Sunday, December 29, 2013

Bete Noire, Issue 12 (2013)

Gifford, A. W. and Jennifer L. Gifford, eds.. Bête Noire. Highland, MI: Dark Opus Press, 2013.

Overall rating: 5/10

[NOTE. This blog entry was flagged for its content, specifically for containing malware. I believe it was the link to the Bête Noire website which appears to have been corrupted. I have removed the links and hopefully all is now well. January 2023]

Small press magazine Bête Noire features diverse artforms to showcase different genres, though its primary focus is on horror, as implied by its tagline: "Fear is just a point of view." A short magazine and an annual anthology are offered at a low subscription price, and though works are not of the highest quality, they feature good ideas and are for the most part well enough edited.

As usual I am reviewing only the prose. The seven stories are quite short, including one flash piece. The good ideas are unfortunately not brought to their pinnacle of exploration, and tend to the generic in plot and character, which is unfortunate. My favourite pieces were the first two: Rhonda Parrish's "Feederes" and Enna Limb's "Plague Radio."

There is artwork in the form of "Face the Demons" by R.J. Smuin, which I do not care for, and a photograph titled "Walk Through Skeletal Trees" by Elanore Lennor Bennett, which is passable. The poetry features in issue 12 is made up of "Rough" by Florence Grey, "Death in Summer" by Marge Simon, "Down at the Bottom of the Garden" by J.S. Watts, "Living on the Leys" by Bruce Boston, "The Invasion" by John Grey (which I thought pretty neat) and "Sunset Sonnet" by Amberle L. Husbands.

Feeders by Rhonda Parrish     6/10
A zombie apocalypse as seen through the point of view of an unusually smart cat. A short piece that plays nicely on the notion of "feeders," the term the cat places on his/her owners. An appropriate term since all the members of this new zombie-plagued society are made up of feeders. Cats search new creatures to feed them since their human masters have abandoned them, zombies feed on humans, and human survivors, with few resources, look upon cats and other animals as a source of food. The ending brings everything full circle, and this new society has abandoned all forms of culture and is maintained only by feeders.

Plague Radio by Enna Limb     6/10
Camille purchases a radio at a garage sale, something she refers oddly (and even incorrectly) as a "postmodern" radio, and soon discovers that the instrument broadcasts what appears to be an alien conversation. Inexplicably she is able to translate a few words, and discovers that the conversation has something to do with a human plague. The buzzing voices ring in her head so that she appears infected by both sound and meaning. A loose-ended story, it is suspenseful for the most part, though I would have liked, if not complete resolution, at least a narrower scope of possibility. The story can be interpreted as aliens are infecting humans via electronic one-way communication devices, driving them mad one by one, to Camille being insane and simply hallucinating the impending disaster.

Overtaken by Rish Outfield     5/10
New to the neighbourhood, a young couple learn that the town of Traysi, Arizona, has a unique feature: on every October 13th random community members are taken over by some inexplicable entity, possibly extraterrestrial. Coincidentally and conveniently they discover this odd truth on that particular date, and immediately learn what being taken over means. Somewhat reminiscent in idea only of Robert Silverberg's Nebula-winning and Hugo short-listed short story "Passengers" (Orbit 4, 1968), though not as complex (nor as good)--the beings are even referred to, at one point, as "passengers." Interesting enough, but the plot structure is generic.

Morrigan by Suanne Schafer    5/10
First person narrative told through the point of view of a dead horse, he is the most poetically inclined narrator in the zine. He tells of his continuous rise from sleep as his master searches for a victim. I figured out the ending early on since I was somehow reminded of a famous classic animation. I won't reveal more.

Patterns by Michael Lizarraga     3/10
Latino sexaholic security guard sees figures, mostly faces, in random patterns on tables, walls and such. Worse yet, these figures seem to be speaking to him. Moreover, he's heartbroken after a two-month relationship. There is a lot I did not like about this story. First of all I cannot sympathize or in any way care for a narrator who rapes as part of his need for sex, an experience that leaves him feeling good (and yet inexplicably attends sexaholics anonymous), is temperamental and an obsessive stalker, nor has any other redeeming quality. I cannot buy into his exaggerated grief after a two-month relationship, particularly when the only reason for the grief appears to be that he is Latino and Latinos are emotional people. Finally, it is unclear why he wants to kill his ex-lover. Or I just missed it, having rushed through the latter half. Even the proofreaders and/or editors seemed to rush through it, since there are so many elementary grammatical errors that slipped onto the printed paper. While there are a number of errors throughout the magazine, this story is particularly victimized. "In his lap laid a medium-sized notebook," (47) "...seeing nothing accept the dining table...," (53) and the double-whammy: "Nothing else was outside, accept cricket`s chirps." (53) There are also missing articles and much awkwardness.

Nightmare in Black by Robert Laughlin     5/10
Flash about a mis-heard middle of the night phone conversation. With such an untrustworthy half-asleep narrator, I wonder what part was fiction, a dream fragment, or even if there was an actual phone call.

