Friday, December 28, 2012

Patrick McGrath, Blood and Water and Other Tales (1988)

McGrath, Patrick, Blood and Water and Other Tales, Poseidon Press, February 1988
McGrath, Patrick, Blood and Water and Other Tales, Ballantine Books, April 1989

For Friday's Forgotten Books

Blood and Water and Other Tales at Goodreads
Blood and Water and Other Tales at ISFdb
More Friday's Forgotten Books at Pattinase

Rating: 7/10

Patrick McGrath is most often described as a Gothic writer, which is certainly a more appropriate description than horror. Though the two are closely connected, McGrath's stylistics are heavily Gothic, whereas many of his stories have only a tenuous link with horror as we have come to understand the genre. Genre aside,   is a strong collection of stories that are vastly varied in their approach and content, but utterly similar in their tone.

This is McGrath's only collection of stories; the later book The Angel and Other Stories (Penguin Books, 1995) includes four stories from Blood and Water, and was part of the Penguin 60s series of books celebrating the publishing house's 60th birthday, and issuing a series of short books at 60 pence apiece. Amid its varied approach, the stories in Blood and Water offer tales narrated by both men and women, as well as by other more unusual narrators, such as a boot and a fly. Stories take place in England, India and the US, from Manhattan and Greenwich Village to the Louisiana bayou. We have tales about houses, family histories, vengeance, psychological breakdowns and the post apocalyptic, with the prominent undercurrent of sexual repression and perversion. Consistent throughout is McGrath's elegantly verbose and controlled prose. The writing throughout each of the thirteen stories is a pleasure to read.

While the stories in this collection do include some clear horror tales, they encompass aspects of the darker parts of our inner selves rather than of an exterior threat. Whatever horrors the characters encounter, they are inflicted not by outward malevolent forces, but as a result of human malevolence. Our dark subconscious, our repressed desires and our inability to recognize truths about ourselves and those around us, or to simply deal with them appropriately, are factors lying in abundance here. These stories are unconventional, and many don't have a clear, linear plot, but are presented more as character sketches, people confronted or dealing with unusual circumstances. Most of the stories borrow elements of classic literature, both of classic supernatural tales as well as elements of Victorian and Edwardian prose, Gothic and otherwise.

McGrath is very much a stylist. His prose is flawless, smooth and literate. His sentences are so well constructed that often I read them aloud in order to better appreciate them. The stories also embody elements beyond simple story-telling, as McGrath imbues many of his tales with serious thematic elements. Often he will open a story with a kind of discussion on a topic, such as colonialism in "The Dark Hand of the Raj" and the humourous considerations on priesthood in "Ambrose Syme." He is not being didactic or preachy in any respect, but rather playful.

There is not a bad story in this collection, but a few do suffer in that the plot aspect is lacking in a tale that should be more story than sketch.

The Angel     6/10     The Quarterly #4, Winter 1987
During a sweltering New York heat wave, our narrator makes the acquaintance of Harry Talboys, an elderly and eccentric old man. Over gin Harry talks while our narrator thinks of topics to use for a book, yet Harry manages to grasp the other's interest when he tells him he once met an angel. "The Angel" uses the classic supernatural trope of a narrator telling a story he heard from another, the act of removal adding distance between the narrator and the unusual event, yet McGrath's use is more modern as narratives come together and our narrator is a less than trustworthy conduit of information.

The Lost Explorer     7/10     Blood and Water and Other Tales, 1988
Playing in the family garden, little Evelyn encounters an explorer struck with malaria and mumbling in a fevered haze that they must get away from the pygmies. Evelyn is both fascinated and sympathetic, while her parents, oblivious of the world outside their own little cocoon of concerns, are wholly unaware of Evelyn's new interest and of the explorer's existence.

This story was an absolute pleasure, fusing pathos with comedy and the obscure. The sadness lies in Evelyn's father's self-importance and in her mother's unnatural estimation of him, whereas the little girl is partially neglected. Conversations and aspects of this self-interest is treated with humour, and the explorer's existence provides the obscure.

"The Lost Explorer" was made into a short film by photographer Tim Walker, starring Richard Bremmer. I have not yet seen it but here is a trailer. Interestingly Walker's site refers to the short story as a novel.

The Black Hand of the Raj     7/10     Blood and Water and Other Tales, 1988
In 1897, Lucy Hepplewhite travels to India to meet her fiancé Cecil Pym (a reference to Edgar Allan Poe's The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket?). Excited and concerned, she's heard that once an Englishman has spent ample time in India, he is a changed man, and once reunited she is immediately aware of Cecil's brooding silence and the fact that he will not remove his hat. To her horror he reveals that, after receiving a slight bump on the head from an old Indian man, a hand has begun to grow from the top of his head.

Cecil's fate is predictable, but his fate is not what the story is about, nor where the story ends. Lurking behind the curse is a comment on colonialism, since Cecil is cursed after stepping out into what he considered to be "my" garden. Yet beyond the curse we have a story of sexual repression and carnal sin.

Like "The Angel," "The Dark Hand of the Raj" uses classic weird tale tropes. For one thing it is set in colonial India and involves a British officer and a curse. Yet also like "The Angel," McGrath modernises these aspects by taking the story in other direction, and the creepiness in "Dark Hand" lies well beyond the presence of that malicious hand. Moreover, McGrath opens the story with some details about British imperialism which is a nice, unique touch, both paying homage to its story-telling roots, while simultaneously distancing itself by being conscious of those roots.

Lush Triumphant     6/10     Between C & D, 1988
An alcoholic painter slowly reveals to himself the nature of his current work, and thereby of himself. "Lush Triumphant" is a difficult story to pull off, since McGrath relies on a combination of character and description to reveal what is lurking behind both. Another tale of sexual repression and latent homosexuality.

Ambrose Syme     7/10     Bomb, 1988
The third tale of sexual repression and the second involving homosexuality. A young Ambrose Syme is forced by his father to enter the seminary, and though he progresses with his education he is nonetheless overly aware of his sexual desires, which unfortunately culminate in a terrible tragedy.

The story begins with a humourous attack on the inherent sexual repression of the priesthood, and evolves into something quite tragic and sad. Among the more powerful pieces in the collection.

The Arnold Crombeck Story     6/10     Blood and Water and Other Tales, 1988
In 1954, an ambitious American woman reporter is sent on assignment to London to interview serial murderer Arnold Crombeck shortly before he is hanged. Again McGrath takes on a familiar premise, the relationship between a level-headed interviewer and a man, evidently unstable, behind bars. Mildly similar to the 1975 Thomas Harris novel, Silence of the Lambs, in that an up-and-coming female career person is involved in a potentially dangerous series of interviews with a serial killer behind bars. There is a little twist in this one which I saw coming early on, though the story does not hinge on this twist. Well written but as fresh as the other stories.

Blood Disease     8/10     Bomb, 1988
A multi-layered and complex story. Anthropologist "Congo Bill" is struck with malaria among the Pygmies (elements used also in the story "The Lost Explorer"), yet manages to survive a broken man. On his return he, wife Virginia and son Frank, along with a monkey he had brought back for his son, find themselves at an inn, where Virginia meets an old flame Ronald Dexter who is travelling with his attendant Clutch. Only Clutch is aware that the inn is run and inhabited by a kind of vampire community, victims of pernicious anemia, a condition according to our omniscient narrator, which can result in a chemical balance that can lead to the craving for blood.

This is a busy story, and without ruining any elements of suspense I will note only that the story is superbly written, with strong, descriptive prose, solid characters, great elements of both mystery and suspense, as well as a good, rounded structure and mysterious, open-ended finish. There are many nice allusions to vampirism, with the anemia, the descriptive passage on malaria development, fleas sucking blood and so forth, marking "Blood Disease" among the better vampire stories, or rather non-vampire vampire stories.

Of McGrath's short stories, this is the most anthologized, which isn't stating much since his work tends not to appear in anthologies. "Blood Disease" appeared in both The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales (Chris Baldic, editor, Oxford University Press, 1992) and A Taste for Blood (Martin H. Greenberg, editor, Dorset Press, 1992).

The Skewer     7/10     Confrontation #37-38, Spring/Summer 1988
Neville Pilkington experiences odd hallucinations as he sees the miniature forms of Sigmund Freud and other analysts, such as Otto Rank and Ernest Jones. The story is pieced together by Neville's nephew from journal entries, Neville's own psychoanalyst's impressions of the case, and the truth as our narrator sees it.

