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.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

The Fiction Desk: Separations

Separations: Stories from The Fiction Desk 10. Edited by Rob Redman. The Fiction Desk Ltd., 2016

Separations at Goodreads
Image result for Separations fiction deskThe Fiction Desk website

Overall rating:     7/10

The introduction to the tenth Fiction Desk anthology links the title thematically to the individual stories, as well as politically with the recent Brexit phenomena, and more than most TFD issues, aside from the Ghost Story volumes, the theme of this one is appropriate to the individual stories.

The top three stories of the 2015 ghost stories competition are included here. Though I was a little bummed that not all the finalists were included as one of my own stories was included in the group, the reasoning given not to have a separate issue of ghost tales in 2016 is totally understandable, and largely a good decision in terms of the publication. In terms of the top three stories included here, they are all strong stories, though I would order them differently, placing Mastrantone's "Home Solutions for Mould" (second place) at the top, followed by Alex Clark's "Poor Billy" (third place), and then Anabel Graf's "Soup--Condensed" (first place).

Also included are the top three 2015 Flash Fiction Competition and the top two stories of the Newcomer's Prize.

Overall Number 10 is a good entry for The Fiction Desk, as it presents consistently strong stories.

Poor Billy by Alex Clark     7/10
Middle aged solicitor Maggie is staying temporarily at Brigham House where is partially invalid mother is living. While on the third floor corridor, sneaking out for smokes, she occasionally catches a glimpse of flashing red, but when she investigates there is nothing there. Her mother tells her of Billy, a young neglected boy who lived at Brigham house years before, and who used to wear a red coat as he played in the corridors.

The story is a fusion of character and place, and the two, particularly in the opening paragraphs, are well delineated. This is not a traditional ghost story, as the ghostly element is less spectral, but instead rests in the traces our pasts can leave behind. "Poor Billy" received third place in the 2015 ghost story competition, and is certainly worthy of the accolade. Though I like the winning story, I do prefer this one as the protagonist is more realized, and personally would have placed this story second.

Two Pounds, Six Ounces by Hannah Mathewson     7/10
During a major rainstorm, a woman arrives at a hospital to meet her brother, as they have decided to take their mother off of life support that night. Tragically, the power has gone out, and instead of staying with her mother, the woman helps take care of a newborn patient. Though my description makes the story appear too contrived, it isn't, and the story itself is quite powerful without being too sentimental. There are obvious connections between the birth-death cycle, and how fate manages to rescue us when we are trying to avoid something important.

This story received the issue's Writer's Award.

Renaissance Man by James Mitchell     7/10
An academic couple, a lecturer and a researcher, raise their son in isolation, sheltered from technology. Their hope is that he will discover the most basic of inventions, and move on to help build the future. Parents, in their hopes of helping to build a better future through their child, end up ruining the future of their child (or so we would suspect). A surprisingly strong piece of work.

The story received the 2016 Newcomer's Prize.

The History Lesson by Kate van der Borgh     6/10
A language instructor travels with her class through Italy as she tries to deal with a recent break-up. Many lessons are discussed, historical and personal, and there is a nice correlation between the petrified images of frozen volcanic eruption victims and the final image of our protagonist's unfortunate circumstances.

Beat the Brainbox by Mike Scott Thomson     6/10
The long-time winner of a trivia style game show faces losing his title to a man known infamously via an online viral video. Received second prize for the 2015 Flash Fiction Competition.

Two-timer by F. J. Morris     6/10
Released from prison on a new experimental program for a death he was made responsible for, a man takes makes his way through a throng of protesters toward his freedom. Received third place for the 2015 Flash Fiction Competition.

That Buzzing Inside My Head by Ren Watson     6/10
Convinced that the buzzing in his head is from something living in his ear, a man submerges himself in a water-filled tub to discover that a little man has been excavating inside his head. Winner of the 2015 Flash Fiction Competition.

Splitting Miles by Claire Parkin     7/10
A recently widowed woman begins to train for a marathon in memory for her deceased husband. Egged in by her also grieving daughter, through the training and race she begins to deal with her husband's death and mental collapse. Another strong emotional story, this one is well structured around a fictional training manual by the fictional Mindy Norkman, and reveals the story of Miles's deterioration in increments.

The story received second place in the 2016 Newcomer's Prize.

Soup, Condensed by Anabel Graff     7/10
A young teen discovers that her recently widowed grandmother has been storing the sounds of her life in empty tomato soup cans. The use of soup cans is appropriate as in the day of old these were stringed together and used by children as communication devices. This story received first place in the 2015 Fiction Desk Ghost Story Competition.

Home Solutions for Mould by S. R. Mastrantone     7/10
A couple struggles with the loss of their child. After nearly a year, the woman is concerned with the distance between herself and her husband, and begins to fiddle with the browser search history on his laptop.