Separate Ways by Daniel C. Smith     3/10
More thought and about half the text went into the back-story about separated (formerly united) states. In this new backdrop is a man wanting to hop state lines to see his ex wife, and his dad who is around for expository conversation, and for son to say things along the lines of, "How do you do that dad?" when father makes a poignant and obvious point. This story about a country and a man named Ray reminded me of the Pearls Before Swine cartoon from 2007 I've taken the liberty to include here.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

The 4400: Gone (Part 2)

The 4400: Gone (Part 2) (Episode 3.4)
Directed by Scott Peters
Written by Darcy Meyers
Guest starring Alice Krige, Kathryn Gordon
First aired 2 July 2006
Rating: 6/10

Previous episode: Gone (Part 1)
Next episode: Graduation Day

Though a different director and a different writer on the follow-up to "Gone (Part 1)," the intensity in plot build-up as well as camera work keeps the story consistent. Often second parters act as little more than the climax of a strong hour-long build-up episode (The X-Files was often guilty of this). The let-down in this follow-up is not the level of suspense and mystery, but the idiocies revealed in the plot and its play with time travel.

This shot of Diana signing adoption papers is
reminiscent of M.C. Escher's work, such as Still Life
with Spherical MirrorThree Spheres and the famous
Hand with Reflecting Sphere.
Most time travel tales contain inherent flaws, and this episode from a time travel series focusing on its own self-contained time travel element, has many. For one, Maia's erasure from the present would result in alterations in the lives of other 4400s and in investigations of the 4400, yet none of that appears evident. A major question is that if her removal causes too much stress on others, forcing them to remember her, why not remove her from an earlier time, before the relationships were built, and avoid these difficulties? And why place them in the far past with their same names so that the present can easily find them through historical documents? For more complex flaws, we learn that the desperate people of the future are returning Maia and the four other kidnapped kids to an earlier time where they can help future humans survive their catastrophe, directly implying that they immediately witness the results of returning the 4400 to the present, which itself implies they can constantly tweak the timeline, adjusting any point in the past to accommodate the future events. Therefore why should we worry about any future catastrophe? I wonder also why return the entire 4400 members to the same moment in time? Would it be beneficial to send some even further depending on their roles? The implication in other episodes is that Tom Baldwin is the unifying factor, but I find this difficult to grasp since he is ordinary rather than übermensch. Baldwin is perhaps a good investigator and a good man, but his character and even judgement is generic, and there must be hundreds of other Baldwins out there who can be a unifying element.

I can go on, but won't.

Another moment in the two-part episode I found baffling was that mysterious glass of milk, the one linked to the false lobotomy. The fact that the kids can be taken to that sleep chamber for extraction makes me wonder why the complex scenario of creating a sister in order to kidnap then hole up and terrorize when simply placing them in that chamber is all our future counterparts needed to do? Future humans can extract people from any point in time, so why send one in commando-style? Why rely on the risks of a foot-soldier when an air strike is more dependable and accurate? It's these details that prove prime time television is not a thinking tool.

Yet the most blatant discrepancy is that if you remove five people from their timeline the series should really be called The 4395!

The enveloping idea is that the kids are being extracted from the present timeline because a great evil was let loose in that time, and the kids need to be sent further back to combat that evil. And another bit of idiocy sets in: in exchange for the children Tom must now destroy that evil, which turns out to be Isabelle. A great plot twist, certainly, but if it's that easy, and people from the future can return to physically interact with those of the present, why not simply bring in a more reliable Terminator to inject Isabelle? Why rely on the ordinary and unreliable Tom Baldwin?

There are some nice directorial touches. For instance the episode opens with the same photo of Diana beside a tree that Part 1 closes with, a photo that once included the now gone Maia. (Though I'm surprised no one comments on the fact that Diana keeps by her entrance a framed photo of herself beside a generic tree.) When Diana and Tom are in Nina Jarvis's (Samantha Ferris) office, the camera pans around the glass and we receive a glimpse of Marco (Richard Kahan) standing facing the door. Later he enters and we are left wondering if the character was waiting for an opportune time to interrupt, or if the actor had simply been placed there to wait for his cue.

Much of the episode focuses on Diana losing the will to live after having lost the daughter she was not supposed to remember having. Her ties and relationship with Maia is a strong part of the series, and a positive outlook on adoption, particularly the unpopular adoption of older children. Diana wants to be with Maia so badly that she takes advantage of Alana's architectural gifts and locks herself up in a false reality with a false Maia, aware that the act is suicide. Rather than weaken the episode with potential sentimentality, I found this element worked well.

4400 Christopher Dubov's (disappeared 29 June 1999) only purpose in the episode is to aggravate the intense feelings of loss Diana is experiencing following Maia's extraction. Though the idea of smelling pheromones is pretty intriguing. But to what purpose? I ask. How can that help future earthlings to survive the impending catastrophe?

Shawn and Richard partner up in wake of their tensions, thanks to egging by Matthew. I question only Matthew's interest in the partnership since Shawn is likely more easy for him to manipulate than Richard. Like many actions and events of late, character motivation is often fuzzy. Isabelle is nonetheless in the picture, though Shawn tries to dump her: "I don't want this relationship to end. So it won't." A nice creepy touch. (Reminds me a couple of women I've dated.)

