The Great God Pan

January 10, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

panThe Great God Pan by Arthur Machen

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Whenever I read these older works of fiction, I feel the need to do more of an analysis of them than I do on modern fiction. It’s a holdover from my English classes, I think; these are works less to be enjoyed, and more to be analyzed. I felt the same about The Monk and Edgar Huntley, but I’m not sure what to say about The Great God Pan, other than the fact that it’s a precursor to the weird horror that Lovecraft popularized.

The story is about a young woman who undergoes a procedure to allow her to see the great god Pan; unfortunately, as soon as she sees him, she goes insane. From that point, the story follows an observer to the procedure, who, years later, is trying to convince the public of the existence of the devil after hearing lurid stories of a young girl who spends her days in the woods with strange creatures. At the end of the story, we learn that this young girl, who grows up to be a woman whose associations with men drive them to suicide, is the first woman’s daughter, and it’s suggested that she is the daughter of Pan.

Stephen King has written that this story is one of the finest horror stories ever written, and I’m not sure if I would agree. It’s certainly effective in its suggestion of horror over any overt scenes of horror, but the conclusion seems obvious once the story gets going, so it’s easy to see where it’s going and what everything means. It was controversial during its time for its suggestion of sexual activity, but it’s tame compared even to The Monk, which was written previous to this story. What sets it apart is how Machen wrote about unnameable horrors as opposed to devils and demons, and I suppose its place within the timeline of the horror genre is what makes it significant. It ushered in the wave of weird horror that Algernon Blackwood and H.P. Lovecraft wrote so well.

The Great God Pan isn’t a difficult read, nor is it a long one; it’s just not as interesting as I had hoped. A suggestion of horror is fine (I prefer it, in fact), but there needs to be some specific sort of horror to scare us with these kinds of stories. Machen went a little too subtle here, and the story suffers for it.

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The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe

November 29, 2016 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

dreamThe Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson

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I picked up this novella when it went on sale a few months back. I didn’t know much about it save that it was getting some good buzz, and good buzz + low price = I’m going to read it. What I didn’t know until I started reading it was that it was Lovecraftian, which was a bonus.

Vellitt Boe is a teacher at Ulthar Women’s College in the Dreamlands, and when a student goes missing, having eloped with a man from the real world, she goes on a trek to find her and bring her back. After all, the student is the daughter of one of the administrators of the college, and neither she nor any of the other teachers want the college to close due to a wayward student. The novella is about Vellitt’s journey across and out of the Dreamlands.

I know enough about, and have read enough of, Lovecraft’s works to know when someone is writing about his mythos. I’m not, however, so familiar with it that I recognize all the names and references that populate his works. Such is the case with The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, a novella written in homage and response to “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath”. Some of the references are obvious, and others I know are references, though I don’t know what they are.

Luckily, Johnson doesn’t limit her world-building by expecting readers to know the setting. She paints a vivid picture of the Dreamlands, above and below the surface, writing from a female perspective that, I understand, is lacking in Lovecraft’s work. She even makes Vellitt an old paramour of Randolph Carter, bringing in an aspect of the story that Lovecraft couldn’t.

Toward the end of the book, Johnson makes a particular scene a bit too coincidental to believe. Had she set it up a bit earlier, I would have accepted it more easily, but it was a case of “Oh, here’s how she got out of that situation, and here’s how that happened, since I didn’t talk about this earlier.” Beyond that, the story gets on track and concludes expectedly yet unexpectedly, ultimately satisfying.

Johnson’s prose is sharp, and her details vivid. It’s been a long time since I’ve read anything by Lovecraft, but I remember his prose to be dense, requiring a lot more effort than this novella did. I see Johnson’s story as a sort of revisionist history of Lovecraft’s work, making it a necessary read for anyone who is a fan of his mythos. There are fewer unnameable, eldritch horrors, but the perspective and theme make up for them.

