Friday, September 12, 2014

Stephen King, Insomnia (1994)

Signet, 1995
King, Stephen, Insomnia, NY: Viking, 15 September 1994
___________, Insomnia, NY: Signet, September 1995 (my copy)

Insomnia at Goodreads
Insomnia at ISFdb
Insomnia at IBList

Rating: 4/10

For more Friday's Forgotten Books, please visit Patti Abbott's blog.

Preparing for a trip to India, one offering plenty of reading time due to extended commutes, I was searching for a lengthy yet quick read, something I don't need to think about and simply doze through. During my last trip to India I was pleasantly accompanied by Peter Straub's 1982 novel Floating Dragon, and decided that this time around I would carry something similar. I hemmed and hawed over stuff I had in a box of horror novels, and considered Straub's Mr. X (1999), Robert McCammon's Stinger (1988) and a couple of others I can't now recall. Settling on Insomnia was due partly on the fact that I hadn't read a King novel in a long time, and partly on the fact that my edition, found in a book sale reject pile, is completely battered, and I knew whatever I lugged around with me would receive a bit of a beating. Mr. X, also found in a reject pile, is quite pristine, and I am anal about my books. Even the cheapo paperbacks.

Insomnia is a lesser-known, little read and mostly neglected Stephen King novel. And for good reason. The novel is a plodding, generally uninteresting and often silly, over-sentimental fantasy. I often like a slow, plodding tale, but this one is padded with details that do little to serve the whole of the novel and nothing to build suspense.

Hodder & Stoughton, 1995
We are served up tension with the idea that our senior citizen heroes, Ralph Roberts and Lois Chasse, must save the world (or at least the Derry Civic Centre) within a matter of hours! (This urgency after a few hundred pages.) Pressed for time, at their wits' end, our swift heroes decide quickly to take a lovely meandering stroll through Derry toward their destination while thoughts are leisurely focused on their new abilities, like floating and becoming semi-visible, and their local haunts, like the neighbouring park where old friends play chess and argue about social matters which are related in so much detail that we forget what our purpose is and all tension is sucked dry.

(Yes, our elderly heroes develop powers as a trade-off to their sleeplessness. I won't discuss plot points so if you wish to for more story-line info, please see the myriad reviews on Goodreads.)

Characters abound by the thousands, and many are needless, barely mentioned, while some are arbitrarily done away with. One seemingly major character (I will avoid a direct spoiler here) is done away almost as an aside fairly early on, in such a way that I'm left with the impression the author just didn't know what to do with him and couldn't be bothered to re-write the first few hundred pages. Maybe he was also too bored with the work to invest in a re-read. (King has, since the book's publication, claimed not to have plotted the novel, and has also stated that a novel that is not properly plotted ends up lacking. Insomnia is in need not only of proper plotting, but some severe editing.)

The lengthy conversations between characters and the genuinely uninteresting reflections of protagonist Ralph Roberts are among the easily expendable portions, and a pared down version of Insomnia might actually have been an above average read. There are some interesting elements that could have contributed to a half-decent novel, such as the idea that the elaborate emphasis on abortion is merely a ploy for something entirely different, and though his prose falters with alarming frequency, King manages nonetheless to create a mostly vivid geography.

Speaking of abortion, the subject is approached via many points of view, and in no way objectively. It is clear who the bad guys are on the abortion issue (though personally I have no qualms for this and I doubt King cares if he's potentially alienating any anti-abortionists). He does attempt late in the novel to present us with a semi-sympathetic anti-abortionist in the form of a diner waitress, in another needless scene. It is, however, too little and too late to generate any equality among the figures on either side of the debate. Besides, she quickly falters to become a less than likable caricature. If anything, however, King is genuinely sympathetic with the plight of battered women, and I think it is important for that reality to be presented in mainstream fiction.

Hodder, 2008
There is a cautionary lesson less than subtly embedded into King's arguments on spousal abuse and its consequences. Throughout the novel women ill-treated by men have an instinctive trust of other women and an instinctive distrust of all men. Our male hero Roberts reflects on this several times, again slowing the work, and is disapproving of this trust/mistrust issue. Roberts comes across here as naive, since of course battered women would instinctively mistrust all men they do not know, just as a battered animal would mistrust all humans as a result of being battered by one, just as all men would instinctively distrust women (or relationships with women) if in any severely way wronged by one. Any major traumatic event leads to fear, regardless of gender, race or one's role in the animal kingdom. Despite this logic King pursues his argument, and the women's shelter is infiltrated by a women as a result of the natural trust they share with all women. This character is mentioned shortly before the infiltration scene as a danger to Roberts, and then brings about the downfall of the shelter; she is clearly mentioned only to bring about this scene and only to bring about the argument that battered women should not have instinctive responses to strangers as a result of their gender. Perhaps that is so, but King is being punitive, less interested in exploring the nature of the mistrust, that the base human survival instinct is to protect oneself in areas where one has experienced danger, particularly when that danger is life-threatening.