In short, "Gone" proved to be entertaining and even intense at times, but a little thinking can unravel the ultra loose time threads and plot points.

Joyce Carol Oates, The Corn Maiden and Other Nightmares (2011)

Oates, Joyce Carol, The Corn Maiden and Other Nightmares, New York: Grove/Atlantic (Mysterious Press), November 2011

The Corn Maiden at Goodreads
The Corn Maiden at IBList

Rating: 7/10

I'm familiar only with Joyce Carol Oates's earlier short stories, and with the exception of the excellent "Family" (Omni, December 1989) and an early aborted attempt at The Mysteries of Winterthurn (aborted not because I did not like it, but because it was not what I was looking for at the time), have not read any of her work in some time. I was largely impressed with this collection, primarily by the incredible amount of energy displayed by long-time author Oates, who manages to read like an ambitious new author, taking stabs at making topical allusions and being aware of contemporary youth attitudes (though likely her researchers, should she have any, helped her in these regards). Or perhaps I'm being ageist.

There is a cold, calculated efficiency to her writing, making it feel at times clinical, yet it is well balanced by touches of humanity and sympathy, particularly when dealing with issues close to home, such as widowhood. The recent stories, dating back to 1996 though most published since 2010, come across as fresh, vibrant and filled with genuine suspense. The idea of "nightmares" (as per the subtitle) is not always evident, though there is consistently a sense of threat and desperation; in fact the desperation is so pronounced, from the intertwined characters amid a kidnapping in "The Corn Maiden" to the goody-goody twin in "Death-Cup" and the recent widow in "Helping Hands," that a more appropriate collective title might have been The Corn Maiden and Other Desperations.

Stories are consistent in tone and approach, and even varying elements or minor allusions are referred to in more than one story, from two stories (appropriately two) being about twins (though vastly different), to references to international crises and national economic difficulties. With its quieter tone and toned-down level of energy, "Helping Hands" stands out as being the stylistic oddball, though its quietness lends it a greater sense of desperation. "The Corn Maiden," though as intense as the bulk, shares multiple points of view (despite its limited third person approach), and is structurally divided into titled sections. The similarities, however, did not bother me one iota, and I felt an unintentional interwoven quality at the recurring elements which I quite enjoyed. The book, as a result, receives a sense of unity that is often lacking in single-author collections.

The Corn Maiden and Other Nightmares is a definite recommended read.

The Corn Maiden     7/10     (Transgressions 4, Ed McBain, editor, Forge Books, 2005)
Sociopath high schooler Judith "Jude" leads her cronies to kidnap a quiet, friendless Marissa on whom she'd like to perform the sacrificial ceremony of the corn maiden. The story is told through several points of view, indeed all points of view and experiences, from Jude, her collective followers, Marissa's mother, the implicated teacher Mikal Zallman. Only the Corn Maiden receives no voice. A powerful and completely engaging novella that manages to generate tension not only in whether the kidnapped girl will be rescued but also in the immediate lives and consequences on those closely affected by the incident. I particularly liked the mother's stream of consciousness as she tries to muster up the courage to phone 9-1-1.

Beersheba     6/10     (Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, October 2010)
Resentful diabetic Brad Shiftke receives a call from his estranged stepdaughter. Friendly at first, Shiftke soon realizes she is unstable and dangerous. The word "Beersheba" can refer to a number of events related to the city, and most likely to Elijah's refuge after Jezebel ordered that he be killed. The idea is possibly that Shiftke's former wife, also unstable, ordered (or trained) daughter Stacy Lynn to eliminate him, since daughter at least is convinced he was responsible for mother's death. It's Shiftke's ex-wife rather than Stacy Lynn who is here associated with the evil Jezebel. A good, tense story, though not as tight as the others in the collection, and though interesting, the characters are not as well delineated. I do like that we learn little of Shiftke and that his innocence in his ex's death is questionable, though I would have liked a little more emphasis on that particular point. Told in third person rather than first, there is no unreliable narrator, though the third person is limited to Shiftke.

The most ordinary of the stories in the collection, it is nonetheless well written and suits the overall mood of the book. Perhaps placed in the middle as a kind of intermission story would have worked better.

Nobody Knows My Name     7/10     (Twists of the Tale, Ellen Datlow, editor, New York: Dell Books, 1996)
Nine year-old Jessica is threatened by the affection bestowed on her new baby sister. Even at the summer cottage at Lake St. Cloud, previously a wonderful refuge for the family, the baby's needs and cries are overwhelming. It is only in the grey-haired cat that Jassica can find solace, as the feline appears to understand her predicament, and to know her name. A great psychological horror story, where a passive, unbalanced little girl finds her new reality suffocating. With the ending Oates manages to create a final image that is horribly tragic.

