Thursday, September 20, 2018

Fritz Leiber, Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz. "Conjure Wife." Unknown Worlds, April 1943
______. Conjure Wife. Witches Three. Twayne Publishers, August 1952
______. Conjure Wife. New York: Ace, November 1977 (my edition, pictured)

Conjure Wife at ISFdb
Conjure Wife at Goodreads

Rating:     8/10

Fritz Leiber's tale of witchcraft run rampant in modern society was first published in a shorter form, in the April 1943 issue of Unknown Worlds, edited at the time by John W. Campbell, and with illustrations by Frank Kramer. Conjure Wife saw print in its entirety in 1952, as the lead-in story for the triad Witches Three, alongside stories by James Blish (There Shall Be No Darkness) and Fletcher Pratt (The Blue Star). It appeared as a stand-alone novel the following year, published by Twayne Publishers in New York.

In brief, the novel involves a small-town college professor who discovers that his wife is a practicing witch. A man of unshakable reason, he forces his devoted spouse to do away with all her charms and anything associated with witchcraft. Ever obedient, her purge has results that are entirely unexpected for our professor. Witchcraft and the competitive nature of academia are hand-in-hand in this well-regarded novel, Leiber's first.

Among the most interesting aspects of the novel is that, though the author is bound tightly to his narrator, both being intellectual and logical (Leiber was a competitive chess player, for one), it is the superstitious world that supersedes the rational. As much as we wish to believe the world functions the way that science would have us believe, it is the spells and charms that control our destiny and station in life.

Though the plot focuses primarily on how the supernatural drives our lives, the world Leiber has created is one of balance; the supernatural exists to balance out the rational. Without the rational there would be nothing deemed supernatural, as the latter would be the norm. In addition, the world is balanced by other factors touched upon in the novel, from big city glamour and debauchery to the conservatism of a small college community, to gender roles. Indeed, gender roles is among the most important elements of the novel, as men and women have clearly defined roles and are viewed apart by both society and individuals. Told through the point of view of a male rationalist, women are seen as the subjective and domestic counterparts of working men. It can therefore be read that what upsets the rational, male world order, is not the existence of the supernatural, but the reality that women are the driving forces of society. Our protagonist must, alongside with accepting that witches and their powers are real, accept that women make men's careers and are the driving forces behind the success of individuals and family.

There is a certain element of sexism in the novel, but this is a bi-product of the period, and not the result of misogyny. Leiber was specific with his plotting and writing, and despite a male narrator stating that women are largely irrational, this is an element of plot and character and not a comment by the author, as by the end of the book the reader understands that it is the woman who succeeds in overcoming all the challenges faced by the male narrator, both his academic and supernatural challenges. By the end of the novel, the husband plays the role that the wife has single-handedly devised in order to defeat the evil influences in their lives. During the climactic sequence it is she who is at the forefront of the action, battling the other wives, whereas he is standing well behind her, like a bodyguard watching attentively. The juxtaposition of the novel's opening chapters against this scene is worthy of a close look, as it is clear the husband has consciously given up the role of master of the house which he so firmly and rationally acted on when forcing his wife to do away with her superstitions.

Rather than being sexist, the novel is quite progressive.

For more of this week's Friday's Forgotten Books, please visit Patty Abbott's blog.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

John Saul, Asylum (1997)

Saul, John. Asylum. New York: Fawcett Crest, June 1997.

The Stereoscope at Goodreads
The Stereoscope at ISFdb

Part One: The Doll
Part Two: The Locket
Part Three: The Dragon's Flame
Part Four: The Handkerchief
Part Five: The Stereoscope

Rating:     4/10

And the hexalogy closes with a whimper. The final book of Saul's Blackstone Chronicles completes the serialized work as expected, since throughout the series there has been only one logical suspect behind the distribution of the asylum artifacts. I did not mind the explanation and can even forgive the sickeningly overt sentimental closure as it is in keeping with the rest of the text, but there is an immense flaw in this final entry that I cannot overlook.