The story is an homage to Sheridan LeFanu, with unusual ghostly appearances as we have seen in LeFanu's excellent stories "Green Tea" and "The Familiar." In case the reader is in doubt, Neville visits the LeFanu café, and one of the ghosts is described as "simian," a direct allusion to the ghostly monkey in "Green Tea."

An odd premise rewards well as the story is simultaneously entertaining and suspenseful, and features a solid finish. Psychoanalysis is poked at, and the title refers not only to the object but to the fact that psychoanalysis is like putting a skewer to the brain.

Marmilion     7/10     Blood and Water and Other Tales, 1988
This Louisiana tale features a female photographer specializing in, you guessed it, monkeys. Specifically spider monkeys, and while in the Louisiana swamp she comes across a crumbling house where, spending the night, she hears an odd scraping in the chimney. This leads her to research the house, Marmilion it's named, and learns of former owner Randolph Belvedere, his family and the tragic circumstances surrounding all. A strong story with a creepily mysterious conclusion.

Hand of a Wanker     5/10     Between C & D, 1988
The weakest of the stories, this one features the runaway hand of a chronic masturbator. The story doesn't fit in with the others in the collection. It tries to be funny and playful, but McGrath's other somewhat humourous story of the collection, "The E(rot)ic Potato" works far better, particularly since it also carries with it some serious undertones. "Hand of a Wanker" is just silly.

The Boot's Tale     7/10     New Observations, 1988
A post apocalyptic tale of the decline of an American family told through the point of view of an old and wise boot. Yet another strong story, this one with a kind of 1950s atmosphere, mixing dark humour with an apocalyptic scenario featuring a bomb shelter and a commentary on modern American families and their gluttonous nature. The story can be narrated by an omniscient voice rather than footwear, and it's not fully clear why it is told by a boot since throughout much of the story the boot takes a back seat and we even forget about it (as I did), but McGrath succeeds well in that the boot narrator does not detract from a great story.

The E(rot)ic Potato     6/10     East Village Eye, 1988
A short piece told by a fly as it searches for food along with a myriad of other insects. This fly is observant and McGrath does well with giving him a personality, and the narrator has more (obvious) purpose than the boot in the previous story. Not as strong as "The Boot's Tale," it is nonetheless good, with a vivid and striking image to finish off, and an incidental commentary on human life.

Blood and Water     6/10     The Missouri Review 11.1, 1988
This tale of a man snapping under the pressures of keeping his wife's unusual sexual secret from the public features much to nearly make the reader snap. Boilers and boiling water help escalate our madman's plight in a story that manages to garner sympathy for its aggressive and eventually violent protagonist.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Unthology No. 2 (2011)

Unthology No. 2, edited by Robin Jones and Ashley Stokes, Unthank Books, November 2011.

Unhology 2 at Goodreads
My review of Unthology No. 1 is over here.

This edition of Friday's Forgotten Books has something recent released under the mainstream radar.

Overall rating: 6/10

It took me some time to get through volume two of the Unthology anthology published annually by Unthank Books. There's something about the dense print and the odd minimal spacing between paragraphs that I just don't like. If we're trying to reduce space and page numbers we can eliminate the individual story title pages which aren't necessary, otherwise I don't see the purpose of such compressed print. My vision is 20/20 and I don't expect something along the lines of the Magnum Easy Eye Books, but something a little more aesthetically appealing and, since I do read a fair amount, less straining to the eye.

Content-wise (which is also important) Unthology No. 2 is on par with its predecessor. While there are some fine and varied stories, many do fall a little flat. The problem with trying to be different and offering less of the same is that not every story will appeal to every reader. While no story is strictly bad, there are just some that I simply, within the boundaries of my own eclectic tastes, did not care for. Variety is the winning force, something the Unthology has so far proven to contain more than other periodicals, and variety forces the brain to work a little harder. My favourite stories include the non-experimental opening story by Sarah Evans and the surreal "Siramina" by M. Pinchuk. Other strong entries are those by Melissa Mann, co-editor Ashley Stokes, and the closing story by Joshua Allen.

Stuck by Sarah Evans. 7/10

At the end of his bachelor outing in Prague, Simon is stranded for an additional day due to severe weather conditions. Tensions with his bride-to-be and panic over being trapped in matrimony send the thirty-or-so year-old to wonder about a possible last fling with a pretty girl he's just met.

There is nothing terribly original about "Stuck," and nothing experimental in terms of what the editors seem to be seeking, but it is nonetheless a very well written piece and a great opening story to any anthology. The title works on several levels. Simon is stuck in Prague as well as in a relationship with Selina. He is stuck in a unvarying profession and life routine of weekend drinking bouts that marriage threatens to eliminate, only to replace it with another routine to keep Simon stuck. Most integral to the story is that he is stuck in a moral quandary, not in his pursuit of matrimonial bliss but in how far can he go with this new woman without crossing any obvious boundaries. These considerations are complicated by Simon's all-around averageness, his inability and unwillingness to seriously consider the dilemma, and even drinks a half a glass of wine in order to not have to think too seriously about it. He cannot make a decision and wants something to happen, possibly in order to "save" him from this impending union he doesn't seem to really want.

The story itself doesn't plow into the philosophical considerations of Simon's thoughts, but follows him as he forges ahead, simultaneously with purpose but lacking direction. The story offers no answers and acts more as a kind of character sketch; there are no wrenches and no surprises, just the numbness of someone who has, in an array of ways, become stuck.

Differences in Lifts by Lander Hawes. 6/10

In a paranoid totalitarian society, where citizens are ruled by police and regional councils, notions of responsibility and friendship are challenged. I like the story for its approach to theme. Skewed notions of responsibility are presented in a society where citizens are made responsible for their actions to the extent that the fire department has been dismantled and people must walk around at all times carrying a bucket of water. The story also features a strong revelation of the narrator which implies this society is the result of human nature, that as a race we lack the ability to be responsible even for those around us. My problem with the story is that it is in need of a desperate re-write.

When I first started the story I had to put it down before finishing the first page. I was frustrated with the awkward wording and sloppy sentences, and wanting to give the story a fair chance, I put the book down for a few days. I returned to the story prepared for the flaws, and managed to get through and enjoy it.

Let's look at some sentences.

Opening sentence: "In the office where I work there are two lifts, positioned next to each other at the rear of the lobby." Aside from the unnecessary comma that acts as a misplaced speed bump, there are far too many needless words. "In the office where I work," first of all, sounds like a literally translated sentence, whereas "positioned next to each other" is not specific enough, and my brain placed them at one point side by side and at another facing each other. Overall the sentence begins with the information that we are at an office, then mentions the two lifts, only to return to location with the insert of that lobby. Using the author's own vocabulary I would recommend: "At my office lobby there are two lifts positioned side by side." Of course we can play around with this, attempting something like, "Side by side at my office lobby are two identical lifts" ("identical" I borrow from the next sentence to add an element of mystery).

Sentence two: "...they were both identical in every way..." Why not just "...they were identical..."? Similarly, the third paragraph phrase "...I said to Paul, my colleague from the marketing department" can be reduced to "...I said to Paul from Marketing."

Second paragraph: "I began to notice that the lift on the right had a door that closed more quickly and forcefully than the door of the lift on the left." The flaw here is grammatical; read it closely and you'll notice its literal sense is off. The lift on the right is compared to the door on the left, rather than the intended target, which is the other lift.

The story is filled with many unfortunate word and phrase errors, so that the narrative, like an old rickety elevator, is a bit of a bumpy ride. Yet I will commend the author for that great side-swiping sentence introducing buckets, and would suggest it or a slight variation as the story's opening line: "It was around this time that the county council changed the health and safety regulations, and we all had to start carrying buckets of water." Precious.

Hang Up by Shanta Everington. 6/10

Ian works at a help line, struggling with calls as he has his own tragedies to deal with, tragedies that come to the fore when a woman named Anne calls. A good story, though I am confused with the last paragraph and can't quite get the tone. I blame myself here and promise a re-read.