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Hammers on Bone

November 1, 2016 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

boneHammers on Bone by Cassandra Khaw

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Right after I finished this novella, I rated it two stars: “It was ok”. That’s about how I felt, so it made sense. The next day, I sat down to write this review, and I started to wonder a bit more about what I’d read.

I don’t like noir that much. There are too many macho men who have too much disregard for women (sorry, “skirts”, maybe “dames”) for me to like them that much, and they’re usually the narrators of their stories. I knew going in to Hammers on Bone that it was a Lovecraftian noir story, but I also saw it was written by a woman, so I thought it might avoid those tropes, or at least use them in a new way. For the most part, the story reads like a standard private dick story, which put me off, but there was a moment toward the end that got me thinking further:

… the body strains to think of her as “the dame,” “the skirt,” or any of the other metaphors familiar to noir

The main character, John Persons, is a private investigator, sure, but he’s also a monster who lives inside a human body. So “the body” in that passage isn’t the character, though the character is trying to be someone he’s not (I mean, how did his name not tip me off to that at the start?), and I wonder if this line reflects the point of the story. Sure, it’s a standard noir story, but if the main character is struggling to pass for human, and his only point of reference is Sam Spade, how do we fault him for that?

I still have some issues with the story. The other characters aren’t defined well (though in true noir fashion, none of them are playing straight with Persons), the plot is a little predictable, and the story feels rushed. Interestingly, Khaw thanks an editor in her afterword for rejecting the story, feeling it “needed room to breathe”, but 11,000 words later, I feel the same way about it. I wanted to know more about the world and its characters than was included here, and saying this is the first in a series doesn’t excuse that lack.

Khaw does enough right with the story — her atmosphere, the creep level of how she incorporates the Cthulhu mythos, and her language (my favorite is “stubborn as capitalism”) — but the story itself feels insubstantial. If not for that one line to make me rethink Persons as a character, I’d rank this is just an okay story. I’ll elevate it to three stars (“liked it”) upon reflection, but Khaw is going to have to make a different kind of magic happen for me to bump up my rating on the next book.

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The White People

October 27, 2016 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

whiteThe White People by Arthur Machen

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I see a lot of reading lists pop up while browsing the web, and since I’m always looking for a good book, I pay attention to them. One was a list of stories to read if you liked Stranger Things, and since I did (and who didn’t?), I thought I’d check some of them out. “The White People” was one of those stories, and since I haven’t read anything by Machen, I thought this would be a good introduction.

“The White People” is an early weird story, which starts off reading like a philosophical treaty on sin, namely because that’s exactly what it is. Two men discuss the nature of sin, and the conversation leads one of the men to lend him a book he has, written by a sixteen-year-old woman who was drawn in to a world of mystery and mysticism through her nurse. None of what she sees or experiences is named; in fact, as the story enters into the big reveal, it ends, leaving us scrabbling for answers. The narrative evokes an ominous dread, especially as the young woman describes the uneasy reactions of other people to what she sees and tells.

I liked this story, but not because it reminded me of Stranger Things; that link is tenuous, connected only by way of parallel universes. Instead, I liked it for its use of atmosphere and unnameable horror. It evokes an unknown sort of response from the reader, one that’s as nebulous as the horrors that populate it. I understand Machen’s The Great God Pan is another exemplary piece of his work, and I look forward to reading it, as well.

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Neonomicon

June 6, 2016 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

neoNeonomicon by Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows

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H.P. Lovecraft had an odd sex life. Literary historians say his childhood, when his mother dressed him up as a little girl, was part of the reason. Whatever the reason, sex — and women in general — didn’t exist in Lovecraft’s stories, save for a passing reference to “nameless rituals”. So when it came time for Alan Moore to write the sequel to The Courtyard, of course he made it all about sex.