The revelatory explanation for the strange events that have occurred in the town of Blackstone is altogether rational, and yet the events themselves are depicted as being supernatural. Therefore, the explanation contradicts the events they are attempting to explain.

For further explanation, here be spoilers:

The overarching plot deals with a number of objects mysteriously delivered to residents of Blackstone, and each of these objects leads to the downfall of the recipient and his or her family. Some of these objects, the doll and the locket, result in a kind of possession of a family member, whereas the handkerchief and the stereoscope cause characters to experience vivid hallucinations. The possession of these objects is the direct link to the downfall of the recipients, therefore there is a supernatural element at work, enabling these objects to psychologically disrupt the otherwise mentally stable victims. The only other alternative is to accept a series of incredible coincidences. As in, the people who received these objects, all five of them, just happened to go nuts shortly after coming into their possession.

There is nothing supernatural about the items that were distributed, nor about the person distributing them, and yet the presence of these objects resulted in supernatural occurrences. Perhaps if Saul had created a universe in which unusual occurrences are commonplace, we can buy these events. Instead, his world of small town life is too realistic and rational, as he depicts financial audits and traditional community history and relationships. This world is as real as our own, and we are nonetheless expected to believe that otherworldly events can enter this all-too-rational universe.

And now that my article is done I will go teleport to the park.

For more of this week's Friday's Forgotten Books, simply link to them telepathically. Or visit Todd Mason's blog.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

John Saul, The Stereoscope (1997)

Saul, John. Day of Reckoning: The Stereoscope. New York: Fawcett Crest, June 1997.

The Stereoscope at Goodreads
The Stereoscope at ISFdb

Part One: The Doll
Part Two: The Locket
Part Three: The Dragon's Flame
Part Four: The Handkerchief

Rating:     6/10

So far the strongest entry of the series. Despite some suspense fiction cliches, Part Five of John Saul's serialized The Blackstone Chronicles is better paced and more focused than the previous books. It is through the focused narrative of this part that I became conscious that the presence of the mysterious, evil figure is distracting, adding little to the narrative, and actually decreasing the mystery element of the work as a whole, and I wonder what kind of read we would have if the scenes with the figure were excised.

Plot-wise, the main focus is on Bill McGuire, who unknowingly takes the cursed gift of a stereoscope into his home. His family is quickly (and forcefully) set up as ultra loving, with overly supportive wife Bonnie and sweet 'n innocent daughter Amy, along with the over-sized loving puppy. (Yes, yes, we can immediately foretell the fate of the beloved family pet.)

Side plots feature Oliver Metcalf learning more about his deceased twin sister's death, and on his wish to exorcise the demons of his past. Whereas Rebecca has been kidnapped and locked away in a cold room of the asylum. As these segments are brief and well interspersed, they come across as more effective than the sub-plots in previous volumes, and do not interfere with the main plot.

This level of focus should have been achieved by part four, since by then the formula of these little books have become too predictable and tired, and thereby part four comes across as the weakest; I for one hurried through its pages and paused before picking up "The Stereoscope." The denouement of "The Stereoscope" is, with slight variation, essentially the same as each predecessor, but does, with its elevated structure, act as a better precursor to the final volume than any of the previous books.

For more Friday;s Forgotten Books, please visit Todd Mason's blog.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

John Saul, The Handkerchief (1997)

Saul, John. The Handkerchief. New York: Fawcett Crest, April 1997.

The Handkerchief at ISFdb
The Handkerchief at Goodreads

For Part One of the series: The Doll
For Part Two of the series: The Locket
For Part Three of the series: The Dragon's Flame

Rating:     5/10

The fourth part of John Saul's serially published The Blackstone Chronicles focuses on a handkerchief. If italicized prologues are to be believed, this cursed item is embroidered with a fancy R by an asylum patient who deliriously believes she is living at society's upper social echelons. Drama ensues, which includes the less-than-pleasant nurse using the handkerchief to wipe spaghetti sauce (I'm assuming tomato) from her uniform, and, tossed in for good measure, some old asylum water therapy/torture.