Fossil-Figures     7/10     (Stories, Neil Gaiman & Al Sarrantonio, editors, HarperCollins, June 2010)
Twins Edgar and Edward Waldman are distinct opposites. Edgar is the "demon" brother, wishing to suck the life from the other that shares the womb, resentful that there is even another when there should be only him. Edgar is born healthy and develops into a healthy and successful man, while frail Edward becomes a reclusive artist. Perhaps my favourite story of the collection, and evidence that Oates, despite her aggressive energy and not too likeable characters, can transform a tale of unsympathetic opposing twins into something quite touching.

Death-Cup     7/10     (Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, August 1997)
Another tale of opposite twins. Here it is Lyle, the simple book binder who resents the manipulative Alastar, the prodigal son who has obviously returned following a lengthy absence for some conniving plot centred around the passing of their wealthy, philanthropist uncle. Thinking it a duty to society, Lyle plans uncharacteristically to murder his brother with the wild death-cup mushroom.

Another effective tale, "Death-Cup" focused primarily on character. Automatically the reader sympathizes with Lyle, as Alastar is the obvious bad guy and the third person narration is limited to Lyle's point of view. Lyle is nonetheless not a terribly sympathetic character. He is too simple-minded and dull, and we can only wonder at his envy, as he focuses on his brothers birth advantages.

Helping Hands     7/10     (The Corn Maiden and Other Nightmares, New York: Mysterious Press, November 2011; Boulevard, Fall 2011)
Recent young widow Helene Haidt visits Helping Hands in Trenton, New Jersey, to drop off some of her late husband's clothes, and there meets Nicolas, veteran of a recent war in the Middle East. Grieving, alone and lost, Helene takes to Nicolas, hoping they can be friends.

Cover of the e-book edition
There is less of the overtly horrific here, and the titular nightmare in "Helping Hands" is the unexpected abandonment of one's long-time spouse, something Oates herself suffered in 2008 following more than half a century of marriage. Helene is lost on many levels, in her finances, in a part of New Jersey she is unfamiliar with, among people with whom she is not used to sharing company, and in her own sense of self as her life was for many years associated with that of her husband's. She seeks companionship with a man from an entirely different world, from Trenton in contrast to her affluent Quaker Heights, whose experiences are nothing she can ever imagine, to the point that she convinces herself he is someone other than whom he obviously is. He is gruff and rude and self-interested, whereas she is overly sensitive and genuinely sympathetic. This need for companionship brings about a kind of tragedy we experience as greater than that of her husband's death, since as the reader we watch helplessly as she sets herself up for defeat. Oates succeeded tremendously in making me feel for this victimized woman. That desolate family room at the end reflects the barren desolation in Helene's life.

Helene's widowhood gives her a different point of a view, a completely skewed sense of reality. She sees not who Nicolas is, but projects upon him a personality and situation she would like to save him from. She believes he has been injured in battle, and though he appears to confirm this with descriptions of rehabilitation, her vision of a "damaged" person is a projection of her own damaged self. His scars might be evident, whereas hers are internal. She makes excuses for his behaviour and his station in life from a need for companionship alongside a naturally well-meaning and sensitive self. She is not naturally attracted to him, but subtly hopes for something to eventually develop, once he is no longer as damaged and has his life on the right track. She is attracted to an idea of Nicolas that she has herself defined, brought on by the belief that he is "damaged." His damage is more psychological than Helene is willing to admit, and Oates does well in never fully revealing his state.

A Hole in the Head     6/10     (Kenyon Review, Fall 2010)
Plastic surgeon Dr. Lucas Brede is puzzled that so many of his regular affluent New York patients are requesting that he perform on them the medieval operation of trepanning, which involves drilling some holes in one's skull. Shocked and offended, Brede adamantly refuses request after request, thinking that the world has gone mad. Yet as a result he is losing patients, and the period of national economic hardship forces him to eventually be convinced by a quieter client who swears to secrecy and offers the doc a large sum. He is horrified and anxious at the prospect of the operation, having encountered unresolved difficulties while a med student drilling skulls for routine procedures.

There is a shift in the tale from the existential and somewhat absurd to the tale of suspense. The suspense element leaves the incomplete plot unsatisfactory, thought the lack of a resolution works well with the existential elements. Similar in several ways to the previous story, "Helping Hands," as it deals with the affluent amid an international crisis, and how the effects of international crisis manages to seep into the otherwise isolated privileged world. Written (published, at least) not too far apart, an idea from one might have triggered the idea for the other, or perhaps Oates has been reflecting on international crises and the U.S. economy.

Monday, December 16, 2013

The 4400: Gone (Part 1)

The 4400: Gone (Part 1) (Episode 3.3)
Directed by Morgan Beggs
Written by Bruce Miller
Guest starring Alice Krige, Kathryn Gordon
First aired 25 June 2006
Rating: 7/10

Previous episode: Being Tom Baldwin
Next episode: (you guessed it!) Gone (Part II)

For some other articles on film or television of the past, please visit Todd Mason's links on this week's Tuesday's Overlooked Films, etc.

The third episode of season three follows a triad of main threads: the disappearance of some 4400 children, including Maia, the escalating tensions at the 4400 Centre centering around Shawn, and Tom Baldwin's revealing insecurities in his relationship with Alana. Analysis will be limited since it's fair to see how these threads are resolved in Part 2.