Tossed into this mish-mash of a novel are some glaring errors. In 1992 Ed Deepnau is thirty-two years old while his wife Helen is thirty (p. 169), yet they kept all the vinyl records they purchased back in the 1960s (p. 84). What a thing for toddlers to do with their allowance. Later, Roberts receives a visual of May Locher's death, and there is a "companion" stabbed to death beside the old lady's death. What of this? Are we deliberately being misled to believe the culprits are cold-blooded killers by the visual aid of a bloodied corpse, a corpse that does not actually exist? Or is this part of King's lack of plotting, and he forgot about this moment entirely as he continued winging the novel on a whim. Shame on you Mr. King!

Luitingh-Sijthoff, 1994
Insomnia does appear to serve a minor purpose: to thread the ties of King's fictional universe. References to both the Dark Tower series and his far better lengthy novel It are splattered throughout. I haven't read any of the Dark Tower books but I get the gist of some of what it going on. On the other hand I have read and enjoyed It. I do not believe Insomnia is in any way improved by these references, nor do I believe these references improve the other works. It has been argued that some of King's obviously weaker works are artificially inseminated with references to his superior works, and I would not be surprised to learn that this is the case, at least with Insomnia . I haven't read enough of his novels to have a full understanding of his mythos, and (because life is short) I have stuck to those works that have received general praise, such as It, Misery, 'Salem's Lot, The Stand and The Shining. Reading Insomnia was a fluke travel decision, as was the unbearably awful Dean R. Koontz novel, Twilight Eyes.

For covers, that first Viking edition at the bottom is mirrored by two opposing coloured prints. I'm not sure if the two flip-coloured prints were released simultaneously, the way those for Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell were ten years later in 2004. I also don't see a significance to the two versions the way I assume there is one for the black and white of Clarke's work. I do like the first paperback edition, that of Signet (1995) at the top; with more detail and colour, this one evokes more mystery. There have been many covers and reprints, a surprising amount (but I guess it is Stephen King), and many of them quite good. The ghostly and full of implication Hodder & Stoughton pillow corpse and the simplistic death referential Hodder reprint from 2008 are both vastly different and quite good, though the second having a different significance to one who has read it, and is hence exclusive of the non-reader. But I'm partial to the cartoonish Dutch version on the left, from Luitingh-Sijthoff, translated by Eny van Gelder (1994).

Viking, 1994 (?)
Viking, 1994

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

There Was Once a Place: Stories from the Fiction Desk 7

There Was Once a Place: Stories from the Fiction Desk 7, edited by Rob Redman, The Fiction Desk, 2014. 148 pages

The Fiction Desk website
There Was Once a Place at Goodreads
Review of The Fiction Desk 6: New Ghost Stories

Overall Rating: 7/10

The latest issue of The Fiction Desk features this year's flash fiction competition winner and runners-up, tossed in with some fine short stories. As I mentioned in my review of TFD5: Because of What Happened, I am not a fan of flash fiction, yet again those selected here are worthy reads, and among the shortlisted entries, I completely agree with the selection that received the honour of "best": Jo Gatford's "Bing Bong."

My preferred stories from TFD7 include Melissa Goode's "Exile," which I would vote as the issue's top story, followed by some strong genre entries: Alex Clark's "The Stamp Works," Edmund Krikorian's "Santa Maria" and Chris Fryer's "The Loop."

I Say Papaya, You Say Pawpaw by Mike Scott Thomson     6/10
The once owner of a now defunct grocery store is forced to seek work at the large chain that helped close his own shop. Here he must contend with the faceless aspects of consumerism, at both the client and management ends. A good story, though the ending doesn't address the issue of corporate take-over, unless the point is simply that big bad companies are helmed by normal folk. Or perhaps without being aware of it, he has been assimilated into the mass commercial machine and the individualism of small business is no longer of import. Perhaps we're being told that the big chain is the opium of the little guy?

Thomson is the author of "Me, Robot," which appeared in TFD4: Crying Just Like Anybody.

Dan and the Dead Boy by Mark Taylor     6/10
A man tries to come to terms with living with a dead teenager's liver, guilt-ridden by allowing his own youth to pass by. The story features good dialogue and humour.

Little Bird Story by James Collett     5/10
Flash fiction featuring a man at a bus shelter and a stunned bird that is, ultimately, a reflection of himself. Collett also wrote "The Clever Skeleton," another shortlisted flash that appeared in TFD5: Because of What Happened.

Constructing an Exit by Peter Clark     5/10
This second person narrative goes on for too long, so that the momentum it builds quite nicely ends up falling in on itself.