Enter our buddy Oliver Metcalf, editor of Blackstone's local paper, The Chronicle. Arriving at the office he learns from his assistant that local gossip Edna Burnham has been spreading theories related to the recent trend of violent deaths. Burnham connects the three deaths to the mysterious gifts each household received shortly before tragedy struck, and in addition links it all back to the asylum. Editor Metcalf refuses to believe there is any connection, is not aware of any mysterious gifts, and generally scoffs at the woman's ideas. Yet the reader, aware of the all-too-obvious connections, is left to wonder if perhaps town gossip Burnham should depose Metcalf and serve as The Chronicle's, and Blackstone's, top investigative reporter.

Following her aunt's death in Part Two, Rebecca is taken in by librarian Germaine Wagner and her wheelchair bound mother, "Miss Clara." As I discussed in my review of "The Dragon's Flame," Germain is only one of two negative characters in the series (this was before we were introduced to Clara), both being unmarried women. In her previous home Rebecca was likened to Carrie, whereas here she is treated like Cinderella, with Prince Oliver delivering the cursed handkerchief as though it were a glass slipper. Germaine usurps the gift, passing it onto her mother who seems to know something of its history. Germaine takes it back and begins to hallucinate, and the predictable occurs.

Our side plots include Oliver rummaging through old asylum case files, and bankers & contractors & lawyers (Bill McGuire and Ed Becker and a woman, all interchangeable) visiting the asylum to help assure themselves the investment is sound. There Becker comes across a chest of drawers he decides to purchase (a presentiment of things to come?).

Part Four is more of the same. It reads like filler in that nothing new is discovered, only some minor details regarding Oliver's father which we already suspected. Both build-up of the main plot and its drawn out climactic sequence are familiar. Saul tries to escalate suspense by pairing the climax alongside Olliver's realizations about his father, but since the former is predictable and the latter delivers no surprises nor conclusions, the effect is flat and I found myself rushing through it all. I expect the fifth book to be a similar filler-type entry, with part six being the most interesting, at least of the second half of the series.

Finally, amid all this drama, the most intriguing mystery is left unsolved. When Germaine takes the handkerchief from Rebecca, she notices it is "spotless and neatly pressed." (29) Now, how did the asylum staff get all that spaghetti sauce out of the fabric?

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

Friday, June 15, 2018

Casual Shorts: Michael Blumlein, Keeping House (1989)

Blumlein, Michael. "Keeping House." The Brains of Rats. Scream Press, September 1990. 89-100
______. I Shudder at Your Touch. Ed. Michele Slung. New York: ROC, May 1991. 86-96

Rating:     7.5/10

Following her appointment as Associate Professor of Classics at the nearby university, a woman, along with her husband and their baby daughter, move into their new home. Rather than taking on the challenges of the shabby, broken down yet affordable house on the block, they settle on the more costly, yet renovated house beside it. What is quickly set up as a ghost story becomes something entirely difficult, relying on the psychological rather than the paranormal to illustrate an intelligent and hard-working woman's mental decline.

The story toys a little with the conventions of haunted house stories, referencing some of its tropes, like unpleasant scents and mirrors that reflect things that don't appear to be present at all, but instead of being a ghost story, it is far more akin to Charlotte Perkins Gilman's excellent psychological tale of deterioration, "The Yellow Wallpaper" (1892). Like Gilman, "Keeping House" is told through the point of view of a new mother in a new environment who begins to believe that her surroundings are coming alive. Rather than believing someone is living trapped in the wall or its paper, Blumlein's unnamed heroine believes that threatening spirits are trying to infiltrate her home, entering from the adjacent, broken down eyesore of a house she chose not to purchase. To prevent this threat from destroying home and family, she does battle via an obsessive cleaning/cleansing routine.