Neonomicon follows directly from The Courtyard, with new agents investigating what happened to Sax in the first story. Their investigations take them back to the dance club where Sax had his own breakthrough, right before his breakdown, which then takes them to Salem, MA, where they become involved with a sex cult that worships Dagon.

The main character, Agent Brears, has suffered from a breakdown of her own, though it’s not instigated by exposure to the Great Old Ones. What caused her breakdown is unknown, but we do learn that she became a sex addict afterward. At the start of the story, she’s recovered, but that aspect of her character is useful for a story that breaks down into orgies, rapes, and other nameless rituals. In addition, it prepares her for what she has to endure at the end of the story, and very likely saves her sanity because of it.

Where Lovecraft barely touched on sex, Moore gives it to us in full-color splashes. The orgy shows us just about everything, of all varieties, but it’s not very sexy. Moore presents it as a horror, using nudity as vulnerability and sex as an act of power instead of one of intimacy.

In The Courtyard, Moore teased the reader with different Lovecraftian connections, but Neonomicon brings it to the forefront, with the agents making the connections between the stories and the investigation. In fact, they use the stories to help them investigate the case. That becomes the central point of the story, that Lovecraft didn’t invent these creatures for his stories; instead he was inspired by real events. This isn’t a new perspective in the Lovecraft mythos, but Moore carries it off pretty well.

Moore still has it, even if it’s not as strong as it was when he wrote Watchmen and From HellThe Courtyard and Neonomicon are better as a single story than two separate ones, and having them in one collection makes the most sense. I would recommend this to people who are interested in Lovecraft, but understand going in that this isn’t the kind of Lovecraft that shies away from the details. The horrors may be nameless, but they’re certainly not merely suggested.

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The Courtyard

June 2, 2016 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

courtyardThe Courtyard by Alan Moore, Jacen Burrows, and Antony Johnston

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As mentioned previously, I’ve tracked down some of Alan Moore’s more recent works to get caught up on him. I’ve been a fan of his for a while, though his later work isn’t nearly as good as his earlier stuff, but even then, his stories have a certain style and punch to them that makes it distinctive. The Courtyard is the first in a series of three collections using the Cthulhu Mythos as their center.

In The Courtyard, we meet a government agent in a world very similar to ours, though it’s significantly different. This agent is investigating three different murder cases that seem related, despite the different locations and perpetrators, and his job is to find the connection that links all of those murders. His investigation takes him to a club where he sees a band perform, and then meets a strange man from whom he purchases a drug that he thinks links all of the cases together. He discovers that he is right, but not in a way that he expects.

This is a brief graphic novel (56 pages), so the story moves quickly, and is more build-up than conclusion. Additionally, it’s lacking some of the poignant points that I’ve come to expect in Moore’s work. Instead, it seems more focused on story, but it feels like it’s incomplete. It does seem to be saying something, as Moore appropriates some thematic elements that makes it a commentary on Lovecraft himself. Lovecraft is a troublesome role model, as he was a blatant racist, and Moore makes his main character the same. The thing is, that point doesn’t go anywhere significant. It seems to be there to shock more than anything, which is disappointing when you consider Moore also wrote the classics Watchmen and V for Vendetta, which were all about making a point.

It turns out that The Courtyard is an adaptation based on a prose story Moore wrote for a Lovecraftian collection several years before. Given that the adaptation was written by someone else (Johnston) instead of Moore, I assume that the foibles of the story are due to the adaptation and not the work itself. Either that or the story was just too short to go into the level of detail that I expect from Moore.

I’m interested in seeing where the story goes from here. It’s so short that it seems to require more to fill in the blanks, which I assume will happen in Neonomicon and Providence. I’m not sure if I would recommend it at this point, given that the story is out of print and commanding some high prices on the secondary market. As it is, the minimal story doesn’t justify the prices, but if it serves as the starting point for a larger, more cohesive story in the following volumes, maybe it will be worth it. We’ll see.