Misson to Mars: An A-Z Guide by Sarah Evans     7/10
The story of a "reality-tv" survival series set on Mars and the unseen and uncaring audience that leaves them to perish is told via an alpha-narrative (as in alphabetical). The result is both interesting and effective, and the detached third person "we" tone works particularly well.

Throughout the anthology the story's title is spelled "Misson," while on the TFD website it's "Mission." I think the print copy erred. The story is among the flash contenders, and to me a close second choice. Sarah Evans is the author of the the fine story "Stuck" that appears in Unthology 2. For an article of Ms. Evans's process is launching "Mission to Mars," please click over to this TFD page.

Santa Maria by Edmund Krikorian     7/10
Future science fiction tales that appear in serious literary journals tend be dark and fatalistic, yet despite its opening set in that direction, Krikorian's "Santa Maria" switches gears and offers hope in a way that we forget the story is science fiction. Man's state of affairs remains bleak, but there is hope in the unchanging facets of humanity. The gear-switching is effective, not at all jarring, and both moods work well.

Colouring In by Cindy George     6/10
Another shortlisted flash piece, this time with a good concept. The story revolves around the idea that every child, no matter how unimpressive, should be recognized for something they are good at no matter how trivial that something appears. George was voted by her peers as the author containing the best story in TFD5: Because of What Happened.

Badass by Die Booth     6/10
Shortlisted flash. A simple story of a stereotype is surprisingly good, genuinely sympathetic. Booth is the author of "Phantoms" which appears in TFD4: Crying Just Like Anybody, and co-editor if Re-Vamp.

The Guy in the Bear Suit by Dan Purdue     6/10
Third flash in a row is a second person tale of paranoia and a dark secret buried in childhood.

The Stamp Works by Alex Clark     7/10
An industrial archaeologist is hired to map out an unused mining compound for a company hoping to revive it, and immediately some odd occurrences come to play. Ms. Clark's story is apparently her first published, and it's quite good, with a genuinely unsettling and well detailed set, a good suspenseful story and a believable narrator. I would argue some of the end is perhaps over-explained and over-sentimental, but I wouldn't argue too hard. For her take on the story, please visit this page.

Exile by Melissa Goode     7/10
The tension in this one is excellent, both in the situation and in Melissa Goode's approach. A woman has come to meet a former lover, someone she was involved with for an extended period while he was married and his son was quite young. The notion of exile permeates the story, as the former lovers have been in exile from each other, the man is living in solitary exile, the woman is exiled from her mores. What works so well is that despite our own proper moral viewpoints, or so we pretend, we do understand and sympathize nonetheless with these two less than exemplary individuals. My favourite entry in TFD7.

The Loop by Chris Fryer     7/10
I like ideas of loops, and though Fryer's story is not the most original, and because of its nature the resolution or lack thereof is inevitable, the story is well constructed and a good read. The structure around different characters and that first person plural voice works effectively, as does the less than likeable genius that generates this particular loop. Also, I like the double words words.

Loss Angina by Nik Perring     6/10
A man shaves his lips off and is troubled when no one seems to notice. Motivated by a break-up, the character is inherently self-centred as his grief takes a back seat to the fact that no one notices his the consequences of his pain. Though not quite Perring's idea, I suspect; he appears more interested in the notion that we are all openly scarred, but what I like here is that the character's own injury (self-inflicted despite the result of someone's departure) has him transfixed, and he is hence unable to see the wounds of others.

Bing Bong by Jo Gatford     7/10
A mother and son are at the dentist's, and the son, with a peculiar affinity to sound, needs desperately to hear the chime that calls for the next patient. A genuinely touching bit of writing, it deserves its prize for "best" flash fiction.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Peter Haining, Space Movies (1995)

Haining, Peter, editor, Space Movies, London: Severn House, 1995
_____, Space Movies, London: Pan Books, 1995
_____, Classic Science Fiction, London: Pan Books, 1998

Space Movies at ISFdb
Space Movies at Goodreads
Space Movies at IBList

For other Friday's Forgotten Books, please visit Patti Abbott's blog.

Overall Rating: 7/10

Of the two titles the anthology has appeared under, Space Movies is by far the most appropriate. Haining's focus in both the selections and the introductory material is on film, more specifically on special effects, and not on the related literature. While the anthology collects a few short stories that have been adapted to the big screen, it also contains some "fictionalizations" of scripts for both film and television, as well as a script treatment. There is an introduction by Haining, "The Fiction of Possibilities," that discusses the early evolution of special effects, and each story has its own mini intro, focusing primarily on the film the selection is highlighting. The introductions are interesting though not revolutionary.

Unfortunately what the book gains in its unconventional material and interest it loses in overall sloppyness. There are far too many typos throughout the book, including character names (Parkette in "The Lawnmower Man" is at one point Parkett, whereas Bierce in "The Unreal McCoy" is also Beirce).