A far superior episode to "Being Tom Baldwin," there are some potential flaws in the time travel aspects played upon here, and the direction of Part II might very well reveal some nonsensical elements. Some nice camera work, rotating shots to escalate tension and anxiety as well some good distance shots. There is good humour and a fine performance by Alice Krige as Maia's sister Sarah. Director Morgan Beggs has been an Assistant Director for film and television for over twenty years, and worked as AD on several episodes of The 4400 beginning with season two. He will return as Director in the final season for the episode "Ghost in the Machine" (4.11). "Gone" was written by third season Co-Executive Producer Bruce Miller, who penned several episodes of Eureka.

The main plot stream in "Gone" is the disappearance of Maia along with four other young 4400s. Creepily, Maia announces to mom Diana: "You will forget me," and while initially we are led to believe the forgetfulness is related to her kidnapping, we learn later that it is more literal. Indeed, the multiple twist ending here is quite strong and surprising. There is good humour thrown in with Diana quipping about missing teen Lindsey Hammond's on-screen photo: "Just once I wish a 4400 could smile for their picture," and later Marco discussing his study of Maia's journals: "I did find out how I was gonna die... Yeah, that was interesting. No, no, don't worry, it's actually kinda cool." A potential anachronism features Maia in her old 1946 bedroom listening to the wonderful Ella Fitzgerald singing Irving Berlin's "Cheek to Cheek," which I believe is her 1956 recording. (Please correct me if I'm wrong.)

There is brewing tension and conflict between arguably the show's two most morally conscious men: Richard and Shawn, as they are both being manipulated by the less than moral Matthew and Isabelle. Shawn is forced to fess up of his dealings with the Nova group when he learns how easily they can get to him. Yet more disconcerting is how dangerous Isabelle is, who is already closer to him than anyone else, as she exhibits her powers by levitating Matthew, so that actor Garret Dillahunt can practice for his future curled over hovering moment in that other time travel project, the entertaining Looper (see screen shot at top right).

Finally, as Tom Baldwin feels more antagonized by members of the 4400, Alana is alternately becoming more tied to the centre. Heather Toby returns (the teacher from "Suffer the Children" 2.4) to inform us that Alana has been offered a teaching post at the centre, one in which she can utilize her gifts to help others. Tom's jealousy is interesting, a weakness from a tough guy main character. He walks in on Alana and Heather on the couch as they practice the former's holodeck abilities, while the latter, coming out of her trance, says: "That was incredible!" As though Tom had walked in on some other kind of intimate, yet naughtier, act. Appearances seem to indicate it is merely sharing her ability with others that he objects to, as though he is sharing her with others, though perhaps we will learn something new down the line? (Somehow I doubt it; Tom Baldwin is not that deep a character.)

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Emma Donoghue, Room (2010)

Donoghue, Emma, Room, HarperCollins Canada, September 2010
_____________, Room, Picador, 2011 (my edition, pictured top right)

Room at Goodreads
Room at IBList

Rating: 8/10

I began this novel knowing nothing of its plot, only that it was narrated by a five year-old. Though I understood early what was transpiring, I would recommend that readers interested in Room avoid reviews and discussion and approach the novel blindly. For me, at least, it was a great experience. Having opened with this statement, however, I warn you that my approach to reviewing the novel necessitates spoilers. I will however write it with the assumption that readers have read the book, and thereby not bother giving back-story or plot descriptions.

Trapped in their small square room, Ma and Jack experience two separate realities. To five year-old Jack ROOM is his entire universe, and the universe of that room is experienced as another four-letter word, WOMB. To Jack the room is the safest possible place. He is linked twenty-four hours to his Ma and the world she has designed for him. In their room Jack is secure, happy, enclosed in a kind of prenatal state he does not wish to relinquish. It's as though the umbilical cord were still attached, and he is being fed all he requires for healthy development. Ma on the other hand experiences Room as a contrary four-letter word: JAIL. To her this is a prison where captor "Old Nick" has held her for seven years, given her the bare minimum to survive while regularly raping her. Jack and Ma, as tightly bound as they are, are ironically experiencing two separate realities. While Ma hopes only for release, Jack has difficulty in understanding why she would desire so desperately to leave such a comfortable, safe environment.

Their captor "Old Nick" also acts as the embodiment of each of their experiences. To Jack he is Saint Nicholas, as in Santa Claus, a semi-real being who brings them sundaytreat; a special requested item each Sunday. To Ma he is very much "Old Nick" in its form as a nickname for the devil, a purely evil entity driven by a demonic nature. Jack experiences Nick as a kind of benevolent yet odd stranger, while to Ma he is a monster.

When in the outside world, notions of four letters are dropped, as are any kind of consistency, as we experience the world as a chaotic jumble. While Ma withdraws from the world, Jack is reluctantly enmeshed within its hyper-reality. Donoghue makes it a point to have Jack innocently wonder whether the world is in fact real. His existential crisis is acute despite his age, with the world having turned upside down. Hamlet experienced a traumatic reality reversal, yet Jack copes without having to stage plays and getting his mother poisoned.