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The King in Yellow

May 6, 2016 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , , )

yellowThe King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers

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Like most people, my interest in this book went up after watching the first season of True Detective. Unlike most people, I took my time in getting to it, as I downloaded this book two years ago. So (as usual), I’m a little late to this party.

What’s already known about this book is that it’s a collection of ten stories, some of which center around a novelized play titled “The King in Yellow”, which has a reputation for driving its readers insane. It’s also known that Chambers influenced a lot of future Weird fiction writers, including H.P. Lovecraft. With that kind of reputation, it’s hard not to go into this book expecting a lot out of it.

“The Repairer of Reputations” is set in the author’s future (1920), where many advances have been made to improve society. Chambers peppers the story with these advances in a glib, horrifying manner, similar to the way Jonathan Swift did in “A Modest Proposal”. The story introduces us to the play, and the suggestion that it has undue effects on its readers. It also introduces us to Hildred Castaigne, a socialite who has suffered a head injury and is now an eccentric. His situation, along with how his brother responds to him, suggests that his version of events may not be accurate, though it takes a while to catch on to this fact, forcing the reader to question all of what Hildred has told us in this story. It’s an effective piece, even if I was confused in parts of it.

“The Mask” is set in the same world as “The Repairer of Reputations”, and the play makes another appearance in the story. Here, we meet a group of friends, one of whom is a sculptor who has discovered a solution that will turn organic objects into marble, instantly. He demonstrates this with a rose, two goldfish, and a rabbit before it becomes more sinister. The motivations of one of the characters wasn’t that clear to me, though this story’s narrator was more reliable than Hildred, so I don’t think I was being played. Unless the play was part of what made the characters sick, I feel like I missed something.

The next story, “In the Court of the Dragon”, is less clear than the first two stories. The play features again, as the narrator had read it before attending a church service that goes awry. Whether or not what actually transpires is real or just imagined is questionable, and the ending is too vague for me to get a real sense of what was supposed to have happened.

“The Yellow Sign” is the fourth of the interconnected stories, giving us a little more detail about the play. The story is about a young artist and his model, both of whom stumble across the book after they have confessed their attraction to each other. It reminded me a little bit of Thinner, in that once of them has read the book, the other feels obligated to read it, too, so that she won’t suffer her fate alone.

“The Demoiselle d’Ys” isn’t about the play, and doesn’t even seem to be set in the same world as the first four stories. It’s about an American hunter lost in the French woods, and how he stumbles across a family who offers to help him. Like the preceding stories, this one is more than it seems, and Chambers does a great job of building up the atmosphere around the story, giving us small, unsettling details that prevent the reader from relaxing, even if he’ll likely figure out what’s going before the story ends.

“The Prophets’ Paradise” follows, and is less a story than a collection of prose poems. There are eight vignettes that make up this story, and all told the entire piece is about nine pages long.

The following story, “Street of the Four Winds”, is another shorter story, this time about an artist who befriends a stray cat. He discovers the cat’s owner, and returns the cat to her, but what he finds there is, of course, a little unusual. It had an appropriately chilling ending. This marks the first of the last four stories set in France and featuring artists.

“Street of the First Shell” takes us back to the longer stories, as the last three stories in the book make up over half of the book’s length. It doesn’t have anything to do with the nameless horrors of the preceding stories; instead, it’s about the horrors of war. It had an emotional ending, since Chambers focused on the characters surrounding the war, but the descriptions of war felt rather clinical. I wasn’t expecting splatterpunk, but it felt more like a summary of events than anything else.

The next story is “Street of Our Lady of the Fields”, and is about a naive American in Paris who falls for (I believe) a prostitute. It’s a gentle story, out of place against the preceding stories, but it highlights Chambers’ skills at characterization and setting. I wasn’t expecting a story from the 19th Century to feel modern in those aspects, but parts of it felt like it could have come from a story written just this year.