Gottle O' Geer by Melissa Mann. 7/10

During his stay at a sanitarium, an alcoholic listens to the tribulations of other addicts, from sex addicts to those with obsessive compulsive disorder, and has even taken up knitting to bide his time and keep his hands busy. Both serious and amusing, "Gottle O' Geer" is a well written cynical sketch on our sense of self and a societal system that has little to offer in helping us deal with our real problems.

The Swan King by Ashley Stokes. 7/10

The view from Adrian's apartment window looks into the window of the unusual man known as the "Swan King." The Swan King is normally seated behind the glass, staring directly into Adrian's room, upsetting girlfriend Zara, who is convinced the odd neighbour is responsible for the disappearance of university student Elaine Preece. Well written and well developed, I feel it should nonetheless be shorter, hence losing some of its middle monotony, and perhaps eliminating that opening that reads like a prologue but adds little; the closing paragraphs did not require the opening scene. A few other moments I felt didn't grab me, either a paragraph or a series of thoughts, but overall it is a strong, thinking story, with tight prose and some nice play on expectations.

Stokes wrote the good "A Short Story about a Short Film," which appears in the first Unthology, reviewed here.

Nine Hundred and Ninety-Something by Nick Sweeney. 5/10

Narrator tells of a buddy's experience in a small town in southern Poland, when the friend was lured away from nine hundred and something dollars. Things do come around. While I like listening to such tales, I didn't feel this one added much to the travelogue, and I found the writing a little too self-conscious, unnecessarily attracting attention to itself and away from the narrative.

The Poets of Radial City by Paul A. Green. 5/10

A satire on poetry and art. I gave up early on this one, unable to get into it, primarily as the humour is not to my taste. The story quickly reminded me of that terrible Aldous Huxley novel Antic Hay which I barely remember so perhaps the relationship between the two is tenuous.

Hours of Darkness by Tessa West. 5/10

An overnight encounter, an urban tale of birth, renewal and second changes. Some nice moments but overall a little flat. I prefer West's story "Paralax" from Unthology No. 1.

Stations of the Cross by Ian Madden. 5/10

A westerner living in a commune in a homophobic Sultanate searches for a fling while trying to evade those who wish to entrap him. Solid prose, but like the previous story a little flat.

Recovery by Charles Wilkinson. 6/10

Another short piece, but this is more than a sketch, involving a retired English professor, an obscure (fictional) poet and the mysterious death of the professor's brother. Mysterious, subtle and quite good, with some nice plays on time and tense. Like the opening story, the title of this one encompasses various instances of recovery, such as recovering a manuscript, the past and the truth concerning an old tragedy. The opening is great, with the professor seeing the world without his glasses, telling of the uncertainty of the universe and the unreliability of detail, as it stares us straight in the face, yet we nonetheless can't always see it clearly. The professor, the inspector investigating the brother's death, and the poet all search for detail, while the reader wonders whether there is such a thing as clarity.

Siramina by M. Pinchuk. 7/10

A gentle and surreal piece of a tourist visiting an unmapped island by the name of Siramina, in search of its only hotel. The story is haunting and engaging, and manages to present us with a potential horror that becomes somehow welcoming. The stranger wandering through a maze-like town is reminiscent of Kafka and other, lesser-known Eastern European contemporaries, and can be a metaphor for so many things.

127 Permutations by Stephanie Reid. 6/10

A short and amusing sketch of seven people living at Number Seventeen, whose harmony is about to collapse due to a simple act of human nature.

Classified by Joshua Allen. 7/10

The paranoid journal of an Aryan idealist, intelligent yet mentally unstable, who spends much time at the library ruminating over various permutations of hierarchy among men. Disturbing in its seriousness, yet nonetheless comical in its exaggeration. While we cannot sympathise with the modern Nazi narrator, we can be amused because he is such a caricature of paranoia and angst. A character I would certainly have followed for a longer narrative, and a solid finish to the unthology.

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

Friday, December 14, 2012

Dan Simmons, Song of Kali (1985)

Simmons, Dan, Song of Kali, Bluejay Books, November 1985 (cover below right)
Simmons, Dan, Song of Kali, NY: Tor Books, November 1986 (my copy bottom is the 1991 reprint)

Song of Kali at Goodreads
Song of Kali at ISFdb

Rating: 8/10

For Friday's Forgotten Books

Dan Simmons is best known for his Bram Stoker Award winning horror novel Carrion Comfort (1989) and his Hugo and Locus Award winning science fiction novel Hyperion (also 1989), yet his first novel, Song of Kali, published by the short-lived small press Bluejay Books, established Simmons's reputation early on as a talented genre writer.

Set in bustling 1977 Calcutta, Song of Kali is the story of a sentimental American poet who travels with Indian wife Amrita and newborn child Victoria on a commission to locate a manuscript. Evidently the celebrated Calcuttan poet M. Das has resurfaced eight years after having disappeared without a trace, and has produced a new poetic saga about the goddess Kali.

It's difficult to discuss Song of Kali thoroughly without spoiling it, so I will touch upon some of the more impressive aspects of the novel without over-elaborating. The novel pits the notion that violence equates power against the abstract sentimental view that amid all crises there exists an element of hope. Simmons sets this battle amid the chaos of Calcutta, where idealistic poet Robert Luzcak struggles against the reality of ever present and pervading violence. Far from his serene and rural Massachusetts, he quickly rejects the world of Calcutta, wandering its streets and listening to its tales with disbelief. Yet Calcutta, like the goddess Kali that the city is named after, manages nonetheless to be seductive, and his return home is continually delayed as he becomes enmeshed in a conspiratorial plot involving a missing poet and the mysterious Cult of Kali. Luzcak's ideology of hope is particularly challenged when his infant daughter is endangered.

The novel succeeds not because it is a good story (which it most certainly is), or because it is well written (which it most certainly is) but because the story is well fused with Simmons's ideas. Though the struggle between the ideology of hope and the notion that violence equates power is not subtle, it doesn't need to be, allowing the reader to grasp the point quickly and focus on the plot, the disturbing sequences and the wonder that is Calcutta (and India in general). The novel weaves through Calcutta as it weaves through plot, constantly shifting and hence never growing dull. A hunt for a manuscript encompasses tales of body snatching, kidnappings and cult practices.

The novel's point of view is not limited to a westerner's experience of an eastern culture. Luzcak's Indian wife has strong views on Indian culture, and though she is westernized, she does offer a strong balance to our protagonist's growing wonder and frequent periods of inaction. Song of Kali also includes a lengthy narrative by an Indian student's own experience in his country. His experience is heavily laden with the supernatural, yet it also invokes the experience of caste and the reality of the untouchable. This lengthy narrative is my favourite sequence in the novel, as two Indian men search for a corpse as an offering to the goddess Kali. Though morbid and telling of India's darker difficulties, the sequence manages to be comical amid the exaggerated though very real bureaucratic system. This sequence delivers truly engaging story-telling.

As a side note there is an interesting reference to a popular 1980s horror author: "I had never even been able to interest her in the trashy Stephen King novels I would bring to the beach each summer." (52) Is Simmons poking fun at himself as another genre author, or elevating himself beyond the confines of mainstream horror-fantasy? Likely the latter since the novel is his first, and in a decade rampant with King imitators, he would want to separate himself from that phenomena. Though this is my first Simmons novel and I am no expert on the works of King, in my opinion Simmons is rungs above King in terms of literary consciousness, proving that modern genre writing works best when invoking very real human conflict and pitting diverse ideas together. It isn't about being scary or about being gory, since perhaps the greatest possible horror is the complexity of modern existence.

Song of Kali was awarded the 1986 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel, placed sixteenth on the Locus Poll Award for Best First Novel, and was included in the Stephen Jones and Kim Newman publication Horror: 100 Best Books (1988).

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

Friday, November 23, 2012

Jerry Jay Carroll, Inhuman Beings (1998)

Carroll, Jerry Jay. Inhuman Beings, New York: Ace, 1998. 249 pages

Cover by Victor Stabin

Inhuman Beings at Goodreads
Inhuman Beings at the ISFdb

Rating: 7/10

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

Cynical noir-type detective Goodwin Armstrong is approached by professional psychic Princess Dulay who claims that aliens are attempting to take over the Earth. Since the private detecting field has been experiencing difficult economic struggles of late, particularly with Security Concerns nabbing up most of San Francisco's clientele, Armstrong accepts the princess's case when she offers him an astonishing salary. As expected, there is some truth to the psychic's claim, and Armstrong is soon enmeshed in an interstellar conspiracy.