The plot point I find troubling is Ma's attempted suicide. With what she has gone through for seven years, five while protecting Jack, it isn't feasible that she would make such an attempt. This event, however, is necessitated by plot, as Jack needs to be on his own in order to gain his solo experiences and eventual acceptance of the new world. In light of its need and the difficulty in achieving it, this criticism is fairly minor.

On an irrelevant side-note:

Since becoming a father eleven months ago, I have read three novels dealing with children in tragic settings, the other two being Dan Simmons's Song of Kali and Cormac McCarthy's The Road (not to mention other works involving children in less than desirable circumstances, such as the graphic novel Crossed by Garth Ellis and Jacen Burrows, also published in 2010, and more recently Joyce Carol Oates's intense novella "The Corn Maiden" from 2005). A friend and horror fan with a four year-old tells me he cannot read anything featuring children in threatening circumstances, not since the birth of his son. When my son was a newborn I sat rocking him while he slept and read Song of Kali aloud, despite the novel featuring a kidnapped newborn. Yet there is something more disturbing in the child's circumstance in Room than in the other works, and I believe that, though the circumstance themselves in The Road are as extreme, there are challenging notions of parenthood that to me were more thought-provoking. In McCarthy's novel focus on survival is constant and involves a good deal of improvisation, while in Donoghue's novel the focus is primarily on child-rearing.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Shimmer Number 17

Tobler, Catherine E., Shimmer Number Seventeen, Salt Lake City: Shimmerzine Press, September 2013

Shimmer website
Shimmer 17 at Goodreads

Overall rating: 6/10

With Shimmer's latest, expect the usual shimmery fiction: fantasies with quiet, strong prose, a positive and often sentimental approach to a varied set of ideas. While Shimmer is consistent with its style and good quality writing, as well as with its authors, personally I feel the zine can do with a little noise, some straightforward, less poetically abstract imagery, and often more subtle and ambiguous approaches to its varied ideas. I would also like to see some longer stories included, but that's for personal taste, not general aesthetics.

Shimmer Seventeen features a little sci-fi, some nice ghosts, as well as more than one second-person narration, several unsympathetic mothers and three Canadians, all tossed to the far-end of the collection. My favourites are those by Alex Dally MacFarlane, Yarrow Paisley and Kim Neville.

The Mostly True Adventures of Assman & Foxy by Katherine Sparrow     6/10
Two women attempt to escape their lives by taking a road trip in search of a travelling freak circus. A bittersweet story that works despite the Thelma and Louise pair being so distant from the narrative and reader.

How Bunny Came to Be by A.C. Wise     5/10
Lifeguard Phillip Howard Craft suffers a traumatic experience involving a tentacled sea creature and the preventable death of a man and his dog on the beach. Scarred and in existential crisis, Craft changes his name to Bunny and scours the beach in search of his foe. The story makes obvious allusions to Howard Phillips Lovecraft, most obviously via our protagonist's name and the Cthulhu tentacles. Wise is the author of "Tasting of the Sea" from Shimmer 16.

The Moon Bears by Sarah Brooks     6/10
A town has become famous for its moon bears: docile and dream-like white bears that appear randomly throughout the town. Lives change, and the town and its residents undergo an organic transformation. I quite liked this surreal story, another that challenges the stagnant nature of modern life.

Sincerely, Your Psychic by Helena Bell     5/10
A series of correspondence from a psychic to a man, focusing on his failing relationship with his wife and the daughter he gave up for adoption years ago. A good build-up and a promising story that falls short in its final sequence. Bell is the author of the better "In Light of Recent Events I Have Reconsidered the Wisdom of Your Space Elevator" from Shimmer 16.

Out They Come by Alex Dally MacFarlane     7/10
What does the fox Say? In reality, being part of the canid family, foxes bark. The foxes in "Out They Come," however, are utterly silent. Like the voiceless, victimized protagonist Stey who lives in a shack in a town and vomits foxes who take vengeance on those who have bullied her in the past, or were aware of the bullying and did not care. I liked this story more than I thought I would after the first page or two. Protagonist Stey (a stey is the steep portion of a hill, but I think that's only a coincidence), is silent and passive, and as the townsfolk begin hunting her foxes, she becomes vengeful and even a little bloodthirsty. Not great therapy and the bloody vengeance verging on becoming out of control weakens my sympathy for Stey, but I like the story nonetheless. I suppose such is the consequence of being mean to the meek.

Love in the Time of Vivisection by Sunny Moraine     4/10
A woman narrates through her meticulous vivisection. Metaphor for a failed romance? Not my thing; the narrative is too abstract and the voice too calm, as though recounting something in the distant past which the recounter has growing bored of.

Fishing by Lavie Tidhar     5/10
A dreamy sketch of a man fishing through his window in Laos. Not a story but a well written sketch.

98 Ianthe by Robert N. Lee     5/10
A science fiction story among fantasies, "98 Ianthe" is an asteroid and a band, as well as a second person story about the temporariness and the permanence of music. It's also about conscience and perception. Some nice cynicism from an aggressive narrator breaks up the similarities among the other narratives, unfortunately it also usurps story.

