Edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer
PM Press: 341 pp., $15.95 paper

Originally published on LATimes.com.

In Austin Grossman's supernatural novel, 'Crooked,' Richard Nixon meets H.P. Lovecraft


As if American voters didn’t have enough to worry about, in the last few years, the undead and the uncanny have infiltrated the ranks of U.S. politicians in novels like Seth Grahame-Smith’s “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” and “The Last American Vampire” and Christopher Farnsworth’s wonderful Nathaniel Cade books, which star a vampire Secret Service agent bound by blood to protect the president. Fans of those books might raise an eyebrow at the White House’s decision to allow tourists to use cameras for the first time in 40 years. Garlic and silver bullets seem a safer bet than Instagram for your White House tour; stakes too, though the ban on selfie sticks makes it doubtful they’d make it through security.

“Crooked,” Austin Grossman’s clever new supernatural novel, delves into even more arcane territory. His previous works, “Soon I Will Be Invincible” and “You,” deal with superheroes and the world of video game design (Grossman worked as a game developer in the 1990s). In “Crooked,” he riffs on H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos in all its eldritch glory and creates an antihero as tormented as any Marvel or DC villain: Richard Nixon, 37th president of the United States.

Nixon narrates “Crooked.” The most impressive aspect of the novel is how Grossman creates a nuanced, funny and moving characterization of a man reviled during (and after) his term of office; a Republican president whose achievements — desegregation in the South, detente with the Soviet Union, establishing a relationship with Red China — were overshadowed by the Watergate debacle and the Vietnam War (which ended during Nixon’s term in office).

“I had an ignoble knack for meanness,” Nixon admits in “Crooked.” “Reporters would get out their notebooks and scribble, nodding, knowing they had a quote … No matter how pure I seemed, righteous all the way through, there was always another me that couldn’t be put down, a sly one, a clever one, a lying one, a vicious one. I could be elected president of the whole goddamned United States but I’d always be Tricky Dick.”

This gift for moral compromise accelerates Nixon’s plunge into the supernatural maelstrom when, as a first-term Republican congressman on the House Un-American Activities Committee, he accuses Alger Hiss, a State Department employee and former Communist Party member, of being a Soviet spy. In our world, HUAC’s actions are often compared to those of a witch hunt. In “Crooked,” Nixon uncovers something far worse than witches: a cabal of Soviet agents invoking Yog-Sothoth, Elder God of the Cthulhu cycle, in a New York hotel room.

After witnessing this, Nixon is unwillingly co-opted as a Soviet asset, which he remains throughout the Cold War. Worse, he learns that the Soviets aren’t the only ones engaging in eldritch rites: In Pawtuxet, Mass., a secret government facility created and overseen by Dwight D. Eisenhower is developing even more sinister paranormal weapons to combat the Soviet threat.

“Strategic alliances with folkloric, extraplanar, and subterranean entities. Field deployment of weaponized paleofauna. Large-scale saturation of target areas with invasive fungal and floral xeno organisms …This is the Cold War now,” the president is warned by Henry Kissinger.

“My government was a stranger thing than anyone knew,” Nixon observes in one of the many deadpan asides that make “Crooked” a droll riff on 20th century politics. During his decades-long journey through the fetid swamp of American diplomacy, Nixon views human and inhuman rivals with the same jaundiced eye. He becomes increasingly estranged from his wife, Pat, who remains loyal in public even as she demands separate sleeping arrangements and reveals that she’s never voted Republican in her life.

Nixon is despised by his colleagues in Congress and the White House, and his closest and most enduring ties are to a pair of KGB operatives, Arkady and Tatiana. Their Boris and Natasha skulduggery enlivens “Crooked’s” middle section, which gets bogged down in Nixon’s thankless tenure as Eisenhower’s vice president and in Nixon’s failed 1960 presidential bid. The action picks up once Nixon takes over the Oval Office, especially after Kissinger becomes his national security advisor. Those who recall Kissinger’s seemingly superhuman flair for diplomacy will not be surprised that he is a 1,000-year-old sorcerer.

Grossman’s own impressive narrative gifts are occasionally undermined by slack pacing. And the supernatural elements are often underplayed — most paranormal incursions are delivered as secondhand accounts. We seldom see any monsters, and neither does Nixon, though we do get enticing references to “the Great Worm at Tunguska, and what’s at Arkhangel’sk, and the pine men, and that which you tried to put down with the bomb in ’49.”

This restraint may be in accordance with Lovecraft’s famous dictum that horror is best invoked by a “certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces … a subtle attitude of awed listening, as if for the beating of black wings or the scratching of outside shapes and entities on the known universe’s utmost rim.” But one yearns for more about the kraken that assisted the British during World War II, yanking Messerschmitts from the sky with its tentacles, and the rival magicians associated with the Democratic Party, who “showed their hand at Woodstock.”

Still, those who love deconstructing the supernatural literary references in series like “True Detective” and “Lost” will find much to savor in “Crooked,” which also carries an important message we should all heed as our presidential candidates hit the campaign trail: “If the old gods rise, it will represent a significant realignment of the electoral landscape.”

Austin Grossman
Mulholland/Little, Brown: 355 pp., $26

Originally published on LATimes.com.