The final story, “Rue Barée”, is another story about artists in Paris, and also about love. It came as no surprise to me as I was doing research to find that Chambers himself studied art in Paris before writing this collection. What did surprise me was the subtle nod to the first story in the collection.

I raced through the first few stories, and then stalled out during the last four. Finally, I made myself finish the collection so I could move on to something else. Chambers definitely had the skills for telling a good story and engaging the reader, and I have an appreciation for him as a writer. I was also surprised at the wit he displayed, as evidenced here:

“… but now let me present you to two of the sights of Paris, Mr. Richard Elliot and Mr. Stanley Rowden.”

The “sights” looked amiable, and took vermouth.

Still, folks coming across this collection based on the otherworldly flavor of True Detectives would be better off skipping the last three stories. They’re good, but they’re lengthy, and have no hint of the weird that readers would be looking for.

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Man with No Name

April 7, 2016 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

nanashiMan with No Name by Laird Barron

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Did I really say just a few days ago that Barron’s style felt unnatural and stilted? What was wrong with me? Was I having a bad day, or was I just reluctant to get into the story? Maybe I was so hung up on the comparisons to Ligotti I’ve read, I was expecting the narrative to be that obtuse. Regardless, I found Man with No Name to flow so naturally that it didn’t even feel like I was reading.

The story is set in Japan, and focuses on a group of gangsters who are settling a beef they have with a retired wrestler. Nanami, the titular man with no name, is one of those gangsters, and the story is told from his perspective. At first, the story seems as if it will be an unassuming one, since the first half of the story is just about the gangsters and the wrestler. We see them pick him up, take him someplace, and along the way they talk about different things. The wrestler and Nanashi form a minor bond, and there’s a small moment that hints at the weirdness that’s ahead, but it’s innocuous enough that it could just be a thematic moment. Knowing the author’s repertoire, though, the reader should recognize it for what it portends, and pick up on the atmosphere. Because once the story enters the second half, weirdness abounds.

Barron does an exceptional job starting this story. He sets up the tone, characters, setting, atmosphere, and plot in just a matter of pages, and then draws the story out with such precision that it makes the whole thing look effortless. It was so easy to identify with his characters, as protagonists and antagonists, and I wish I could tell you why. I’ve read enough books where the characterization is flat and uninspired, and so many where the characters feel realized, that I wish I could break down what it takes to make a character vivid like this.

One of my biggest issues with weird fiction is that it sometimes gets so complicated and involved that I have a hard time following it, and I don’t get a good sense of whether the story makes any sense. Dreams feature prominently in the first half of the story, and when things get wild in the second half, I wasn’t sure if I was watching a dream or real events. Plus, with horror fiction in general, it’s important to understand the rules of the supernatural events, as it helps make the conclusion make more sense. I don’t think Barron established the rules well enough for me to accept how he concluded the story, but I’ll also admit that my inexperience with weird fiction could be working against me here.

I read the ebook edition of this novella, and it included a bonus story titled “Blood & Stardust”. It’s Barron’s take on a Frankenstein story, featuring a female character in the Igor role. The worst thing about it is I kept picturing Sheegor from Psychonauts as the narrator, but I can’t really blame the author for that. The story is touching, while also being disturbing. That’s not an easy feat.

I didn’t like Man with No Name as much as I did X’s for Eyes, but not so much that I wouldn’t explore more of Barron’s work. His style and voice are refreshing, and he definitely has the skills to bring a good story to the page. If nothing else, this novella is worth it to read the first half to see just how well Barron can tell a tale.

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X’s for Eyes

April 5, 2016 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , , )

eyesX’s for Eyes by Laird Barron

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I’m a bit late to the Laird Barron party. I’d heard plenty about him from various sources, but kept putting him off. I saw that most of his output is short stories, and I’m more interested in novels than short stories at this time. I also saw that he was being compared to Thomas Ligotti, a writer I can respect, but don’t enjoy all that much. Still, when I saw this novella on sale for $2.00, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see what all the talk was about.