After having released three novels in three years, author Carroll limited his publishing to columns and I'm curious as to why. Inhuman Beings is an entertaining read, providing a good mystery, humour and some tight genre writing. The plot adds little to either the Body Snatchers concept, or to the investigative mystery/science fiction hybrid, but nonetheless delivers a read-worthy novel.

Structurally the novel is organized as a kind of triptych. It is patterned across three distinct parts: the investigative, the fugitive and the apocalyptic. The first segment features our cynical hero investigating strange occurrences while protecting his psychic client; the second follows Armstrong as he is simultaneously fleeing and pursuing the aliens, while the last third has him among a band of government officials in a desperate attempt to deal a final blow that would rid the earth of its unwanted and hostile guests.

My favourite third is the investigative, as it best blends its separate genres and provides the most entertaining narrative. Narrator Armstrong reveals that the detecting profession isn't glamourous, nothing like what you see in the movies, and yet proceeds to act like a 1940s noir detective. Aside from this bit of nifty irony is the fact the dame that walks in to hire him, a conventional noir trope, is not the stunning, curvaceous and sultry cigarette-smoking babe we would expect from noir mysteries, but an overweight psychic. There is suspense during the mystery's unravelling, even though the reader is fully aware that the aliens are real. Not only are we aware of this for there would be no book otherwise, but the cover declares: "If it walks like a human and talks like a human... run."

This is not to say that the rest of the book is a letdown. For one thing it would be inappropriate to maintain the humourous cynicism when our hero is running for his life, and the fugitive sequences feel fresh and maintain the excitement. It's also great to see our narrator become so self reliant and effect this process of change. The last portion is the novel's weakest, and by then I was ready for the conclusion, which offered little surprise. Armstrong sits back a little amid the collection of official and military personnel, and the narrative is becomes less detailed. Because it was the narrator himself who was so engaging throughout the first chunks of the work, having him settle back is not the most compelling way to bring the story to its end.

Despite the waning portion and the generic finish, the novel is vastly entertaining and a good addition (though nothing revolutionary) the mystery/science fiction genre.

What is also interesting in the novel is that we never really get to meet the aliens. Sure we encounter a few throughout the book, but they are constantly held at a distance, and we don't learn a thing about there origins or their culture, only that they are malevolent things with advanced electronic technology bent on taking over the Earth. It is not Carroll's aim to create a hard scientific or cultural analysis of another race or, inherently, of ourselves, but to deliver a science fiction mystery with elements of adventure. Therefore, because these creatures are kept at a distance, the threat itself is more ominous and untouchable.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Mark Haddon, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (2003)

Haddon, Mark, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, NY: Doubleday, 2003. 226 pages

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time at Goodreads
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time at IBList
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time at IBDoF

Rating: 6/10

A popular book when released, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time appears to receive an extremist range of reactions, from those lauding its emotional power and sensitivity, to those declaring it to be trite, dry and emotionally manipulative. My response it completely middle ground, and what I found problematic had little to do with its actual subject matter.

While I did enjoy the novel overall, it is strictly mainstream and appealing to a general public. Haddon does well with his portrayal of how a boy with Asperger's Syndrome experiences the world around him, though I've been pointed to other, "better" and "more accurate" works on the subject. The humour, character portrayals and tensions are real enough and believable enough, and I did like the narrow-minded interests that narrator Christopher Boone is filling his manuscript with (by "narrow-minded" I simply mean that he sticks to topics that interest him, as a boy with his condition would).

Unfortunately one of the most appealing aspects of the work as a novel of fiction is deceiving. Essentially, the story sets itself up to be an unconventional murder mystery (Who killed the neighbour dog Wellington?), when in reality it is not a murder mystery at all. The novel fails as a mystery in that its early focus only pretends to be the mystery and Christopher's investigation of it, when it's clearly a trope to later build upon family drama, the real focus of the novel. Now there is nothing wrong with family drama; this is not the issue, but there is something wrong with making a book into something other than what it initially pretends to be. Christopher (Haddon, really) consciously focuses on classic mystery conventions, deconstructs Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles and even contrasts itself to that classic tale. Baskervilles is a murder mystery involving a dog and set in the Devonshire moors, and collects a group of interesting neighbours as suspects, some with startling family secrets. Night-Time spends nearly its first half as a murder mystery collecting a group of neighbours as suspects, including one with a startling family secret. Yet Night-Time's murderer is obvious early on, and the book diverges to become part family drama and part young adult runaway tale. To emphasis the idea that Night-Time is a play on the classic murder mystery, it was given that excellent title. I sincerely like the attempt that Haddon made in using classic mystery conventions to build his story, but I am less than impressed that the concept is applied heavily at the outset, only be entirely dropped. Though the mystery is somewhat built around Doyle's Baskervilles, it is lacking in a concise resolution. The murderer confesses (by this time the reader has figured out the identity of the murderer), and yet not in any way as a kind of parody or examination of the convention. At that point the novel is no longer interested in its own premise, and I am left to wonder if I too should be so disinterested.

I like mixing genres but not when there is pretense. I have the impression that Haddon emphasized the murder mystery elements in order to grasp the interest of potential readers, and what I ended up hoping for was an unconventional mystery, a murder mystery that plays with convention but is really dealing with something entirely different (Alain Robbe Grillet's The Erasers comes to mind) yet what I receive is a half mystery, soon forgotten and entirely unsatisfying.

The teenage runaway sequence is itself a runaway sequence, dragging on for too long. Later Christopher says there is no need for such detail, and I wonder he didn't realize that a little earlier. The family drama element works because the characters are completely imperfect, not terribly likeable but not unliked, and it does not overstay its welcome. There are just enough pages to make it interesting, and the lack of total resolution was a great choice on the author's part.

Though I am being critical of the novel I enjoyed it quite a bit. The lagging in the middle is truly unfortunate, and concepts of mystery fiction and the unconventional mystery are my own and need not trouble other readers.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Arthur Conan Doyle, The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902)

Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan, The Hound of the Baskervilles, serialized The Strand Magazine, August 1901 - April 1902.
______, The Hound of the Baskervilles, New York: Dell Books, August 1959. 224 pages (my edition, pictured)

The Hound of the Baskervilles at Goodreads
The Hound of the Baskervilles at ISFdb

While I did enjoy the Sherlock Holmes short stories and various movie and television productions as a kid, I managed to miss out on the longer works. This missing out continued into my adult years despite an old and slightly tattered Dell edition of The Hound of the Baskervilles sitting on one of my many "to read soon" piles (notably the to be read soonest of the soon piles). More impressive is that I still knew nothing of the popular novel's plot, and it wasn't until I was on page sixty-nine of Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time that I pulled Baskervilles from the upper middle of point of its pile. In his 2003 novel, Haddon does a bit of deconstruction with Baskervilles, nothing revolutionary but nonetheless reveals the main aspects of Doyle's book. Just as Haddon's narrator begins his analysis, I began the novel.

Baskervilles is a detective novel that is deeply embedded in western popular culture. It has been repeatedly filmed across a range of styles, and with a wide range of distinct interpretations of the popular Holmes, including those of Jeremy Brett, Peter Cushing, Basil Rathbone and Peter Cook (even the voice of Peter O'Toole). The book even lent its title to a medical study, "The Hound of the Baskervilles effect," whose objective reads in the US National Library of Medicine: "To determine whether cardiac mortality is abnormally high on days considered unlucky: Chinese and Japanese people consider the number 4 unlucky, white Americans do not." As part of Sherlock Holmes lore, the work is a return to the character by its author following an eight-year absence, as well as following Holmes's death in the short story "The Final Problem" (1893). As fiction it's an early example of the detective novel, featuring a variety of both distinct and subtle clues and red herrings, as well as withheld information and false inventions that modern mystery authors and readers tend to get irritated by. More on this shortly. It also plays a part in popular contemporary fiction, deconstructed in Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

In brief, the novel involves the death of kindly Baronet Sir Charles Baskerville from a heart attack believed to have been brought on by the legendary Baskerville Hound. In the Devonshire moors (Dartmoor), this creature is believed to be part of the Baskerville family curse which, without going into too much detail (you've probably already read the book or seen a filmed version), involves a mean old ancestor and a hell-hound that has returned to wipe out the family line. In light of this curse the only remaining heir, Sir Henry Baskerville is in danger.