There is also fault with both titles: Space Movies and Classic Science Fiction. For one not all the movies are set in space, and for another not all are science fiction. The last entries, those by King and Barker, are both horror fantasy, supernatural tales that have absolutely no science fiction elements, and while the film linked to the King story is certainly science fiction, the film linked to Barker's story certainly is not.

Three of the stories here are re-reads for me and all three hold up well: Clark's "The Sentinel," Dick's "We Can Remember it for You Wholesale" and King's "The Lawnmower Man." My favourite new reads are Barker's "The Forgotten" and Moore's "The Lot," and along with Dick these make up my preferred three stories in an interesting though far from fully achieved anthology.

Like many famous science fiction films, the book had a sequel, as Space Movies was followed a year later by Space Movies II. The two anthologies were combined by Carroll & Graf in 1999 under the title Vintage Science Fiction.

extract from Rocket Ship Galileo by Robert A. Heinlein     5/10
Destination Moon directed by Irving Pichel, produced by George Pal (1950)

This extract from Heinlein's novel does not stand on its own. The older leader appears unnecessarily bitter toward his youthful comrades, though I haven't read the novel and am taking it in context of what I am being given. The 1940s vision of the moon is laughable, but more amusing than irritating. The movie Destination Moon was a big achievement for its time and a cinematic event, and that and the use of Heinlein's name are likely the main reasons the excerpt was selected for inclusion in the anthology. The film, incidentally, was only co-scripted by Heinlein, along with Alford Van Ronkel and James O'Hanlon.

The Meteor by Ray Bradbury     5/10
It Came from Outer Space directed by Jack Arnold, Produced by William Alland 

According to Haining, this piece is a treatment of the script by Ray Bradbury, but it reads like a straightforward novelization (or story-ization) of the movie, perhaps for this anthology, perhaps even ghosted by some unknown (Haining?). While I enjoyed the movie, this treatment does not read well; it is dry and completely removed from any of the film's spirit. It is a serviceable play-by-play, with less independent inventiveness than the James Blish adaptation of Star Trek's "The Real McCoy," which will be discussed later.

The Conquest of Space by Werner von Braun     6/10
The Conquest of Space directed by Byron Haskin, produced by George Pal (1955)

Like Sir (or Saint) Thomas More's Utopia, Braun's work is a pretend story that is merely framing views on a utopia-like society. Though the narrative begins with a fair amount of suspense, all elements of tension are removed early. Story-line is replaced by a primarily descriptive narrative of an advanced society that has lost its sense of adventure and need for exploration, presented as an antithesis to the youthful human race, whose desire for exploration is venturing into the new, exciting (and possible) realm of space travel. The Mars of 1955 is replete with life, technology and scientific intelligence, though despite Braun's attempt at thoroughness in depicting this society in such a brief space, the reader is left to wonder about a few things, such as where they get their materials for all that infrastructure, or even for their clothing. I am not familiar with the film, but this print version is, with its lack of story, nonetheless interesting.

Lot by Ward Moore     7/10
First published in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, May 1953
Panic in the Year Zero! (1962) directed by Ray Milland, produced by Arnold Houghland and Lou Rusoff

I am not familiar with the movie, directed by actor Ray Milland who I quite like (that performance is Dial M for Murder truly elevates the film), and Haining's comments on Milland's drive to deliver a dark apocalyptic film for the early 1950s has certainly peaked my interest. Moore's short story is very effective. Well written with fine characterization and diologue, the entire piece takes place at the very beginning of a family's departure from home during a post-apocalyptic crisis, and though we don't travel too far (though we really want to), the entire future plight of that family--and humanity--is so expertly suggested by the appropriate twist at the end (or the beginning). Definitely worth a second read.

Sentinel of Eternity by Arthur C. Clark     6/10
First published in Story Fantasy, Spring 1951
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) directed and produced by Stanley Kubrick

Clarke's short story "The Sentinel" is best remembered as the originator of Kubrik's far more famous film. Yet the short story, first published seventeen years before the movie's first screening, was decently anthologized prior to being immortalized, so it would likely not have remained unforgotten in the new millennium. The story re-appeared in the popular British science fiction anthology series edited by Kingsley Amis & Robert Conquest, Spectrum III (Gollancz), as well as Damon Knight's future-themed anthology Worlds to Come (Harper & Row, 1967). Originally published by major science fiction editor Donald A. Wollheim in Story Fantasy 10 (Spring 1951), it was reprinted in the influential magazine New Worlds Science Fiction 22 (April 1954, edited by John Carnell), and in three of Clarke's own collections: Expedition to Earth (Ballantine Books, 1953), Across the Sea of Stars (Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1959) and The Nine Billion Names of God (Harcourt, Brace & World 1967). (For as complete a bibliography as is available, visit the story's ISFdb page.)