The story is both effective and touching, one of the better stories I've read by Mastrantone. The ghost element is slight but present, and well presented in its slightness. Of the three ghost competition stories included in this volume, I would have awarded this one first place. It received second place in the 2015 ghost story competition.

Stay by David Frankel     6/10
Hollins searches for the dog that he had recently escaped his property. The search parallels the recent fleeing of his son, and the hard man finds it hard to accept that loss.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Isaac Asimov, The Super Hugos (1992)

Asimov, Isaac, editor. The Super Hugos. New York: Baen Books, September 1992.

The Super Hugos at Goodreads
The Super Hugos at ISFdb

Overall Rating:     8/10

Credited to Isaac Asimov as "presenter," the iconic author passed away during the preparation of the anthology. The idea for the book came from prolific editor Martin Harry Greenberg, and had the book been released before Asimov's death, it might have been another of the many books credited as a collaboration between the two. Along with co-editors Asimov and Greenberg, Charles Sheffield might have been the third name, as he supplies the main introduction and a brief intro to each story, which he informs us in a note were all written before Asimov's death. Indeed, many hands were involved in compiling the voting for the best Hugo Award recipients, a process which Asimov likely had little (or nothing) to do with. It is possible he might have contributed a preface to the book, though there is no evidence in the book for this.

In production for the book, members of the Science Fiction Writers' Association (SFWA) were invited to vote for their favourite past Hugo winners, and the book includes the three most voted novellas and novelettes, and the four most voted short stories, for a total of ten stories. I like the idea as well as the end result, since when dealing with such quality, though not every story is for every person, there is not one bad story in the group. At the same time, however, because these are such popular and successful works, they are oft anthologized and, aside from compiling them together, is there need for additional presentation of stories that have been presented enough, while other quality stories get ignored?

But I digress...

Of the ten stories, three I had not yet read: Simak's "The Big Front Yard," Niven's "Neutron Star" and Asimov's "The Bicentennial Man." Of these, "Neutron Star" was my favourite. Of the entire collection, I would select "Sandkings" and "Flowers for Algernon" as my top stories, with "Enemy Mine" close behind. The only story I outright dislike is "Weyr Search," but that is mostly due to personal taste. I read "Weyr Search" many years back in Nebula Award Stories Three and did not like it then; I tried re-reading it here but could not get past two pages. I also did not care for "The Big Front Yard," though acknowledge it has some interesting elements. Of all these stories, those with the highest rating on ISFdb (as of the writing of this article) are "Flowers for Algernon" (9.63), "Sandkings" (9.38), and "Enemy Mine" (9.20).

Originally I had thought of writing a separate article on each story, but since these pieces are all well-read, overly anthologized and frequently written on, I figured I would have little to add to their lexicons and will keep my comments brief. I will also include the interesting details as per the voting of each category, according to the information in the appendices and introduction. Finally, I will mention that I liked Sheffield's additions to the anthology, which added unity to the work and kept its purpose at the forefront. Something often lacking in anthologies, and lacking in many of Greenberg's, in particular. I will return to the notes at the end of this article.

Sandkings by George RR Martin     9/10
(Omni, August 1979)
Listing on ISFdb

Self-interested Simon Kress searches for a unique pet to entertain both himself and regular party guests. He settles on sandkings, socially advanced insect-like hive creatures. What interests Kress is that the hives can wage war with one another, something he believes will provide excellent entertainment. However, lacking the patience to allow the creatures to evolve, Kress instead starves them in order to initiate combat.

I first read "Sandkings" in Nebula Winners Fifteen when I was a pre-teen more interested in science fiction than I am now. That same anthology included two other greats: Barry B. Longyear's "Enemy Mine" and Orson Scott Card's "Unaccompanied Sonata." The oft-anthologized and oft-praised "Sandkings" is strengthened with a re-read; while I clearly remembered many of the details of this story, including the ending, I was nonetheless wrapped up in re-reading the novella.

Martin takes liberties with the end paragraph, since the idea... well, what Kress sees (avoiding a spoiler here) has no bearing on anything we have learned about the sandkings. We understand that the creatures carve faces of their perceived god into their fortress walls, and that they drop their plating as they are in constant evolution, but there is no indication that the biological evolution can take on something that is obviously external to the creatures. Martin tosses this is for effect, and it is quite effective.

There is a possible nod to Theodore Sturgeon, or perhaps a stretch from my end. While shopping for a pet the salesperson informs Kress that they have a mimic from Celia's World. Though the mimic is a simian, I immediately recalled Sturgeon's suspenseful short story "The Other Celia," which involves an alien who must transfer herself over to a new body each night.