The novel holds up due primarily to its complication rather than its premise or resolution. The premise itself is interesting enough, yet as soon as we leave the Holmes home on Baker Street we are confronted with a variety of events and details which make for an entertaining and suspenseful read. The red herrings work well, and I honestly couldn't tell if the hound would be real or not, though I did figure out a major aspect of the mystery early on, while being surprised by others.

The book is also populated by varied characters, though I would have preferred to read more of the despicable yet entertaining lawyer Mr. Frankland. Sir Henry is from Canada, and I like reading about Canadians in non-Canadian novels (though I do get nervous when they are in danger).

The problem lies in the resolution (I will be vague enough not to spoil the story). Modern readers will note that Doyle cheats quite a bit in the novel, since aspects of the crime are either revealed in the last two chapters (the sudden introduction of a character who played some part, though small), some detail withheld from the reader (though since it was consciously withheld from narrator Dr. John Watson this can, I suppose, be excused) and a major detail that Doyle doesn't even attempt to resolve, essentially how would the criminal get away with collecting the Baskerville estate after eliminating the known heirs? Perhaps one of the films attempts to approach this issue.

We are of course in the calendar year of 2012 (the world still intact, I'm happy to point out), a long way from 1901/02, and the novel as well as the mystery has evolved considerably. Doyle's stories featuring Holmes, as well as other early nineteenth century mysteries employing unfair techniques, are nonetheless quite enjoyable, and do feature great mystery concepts, as the hound does in Baskervilles.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

John Blackburn, Children of the Night (1966)

Blackburn, John, Children of the Night, London: Jonathan Cape, 1966
____________, Children of the Night, Panther, 1968 (first Panther edition)
____________, Children of the Night, G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1969 (Red Mask Mystery series, cover below)
____________, Children of the Night, Panther, 1970. 158 pages (cover by Alan Lee; my edition, right)

Children of the Night at Goodreads
Children of the Night at ISFdb
Children of the Night at IBList

Rating: 6/10

(Originally intended for Friday's Forgotten Books, I decided I'll post instead on Halloween. Perhaps this coming Friday...)

(For other Forgotten Books, please flip over to Patti Abbott's page.)

Strange things are occurring around the Moorish community of Dunstonholme, odd events proving fatal to the simple townsfolk. When the local priest is found dead Dr. Tom Allen and adventurer Moldon Mott begin to investigate the events, and uncover an unlikely cause to the recent bouts of insanity.

Blackburn is not a well-remembered author, though he does appear to have somewhat of a following, and Children of the Night seems to be among his most loved (or at least best-remembered) novels. He was fairly prolific, and one might expect that in a decade when little horror of note was being produced in the UK, Blackburn would have been more of a household name. Perhaps it was a decade during which the public wasn't interested in horror, still rebuilding twenty years after World War II. That war is mentioned and alluded to throughout the novel, clearly very much present in 1960s British consciousness. Having read only this single novel, I won't speculate further on his status as half-remembered author; while Children of the Night is entertaining and, if you choose to think about it rather than forget it, even interesting, it is not a novel that stands up to the better plotted mysteries of both earlier and later decades. Unfortunately a strong first half is followed by plodding sequences that lead to an expected finale. The interesting aspect is that Blackburn manages to mix many separate genre elements into such a short and simply plotted work.

Children of the Night is presented as a cozy mystery, upholding many traditional elements of suspense, along with its stock characters (though well drawn), simple tensions and bits of humour. Despite strong mystery elements, it revolves around a distinct supernatural element. Moreover, the book is more violent, with a greater body count than cozy mysteries are normally prone to, and the looming threat has not just a community affected, but potentially the entire world. The combination of elements work well overall, and we are not suddenly surprised by the supernatural since (other than those fantastical covers) it is made clear right off the bat that we are dealing with a supernatural and sinister mystery. Though there is nothing terribly shocking about the reveal, it is certainly interesting, and if you think about it seriously, beyond the scope of fantasy, quite disturbing.

The writing is straightforward with a few sloppy moments. The book is a fast read because of the straightforward prose, yet also because it is mostly plot-centric (aside from some satire and the plodding filler I mention earlier), not to mention short. (There is also something about these Panther paperbacks from the 1960s and 70s that are a pleasure to read; luckily my copy is in excellent condition and the pages are white. The speed was also likely influenced by the fact that I'm taking a break from Shogun after completing over eight hundred pages.)

The characters are definitely stock and act as we would expect them to, but this works well since we are so focused on the mystery. The added humour also helps, but it's the satire that comes across the ridiculous sayings and doings of certain negative characters that helps to heighten character; some are stock but do serve a purpose above the restrictions of plot, if only to illustration some specific points.

I love the covers, both of them. The idea is that there is an entity in the earth that is seriously affecting the minds and actions of the people above, and these earth-integrated faces adapt nicely. The one above, my copy, throws in some worms, while the one below adds a handful of naked people. Interesting about the blurb on the Panther front cover: "They crept out of the earth, gripping men in the terror of their ancient evil." There is a monologue by a priest that questions the notion of "evil" in people, stating that there is no such thing as "evil" but that people are forced to live and act within circumstance. Perhaps the blurb penner missed this point, or is refuting the idea (likely he never the book). What makes this interesting is that the priest in question is an unambiguously negative character, and yet he makes a valid and humanitarian point. I wonder if, since he is so denigrated by the author, perhaps Blackburn believed in classic notions of evil?

Occasionally the novel evokes the fiction of H. P. Lovecraft and Algernon Blackwood, with rational characters getting involved in ancient destructive "evil," but I wouldn't claim there are direct references or aims to imitate, since the cozyness of the mystery element is more aligned to that of twentieth century British mystery authors. Moreover, once the reveal has taken place about a third of the way through the text, the author focuses considerably on satire, and that extended satire (with elements of parody) makes of the novel something quite fresh. Though it's been years since I've read it, I found myself at times thinking of John Wyndham's 1953 novel The Kraken Wakes (aka Out of the Deeps).

The plodding follows the good satire by trying to fill a gap between the novel's mystery, which is solved around page 100, to its climax which begins at about page 135. This sequence is unnecessary and uninteresting as it tries to extend the satire and adds moments of obvious and generic humour.

Overall highly entertaining, and I'm happy to note that when I picked this book up in a pile of book fair rejects I was fortunate to have nabbed another Blackburn novel, Nothing but the Night (1968; despite the similar title the two are unrelated). I'll reserve it for when I need another quick read.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Shimmer: Number 15 (September 2012)

Shimmer: Number 15 (September 2012), edited by E. Catherine Tobler, Salt Lake City: Beth Wodzinski, September 2012. 82 pages

Cover by Sandro Castelli

Rating: 6/10

What a nice little publication. I've been meaning to get a subscription to this respected quarterly, and as soon as I subscribed online I received an e-promise from publisher Beth Wodzinski that she'll drop it in the mail shortly. A week later I had my copy. Service like that alone deserves a subscription.

Overall the issue was good; a nice quick read. I didn't feel there were any stand-out stories, though at the same time there was not a single piece that wasn't worth a read. Most stories were well written ("The Bird Country") and well structured ("The Undertaker's Son") yet some perhaps could've used some more authorial editing ("A Cellar of Terrible Things"). I also wouldn't have included both "The Undertaker's Son" and "A Cellar of Terrible Things" in the same issue, for while they are quite different, their basic elements are too similar.

The Undertaker's Son by Nicole M. Taylor. 7/10
Albert sees dead people. They hover around him at his home, some threatening, others ambivalent. Their presence is linked to Albert's dad's profession as the town's undertaker, yet Albert is the one who sees them post-funeral. Soon he begins to engage with one of them, and the story takes a turn toward its central ideas on human relationships and responsibilities toward others as well as towards oneself. The story is well constructed, opening with glimpses of Albert's ghostly housemates, to a brief sequence with his father teaching him to not be afraid of death, to Albert's encounter with three specific ghosts, each one coming closer and closer to his heart. The ending, which I won't discuss, is genuinely touching.

(It's not at all A Christmas Carol, though Dickens's work does feature a guide and three spirits; here it's Albert showing the ghosts the way.)

