Wednesday, July 12, 2017

John Saul, An Eye for an Eye: The Doll (1997)

Saul, John. An Eye for an Eye: The Doll. New York: Ballantine Books, February 1997

The Doll at ISFdb
The Doll at Goodreads

Rating:     5/10

John Saul's The Blackstone Chronicles is a series made up of six interlinked novellas that were originally published monthly between January and June 1997. (The publication month printed in the first book is February though each installment appears to have been released the month before the printed date, according to the coming soon notices on the inside covers.) This review is restricted to Part One of that series, looking at the novella as a standalone piece, with incidental comments on the whole. Once I complete the six novellas as they were originally published, I will write an article reviewing the work as a whole.

This first novella in the series opens with introductory italicized text sharing the backstory of a boy being brought to an asylum, separated from his mother, but not from his doll. We are then gathered along with the townsfolk to witness the demolition of that asylum which for nearly a century loomed over the small New Hampshire community of Blackstone, and that will now make way for the construction of a modern commercial complex. That night a figure enters the asylum via a hole made by the ceremonial first demolition strike, and takes from its storage a doll that once belonged to an inmate.

This doll is delivered mysteriously to the house of the McGuires, Bill and the very pregnant Elizabeth, and daughter Megan immediately takes a liking to it. An unusual struggle for the doll develops between mother and daughter, which the doll seems to somehow be perpetuating. This struggle is the most interesting aspect of the book, as it keeps the story hovering between the psychological and the supernatural, but it is unfortunately under-developed and seems even incidental. This idea is a little reminiscent of Ramsay Campbell's little known but good Night of the Claw (St. Martin's Press, 1983), where the supernatural generates the psychological, and while Campbell establishes the supernatural element, Saul in his book skirts it. There is enough evidence that the doll has some kind of supernatural link, though there is no overt supernatural occurrence in the book; everything can be explained rationally. The evidence in the supernatural is the sudden change in the two characters, Elizabeth and Megan, with the appearance of the doll, highlighted by the lack of change in Bill. Perhaps Elizabeth, in her near delivery state, can accommodate such a shift in personality, but for Megan to believe that a doll is communicating telepathically with her is a stretch. There is no indication whatsoever that Megan has experienced any kind of psychological phenomena that would include hearing voices, but instead the entire family is presented as a solid, upstanding family. Elizabeth has been struggling with stresses around her pregnancy, such as the fact that this is her final chance at giving birth to another child, but these details are included for plot purposes only, since it is this pressure that leads to the community's later accepting the eventual events that I will not divulge, but that honestly are fairly predicable.

The story is not terribly original but interesting enough for its briefness. The piece is potentially creepy but the straightforward and light telling leaves it with little impact. The story reads like a young adult novel or televised horror story, with slight creepiness and no real horror. I have previously read only one work by John Saul, the novel Sleepwalk, which at the time I did not care for. Similarly that novel is equal in quality of both writing and plotting as "The Doll," in that it read like young adult fiction, and though it too contained little moments of interest, they appeared spottily throughout the book.

With "The Doll" I was more interested in the side story of the audit being conducted at the Blackstone bank, wherein the lending practices of the bank were being externally scrutinized, a practice that can have dire consequences not only on the bank itself, but on those relying on these loans for employment. This kind of reality is a far greater horror than a life-like doll, and I do hope this storyline is pursued in later segments of the series.

So far I do intend to continue reading the installments as they are quick and the community of Blackstone is interesting enough to keep my interest. Each novella is set up by an object from the asylum, with the exception of the last as it is titled "The Asylum" and hence promises to focus on the building. "The Doll" also presents us with a kind of protagonist in reporter Oliver Metcalf, as he seems to have some sort of psychic link to the building, not to mention a familial link as his father used to run the institution. This detail will likely develop throughout the books and culminate in Part 6.

For more of this week's Friday's Forgotten Books, please visit Todd Mason's blog.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Clive Barker, Books of Blood, Volume I (1984)

Barker, Clive. Books of Blood, Volume I. London: Sphere Books, November 1984

Books of Blood, Volume I at the ISFdb
Books of Blood, Volume I at Goodreads

Overall Rating:     7/10

This book not only introduced Clive Barker to the world, but also established his reputation in the realms of horror fiction--a feat for a first book publication. Stephen King's oft-quoted "the future of horror" blurb was in relation to this little book.

The first in a series of six Books of Blood, the volume includes two lightly humourous tales intermingling with three darker stories, and by far the more effective works are the ones abstaining from humour, which includes in its ranks the introductory framing piece that attempts to unite all these tales of blood.

Compared to most generic horror novels of the eighties and nineties, Barker's stories are infused with detail pertinent not only to plot but to the overarching ideas that propel the stories. The theatrical "Sex, Death and Starshine" is infused with references to Shakespeare, whereas the more complex "Pig Blood Blues" intertwines the identities of its characters with that of the detention centre in which it is set. Barker certainly placed effort in the literary aspects of the stories, and his work, at least here, is more effective than most mainstream stories that aim only to scare. The stories are accomplished and there is little surprise that he this book had an impact with professional writers of the genre. I own all six books and will certainly complete the series.

The Book of Blood     8/10
In this opening framing narrative, the dead have come to a crossroads where they can communicate with the living through the vessel of a young man. The young man, however, is a hoax, and the one with any communion with the dead is the woman scientist who believes so much in the boy.