The Desire of All Things by Jordan Taylor     5/10
A young adept thief promises to steal her older sister's boyfriend back from the forest faeries. Interesting that the faerie queen is willing to use the boy as the wager for the competition, since he was already in her keep, thereby having nothing to gain by taking on our little heroine. Otherwise a clear straightforward read, also breaking the all-too consistent tone of the magazine.

The Metaphor of the Lakes by Yarrow Paisley     7/10
The ghost of a girl and her brother, now a cat, live in the house of Mr. Menders and Mr. Scatt. A highly enjoyable tale (tail) with refreshingly no straightforward explanations. Certainly the most entertaining story in Shimmer 17.

Romeo and Meatbox by Alex Wilson     5/10
A theatre skit featuring the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliette, only with Romeo as a brain-craving zombie. Conscious of Shakespeare, we have Signet editions formatting and attention to wordplay, though not enough to make it truly worthwhile. And again the male lover looks upon the woman as a mere object. Even in death we do not change.

Like Feather, Like Bone by Kristi DeMeester     6/10
Having lost her son and husband, a woman meets a young girl feasting on a bird, and succumbs to a symbolic death. Effective little story.

Girl, With Coin by Damien Angelica Walters     6/10
Olivia suffers from a rare condition that prevents her from feeling physical pain, making life quite dangerous. She grew up with an uncaring mother, and has grown into a successful body artist, revealing her condition to the public via Crucifixion and other painless stunts, while internally she suffers from having been abandoned by ma. Despite the narrator feeling a little too sorry for herself at times, I did like this piece which comes across as emotionally real.

River, Dreaming by Silvia Moreno Garcia     5/10
Narrator searches for her lover in a river of ghosts.

The Fairy Godmother by Kim Neville     7/10
The fairy godmother is made all-too human, with excellent results. We are treated to the difficulties in the life of someone who can materialize just about anything. Enjoyable and even touching.

We Were Never Alone in Space by Carmen Maria Machado     6/10
Narrative moves backwards as the reader, through the life of Adelaide, learns about the nature of birth and death, and how it is all connected to Mars. A surprisingly good read. (I snuck the word "surprisingly" in there since the opening did not grab me.)

The Herdsmen of the Dead by Ada Hoffman     5/10
Second person is instructed through the valley of dead. Or perhaps across the river Styx, seeking the herdsman and his daughter, instructions narrated by his wife. Interesting, but I would have liked the story more had it been less poetic: when giving instructions you want to be as clear as possible, not to confuse, particularly when the instructions receiver is only half there to begin with. Reminds me of Tom Waits's excellent "Potter's Field."

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Because of What Happened: Stories from The Fiction Desk 5

Because of What Happened: Stories from the Fiction Desk 5, edited by Rob Redman, The Fiction Desk, September 2013

Because of What Happened at Goodreads
The Fiction Desk website

Overall Rating: 6/10

The latest issue of The Fiction Desk features fifteen stories compressed into 136 pages. No, the font is not shrunken as my opening sentence seems to imply, but instead volume five contains short short stories, including the winner and finalists of their recent flash fiction contest. Not a fan of flash fiction, I was hoping some long pieces would have been included to balance out the issue. Balance, however, turned out not to be a problem, though I find that overall the fifth TFD is so far the weakest. There are no bad stories by any means included, but the consistently strong stories I am now used to are replaced by consistently slightly-above-average stories. I am, however, pleased yet again that the mainstream is ensnared among the unusual, and we have yet another good fantasy from Ian Sales and, my favourite story from the collection, a great surreal piece from Tony Lovell.

As usual, the cover is excellent and the book looks and feels great.

Invisible Them by Matt Plass     6/10
A couple struggle with the reality of their soldier son's placement overseas. This flash story is familiar but the pervasive tone and strong writing elevate it. Plass is the author of "The Maginot Line" from The Maginot Line (TFD2) and "Tripe Soup and Spanish Wine" from Crying Just Like Anybody (TFD4).

The Coaster Boys by Cindy George     5/10
A man reminisces about his childhood group of roller coaster obsessed friends, and how, in their mid-twenties, one of the gang has contracted terminal cancer. This one did not grip me.

Something Unfinished by S. R. Mastrantone     6/10
Email correspondence between father and son, in which dad calmly recounts what led up to his recent separation from his wife, in that an early conversation between them, for years left unfinished, was now complete, and there was no longer anything to say to each other. Interesting idea with a nice ending to hint at ongoing family love. Mastrantone is also the other of "Just Kids," one of the stronger pieces in Crying Just Anybody (TFD4).

(Does email rename the concept of the epistolary tale? Should we be referring to it as an e-pistolary or e-epistolary tale? Is electronic correspondence an e-pistle?)

For Joy by Paul Lenehan     5/10
A flash fiction piece written in the second person on the anxieties of home ownership. Not my thing, but that's no fault of the author's.