What Fireworks by Dustin Monk. 7/10
An island, along with its town and inhabitants, is slowly dissolving. This surreal tale touches on notions of history, culture and their retention, as we focus on specific characters, most notably a town curator who is concerned with dissecting the island's origins and a journalist from the outside world attempting to document its dissolution. These charters give glimpses of town-life, theories on the nature of this unusual island, all with a surreal yet distinct backdrop of a world on the edge of being forgotten. Overall quite effective;

Signal Jamming by Oliver Buckram. 6/10
Escapee M.Q. Bukka is loose on a prison ship, and wreaks havoc on its internal communications. This short piece is structured along a series of one-sided correspondence from a ship's officer to its commander. A comedic piece that manages to be amusing and to have some good, simple fun.

Harrowing Emily by Megan Arkenberg. 6/10
Zoe is depressed when lover Emily returns from the dead. Emily's approach to life is different now, and Zoe is having trouble coping with the newly established paradigm. A good, emotionally weighted story filled with flawed characters easy to sympathize with. (Too bad about that glaring lay/lie error.)

The Bird Country by K. M. Ferebee. 6/10
"Childer killed a boy during the night," the story opens. A striking opening for such a quiet story. Childer is a loner living at a small, unyielding farm. One morning he encounters a silent angel lying in the yard, and tries, in his slow and quiet way, to interact with it. The prose is tight and the story is properly atmospheric, yet while it's often the quiet stories that yield greater impact, I was left with a lukewarm feeling at the end. I felt Childer was a little evasive, his character not defined enough for me to consistently believe he is both the angel watcher and the killer of teenage boys.

Not the best story of the bunch but the best written story in the issue.

A Cellar of Terrible Things by Mari Ness. 6/10
Neraka and her three housemates share their temporary aged village house with seventeen ghosts. These ghosts all live in the cellar, and though they are four it is Neraka's duty to go to the cellar and fetch the potatoes and turnips. While there she must endure the constant whisperings of the ghosts. The story is constructed around several short vignettes, which alternate primarily between Neraka and the ghosts, focusing on each of their daily routine. Yet also incorporated amid these scenes are the village and its inhabitants as well as the history of these once living.

The story is quite good, dealing with a village that is simultaneously clinging onto its horrible past yet denying responsibility. Neraka too is in denial, as she's forced to work in that town and live in that house and can only handle those ghosts by pretending they aren't there. They are, however, too present in the cellar and in her thoughts, so that her game of denying them and her own sense responsibility nearly consume her. Neraka/Naraka is the Hindu hell, a dark pit where the dead receive punishment for their sins. The protagonist's connection to Neraka is not always clear and the name might have been incidental.

A good story, it would be much better with some tightening. There is awkwardness in its construction, particularly at the beginning with some needless repetition and the lack of a cohesive focus. The oddly-constructed sentences don't help either. For instance: "It is a wonder the cellar is not even more filled with ghosts" should read "It is a wonder the cellar is not filled with more ghosts." It's possible Ness wanted to create an image of canned sardines pressed together, but these are ghosts, ones we're told early on pass through objects, so no matter how many ghosts there are the cellar can never be filled to capacity, as there is no capacity.

The second half reads far better. The story should be shorter, though, many of the vignettes unnecessary. I'd recommend a re-working and hopefully see it in re/print .

Soulless in His Sight by Milo James Fowler. 7/10
A father and son (known as Fatha and Boy) live alone in a post apocalyptic town. With his crossbow Fatha dispatches anyone who comes by, telling his son that he's searching for a soul for him. Things become complicated when Boy meets an outsider he tries to befriend.

Despite a note of the sentimental and a weak opening I quite liked this story. The language is consistent, as are its thematic points. The characters are not terribly likeable but their world is in such ruin that the reader pushes conventional notions of sympathy aside. Few words are wasted on the apocalyptic backdrop; the story succeeds in generating a character-driven narrative that the details of bombs and fallout are unnecessary. The atmosphere and crumbling setting are enough to hint at the basics, and in this case the basics are all we require.

My problem with the opening is the unnecessary violence. The fact that Fatha is killing everyone who comes by is enough to portray a violent future bent on survival, and the splattering blood is, pardon the pun, overkill. Besides, narrator Boy has seen this form of violence since birth and has grown accustomed to it the way we, in this humble age, have grown accustomed to watching someone smoke a cigarette. I wouldn't describe the act of smoking in detail, just as Boy wouldn't bother with the details his father's bad habits.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Night Gallery: Season Two, Episode Six

Night Gallery 2.6
First aired 27 October 1971
Overall rating: 6/10

Preceding episode Night Gallery 2.5
Following episode Night Gallery 2.7, coming soon-ish

The Halloween episode, so we'd think by its date, features traditional horror fare, with its haunted house and its vampires. The narratives themselves are also a little traditional, and while the first has some fun tossing in some twists among its standard tropes, the second is predictable and flat.

In neither segment does Rod Serling dip his writing talents.

A Question of Fear
Directed by Jack Laird
Written by Theodore J. Flicker from the short story by Bryan Lewis
Starring Leslie Nielsen, Fritz Weaver
Rating: 7/10

"The World is divided between those with courage and those without."

Colonel Dennis Malloy has no patience for the weak. Having lived through countless battles, facing death head-on and having killed men with his bare hands, he considers himself to be the epitome of bravery. The wealthy Dr. Mazi, on the other hand, isn't ashamed to share his tale of a haunted house experience that turned his hair white overnight. When Malloy ridicules Mazi at their club, the doctor bets the colonel ten thousand dollars that he cannot stay at that house, which Mazi still owns, for one whole night without feeling fear. The colonel accepts, partly for the money and partly because it would've otherwise been a pointless and very short episode.

Malloy arrives at the house and searches its rooms. There are thick spiderwebs housing large spiders, candles that blow out by themselves, maniacal laughing bright and glittery ghost heads, spontaneously dripping blood, fiery piano-playing uniformed figures, a strange streaky substance in the basement... a whole mess of things. Malloy remains level-headed and only a little jumpy, discovering soon enough that the strange occurrences are manufactured. But why would Mazi spend so much money for such an elaborate gag, he wonders. Malloy comes across a clean and tidy bedroom with a lit fireplace and a comfortable bed, and gratefully settles down for the night after cutting the electrical chord he finds underneath the bed. In bed a cage wraps around him as a swinging blade descends toward his neck. Afraid at first, he calls out to Mazi knowing the other wouldn't commit cold-blooded murder, and the blade stops.

[Spoilers] The following morning Malloy awakens refreshed, and finds breakfast waiting in the kitchen, as well as a monitor on which Mazi appears, his hair no longer white. An elaborate gag indeed, and Malloy has proven himself brave without comparison. But Mazi has something else under his sleeve, involving that slimy streak we encountered earlier in the basement. He convinces Malloy there is a horrible creature in the basement, and the colonel blows his brains out, after which Mazi announces that it was all a lie. The end.

Somewhat disappointing on one level, perhaps, as there is a certain anticlimactic quality to Mazi's final announcement. Yet this is a battle between two strong characters, and the real point being addressed here is that the doctor defeats the colonel, as he has frightened the eternal survivor Malloy to such an extreme that he takes his own life. There is a lack of satisfaction in that Malloy will never know he was tricked, though by taking his life he is admitting defeat. In addition, Malloy is outed as a horrible tyrant and war-time murderer by Mazi, so that this not a case of an arrogant man getting more than he deserves, but a murderer being dealt with outside the confines of the law.

An enjoyable and suspenseful little play, it is also highly watchable with the pairing of Leslie Nielsen and Fritz Weaver. Some of the props don't quite work, as with Malloy's obviously fake eyepatch, the rubber spider dangling on the spiderweb that Malloy first tears asunder, and the mechanical dummy piano player who is obviously a real man. While these do add a certain charm to the 1970s set, they really could have done away with that silly and pointless disco ghost head.