As a framing narrative this one serves a dual purpose: it works very well also as a standalone piece. Most framing narratives come across as artificial attempts to bring disparate fictions together. Barker conceives a great concept and delivers a strong story with, despite its limited length, strong characters. The only issue with the framing narrative is that, with its grisly tone it seems to exclude the comedic stories, as they don't quite fit the mold of the book of blood as conceived in this introductory narrative.

The Midnight Meat Train     7/10
Among the more recognizable of Barker's shorter works, this story deals with a series of disappearances in the New York City subway system. The narrative of an out-of-state and alienated office clerk, disillusioned with the dream of NYC, is contrasted with that of an aging killer. The narrative flows well and the build-up is appropriately handled. The story's gritty and dark urban landscape helps to drive this story that essentially portrays life as the cogs of a major urban centre. While the characters themselves are straightforward and familiar, the story is not about these people but more about the landscape and the place of the individual within a vast urban beast of a city.

A far superior telling than the flat movie version, which alters the characters in such a way that much of the point of the original story is swept away. The cover to the left is from the limited special edition, including additional material and colour paintings by Barker, released by Dark Regions Press in 2014.

The Yattering and Jack     5/10
Like its Tales from the Darkside rendering, I didn't care too much for this one. As a disclaimer I very rarely enjoy comedy as a horror subgenre, and this one is overstated and weak. After having been duped by a woman, the devil sends a minor demon to claim the soul of the woman's excessively passive son over the Christmas holidays. The daemon must act within a set of prescribed rules in order to achieve this end, a task he is pressured to accomplish by the scarier upper echelons of hell. This story might have been more effective with a grittier tone, and the idea that perhaps Jack was less passive and more of the devilish manipulator would thereby maintain a darker aspect. Unfortunately the lightness of the piece just makes me not care enough either way.

Pig Blood Blues     7/10
This lesser-known Barker story might, aside from the introductory segment, be my preferred piece of this collection. Former police officer Neil Redman begins his new job as an instructor at Tetherdowne, a juvenile detention centre. He has left the force to make a difference in running the centre's workshop, but quickly experiences alienation from both the uptight staff and the uninterested residents. As with "The Midnight Meat Train," our protagonist is the outsider who is consumed by his new environment.

The current problem at the centre is that the residents are treating a recent runaway by the name of Henessey as a kind of saviour, and believe he is now embodied by a large pig that lives at a nearby farm. The spirit of Henessey is also believed to be persecuting the mate he had initially escaped with. Their belief that this pig is a kind of incarnation of the runaway leads to a strange kind of worship, and determines behaviour at the centre. Moreover, the kid who had originally run off with Henessey, Lacey, is marked for sacrifice, and Redman seeks to save him.

Spoilers herein. The story is essentially a bit of psychological horror rather than supernatural, and is deftly handled. We discover that the awful smell emanating from the farm belongs to the rotting corpse of the runaway that is hanging inside the sty. This bit of reveal is essentially informing us that the pig is an ordinary, albeit a large, animal, and not the incarnation of a boy who escaped the centre by taking his own life. The worship of this pig is dangerously and disturbingly misplaced, and it appears that all hope laid onto this boy, who represents a form of escape for residents and the adult staff alike, is transferred over to the first available form. Neither residents nor staff of the centre have much hope of any kind for a proper future, and the worship of this over-sized, grotesque pig is all these people have to indicate that a life away from the desolation of Tetherdowne is a possibility. In fact, an appropriate dichotomic title would be Tetherhope.

Barker employs some interesting plays with wording. The most obvious is that a policeman is a "pig" while staff and residents are respecting a literal pig. The centre is called Tetherdowne, which of course means to tie an animal down using a restraint of some kind ("tether"). We are deliberately informed that the centre is a Remand Centre for Adolescent Offenders, whereas the former police officer's name is Redman, clearly a shuffle of "remand" as the "d" is nabbed from the back and plunked into the centre... Just as Redman is plunked in to the juvenile centre.

Sex, Death and Starshine     4/10
I first encountered this story in the John Joseph Adams 2008 anthology The Living Dead (Night Shade Books), and immediately did not enjoy it. The anthology itself, though it had some fine stories, was overall underwhelming, and I thought perhaps it was the overall disappointment in the anthology that marred the story for me. However, while I was more involved at the beginning with this re-read, my interest plummeted half-way through and did not recover.

In this zombie tale, former theatrical performers usurp a stage production of William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, casting a once great, but now dead, stage star to counter the awfulness of the soap opera actress who was set to perform. Little happens in this predictable story, and though Barker infuses his text with references to the bard and his other works, it is not clever enough to make the reading enjoyable. My second reading of this piece will likely be my last, despite its appearance in a handful of zombie anthologies.

In the Hills, the Cities     7/10
A couple driving through a neglected rural part of Eastern Europe encounter the product of an odd ritual: the inhabitants of two villages strap themselves together to form two anthropomorphic colossi. I first encountered this one in the enjoyable Dennis Etchison anthology Masters of Darkness III (Tor, 1991), part of a trilogy collecting stories selected by their authors, each choosing a personal favourite. I was impressed with Barker's piece then though many of the details of the story have been overshadowed by the mesmerizing colossus itself; I enjoyed revisiting those details in this re-read.