The Bicentennial Man by Isaac Asimov     7/10
(Stellar #2, edited by Judy-Lynn Del Rey. NY: Ballantine Books, February 1976)
Listing on ISFdb

When an android shows an inexplicably creative side, its owner and family help it to achieve its ambition: to become human. Over the course of two hundred years, the family and their descendants do what they can to change bylaws and physical make-up, but continually need to deal with human prejudice.

The story received three major awards: the Hugo, the Nebula and the Locus awards for best novelette. It was originally intended for publication in an anthology dedicated to the US bicentennial, but the project was dropped.

Enemy Mine by Barry B. Longyear     8/10
(Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, September 1979)
Listing on ISFdb

Published one month after Martin's "Sandkings," I also read this for the first time in Nebula Winners Fifteen. Amid a viscious war between humans and Dracs, human pilot Willis Davidge and Drac soldier Jeriba Shigan crash onto an ecologically hostile planet where they are immediately forced to unite resources in order to survive. An excellent story not just for its anti racial message, notions of family and survival, but the fact that it is written with such energy and clarity amid a chaotic setting elevates the story above its social vision.

The Star by Arthur C. Clarke     7/10
(Infinity Science Fiction, November 1955)
Listing on ISFdb

Returning to Earth from an expedition to the site of a supernova, a Jesuit priest is in deep existential meditation, the reason for which is slowly revealed as the narrative progresses. Without giving anything away, the surprise ending of the story does not stop at the surprise itself, as Clarke asks a fundamental metaphysical question, which of course can be answered differently depending on your faith, or lack of.

The Big Front Yard by Clifford D. Simak     6/10
(Astounding Science Fiction, October 1958)
Listing on ISFdb

Hiram Taine's house is infiltrated by alien beings that transform his home into a doorway to another world. This other world serves to access several other doorways, each to another world. Though the story is certainly interesting, its tone and simplistic approach to its protagonist unfortunately weighs the story down to its decade, leaving it feeling dated.

"Repent, Harlequin!" Said the Ticktockman by Harlan Ellison     7/10
(Galaxy Magazine, December 1965)
Listing on ISFdb

In a dystopia that functions through regimented punctuality, where time lost is taken away from a person's expected life-span, a Harlequin wreaks havoc on the orderliness of things. Ellison's story is presented without ambiguity, with lines and characters that are so black/white no other colour or shade has the opportunity of creeping in. The story works due to its level of satire and the interesting structure in which it is presented. I loved this story when I first read it in my teens, from the entertaining Leo P. Kelly anthology Fantasy: The Literature of the Marvelous (McGraw-Hill, 1973), but unlike the excellent "Sandkings," this one has since lost appeal to me, and as I get older, so does much of Ellison's work. Still a good story, particularly if one has not yet read it.

This is the third most-voted short story, and from the top five list, one of three written by Ellison.

Weyr Search by Anne McAffrey     --/10
(Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact, October 1967)
Listing on ISFdb

Unrated because I could not re-read the story. I read "Weyr Search" a number of years back in the anthology Nebula Award Stories Three (ed. Roger Zelazny, Pocket Books, 1970), and did not like it at all. However, I acknowledge that my dislike for the story is due primarily to my own taste and not necessarily the story itself. I simply struggle with stories of dragons and that kind of fantasy. The fact that the story received both the Hugo and the Nebula in its category says much about my taste, but I also believe that over time these fantasies have diminished. Interestingly enough, it is the only story that has a single rating on ISFdb (which is my original rating from a few years back), which is to imply that the story is not read much anymore.

Neutron Star by Larry Niven     8/10
(Worlds of If, October 1966)
Listing on ISFdb

Unemployed and heavily in-debt pilot Beowulf Shaeffer is hired to fly to a neutron star that inexplicably claimed the lives of two researchers. It is a dangerous mission, with a near death guarantee, and Niven does well in trapping Shaeffer in an offer he can't refuse. Aside from the mystery of the neutron star and the death of the researchers, the story is nicely shaped into something more complex, with the inclusion of the fascinating alien race of Pierson's Puppeteers, Shaeffer's own persona and agendas, and the special, unbreachable ship (the Skydiver) that is constructed for the mission. Highly satisfying and entertaining.

Niven's story is credited to be the first to investigate the neutron star, doing so before science had a firm grasp on its properties. "Neutron Star" was the second most voted short story. The sixth most voted, according to the notes, is Niven's "Inconstant Moon" (All the Myriad Ways. NY: Ballantine Books, 1971), which is listed as a novelette at the ISFdb.