Leslie Nielsen does a surprisingly good job as the crusty colonel, though the role was likely imagined for a slightly older actor with more military experience. I won't list Nielsen's anthology history as he's appeared in nearly everything, including both Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, as well as Naked City, Thriller and several episodes of Tales of Tomorrow and Suspense (1949). This is Nielsen's second of two appearances on Night Gallery; he was in the first season segment "The Phantom of What?" Surprisingly Nielsen never appeared on The Twilight Zone, though his presence was implied in many episodes since the show re-used several props built for Nielsen's big screen adventure, Forbidden Planet. Fritz Weaver is very well cast as the methodical and utterly wealthy Dr. Mazi. Like Nielsen he has appeared in numerous anthology series, including two for Tales from the Darkside: "Inside the Closet" (1.7) "Comet Watch" (2.13). Unlike Nielsen he appeared in two The Twilight Zone episodes, both of them remarkable: "Third from the Sun" (1.14) and "The Obsolete Man" (2.29). Both actors appear in different segments of the enjoyable 1982 anthology movie Creepshow.

The Devil is Not Mocked
Directed by Gene R. Kearney
Written by Gene R. Kearney from the short story by Manly Wade Wellman
Starring Francis Lederer and Helmut Dantine
Rating: 4/10

A Nazi commander leads his troops to rest and food at a tiny isolated village. General von Grunn wants more than food though, as he is convinced that the village is home to a dangerous resistance group. Our host, Dracula, along with his servants, are kind and passive toward the visiting Nazis, and remain overly hospitable as the clock's hand is approaching midnight.

I found this episode drab and predictable. The narrative frame of Dracula years later (in 1971, I presume) telling the tale to his grandson, adds little to the teleplay. Essentially produced so that Francis Lederer can reprise his role as Dracula from the 1958 movie, The Return of Dracula, which though a commercial failure upon its release, was by 1971 elevated to cult status by horror enthusiasts. This was Lederer's final screen role, according to IMDb.

Austrian actor Helmut Dantine was an active anti-Nazi activist whose parents perished in a concentration camp. Though Austrian he portrayed many fascist Nazis throughout his career. He is best known as the naive young gambler in Casablanca, and has appeared in many early anthology series.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Unthology No. 1 (2010)

Unthology No. 1, edited by Robin Jones and Ashley Stokes, Unthank Books, 2010.

Unthank Books webpage
Unthology 1 at Goodreads

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

More of a neglected book than a forgotten one, this anthology, the first in an annual series, was released under the radar, which is truly a shame as it features some fine writing and more variety than we normally come across in similar publications.

The editors over at Unthank Books kindly asked me to review some of their publications, and I broke a streak of declining such requests by happily accepting. (A footnote to handling review requests was posted here.) The first two unthologies came to my door in a single envelope, and excited as I get receiving books in the mail, I tore the envelope open... actually that's not quite right. I was at home heading out to get work done in a coffee shop, needing a change of setting with a deadline looming not far ahead, and nabbed the package from the mailbox on the way out. At the coffee shop I sank into a cozy chair with a cup of dark coffee, and rather than plunge toward meeting my deadline I opened the envelope and admired the two books. I liked the paper feel--no glossy plastic here--and the colourful and detailed front cover. I would gladly place them on my too organized shelf dedicated to my nicer literary journals/periodicals (yes I have such a thing), but half-way through the volume I had an accident with a mug of coffee and sadly destroyed the cover. The pages are mostly fine but the cover is utterly mangled, warped beyond recognition. I felt terribly, even though it's "only a book," especially since I take good care of such volumes, and don't normally leave the house with them.

But I digress...

Unthank Books is a small press located in the UK that focuses on alternative, non-commercial fiction and non-fiction. They specialize in daring, experimental writing, as displayed on their home page and as discussed in the unthology's brief introduction. We need daring, unconventional short fiction, the editors are claiming, and I totally agree, particularly because most high profile journals prefer to play it safe and publish standard, semi-marketable mainstream fare. (I say "semi-marketable" because terribly few literary periodicals are straightforwardly marketable.) "Unthology is an attempt to reverse this trend," the introduction states; the trend of essentially marginalizing and constraining the short story, a form that once was a common portion of the publisher's agenda. The mainstream public, according to J. G. Ballard, has lost the gift of reading short fiction. I'm not sure if the ability to properly read short fiction is a gift but more of a practiced aptitude. I wouldn't like to call my own abilities a gift, but rather something I've developed through study and practice. ("Gift" does sound nicer, though.)

I do wonder why there are two novel extracts in a book promoting the standards of the short form, but then again Unthology has "no agenda," no limitations on theme, form or length. I'm glad there is no agenda, since the two excerpts are surprisingly among my favourite selections in the volume.

Unthology is certainly different. Unlike most periodicals or anthologies, this volume contains a wide range of styles among its seventeen selections. On one hand this offers a great reading challenge, as our minds must get accustomed to each individual story. Many periodicals like the über popular Glimmer Train don't offer this challenge, each story so similar that the brain is set to monotone mode and the reader might as well have picked up a novel. On the other hand this variety offers a risk, since human tastes vary and each reader will likely encounter two or three stories they are not particularly fond of. Personally I didn't dislike any of the stories here, but there were a few that just didn't grip me, though each was well written. My two favourite entries are those by Viccy Adams and Ashley Stokes, but others that stand out for me are those by Mischa Hiller, Laura Stimson, Sherilyn Connelly, Sarah Dobbs and Tessa West.

extract from "Doing it by the Book" by Viccy Adams. 7/10

I don't always read excerpts. In fact, I'm pretty mixed about the concept. I find sometimes it's merely a form of advertisement rather than a valued piece of writing that manages to stand alone. "Doing it by the Book" stands strong on its own, that I'm actually surprised it's part of a longer project. (I tried to learn more about the project and understand it was part of Adams's dissertation, but haven't been able to figure out much about the project itself. You can visit Dr. Adams's website here.)

Our narrator hero is riding home on a train. He's got his coat, his book and his nice red suitcase with him. He takes a moment to step into the train's washroom and when he returns his entire life has been turned upside down. There is a man sitting in his seat, with his coat and his book and his nice red suitcase, and suddenly our narrator's life has become suspect. As we follow this amnesiac and possibly schizophrenic man across several hours of losing himself, we witness a systematic breakdown of a rational civilized individual, and discover, sometimes abruptly and at times subtly, that this seemingly stable narrator is a downtrodden, coldly violent and deluded individual. There is desperation mixed with a strange form of sincerity and the ridiculous that is reminiscent of Knut Hamsun's Hunger. The ending was, as expected from an excerpt, not too satisfying and a little too much like a punch-line.

Very well written, with an appropriately cold and precise prose, I would be interested in reading the work in its entirety.

"Write or Die" by Sandra Jensen. 5/10

A teenage girl's confession over killing a man reveals the dark side of a rural working community. The narrative is at times amusing and there is quite a bit of suspense, but the side-tracking and repetition of what's going on down in that cellar, writing that confession while the men with guns are upstairs, served as unfortunate interruptions, removing me from the narrator's story as soon as I've managed to settle in. With shades of Equus.

There is an inherent problem with the idea that an uneducated country person trying to piece together a comprehensive written narrative. Some words are misspelled and there are obvious typos, but most sentences are well crafted, properly subordinated and really, there just ain't enuff errerers for som 1 who ain't ever used a typewriter before, or even barely written anything more complex than a grocery list. It's written as though speech is being transcribed, and would have worked better had it been transcribed speech, a recorder rather than a typewriter. Besides, I don't believe anyone, even an expert typist, can piece together such a "fession" in ten minutes. Of course I'm being nit-picky, but the logic itches at the back of my hed as i reed the storie nowin n relity da ritin and typps ud mak et al unredble.

"The Burning" by Mischa Hiller. 7/10

I reviewed Hiller's story "Room 307" from All These Little Worlds (The Fiction Desk, 2011). Though both that and "The Burning" deal with burdened, crumbling relationships, they are utterly different. I liked "Room 307," but I like "The Burning" even more.

The tension in this short piece is incredibly thick, beginning with the immediate action as Jack breaks Helen's concentration reading the paper when he places his key in the front door. Told through Helen's point of view, every action and every detail is fraught with layers of complexity, from Jack's selection of the chipped tea mug to his sighing and not turning on the lights. A successful biological stem cell researcher, Jack is evidently more involved in his research than in his marriage. Stem cell research is broad and can involve many facets of science, from saving endangered species to research into cancer and other diseases. It is Jack's cold statement, as delivered through Helen's thoughts, that he does not want any children that makes me think his work deals with cloning. But of course this is my own invention.