The strains of the relationship are countered by the physical strains these village inhabitants must undergo as part of this incredible ritual. The couple experiences a routine of fighting and sex, and fall of a colossus can be the reflection of the turmoil the men experience. The fact that the couple is a pair of men does not detract from the story at all, and to me appeared incidental, though I presume Barker had reasons for creating a homosexual couple for this piece, perhaps simply to mirror the make-appearing colossi.

An odd and highly original story that was later included, appropriately, in the Ann and Jeff VanderMeer anthology The New Weird (Tachyon, 2008), which I own but have not yet had the pleasure of reading.

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

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Joe R. Lansdale, The Bottoms (2000)

Lansdale, Joe R., The Bottoms, NY: Mysterious Press, 2000.

The Bottoms at Goodreads
The Bottoms at ISFdb

Rating:     7.5/10

The Bottoms
Vintage Books (2010)
Eleven year-old Harry Crane and his little sister Thomasina "Tom" stumble upon the mutilated corpse of a black woman along the Sabine River in East Texas, 1933. The boy's farmer father, Jacob Crane, acts as the community's lawman, and through the boy's perspective we are brought into the investigation of brutal slayings amid a racially charged place and time.

Though I picked out the guilty party relatively early on, along with piecing together the mystery of the folkloric Goat Man, I nonetheless enjoyed the book tremendously. Lansdale's novel is elevated from basic mystery by its historical subject matter and, for the most part, the presentation of that subject matter.

There is a vividness to this novel that is important to its period setting, as the sights and scents of place and time come across clear and distinct. At no point did I feel that scenes had been inserted in order to deliver "local colour," as the plot was interwoven with each locale and character that steps onto the page. Nor did the novel feel at any time to be overlong or winded, so that even if Lansdale did include some pages for the sake of backdrop, he succeeded in weaving them into the overarching story-line. Perhaps because the plot is so tightly interwoven with each of the book's individual elements, much else can be forgiven. Despite this I would like to mention two points for thought.

While I enjoyed reading the characters of the novel, they are depicted with little ambiguity. It is suspect that any white person of 1933 would be so clearly one-sided in their estimation of persons of colour, since character is a product of its time, place and culture. I will stress that this issue does not detract from the novel nor did it from my reading the novel; the story precedes its presentation, and the plot is so tight that there is no need to complicate it with additional details. Regardless, those characters that are racist are full-fledged racists, which is believable, whereas those who are not racist are entirely without prejudice, which can be a little challenging. The only middle ground is offered by a minor character (when I locate my copy I will include his name here). A surprisingly sensitive portrait is given to this character whose function in the plot is clear and precise. He is trusted (practically forced) to watch over a black man who is brought in early as a suspect, and though, dim-witted as he is, he does try to do a capable job despite his obvious prejudices, which are enhanced by the fact that his daughter had relations with a man of colour, something if known publicly would be a death-call to the family. These details are not integrated into the plot and no resolution is offered, which is wise; but this detail complicates the hiding of the black man and, though the man entrusted with hiding him appears up front to be a pure racist, there are some touches that imply another side to his outlook on the situation, which I won't discuss here as it would reveal an important turn in the plot. In short, the bulk of the characters are defined with strict boundaries, as though the author were pointing at each one, saying "This one is good, we like her," or "This is a bad dude, we don't like him at all."

The other point I'd like to pause on is the representation of memory and voice. Without dalliance the reader is expected to accept that a dying man in his eighties is able to reconstruct, with an acute grasp of detail, events that occurred seven decades earlier. Collins recalls the minutest of details from conversation to observations, and has the added imaginative touch to describe his surroundings with the most visual of similes, such as the moon coming through the clouds as though it were awakening and peeking out from underneath sheets. Memory is inherently inaccurate and unreliable, and if we are to apply this reality to the narrative, we would be struggling with the idea that Crane is sharing an interpretation of events rather than the facts as he believes them to be. However, if we simply accept him at face value as a trusted narrator, we can immerse ourselves into the story.

The Bottoms.jpg
Subterranean Press (2000)
The Bottoms received the 2001 Edgar Award for novel of the year (2000). The book is is currently in pre-production for a theatrical release that was originally slated for 2017. The man attached to directing the film was the recently deceased Bill Paxton, from a screenplay by Brent Hanley, who also scripted Bill Paxton's full-length directorial debut, the enormously entertaining Frailty. Sadly we will not see the results of a second collaboration between these two, though likely the project will continue at some point with another director attached.

On a completely irrelevant side-note: I read this novel about a month or so before posting this article and could not recall Harry's family name. Checking on Goodreads I saw immediately it was Collins, so inserted that into the appropriate spots. However, it did not right with me, and taking up my copy I saw that it is actually Crane. Beware of taking data from the internet without checking a more appropriate source, such as the book itself (or perhaps this very article).

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

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Edmond Hamilton, The Horror on the Asteroid (1933)

The Horror on the Asteroid and Other Tales of Planetary Horror. London: Philip Allan, 1936
The Horror on the Asteroid and Other Tales of Planetary Horror. New Jersey: Gregg Press, June 1975

The Horror on the Asteroid and Other Tales of Planetary Horror at ISFdb
The Horror on the Asteroid and Other Tales of Planetary Horror at IBList

Overall Rating:     6/10

In the midst of the Depression, Edmond Hamilton was approached by publisher Philip Allan to put together a hardcover collection of his short stories. This was an unusual move by the British publisher, since few books made of stories gathered from the pulps were given the hardcover treatment. In fact, it would be another thirteen years before Hamilton would see his next hardcover publication: the novel The Star Kings (Frederick Fell, October 1949). Hamilton's blend of speculation and adventure was popular escapism for the time, and in the ten years from his first story publication in 1926, he had already published a vast number of works and saw print in most of the pulps.