Though the story can arguably be read ambiguously, there is enough evidence in the text to indicate that the visions and scents stem from the woman's overwrought mind. Possibly following postpartum, as is the case in Gilman, the un-named narrator goes through various extreme mood swings, which eventually culminate in her taking on all aspects of a family provider, and believing there is a threat attempting to pervade the house and harm the order and harmony she is struggling to maintain. She fights back by increasing the need for order and cleanliness to a dangerously obsessive degree.

Our narrator finally snaps as she begins preparations to have sex with her husband. This is the only indication in the story of any form of intimacy between them, hinting that they have not been physical sine conceiving their only child. Like her obsessive cleaning routine, her preparations for sex become ritual-like, and the story hence makes a connection between the couple's intimacy and the invading spirits, at least in the woman's mind. As she fights to prevent threats to invade her home, she is fighting to prevent her husband's invasion of her body. Following this scene we are informed that the husband is grumpy and increasingly absent due to work, though likely he is staying away from his wife in response to her increasing obsessiveness ("You are sick," he tells her), and perhaps also out of basic sexual frustration. The consequence is simply that mother-wife, as in Gilman, becomes increasingly isolated in response to the husband's unsympathetic assessment of her condition.

Thematically the story can be read as a modern woman struggling with the pressures of a career and balancing the traditional mother and wife requirements of home. Husband is absent from much of the story as he is struggling at a new job, or so the narrator presumes, and in a sense re-living the postpartum environment as mother is trapped at home with baby. Whatever we wish to read behind the woman's deterioration, it is the process itself that is the focus of the story. Again as with Gilman, our heroine is at the outset of the story already in her isolated state at home, though Blumlein's narrator does have the freedom of escape as she goes to work. The latter portion of the story, however, takes place during the summer, and as a teacher she drops her summer work option and remains at home to battle the demons behind the walls. The ending lacks the pure creepiness of Gilman's final scene, but does give us quietly depressing final act of cutting oneself off entirely from the world that surrounds.

"Keeping House" has evidently only been published in Blumlein's first short story collection The Brains of Rats (1989), and only reprinted in the Michele Slung-edited sex-focused horror anthology I Shudder at Your Touch (1991). It deserves greater exposure.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Stephen King, The Revelations of 'Becka Paulson (1984)

King, Stephen. "The Revelations of 'Becka Paulson." Rolling Stone #426/427, 19 July & 2 August 1984.
______. I Shudder at Your Touch, Michele Slung, ed. New York: New American Library, May 1991.

The Revelations of 'Becka Paulson at ISFdb

Rating:     7/10

Image result for rolling stone 426/427 1984
Published during his extraordinary commercial peak in the 1980s, "The Revelations of 'Becka Paulson" is an as yet uncollected short story by Stephen King. First published in a special double summer issue of Rolling Stone magazine, The story was later incorporated into the novel The Tommyknockers (1987), in which Rebecca Paulson was a secondary character (or perhaps tertiary; I have not read the novel). Outside of a limited edition Skeleton Crew by Scream Press, it has not yet appeared in a Stephen King collection, and has only been anthologized in the highly readable Michele Slung-edited I Shudder at Your Touch. As an adapted screenplay, it was produced as an above average episode of The Outer Limits.

In the short story, a neglected and isolated housewife accidentally shoots herself in the head, and consequentially receives odd visions and, as per the title, revelations. As visions and memory begin to bind. disrupting her daily routine, her fate will certainly be locked in to how she handles this new perspective.