"The Sentinel" works better as an idea than a short story--it is a concept disguised as a story, with a pretend plot and character that culminate in Clarke's speculating of an advanced alien race waiting centuries for humans to evolve enough to be worthy of contact. The aliens planted a machine in a hard-to-find place on the moon as a kind of test, is absolutely fascinating, and Clarke furthers his speculation by wondering how lonely such advanced space-travelling beings must feel in the vastness of space where intelligence is a bona fide rarity.

And of course there's that incredible film.

extract from Logan's World by William F. Nolan     unread
Logan's Run directed by Michael Anderson, produced by Saul David (1976)

I skipped this extract of Logan's World, partly because I often skip extracts, and partly because I didn't much care for the novel Logan's Run (1967) by William F. Nolan and frequent Twilight Zone contributor George Clayton Johnson, though I did enjoy the somewhat silly movie. Logan's World was published a year after the movie's release, and possibly written in a rush at the success of the film. There was a third book in 1980, Logan's Search, which quickly fell out of print.

Note that Logan's Run co-author George Clayton Johnson also wrote "The Man-Trap," the first aired episode of Star Trek, which was later adapted by James Blish as "The Unreal McCoy," and included as the following story in this anthology.

The Unreal McCoy by James Blish     6/10
First published in Star Trek, Bantam Books, 1967
Star Trek: The Motion Picture directed by Robert Wise, produced by Gene Roddenberry (1979)

This is Blish's novelization of the first aired Star Trek episode "The Man Trap," tele-scripted by George Clayton Johnson. Blish was novelizing the original Star Trek series from 1967 until his death in 1975, and produced twelve volumes for Bantam. This rendition is fun and nostalgic to read, and unlike the other adaptations in the anthology, its author takes small liberties in adding to the story-line, such as internal character responses and interpretations of emotion.

We Can Remember it for You Wholesale by Philip K. Dick     8/10
First published in  the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, April 1966
Total Recall directed by Paul Verhoeven, produced by Ronald Shusett and Buzz Feitshans (1990)

Dick's story of a man's desire to visit Mars to the point of having memory implants installed in his brain holds up well nearing its half-century anniversary, and also as a re-read. The blatant coincidences are so absurdist that they are hilarious, and if you stop to think about, quite revealing on a more serious level. For one thing, humanity is eventually doomed for there is only so long you can keep a man from dying, a man whose actual life is preventing Earth's destruction. Dick's ongoing interest in the idea that one's life is not the life they have in reality lead does not grow tiresome, particularly in the vast and varied ways it can be approached.

The Lawnmower Man by Stephen King     7/10
First published in Cavalier, May 1975
The Lawnmower Man directed by Brett Leonard, Produced by Gimel Everett (1992)

"The Lawnmower Man" is zany and fun, and I still recall the first time I read it as a pre-teen, struck by its originality (as I was with much of Night Shift). The story holds up and remains fun, the character details are good in the depiction of Parkette, though the devil references are not necessary, and without them the story might even work better. Comical devil references are reminiscent in the work of earlier twentieth century genre writers like John Collier (best known for "The Chaser"), and like those lighter stories the potential dark overtones are wholly removed. Without explanation, the lawnmower bloke might have been just a little more sinister.

King makes an unfortunate oversight in the story. Parkette tells the lawnmower dude that the mowing should be quick and straightforward since the backyard has no obstructions, yet we later learn there's a birdbath in the centre of the yard. Was the grass so high it kept it hidden?

It's amusing that the anthology ties the movie to the short story since Stephen King successfully sued to have his name removed from the credits of a movie that was clearly trying to cash in on his name at the height of his career. Even without the lawsuit it is evident that the connection is fabricated; a wonder King didn't sue Haining and Severn House to boot.

The Forbidden by Clive Barker     7/10
First published in Fantasy Tales, Summer 1980
Candyman directed by Bernard Rose, Produced by Steve Golin, Alan Poul and Sigurjon Sighvatsson (1992)

A white photographer visits the slums to capture the unusual array of graffiti covering much of the foreground, and soon becomes enthralled by both landscape and the gossip of killings that, despite their severe and violent nature, have been completely ignored by media. She investigates, and as you can imagine enters not only the foreign neighbourhood of the slums, but the surreal landscape of Barker's darker notions. Very well written, it is both social commentary and mild satire, featuring dis-likeable characters, good dialogue and a strong setting. I am not familiar with the movie that displaces the story from the UK to the US, which is not necessarily an issue since sadly such a story could be effectively told through much of the western world.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

George C. Chesbro, Shadow of a Broken Man (1977)

Chesbro, George C., Shadow of a Broken Man, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1977
Simon & Schuster, 1977
_____, Shadow of a Broken ManNew York: Signet, 1981
_____, Shadow of a Broken Man, London: Severn House, 1981
_____, Shadow of a Broken ManNew York: Signet (reprint), ca 1983
_____, Shadow of a Broken Man, New York: Dell, December 1987 (my edition)
_____, Shadow of a Broken Man, Apache Beach, October 1999