Hamilton's popularity began shortly after his first story publication in August 1926 ("The Monster-God of Mamurth in Weird Tales), and his productivity in the next few years is impressive. His fiction was fuelled by ideas, interesting and often far-fetched premises that were brought forth most often in an adventurous setting. His stories were conventional and little effort was placed on character; instead he focused on elevating his fantasy-science premises through an energetic narrative. Most often he relied on the conventions of the period, such as using a framing narrative in which a reliable, rational and highly average third party re-tells the fantastic tale of an adventurer or mad scientist, or the Archaeological tale of lost civilizations. He included few female characters, admittedly few characters in total, and normally avoided romantic sub-plots: in this collection of six stories, only three women appear and only one is an active character while the third is the mother of the second who is only mentioned. The men are either mad scientists, mad adventurers, ambitious reporters, space men, or simply the average witness or re-layer of the incredible events. As such most of the stories read quickly, similarly, and offer little aside from the actual premise for a reader to recall post reading.

The stories presented in this anthology are each a mix of adventure and speculation. The interesting idea is weaved into a high octane plot, usually a combination of fantasy and horror more than of science fiction. The speculative ideas, based on facets such as evolution, the expanding universe and the arctic circle, have some scientific basis, but the technology and presentation help to date the publication of these works. Overall it is an interesting and somewhat enjoyable bit of pulp history, though there also exists some overwrought silliness amid the fun, and one story in particular that has over time become near enraging in its presentation.

The Horror on the Asteroid     7/10
Weird Tales, September 1933

A spaceship nearing Jupiter is struck by meteors and the survivors are forced to escape to a nearby habitable asteroid. They gather in a clearing and soon enough notice some local animal life along with a couple of other crashed vessels from Earth.Shortly after landing, the castaways begin acting aggressively and even violently, and our hero radio operator along with a female civilian passenger try to discover the fate of the passengers of the previously crashed vessels. My favourite story in the collection, there is genuine mystery here and the dated writing in this one is surprisingly enjoyable. The mysterious does become obvious to the reader early enough, but not in a disappointing way.

The voyage in the story is essentially that of a boat transposed into space, and the asteroid is essentially a deserted island that someone like Robinson Crusoe might inhabit. The crew is referred to as sailors, and the ship carries "lifeboats" fixed to its sides. Mixed in with naval jargon are "space phones" and "rocket-pistols" in order to separate it from the sea. However, since Hamilton is exploring an interesting idea pertaining to evolution, this story would not have been possible set on Earth.

The Accursed Galaxy     6/10
Astounding Stories, July 1935

An ambitious reporter and a determined scientist team up to uncover the secret of an odd asteroid that crashed near the reporter's isolated home. This story involves a far-fetched (fantastical rather than scientific) approach to the expanding universe, in that the galaxies are fleeing our own, placing our home in the centre of the universe and defying Galileo.

The Man Who Saw Everything     3/10
Wonder Stories, November 1933 as The Man With X-Ray Eyes

Yet another pairing of a determined (mad) scientist and over-eager ambitious reporter. The reporter is offered the ability to have his sight forever altered in receiving the ability to see through all non-organic matter. Our reporter quickly learns that people are selfish, and that there is a lot of suffering in this world.

I have a great issue with this story in that it promotes social ignorance: spoilers ahead. After his disillusionment when learning that politicians and upstanding community members are self-interested and fraudulent, our "hero" wanders the streets, disillusioned. He walks by a hospital and sees the wounded, by an asylum and sees the psychologically ill, by a prison where he sees the condemned, and through a poverty-stricken neighbourhood where he witnesses poverty. In addition, he discovers that his bride-to-be is with him only because she thinks she cannot do better. Then he kills himself. Perhaps the intention is simply to illustrate what a difficult society it is in which we live, amid corruption, poverty and disease, yet the conclusion indicates that the average individual is better off being unaware of this reality, and that we should not have our eyes opened to the challenges in our society and simply continue to live with blinders.

The protagonist is an ambitious and self-interested reporter, who is in essence just as bad as the corrupt politicians and businessmen and philanthropists he spies on. His motive in becoming all-seeing is to amass fortune and fame. Though it is at least partly for the love of a woman, if that love lends itself to this heightened selfishness, it is more obsession or desperation than actual love. Hamilton's choice to present this story through the point of view of such an individual helps lead to my interpretation. Had he created a more empathetic and socially conscious person, the story would promote charity and philanthropy rather than willful blindness. Moreover, you would think a reporter interested in "truth" and determined to reveal society in the form that it exists would not be so blinded to the world around him, and rather would explore that world and bring his observations to the masses. In this our "hero" fails in his profession.

In addition, the character creates a division of us & them between social and economic classes. Even our working class reporter is distinctly separated from the poverty stricken families he encounters. There is a clear division created by the author, and this avoidance of the reality in which many live in preference to an alienating us & them attitude is the story's ultimate failure.