With all the story's quirkiness, King focuses primarily on character, to the story's benefit. 'Becka's life is controlled by a dominating masculine trinity, made up of Jesus Christ, her husband Joe, and her late father. Interestingly, her connection to all three is via some form of insurmountable distance. Her connection to Jesus is through her devotion to her religion, and she communicates with him through a photograph of Jesus as shepherd that has become animated. Her connection to her father is through her memory of his domineering ways, as he passed away years before but continues to deploy a daily influence. Finally, her husband Joe is at work during the day, and entirely absent to her when at home, preferring to play poker with his buddies or sleeping with a new co-worker. In addition, their house is located in a desolate rural setting, so that 'Becka has no immediate neighbours, and Joe must drive a ways for his job.

This is an indication that it is not only her stagnancy she is attempting to escape, but also the grasp of faulty masculine influence. She is essentially the sheep that animated Jesus bats away within the photo frame. Jesus tells her he is her saviour, and this is the point at which she listens. Through her revelations, 'Becka becomes aware of her actual situation, the unhappiness of her unfulfilling life, and as she does not have the capability for change, she opts to simply put a halt to the status quo. Without revealing the ending, it is appropriate to the story and her character, since 'Becka is not one to just pack up for the big city for fame and fortune.

The episode adapted for The Outer Limits is quite good, with a strong performance by talented Catherine O'Hara as Rebecca, who received a Gemini nomination. The episode captures the story's essence and keeps quite consistent with the source material, though replaces Jesus with a photograph of a model (portrayed by episode director Steven Weber, who also portrayed Jack Torrance in the 1997 television adaptation of King's The Shining). This change is most likely not to offend sponsors, and though it helps to eliminate that element of male dominance in her life, as a model is less effective than one's religion and its central figure, much of King's story is intact.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Joe R Lansdale, Prisoner 489 (2014)

Lansdale, Joe R. Prisoner 489. Dark Regions Press, October 2014

Dark Regions Press website
Prisoner 489 at Goodreads
Prisoner 489 at ISFdb

Rating:     6/10

As the second installment of Dark Regions Press's series of novallas by established genre authors, Dark Labyrinth, Prisoner 489 welcomed Lansdale back to folds of traditional horror. The novella takes place on a small burial island near a maximum security prison, where the executed are laid to rest. Doing time for their own misdeeds, three men live and work the island, and are faced with an unusual situation when the corpse of the latest prisoner, labeled 489, is brought to the island for burial.

The novella can be broken down into three distinct sections: the premise, the tale of Prisoner 489, and the final ensuing island chase. The strongest third of the book is the first, where we learn of the burial island and its three inhabitants. The island setting and the repetitive routine of the three occupants is so interesting that the book, what is essentially a stretched out short story, could have been further stretched out to novel-length. For the United Nations to invest so much in the burial of executed prisoners is a fascinating detail in itself, indicating that these prisoners are unique, a fact confirmed by the unnamed 489. There is a rumour that this setting is to be featured in other, forthcoming Lansdale stories, which I would look forward to. Whether this is an alternate universe or the near future is not defined, nor if this is a secret present-day reality the public is unaware of but the author has insight into. You never know.

While Lansdale does well in serving up an excellent premise and landscape, the characters who inhabit this little island are a little too generic. While being serviceable, the climactic chase scene manages to somehow diminish them a little, rather than allow them to blend into the drama. The attempt at humour during the tense moments unfortunately does not help. Despite this aside the book is a good read, and gorgeously presented in layout, and particularly with the inclusion of the excellent artwork by Santiago Caruso. Generous in number, each illustration is worth its page. In fact, the little book's entire design is sleek and attractive, adding to the reading experience. For me the physical book itself can be as valued as its contents, and in this case it even enhances the experience of reading.

This book was part of an exciting purchase made through Dark Regions Press. Along with Prisoner 489 I received Lansdale's Hot in December, the Michael Bailey edited The Library of the Dead, James Chambers's Resurrection House, Gary McMahon's Tales of the Weak and the Wounded, and a bundle of e-books.

Check out their webpage and catalog.

Testing a new map (as of 24 December 2015)