Shadow of a Broken Man at Goodreads
Shadow of a Broken Man at IBList

Rating: 6/10

Dell, 1987
George C. Chesbro's semi-popular dwarf private detective, lecturer and criminologist Dr. Robert Frederickson, better known as retired circus acrobat "Mongo the Magnificent," first appeared in various magazines in the early 1970s, most notably Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine and Mike Shayne's Mystery Magazine. Chesbro was fundamentally a mystery writer, but much of his work was infused with elements of the supernatural, as were the Mongo novels. AHMM was not averse to publishing mysteries that contained elements of the supernatural, and featured many mixed genre mystery stories, including a handful by Chesbro himself. The novella that was the basis for the first Mongo novel, Shadow of a Broken Man, was titled "Strange Prey" (Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, August 1970), and featured the plight of telepathic New York architect Victor Rafferty. The novella predates "Mongo," and did not feature an investigating detective of any kind, but instead pursued Rafferty's plight from agents wanting to recruit him for talents that could help transform him into a natural, undetectable super-spy.

Shadow of a Broken Man is set several years following the events of "Strange Prey." Detective Mongo is hired to find the missing architect. For those reading the novel without having read the novella, the secret to Rafferty's disappearance is one discovered alongside our detective's own investigations, while those who have read the novella are aware of many of the facts Mongo is in the process of unveiling, and there is less suspense offered to the reader. I had read "Strange Prey" a number of years ago, but was not aware of its connection to the novel, and only when I was well into the book did I realize that the elusive Victor Rafferty was the sympathetic character in Chesbro's novella, which as a pre-teen was among my favourite AHMM stories.

Severn House, 1981
Most striking between the two narratives is the perception of character. In the shorter version we read of Rafferty's experiences coping with his new powers, whereas in the novel we are quite removed from the man, and he comes across as cold and confident, not at all the sympathetic anti-hero of the earlier version. Of course the novel is set years later when Rafferty has taken on a new identity, has properly trained himself to control his powers and, most importantly, has found a purpose in life for his new, "improved" self. Moreover, this change is actually properly in tune with where Rafferty, having made a decision to take charge of his fate at the end of "Strange Prey," is expected to find himself years later. Otherwise the stories are closely connected, and the novel for most part, even in smaller details, follows the events of "Strange Prey" quite accurately.

Shadow of a Broken Man begins as a conventional mystery, as Mongo is hired by the former Mrs. Rafferty's new husband to investigate the possibility that Mr. Rafferty is still alive. Our detective follows the expected path in interviewing and investigating, and it isn't until we're quite drawn into the case that the reader becomes aware that there is a supernatural element involved, and even later as to the extent of that element. The work is quite solid and satisfying, and though I like "Strange Prey" and loved it as a kid, I do wonder how I would have responded to the novel not knowing the nature of our mysterious Rafferty; namely how I would have responded to the supernatural element and its introduction into the mystery.

One clear distinction in the novel form is the incorporation of action and violence. I mentioned that the work fuses elements of mystery and the supernatural, but the novel also interweaves elements of the thriller, as acrobatics are provided and bullets whizz by, many making their mark and leaving a bloody path of corpses. Not my thing usually, but I didn't mind it here. There was some violence in "Strange Prey," but primarily the defensive kind as Rafferty protects himself by lunging out with his mind. Chesbro does nonetheless manage to sneak in some flying bullets.

Apache Beach, 1999
One element emphasized in both versions is that of suffering and anguish of its protagonist. In "Strange Prey" Rafferty's mental torture of having no control in reading the minds of others, forcing him to keep away from others, including his wife, is at the heart of the story's premise, and what leads Rafferty to eventually be discovered by the government. In Shadow of a Broken Man, hero Mongo must suffer horribly at the hands of an evil Russian and his own inner strength is challenged in the process, though in this case that anguish is necessary to the plot, but since that would be a spoiler I won't go into any more detail.

Comparisons aside, the first Mongo novel is highly entertaining, competently written, and well plotted. The resolution becomes obvious and what really is going on in that climactic scene is not something the reader can't figure out as soon as the scene begins. In a sense, though we are witnessing events occurring years after "Strange Prey," the ending is essentially the same, only Rafferty himself is a different person. As far as I know there are no additional sequels or stories featuring Rafferty, as Mongo finds new supernatural mysteries to detect over the course of another nineteen years and thirteen novels.

Many a cover has Shadow of a Broken Man seen. The first edition Simon & Schuster is quite excellent, and I like both the Signet paperback reprint (ca. 1983) and the Apache Beach from 1999. I like the Dell (1987) which was a mass market series reprint, though the image of those ghostly sensual hands has no bearing on the story. Dell projects a cool, sexy Mongo, while that Severn House from 1981 is satisfied with a more emotional and reactive detective.
Signet reprint, 1983 (?)