The Earth-Brain     6/10
Weird Tales, April 1932

Using that all-too-common trope of a narration within a narration (wherein our trustworthy and rational narrator tells of a conversation with an acquaintance who takes over the first person reign to tell his own fantastic story), we learn about an expedition to the arctic pole and its tragic results. The detailed account essentially leads us to learn that the sole survivor of the expedition is being chased by earthquakes, something we piece together in the first few pages. An interesting and highly fantastical read that is entertaining despite being overly long. I admit I like tales of exploration, particularly in isolated wintry conditions, so those scenes held my interest the most. Because the reader is given the overview at the beginning, the story does not hold any surprises; I assume Hamilton chose this approach so that the surprise element is not the narrator's fate but instead what it is our explorers discover at the pole. The downfall is that our climax occurs at a mid-way point and the latter part of the tale reads like an epilogue.

What I did not like (spoiler ahead) is that the pursued is continuing to move from populous area to populous area despite the fact that these earthquakes are causing so much death and destruction. While he does throw himself into a fissure in order to put an end to this chaos, this occurs quite late and the guilt he experiences for all the chaos he is responsible for really should have driven him to suicide much earlier.

Cover of the August 1926 issue of
Weird Tales
The Monster-God of Mamurth     6/10
Weird Tales, August 1926

Hamilton's first published short story tells of an explorer's journey to a lost North African city. Yet another double narrated piece, in this one framing narrator is a merchant who is re-telling the fantastical tale told to him and his partner by a dying archaeologist. The inclusion of the partner is to indicate that is a witness of, if not the archaeological experience, at least the first-hand telling of it. This oft-seen premise does present an interesting idea and hence elevates it from so many of the common archaeological tales published in the 1920s. In particular, a panic-rendered flight through an invisible structure is certainly an anxiety-conducing experience, let alone being pursued by an invisible spider creature.

This story was selected as the second classic reprint for Black Gate.

The Man Who Evolved     5/10
Wonder Stories, April 1931

Friendly biologist Dr. John Pollard has invited two former students to his secluded residence, not just for dinner, to help him our in his experiment: he has built a machine that can propel a person into the future of evolution! Reluctantly the boys agree, and they witness Pollard's change in fifty million year intervals. Overly melodramatic, the plot is repetitive as we watch the progressive change, and it is predictable and generally quite bland.

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

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Long Grey Beard and Glittering Eye: The Fiction Desk 9 (2015)

The Fiction Desk 9: Long Grey Beard and Glittering Eye, edited by Rob Redman, The Fiction Desk, August 2015

Long Grey Beard and Glittering Eye at The Fiction Desk
Long Grey Beard and Glittering Eye at Goodreads
Long Grey Beard and Glittering Eye

Overall rating:     7/10

My hiatus on reading periodicals/fiction journals came to a halt over the holidays when I picked up a then unread issue of one of my favourite anthology publications, The Fiction Desk. Their ninth publication proved to be yet another solid read; one of their stronger issues, in my opinion. It contains nine short stories encompassing The Fiction Desk's usual variety of the serious, the fantastic, the comic and the near tragic. I encourage you to support the publication by taking out a subscription (via their website, linked above).

The best story award, as voted by its contributors, went to the story I too would have voted for, Adam Blampied's "The Cobble Boys." Other notables (or more notable notables since there was not a single weak story in the issue) are Mark Newman's "Before There Were Houses, This Was All Fields," and Louis Rakovich's "Jonathan."

Whole Wide World by Die Booth     6/10
A young man searches retro punk bars for his dad. A jagged first half evens out to a strong latter half. Less dramatic than one might expect but it works.

I Don't Blink by Jacki Donnellan     6/10
In a world where people are locked into social media via their W'Eye Glasses, a mostly unconnected man struggles after having lost his lover to the technology. My favourite aspect of this one is the clever naming of the tools, like the W'Eye to W'Eye, W'Eye-fi and Wiki Tell-Me-W'Eye Glasses, not to mention the W'Eye Spy app. The only woman in this anthology, Donnellan manages to amuse while creating this extension of our own reality. The boy loses girl to W'Eye Glasses backdrop is a great method of delivery for this satiric piece. Moreover, being not too well connected through social media myself, I appreciate the sentiment.

Just the Stars to Look Up To by S.R. Mastrantone     6/10
A young man, dissatisfied with living in small town Marlstone, looks for an escape through vicarious means. Yet at every turn he faces small minded disappointment. Mastrantone's previous appearances in The Fiction Desk are "Something Unfinished" (Because of What Happened) and, my favourite, "Just Kids" (Crying Just Like Anybody).

Mental Pictures by Matthew Licht     6/10
A second story of parental issues. A recently separated man is on a train heading to his home town and estranged mother, when he is left in charge of a slightly autistic boy on his way, supposedly, to meet his father. A repeat contributor to The Fiction Desk, this is so far my preferred story by Licht. Though part of a larger work according to the story notes, the lack of closure and unanswered questions add much to the story, as it is not the origin or eventual fate of the boy that matters, but the protagonist's own development as a result of the attachment, and his relationship to others as a result of the boy's own relationships. Having said this, however, I would certainly be interested in reading the longer project.

Too bad about that near rhyming typo on page 59: "Sometimes I gave my own name, just to hear there was no party listed, therefore I didn't existed."

Licht's stories have appeared in previous volumes of TFD: "Dave Tough's Luck" (Various Authors), "Washout (New Ghost Stories), Across the Kinderhook (Crying Just Like Anybody) and "The Bear that Got Me" (New Ghost Stories II).