It is the awarding of a prize and the letter invitation from Stockholm that sits between them like a lump of lead, and acts as a kind of deus ex machina to hurl us to the final act of burning and an almost resolution. What we learn is that Helen herself is troubled internally, troubles that are aggravated by Jack rather than caused by him. A solid story burning for a second read.

"The Latvian Motorcycle Princess" by C. D. Rose. 5/10

A character sketch of a Latvian motorcyclist passing through the UK town of Thetford. Fairly well written but not gripping as it lacks a bit of direction. And lacking direction when on a motorbike can be dangerous.

"Turtle" by Melinda Moore. 6/10

A little girl in the town of Milford Haven is curious about death. Living by a funeral parlour feeds that curiosity, as does the fact that there have been an unusual number of deaths these last few weeks, and an increasing number of flies. "Turtle" is a subtle story that deals not with death but with neglect and consequence. And yes, there is a turtle in the story, though briefly, which kept reminding me of Lonesome George.

"Herringbone" by James Carter. 5/10

A short, playful piece about herrings. Sort of. Also about a person with paranoid delusions. Well enough written but this one didn't grip me either.

"Post Day" by Laura Stimson. 6/10

Frances is bored on post day, the day her mom sits drinking wine and opening her mail. A tight and interesting short sketch of a broken family through the point of view of a little girl. Unlike the previous two stories I found this one vivid, evocative and even gripping. Interestingly, this one as well as "Turtle" features a girl wondering who she will stay with if her parent dies.

I've read of editors complaining of stories written in present tense, first person. Apparently there are too many being written these days, so it's a kind of trend that, from what one major editor told me, is more conscious of its voice than the story being told. "Post Day" is a fine example of how a first person present tense story should be employed. The story, for one thing, has no finish and no sense of a finish, as Frances and the reader are caught in time, faced with an impression. In fact, the story acts less like a story and very much like a painting.

"Waiting Room" by Martin Pond. 6/10

A boy is seated in a waiting room, waiting for the test all boys his age must write. We are in the near future, and overpopulation has forced the state to implement a test to attack the problem. I am being vague, since the story is told through the boy's point of view, and the narrative relies on irony as the reader slowly learns the tragedy of what is really going on in this world, while the boy sits patiently to write that all important test.

Another first person present tense story, it actually relies much on the past tense to tell its tale.

"The Mall" by Deborah Arnander. 6/10

A woman walks through church grounds where she sees, through the window, a childhood friend's mother. The incident triggers a series of reflections on this friend and the tragedy that made up their relationship. A strong story, well written.

"The Last Dog and Pony Show" by Sherilyn Connelly. 6/10

A clingy transsexual joins a dog and pony show to be near his/her girlfriend, deciding to take on the role of a cat since she feels attuned to the feline instincts for solitude and self-preservation. Told through the point of view of the cat wanna-be, the narrator is annoying with his/her clingy needs, yet manages nonetheless to garner sympathy from the reader. The narrative is funny and the emotions genuine, the story is a pleasure to read. There are some unfortunate obvious typos in the text, and while there might have been typos in earlier parts of the book, I didn't notice them.

"Extract from The Lemonade Girl" by Sarah Dobbs. 7/10

Married to a loving wife and father to two children, Michael's world faces potential tension when his ex-girlfriend, presumably dead, might be trying to get in touch with him. Unlike the previous excerpt, this one does not hold up as an individual story, so I can't comment too much as it sits in the middle of the anthology unfinished. I did, however, enjoy these opening ten pages, and am impressed with Dobbs's ability to capture the male voice (though there is perhaps too much focus on his... but I digress). Some humour and quite a bit of suspense, I do hope the novel gets published.

"Impilo" by Jenni Fagan. 5/10

This surreal tale of severed limbs and strange relationships is well written, but unfortunately its characters don't stand out as we're introduced to too much gore before we get the chance to properly meet them. I did find myself getting unexpectedly pulled into the story, but by then I was already on the last page.

"Dick's Life" by Maggie Ling. 5/10

A middle-aged man in crisis mode reflects on past expectations, being "trapped" in marriage, his mentally disabled daughter, aging wife and notions of guilt. The story lulls during its mid-point, particularly as the narrator wallows in self-pity, but is bookended by a good opening and last couple of pages.

"Parallax" by Tessa West. 7/10

A woman has the opportunity to apply for an ideal position, a position that would require a move. When her husband is less than supportive, downright dismissive of the career opportunity, the woman wonders at his extreme reaction and wonders if she is ever less than supportive toward him. This is pretty much all the story contains, along with a near climactic deus ex machina, and yet the piece works well on several levels. Structurally we are presented with a series of terms borrowed from photography, a passion of the husband's, and these terms expose (pun intended) the nature of not just the relationship, but how people view different aspects of their lives. The story appears so slight that it can easily be overlooked, and yet its quietness is what gives it so much strength. My personal favourite of the shorter pieces.

(Sorry Green Lantern fans, but this has nothing to do with that Parallax.)

"The Soul of Cinema" by Karen Whiteson. 6/10

Like the previous "Parallax," this story enlightens its thematic elements by contrasting them with appropriate cinematic concepts (cinema in place of photography, a related though younger art form). Here the concepts come across as part of a lecture at a film conference, and are played against the narrator's thoughts on a gossiping colleague. Whereas the previous story was more concerned with theme, "The Soul of Cinema" is more conscious of language, and there are some fine turns of phrase, some well structured sentences that manage to eke out a bit of humour.

"A Short Story about a Short Film" by Ashley Stokes. 7/10

"A Short Story about a Short Film" is a great example of how a structurally different story can be both entertaining and act a proper medium for its thematic content. Outwardly the story is bland, as it can be summed up as a pretentious and insecure young filmmaker struggling with his obsession with his ex-girlfriend, and through that obsession achieves an important moment of self discovery. Yet there is depth in the unity between narrative and structure. The story is a screenplay of a short film inset with a series of footnotes. The short film emulates the great shorter films of mid-century Eastern Europe, while the footnotes are by the filmmaker as he has pieced together his own kind of director's commentary, and uses that commentary to reveal the behind the scenes drama amid the filming of the short. The idea of introducing footnotes is not original, but this is likely the first time I've read a story in which the footnotes act as extras on a DVD, a concept which I like since I'm a sucker for good extras. Overall it's well presented, particularly as the story manages to create various layers and connections between the short film and the self-indulgent love story, making it engaging and often funny.

Our filmmaker Stasi Lloyd is not very likeable. He is weak and self-interested, obsessed with film and with his former girlfriend-cum-former lead in his debut film, Kaliningrad. What begins as a pretentious undergraduate film project of a pretend totalitarian society replete with its spies, its mysterious women and its relentless clacking typewriters, not to mention vodka and onions, the little film turns out to be little more than a dramatic love triangle, emulating real-life behind-the-scene events. The entire thing is ridiculous, but in a funny, engaging and even thought-provoking way. There are a myriad themes interconnecting the fantasy of film and of the real-life drama, as love and lust are secretive, even persecuted (by a jealous third party), and the real life director becomes the shady spy of his own film, sneaking into his former lover's parents property, taking the entire film crew to the vicinity as an excuse to be there in the first place. The dark film society he portrays is illustrative of his own dark, guarded nature; he tries to rationalize the situation by being removed and understanding, but is essentially driven by a stronger form, that of raw emotion, so that the melodrama of life is so much greater than that of film. And what is it all for, since like the film, life too is short. I was surprised, though pleasantly, that the narrator gains some insight through these straining experiences.

The story is perhaps a little too long.

Which got me thinking about the title. Certainly it's about a short film, but technically it's a novelette, so it should be titled "A Novelette about a Short Film." But it's not about a short film, particularly since the film's ending is changed due to life's influence. In many ways the city embodies both the film and the filmmaker's final transformation, so I thought a good title would be "Kaliningrad with Footnotes." Though that sounds more like a painting than a film.

"Bleach" by Michael Baker. 6/10

A visually hallucinatory narrative about a paranoid delusional man, possibly schizophrenic. The zaniness of the narrative is fun at first, but I grew quickly tired of it as the story seemed to lack direction. It does improve with a healthy dose of morbidity just when a sense of hope is creeping in, but I would have preferred it had it begun a little sooner.

free counters

As of 24 December 2015