It’s difficult to place this story. It’s about two brothers who are poised to inherit a tremendous, successful aerospace company, and live the lavish lifestyle that comes to the young rich. They’re much younger than one would expect, which is in itself a little strange, but their adventure in this story begins when a satellite crashes near them during a meteor shower. Investigation reveals that this is a satellite their company will be launching next week, and it shows signs of having been in space for hundreds of years.

I had a more difficult time than usual to get into the story. Barron’s style feels a little unnatural, a little stilted, but it’s something I grew accustomed to fairly quickly, and once I had a handle on his style, the story flew by. By the same token, Barron’s story is unnatural and a little stilted, so the narrative fits the story. Despite the story being set in the 1950s, and falling solidly into the Eldritch style of fiction that sometimes demands a more archaic narrative style, the language feels modern. It helps that the technology of this 1950s Earth is much more advanced than what we have now in the 2010s, but neither does the story feel like it’s happening right now. It’s a skillful balance of story, language, and setting.

I’ve read that this story is a bit different from Barron’s other stories — most people describe it as “fun” (and I would agree with that), which is apparently not Barron’s usual style — but it’s very well written and engaging. It captures an atmosphere that’s reminiscent of weird fiction, without it being a strictly weird story. I mean, don’t get me wrong — this is a weird story, but it’s not quite on the level of Machen or Lovecraft. It has a style all its own.

I’m glad I read this novella, since it encourages me to read more by this author. I’ll be interested in seeing what he can do with a full-blown weird fiction story, but if X’s for Eyes is any indication, it should be good.

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Lovecraft Country

March 23, 2016 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

lovecraftLovecraft Country by Matt Ruff

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It’s a new Matt Ruff novel! This is a bit of an event for me. They tend to come out about once every 5-7 years, but they’re always interesting and thoughtful. I’m less concerned about an author’s frequency of writing as much as I am the quality of it, and when someone like Ruff has proved himself as a quality writer, I’m all about reading his next book.

I didn’t do much research into Lovecraft Country before I read it (Ruff is one of those “Read it immediately, no questions asked” authors for me, in case you hadn’t figured that out), so I was surprised to find that it was more a collected series of short stories and novellas than it was a strict novel. It’s fine, but I was looking forward to a full novel.

On the bright side, Ruff is a gifted, talented author, and the individual stories in Lovecraft Country come together to form a larger story, one of a family in the 1950s Jim Crow-era United States fighting against a wizard who wants to use their family to help him achieve his own goals. In Ruff’s novel, “wizard” means someone who has mastered the use of magic, but it’s also a sign of how clever he is with the story, since that’s also the title of the leader of the KKK.

Ruff balances the stories between the vast, unnameable horrors that Lovecraft created, and the terrible, prejudiced horrors that Blacks endured during the Jim Crow era. Even when the stories are primarily about the Lovecraftian horrors, Ruff makes them about the racism, and it’s a perfect blend of story and meaning. I mean, check out the cover — those white figures at the bottom could be taken as ghosts, but in reality, they’re actual people wearing sheets. Ruff takes that dichotomy and applies it toward his stories, as well, most notably near the end of the book when one character warns the rest that they will have to be on a constant lookout for danger for the rest of their lives, which causes the other characters to laugh, saying, essentially “That’s no different than every other day of our lives.”

It’s also interesting to note that Ruff sets this novel of racism against the backdrop of a mythology created by someone who was, himself, pretty racist. He doesn’t offer any apologies, directly or indirectly, but there’s an obvious, ironic tip of his hat to Lovecraft in his story.

The story works very well, as fiction as well as thinkpiece, which is normal for Ruff. I’d recommend this to anyone who likes supernatural or historical fiction, though it’s probably geared more to the former group than the latter. Still, anyone interested in a story told from the perspective of a black family in Jim Crow-era United States would find a lot to like here.

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