A Series of Circles by Tim Dunbar     6/10
A mid-life crisis is experienced through music and an obsession with David Bowie. When a man is left alone after his wife and children head off for a family visit, he descends into an obsessive week of embodying the artist after an attractive young woman comments on their physical resemblance and Bowie's own good looks. The recipient of second place in the Newcomer Prize, "A Series of Circles" is an energetic and enjoyable read, and works both as a story and an homage to a truly unique artist. I only hope Mr. Bowie had the chance to come across it.

The Cobble Boys by Adam Blampied     7/10
A folk ghost tale helps to illustrate the dangers of familial tensions amid political and religious strife in Northern Ireland. A girl from a passive family damaged by the conflict seeks revenge on the group of brothers for beating on her own younger brother. A strong work fueled by genuine emotion, and a physical fight that is well delineated--not an easy task. One of two of my favourites from the anthology, the other being the one that follows it.

Before They Were Houses, This Was All Fields by Mark Newman     7/10
Certainly the best titled story in the anthology, it recounts a boy's youth at a developing residential neighbourhood and how he and the small, growing community are affected by the case of a missing girl. The violence in this one is more implied but nonetheless brutal.

As mentioned above, this one received first place in The Fiction Desk's Newcomer Prize, though I'd be hard-pressed to select from the two as both are well written, empathetic tales of loss.

Sky Burial by Richard Smyth     5/10
In a near future England wild animals are roaming in closer proximity to humans as part of a "rewilding" process. In the meantime civil war has broken out, and as he lies injured and threatened by the animals he helped to bring to the country, a man reflects on the major errors he has made.

Smyth has appeared in TFD with "Chalklands" (New Ghost Stories) and "Crying Just Like Anybody" (Crying Just Like Anybody).

Jonathan by Louis Rakovich     7/10
A retired man takes a short fishing trip, and at the lake encounters the spirit of an old friend. Amid the semi-isolation of the lake, he is forced to deal with some long repressed guilt. Yet another fine ghost story from the pages of The Fiction Desk.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Paula Hawkins, The Girl on the Train (2015)

Hawkins, Paula, The Girl on the Train, London: Doubleday, January 2015
Hawkins, Paula, The Girl on the Train, Hew York: Riverhead, January 2015

The Girl on the Train at Goodreads
The Girl on the Train at IBList

The movie version at IMdb

Rating:     7/10

(Note that this article is intended for those who have read the novel or are familiar with the plot.)

The Girl On The Train (US cover 2015).pngAt no point did I intend to write a review for this novel. I don't review everything I read and invest my time only if I feel I have something to add to the multitude of comments available on the cluttered universe of the internet. Though I pretend to be unconventional in my thinking, at times I am resigned to agree with what has already been stated, and such was my reaction to The Girl on the Train. In addition, though I enjoyed the book on a surface level, it just isn't compelling enough for a full-blown analysis or ambiguous enough for complex theory-building. The bulk of reviews I've encountered are fairly generic and collectively repetitive, and though I seek friendly dissent for the sake of conversation, for the most part I agreed with the popular response.

Recently, however, thinking about the characters in the book and the discordant opinions of the narrator, my thoughts railed onto an interesting track that I thought I would share.

That The Girl on the Train is populated with unlikable characters is a given: the narrator(s) and victim are on par with the aggressor on the scale of dislike. Yet these feelings extend beyond the named characters to reach the general background populace, a public that revels in the public shaming of those involved in the case of the missing woman. It can be argued that Hawkins is not deliberately building a story centered around negative characters, but that the state of the characters is a reflection of the urban landscape in which they live. That landscape, the gritty suburban London of the novel, is as present throughout the work as any of its main players; without the landscape the novel would have lacked an important layer and as a result would have lost much of its affectation.

The suburban London we are presented with is a mirage of middle class values. An affordable neighbourhood outside a bustling, expensive metropolis, where a young family can safely establish itself, is rendered a dark secretive community. Not quite gated but neither is it open to outsiders. Yet in reality this friendly family-oriented community is merely an extension of its urban roots, and the train acts like the vein that attaches these outlying neighbourhoods to the urban core. The suburban image of safety and community is false: it is not free of the darkness associated with the city, as suburbia often pretends to be. Because it is inhabited by people, it functions amid the dark failings of humanity. Where humans dwell there will be immoral desire and crime.

Prime narrator Rachel Watson moved to suburbia when she married Tom, and though displaced by divorce, she peers into that former (false) world of bliss via her train commute to London. It is from the train window that she can spy, in glimpses, into her previous world. The distorted view from the window leads her into the distorted reality of her former life. Where once was her life with Tom, she now sees Tom with a new wife and their baby. Rachel longs for that world, but eventually learns that the comfort she expects to obtain in suburbia is an illusion, and the further into the mystery of the missing neighbour Megan she delves, the more uncomfortable that world becomes.

In essence, the evil we are capable of transcends geography, as the vein that connects humans to the outskirts of urban society carries with it not just the bodies but also their inherent abilities to act immorally. The landscape in Hawkins's novel hides corpses, evidence of crime and the darkness of our pasts along with the acts which the average society member is capable of performing.

Important to note is that this landscape is the consistent backdrop of the three different narrators and that, as a result, these women are united by landscape more so than by the murder or the murderer they were each involved with, to some degree. Though the killer affects each of these women to a great degree, the killer is not present in every aspect of their lives or their histories, whereas London and its surroundings are consistently present and relevant. That girl might at one time be on the train, but these women are consistently, in one form or the other, in the city.