Signet, 1978

Friday, June 13, 2014

George C. Chesbro, "Strange Prey" (1970)

Chesbro, George C., "Strange Prey," Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, August 1970
_____, Strange Prey and Other Tales of the Hunt, Apache Beach Publications, December 2004

_____, Shadow of a Broken Man, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1977

"Strange Prey" at ISFbd
"Strange Prey" at IBList

Rating: 7/10

For more Friday's Forgotten Books, please visit Evan Lewis's blog.

As a pre-teen in the late eighties I used to pick up back issues of different magazines in a neighbouring used bookshop for mere change. My favourite at the time was The Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, and I'd nab those ugly colourful browning issues from the 1960s and 1970s off the crowded shelves. The excitement whenever the little cluttered shop received another wave of those issues is fondly remembered. One reason I liked AHMM is that, other than the colourful interior artwork and the fact that I was, thanks to my mother's healthy influence, a huge fan of the director himself (who had nothing to do with the magazine outside of image and name and nepotism--his daughter Pat was involved), there was a wide range of stories collected. The magazine did not shy from stories that fused mystery with science fiction or fantasy, a feature which at that impressionable age was a welcome novelty, and I looked forward to stories from the likes of John Keefauver and Theodore Sturgeon in the AHP anthologies, and Robert Twohy and George C. Chesbro in AHMM. With Chesbro there were two stories that particularly gripped me: "Short Circuit" (AHMM, October 1971) and the novella "Strange Prey" (AHMM, August 1970).

"Strange Prey" features renowned architect Victor Rafferty, recent survivor of a terrible car accident and miraculous life-saving operation, who learns that he has the ability to read minds, and albeit with some painful difficulty, telekinetic talents. Rafferty is pursued by the government that wishes to use him as a super spy, a potential weapon against, among others, the Soviets. Rafferty, however, wants only to be left alone and to live happily with his wife Pat. At the time the story was no doubt original, whereas now it reads like a plot-line from the X-Files.

At that time this was among my favourite AHMM stories, as it featured elements of science-fiction along with suspense, a fast-paced plot, government corruption and a non-conclusive ending. Though the story holds up well enough, I wouldn't rank it today as among my favourites. Then again, my jaded adult self probably wouldn't rank most of these stories as highly as I did back in that era of innocence. I recently discovered that the story was the basis for the first of the "Mongo" books, Shadow of a Broken Man, and having read it before my "Strange Prey" re-read, am surprised to find that pretty much the entire novelette is adhered to by the novel, as detective Mongo tries to discover the mystery behind the architect's death and possible resurfacing. (I will post my review for the novel soon enough.)

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Robert Coover, Noir (2010)

Coover, Robert, Noir: A Novel, Outlook Press, 2010. 192 pp

Noir at Goodreads
Noir at IBList

Rating: 8/10

An unusual entry for Friday's Forgotten Books, Coover's short novel Noir is not only recent, but (outside of France) never garnered a large audience, left many Coover fans disappointed and mystery readers unfamiliar with Coover's approach, confused. Hopefully in time the work will garner a greater slice of the general audience, along with better appreciation. For more of Friday's Forgotten Books, please visit Patti Abbott's blog.

Robert Coover's postmodern detective novel Noir is not a parody nor a satire of the noir detective mystery, though it does contain elements of both. Instead it is an examination of the sub-genre and its relationship with the reader, proposing that the genre is a wholly artificial fabrication designed to elude even the cleverest of deductive readers.

The novel is composed entirely in the second person, and follows the "you," private investigator Philip M. Noir, during an investigation of a widow's former husband and some shady dealings in which he might have been involved. Second person is placed amid a semi-surreal narrative in all its exaggerated noirish glory, and by creating an incompetent protagonist destined to fail and refering to him as "you," Coover seems to be making the point that the reader makes a poor detective. His comment on the genre is that whatever the outcome and whatever the mystery, its plot connections are fabricated and unreal, so how is a reader to piece together something that simply is not there? "What's the connection?" the narrator asks. "No idea. Connections probably an illusion... Illusory connection." (113) The links throughout the novel that bring us from one plot point to another and toward its eventual convenient conclusion do not exist: we are brought to that conclusion via artificial craft and not deductive logic: "Some knots, like the twist your thumped brain's in now, cannot be untangled." (186) The reader is destined to fail as detective because the mystery is intertwined in such a way that no reader can piece its parts into a cohesive whole.