I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream by Harlan Ellison     7/10
(Worlds of If, March 1967)
Listing on ISFdb

In this post apocalyptic story, the five seemingly last people on Earth live inside a super computer that, once a war machine, has gained sentience and wiped out the rest of humanity. Motivated by an insatiable hatred for humanity, the computer, AM, preserves the five humans in order to mount an everlasting series of extreme punishment and torture. Told through the point of view of one man, Ted, the reader is taken on a journey with the group to find some canned food, while getting glimpses of the kinds of punishment the humans endure, alongside snippets of backstory. A dark and engaging read despite the borderline misogyny.

The story garnered the most votes for the Super Hugo, one of three for Ellison. I prefer this one over his "Ticktockman" though both are nicely titled, but I do prefer Niven's "Neutron Star" overall for best short story.

Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes     8/10
(The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, April 1959)
Listing on ISFdb

It is difficult to dislike this widely read novella, the story of intellectually disabled thirty-seven year-old Charlie Gordon and the experiment that transforms him into a uniquely brilliant individual, only to see its effects reversed. Despite the vats of cheese and sentiment in the story, the writing spans the gamut of emotion, from humour to desperation, maintaining dramatic focus. It must be read.

The anthology includes detailed sections on the voting process and results of voting in all categories. I will reproduce the top five voting results for the four main sections here, with their year of publication.

Best Short Story
1. I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, Harlan Ellison, 1967
2. Neutron Star, Larry Niven, 1966
3. "Repent, Harlequin!" said the Ticktockman, Harlan Ellison, 1965
4. The Star, Arthur C. Clarke, 1956
5. Jeffty I Five, Harlan Ellison, 1978

Best Novelette
1. The Big Front Yard, Clifford D. Simak, 1958
2. The Bicentennial Man, Isaac Asimov, 1976
3. Sandkings, George RR Martin, 1979
4. Unicorn Variations, Roger Zelazny, 1981
5. Blood Music, Greg Bear, 1984

Best Novella
1. Flowers for Algernon, Daniel Keyes, 1959
2. Weyr Search, Anne McCaffrey, 1967
3. Enemy Mine, Barry B. Longyear, 1979
4. Ill Met in Lankhmar, Fritz Leiber, 1970
5. Soldier Ask Not, Gordon R., 1964

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

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Ellery Queen, The Lamp of God (1935)

Queen, Ellery. The House of Haunts. Detective Story Magazine, October 1935
______. The Lamp of God. The New Adventures of Ellery Queen, 1940
______. The Lamp of God. NY: Dell Books (Dell Ten Cent #23), 1951

The Lamp of God at Goodreads

Rating:     6/10

Published 32 years ago this month, the Ellery Queen novella "The Lamp of God" is technically a supernatural story. The premise finds Detective Ellery Queen invited by lawyer acquaintance Thorne to help escort a young woman, Alice, to her father's isolated house to retrieve her inheritance. Arriving at the isolated Victorian "Black House," they spend the night in the adjacent "White House" where the deceased man's remaining kin have settled. Upon waking the next morning, the black house has entirely vanished!

Though readers can deduce early on that a rational explanation will be available to explain the house's disappearance, the fact that the plot hinges on the possibility of a ghostly house categorizes the story as supernatural. In fact the story can potentially be categorized as a ghost story, if one were to be inclined to argue that vanishing house is a ghostly object, but since the plot does not reflect it being an apparition, only that it disappeared, I would refute the claim. The story was, however, originally titled "The House of Haunts," whether by the authors or publisher, but despite this detail the supernatural element is not directly investigated, nor speculated upon, so nothing in the text claims that a haunting is a possibility.

It is only at the story's denouement that the supernatural element is entirely and indisputably removed.

Though it appears that by employing the supernatural as a possibility, the authors are challenging their own conventions, along with challenging the conventions of early detective fiction. However, they are taking safe refuge with how the supernatural element is presented. The story opens with a brief segment that establishes Ellery Queen as a strictly rational man, so that no fanciful ideas can act as potential realities in his mind. When the house disappears Queen is flabbergasted, as are the other, more impressionable, witnesses. Though Queen does, on occasion, comment on the fact that God's world is shaken and there are some minor comments on his faith in the rational being challenged, his thoughts are kept conveniently away from the reader and we later discover, though it is obvious, that throughout the plot his rational brain is picking up clues and piecing the evidence together. The questioning of Queen's reality is simplistic and certainly not terribly existential; Thorne and Alice are the ones whose cores are affected, but they are secondary players in the plot so their realities are further removed. Because even much of Queen's portrayal is distanced, and though we might receive the glimpse of a thought along the lines of his worlds being shaken up, his investigative mind is kept wholly secret, so that we are left to wonder what in fact was spinning in that head of his.

As a mystery story it is a product of its time. It features stock characters and is high on melodrama. However, it is quite entertaining, and the explanation of the house's disappearance is a good one. Some might figure it out; I admit that I did not.

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

Testing a new map (as of 24 December 2015)