An aside...

With the recent success of works such as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Gone Girl , what should have been appropriately tiled "The Woman on the Train" was instead rejuvenated as our woman was placed in the state of girlhood. I wonder if we can be revisionist with this practice and, with the aim to help increase sales on reprints, re-title some well-worn works. Louisa May Alcott's Little Girls, Wilkie Collins's Girl in White, Margaret Atwood's Girl Oracle, Lord Alfred Tennyson's The Girl of Shalott, John Gray's Men Are from Mars, Girls are from Venus...

But I digress.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Aleš Haman & Irena Zítková, Ghost Stories (1987)

Aleš Haman & Irena Zítková, eds., Ghost Stories, New York: Exeter Books, 1987

Illustrated by Jan Dungel

Overall Rating:     7/10

Ghost Stories at the ISFdb
Ghost Stories at Goodreads

For this week's Friday Forgotten Books, please visit Todd Mason's blog.

Among the numerous twentieth century anthologies of nineteenth century anthologies, the lazily titled Ghost Stories mixes some overly-anthologized stories with a couple of lesser known works. As the stories themselves go, they are all worth reading, but the anthology itself is, despite its physical attractiveness, at times confusing due to its packaging.

The anthology lumps a bunch of supernatural and psychological tales together and claim they are about ghosts. Though the idea of ghosts can be broadened to include more than just the spirits of the dead, the collection is really about apparitions, including hallucinations and projections along with specters. Since of the nine stories included only four actually feature ghosts, the anthology should have been just as lazily titled Apparition Stories.

The other confusing packaging element is the art. Each story is complemented by one or two full-page colour illustrations and a handful of small black and white works. Artist Jan Dungel did read each story since the illustrations sometimes borrow from minor details, though his interpretations are sometimes outside the scope of the tale, particularly with the Maupassant story, where a hallucination is drawn with the head of a leopard-like humanoid that is an invention of the artist himself.

Regardless, though the anthology does not add to the numerous books of its kind, it was good to revisit each of these stories and I do generally like to see such works illustrated. The inclusion of the all-too-common (though excellent) Dickens and Poe stories, is balanced well with the introduction to a strong piece by Villiers de l'Isle-Adam and an amusing one by Doyle, both of which I first read here.

The translator for Chekhov's piece is is not credited, and I can assume it is from an early translation (Constance Garnett?) in the public domain in order to publish something inexpensively. The French and German stories are translated by Stephen Finn.

Véra by Villiers de l'Isle-Adam     7/10
First published in La Semaine parisienne, 7 May 1874

This little known story was perhaps first anthologized as a supernatural tale in the 1950s. In fact, the story has been collected so rarely in English that it has barely seen print in that language, and Villiers de l'Isle-Adam's work in general is mostly forgotten. "Véra" is a complex little supernatural tale involving a man who loses, all too suddenly, his new bride, and isolates himself on his estate with his most trusted servant, while pretending that his love is still by his side. His devotion to this belief essentially brings her back, and Villiers de l'Isle-Adam adds a little concrete finish to prove to his audience that the woman did indeed materialize, and not just in her lover's aggrieved mind.

The complexity of the story lies not in its little twist, but in the hints of eastern mysticism that is blended subtly into the text, linking its supernatural element to something concrete and recognizable. Ghosts do not exist in the rational western world, the author seems to be stating, but can be evoked via a foreign mystic influence.

Don Giovanni by E.T.A. Hoffmann     6/10
First published as "Don Juan" on 31 March 1813

While at his hotel in a small German town, a man learns that his room is connected via a passage to a private box in the theatre next door, which is currently performing one of his preferred operas: Mozart's Don Giovanni. A serious admirer of the opera, the protagonist purchases a ticket and seats himself in the box, quickly overcome by the incredible production. He becomes, however, annoyed by the presence of someone in the box, only to be surprised to discover it is the soprano playing the part of Donna Anna.

Hoffmann's "Don Giovanni" is an interpretation of portions of the opera rather than a conventional short story. Or more accurately, through the medium of fiction Hoffman is exploring certain aspects of Mozart's opera. What Hoffman is doing is quite unique at the time, since in 1813 the short story was still far from becoming the art form Hawthorne, Poe, Chekhov and others helped to develop over the years ahead. Rather than write a straightforward essay or commentary, Hoffman published this ghost tale anonymously; a story with a plot so slight and an ending so conventional that what remains with the reader is the stream of ideas he leaves on one of the most popular operas of its day and ours.

Though the ghostliness of the story is secondary and  utilized only to help Hoffmann bring his ideas to the public, it is technically a ghost story. The ghost idea is that the actress is slowly dying during the performance,hence her spirit wanders and finds itself in the narrator's box, and this element helps to heighten the emotional aspect of the opera, adding melodrama that only helps Hoffmann's arguments get across to his readers.

Him? by Guy de Maupassant     6/10
First published as "Lui?" in Gil Blas, 3 July 1883

In a letter to a friend, a devout bachelor and womanizer reveals that he is soon to be married, and to a woman he has no feelings for and barely even knows. He wishes to get married not for love or fortune but for the sole purpose of no longer being physically alone. A very simple story with an interesting construction, Maupassant offers an ambiguous tale of an apparition that is most likely a figment of the narrator's imagination, but a figment that leaves him forever altered and forever in a state of fear.