Moreover, the novel is filled with distractions, character delineations and back stories that are interesting, even fascinating (such as the tattooed prostitute), yet have no place in the story as a whole. The novel is filled with these sidebars, and are among the more entertaining points of the work. In any mystery distractions serve to confuse the reader, leading them on false trails and overstuffing the brain with needless detail. Coover makes light of this in his wild ramblings on underworld dealings and Noir's own absurd past experiences.

And Noir's experiences are more than just distractions.

The novel's title embodies the whole: Noir is both genre and character, and the two are expertly encapsulated in the whole. Coover brings together all the elements of classic noir from both book and film: its damsels and thugs and hard-living detective and urban sprawl, and also its language, the secondary settings from dockyards to alleys, and its filmic details with foreboding shadows and lights filtered through slats of cheap office window blinds. More than genre, Noir is character. Protagonist Philip M. Noir is such a presence that his character is elevated above the plot. We are not reading about this particular case, but rather about a man, a caricature who has faced many cases, many hardships, though in essence each one is like the other. Our detective, however, is altered from standard detective hero to substandard incompetent, and aside from its commentary on the mystery reader and the unsolvable tangled plot, the transformation makes for a great comedy.

Coover's final point, in that jumbled resolution pointing at a thousand possibilities, indicates that the solution is not inevitable, that despite plotting and character solutions are interchangeable, any possibility can be made reality. This reminds me of my disappointment as a kid when the movie Clue was released, advertising three different endings. Even at that young age I pointed out to my mother, a mystery lover, that any mystery with three possible endings can't be a good mystery since one resolution can so easily be exchanged with another. At a young age I did not realize that the three endings, aside from being a good marketing concept as different theatres advertised different endings, follows the tradition of mock mysteries heightened in the 1970s by Neil Simon's Murder by Death and The Cheap Detective, is among the main points of such a parody. Coover's work is different in that not only does it poke fun, but it even approaches its subject academically, deconstructing the flaws, twisting them inside-out, and inserting them into this great mish-mash.

Commentary and examination aside, Coover creates a novel that is fun, energetic and genuinely hilarious. His language is precise, capturing the rough-edged detective voice while managing silliness and humour. The use of familiar settings, stock character types with names like Fingers and Rats, an arch enemy police chief named Detective Blue, shady drinking holes, an office with its couch that makes up our supposed hero's bedroom, and so on, are made utterly fresh in the stew that Coover has concocted. The plot converges on a somewhat hallucinatory finale that has confused many readers, and yet is mostly clear if read closely. Readers expecting a traditional denouement should, after only a few paragraphs, understand that Coover is headed in a completely non-traditional direction, and by non-traditional in the sense of a detective novel, this essentially means that the mystery is not quite solved, not quite explained, which is understandable since the mystery itself is never quite made clear.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Patrick Modiano, Missing Person (1978)

Modiano, Patrick, Missing Person, translated by Daniel Weissbort, London: Jonathan Cape, 1980
First published as Rue des boutiques obscures, Paris, Editions Gallimard, September 1978

Missing Person at Goodreads
Missing Person at IBList

Rating: 7/10

For more Friday's Forgotten Books, please visit Patti Abbott's blog.

After eight years as assistant to Private Investigator Hutte, who is now taking his retirement, Guy Roland can undertake the investigation of his own past. Suffering from severe amnesia, Roland was once Hutte's client, named and trained by the man, and finding himself with no specific purpose, he takes on the task of discovering his identity.

Roland's past is set in occupied Paris of the 1940s, and is weighted with paranoia, persecution and an overwhelming sense of melancholy. His life is a collection of fragments that cannot form a cohesive whole, and there is no satisfying link between the man he was and the person he is now. Jumping from identity to identity, when we are finally satisfied with who he was once was, it turns out that person might also have been on a borrowed identity. Indeed, no character is fully him or herself, since in the midst of occupied Paris most people lived on false papers. Even now, in the 1960s, paranoia is still rampant, and the people Roland interviews have only vague recollections of their own pasts.

The translated title Missing Person refers to the narrator, a man in search of a missing self. The original French title, Rue des boutiques obscures, is named after a street in Rome, and a literal translation can be The Street of Gloomy Shops (or Dark Shops, etc.). Identity was a commodity in 1940s Paris as we learn that the supposed Roland of that time sold passports to foreigners stuck in the city. In the present day, however, identity is seemingly no longer in crisis, yet the city is filled with the people of that time, and Roland is stranded as he is unable to regain his original self nor take on a new one. The novel's emphasis on its urban landscape is itself handled gloomily, Modiano taking us through much of Paris on foot, pointing out its streets and dark, concrete surfaces.

Stories of amnesiacs abound, but the solid writing, atmosphere and thematic considerations makes this among the stronger ones I have encountered. The ambiguous ending is not a let-down, and we do learn at some point the tragic cause of Roland's amnesia, which is tragedy indeed. The novel it received the prestigious national Prix Goncourt prize.

Today's Casual Visits

Free Visitor Maps at