Structurally the story begins with a humourous tone and builds mystery upon mystery. At first our avowed bachelor discusses the act of taking a bride while allowing the reader to wonder why. Following this is a character sketch which itself leads into the mystery of the narrator's hallucination. The convention to illustrate character at the opening of a story was commonplace at the time, utilized as well by Poe in the following story, whereas the humourous opening to a tale of dread is quite unique and inventive.

The story has also translated as "The Terror," which is a more appropriate title. The story is not about the hallucination itself but the tragedy involves its aftereffects. In French the story was publishes as "Lui?" and this is simply a straightforward translation of the word.

The illustrations in this anthology reveal the apparition to be a cat-man, a human figure with tiger face and paws, dressed in a suit. It is unclear why Dungel chose to illustrate it as such, though I do understand that the story offers less to an artist since details are few.

William Wilson by Edgar Allan Poe     8/10
First published in Burton's Gentleman's Magazine, October 1839

As he awaits death, the debauched narrator "William Wilson" tells of of the sordid tale that brought him to this awful fate. Like the protagonist in "Him?" Wilson hallucinates a figure that is a manifestation of his conscience, or perhaps the kinder side of a split self which is attempting to balance out his character.

Poe's excellent doppelgänger story can be interpreted in varying ways, that Wilson's double is a manifestation of the narrator's troubled mind, or that the double is the narrator's conscience that is balancing out Wilson's own amoral self. As with Maupassant's piece, the apparition in "William Wilson" is a projection of the narrator's, seen only by him. Rather than a ghost story, it is one of many psychological horror pieces included in the anthology.

The Black Monk by Anton Chekhov     9/10
First published as "Чёрный монах" in 1894

Scholar Andrey Kovrin visits his former guardian Yegor and Yegor's daughter Tanya at their rural estate in order to rest after a bout of nervousness. Kovrin soon falls into a state of elation, falling for Tanya while becoming increasingly devoted to his academic pursuits. Moreover, he begins to see the image of a black monk who convinces Kovrin that he is chosen by God to do great things. Once married to Tanya, however, she learns of his hallucinations and she and her father set out to cure Kovrin of his madness.

"The Black Monk" is a high caliber story from one of the great modern short story writers. Impeccably written with such great deal that everything, from character to the wondrous garden setting, comes alive and remains embedded in the reader's mind's eye. The ambiguity in this tale is that Kovrin is happy only when he is in a state of heightened elation, a state that comes along with madness. While normal he is unproductive and in a continuous state of lethargy, yet while the reader might understand that madness for Kovrin is his ideal state, Chekhov gives us an ending that provides fruit for thought.

Selecting a Ghost by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle     7/10
First published in London Society, December 1883

Having retired with a small fortune, a former shop-owner purchases an old house, a once castle that is equipped with everything one would desire in a home, from medieval ramparts to its very own mote, and is lacking only in the presence of a ghost. Undaunted, our hero sets out to find his very own spirit.

Published before the Sherlock Holmes explosion, Doyle provides some genuinely humourous moments in his ghost tale, particularly with the wonderful sentence construction and ironic character delineation. Of a purely comic construction, this haunted house story (or haunted house wannabe story), does not struggle with the notion of reason versus the supernatural, but takes it for granted that the supernatural is readily available, even though it seemingly doesn't exist (but for the mention of a potential haunt at the neighbour's residence). A truly delightful discovery.

The Signalman by Charles Dickens     8/10
First published in Mugby Junction, 1866

One of the better known supernatural tales of its day, and one of the most anthologized in ghostly collections, Dickens writes about a wandering narrator who meets a signalman with an unusual tale. This signalman appears to see a vision that warns of impending doom, and our narrator is somehow taken by the man and his story.

In a lengthier analysis (which I am working on), the apparition in "The Signalman" is not a ghost but a prophetic manifestation triggered partly by a mesmeric relationship between these men. As revealed at the end of the story, the prophesy is not quite what the signalmen believed it to be, and a close reading can lead one to speculate that the narrator is more than just your conventional rational outsider, particularly since Dickens was a believer in mesmerism. A great little film version by television director Lawrence Gordon Clark, with great performances by Denholm Elliott and stage actor Bernard Lloyd, alludes to this by a couple of brief additional shots of the narrator being in a sense summoned to the signalman's work station.

Dr. Cinderella's Plants by Gustav Meyrink     7/10
First published as "Die Pflanzen des Doktor Cinderella" in 1905

A man on a hallucinatory journey comes across a genuinely creepy house of plants made from parts of human anatomy. The story is dream-like and hence difficult to assess, while the so-called plants are more horrifying than most contemporary authors can evoke in an age that has exceedingly less censorship.

The Haunted House by Edward Bulwer-Lytton     7/10
First published in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, August 1859

A rational man and his servant are set on spending a night in a house reported to be haunted, and to investigate the haunting. This is the shorter version of Edward Bulwer-Lytton's seminal haunted house story, which excises much of the pedantic and highly interesting though perhaps overly long narrative on reason and the supernatural. This version, the one included primarily in collections aimed at younger readers, focuses on the actual events and action of the story. It holds up very well despite the use of what are now the most common tropes of haunted house stories, from the pattering of feet to ghostly figures, locked rooms, blazing fireplaces and people dying in fright with eyes wide open.

Testing a new map (as of 24 December 2015)