The Patter of Tiny Feet by Tim Laye     6/10
Narrator recounts his six year-old self at his mother's hippy commune when he takes to an apparent skinhead mechanic who asserts dominance by taking it upon himself to evict the commune of its increasing rodent population. A good story, this one, with an agreeable relationship between disparate characters in a setting that makes them both outcasts. Unfortunately I did care for the epilogue that reveals the mechanic's secret method in disappearing the rats. I felt it was, in essence, lazy, with the older narrator happening upon someone somewhere who happens to tell him of the method. I feel the six year-old, in a flurry of irony, could have revealed it unknowingly, so long as the reader catches the gist of it.

The Menagerie of Sound by Robert Summersgill     6/10
The routine life of... unfortunately even that information would be a spoiler of a sort, since the story is built upon a process of reveal. Overall quite good, though the ending is obvious and thereby lacking, and the narrator's language a little too advanced. Similar to Greg Leunig's "Opposable Thumbs" that appeared this past spring in Shimmer 16.

Last Night by Andrew Jury     6/10
A couple hovering around their fiftieth spend a late night awake when their teenage son is at an all-night party. A good piece of characterization with an impressive female voice from a male author. Consistent with Jury's two other appearances in TFD anthologies: "Glenda" appeared in All These Little Worlds while "The Exocet" was published in The Maginot Line.

Love Stops at Ten Metres by Ian Shine     5/10
A bit of humourous dialogue featuring mom and daughter.

The System by Warwick Sprawson     6/10
A disgruntled roulette croupier has teamed up with a charming player to beat the game with the croupier's rare ability to target a section of the wheel and aim the ball. I've always liked stories about gambling, particularly dealing with roulette (Dostoevsky's The Gambler being at the forefront), and "The System" is a good, straightforward read. Clearly written, it focus alternately on the cheating system itself, and on the croupier who has bet everything on it. While the character is essentially two-dimensional, a kind of archetype in these stories, it does not detract from the narrative.

A Call to Arms by Tania Hershman     7/10
The winner of the flash fiction contest, and deservedly so. Even as a short piece of it's own right it packs a wallop, as we're given a glimpse into the life of an elderly man in a home, haunted by tragedy.

A Big Leap by Gavin Cameron     4/10
A boy converses with an artificial grasshopper. If there is something more to the story, then I've missed it.

The Last Men in the Moon by Ian Sales     6/10
A re-telling of the past forty-five years since the first landing on the moon. In this version, moon creatures attacked the American astronauts and waged war against a helpless Earth. Similar in structure and tone to Sales's haunting "Faith" from The Maginot Line, here we distantly follow a man from his eighth year as he witnesses the tragic lunar deaths of Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin and Neil Armstrong, throughout much of his life, and learn of humanity's plight at the hands of the moon people.

The Clever Skeleton by James Collett     6/10
Another piece of flash, this one featuring a man who believes he has since childhood been followed and watched over by a clever skeleton. A good and original read.

The Stairwell by Tony Lovell     8/10
In a valley commune, a man's fascination with a chatty female neighbour becomes troubling when he cannot believe she has recently spoken to a woman from the future. "The Stairwell" is a semi-surreal piece with elements of the post-apocalyptic, as we are presented with an isolated and crumbling outpost of a sort. The valley town is seemingly a residence for the elderly, where our two young leads are living a lonely existence, without evident purpose. While Jill finds herself living in the town due to familial circumstance, while striving (literally) toward the future, Colin is hooked on a partially vivid memory, and appears to have settled out of conscious choice. A challenging and rewarding read. I praise editor Rob Redman and TFD for recognizing the story's strength and sharing it with a wider audience.

SIMMO! by Damon King     5/10
Narrator dispels glowing account of a high school bully recently killed in a motorcycle accident. The final story in Because of What Happened is also the final featured flash fiction, and the story actually works well with the anthology title; arguably better than "SIMMO!" The story was interesting but unfortunately, due to the reader figuring out the narrator's motive early on, the flat-out explanation at the end comes across as anti-climactic. The story would have worked far better if his involvement was only hinted at, or better yet, made ambiguous. An awesome story, perhaps, if his involvement in other local deaths was just as ambiguous.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Briefly: John Knowles, A Separate Peace (1959)

Knowles, John, A Separate Peace, London: Secker & Warburg, 1959
Knowles, John, A Separate Peace, NY: Bantam, 1969 (my copy)

A Separate Peace at Goodreads
A Separate Peace at IBList

Rating: 7/10

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

Having been educated in Canada, neither A Separate Peace nor its author John Knowles were familiar to me until a stranger at a book fair recommended the novel long after I had finished high school. South of the border, of course, the novel has been taught in secondary schools along with other notable American modern novels featuring teen protagonists, such as The Catcher in the Rye and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (both of which are familiar to public Canadian high schools). Despite being so recognizable geographically, A Separate Peace was turned down by several US publishers before finding a home with the large UK publishing house Secker & Warburg. Perhaps the British sensibilities of the 1950s, not long since devastated by the war, recognized many of the topical aspects of the boarding school amid war conflict. Or perhaps the boarding school experience, being so much more common at the time in the UK, made it more accessible to the general reading public. Whatever it was that helped launch the eventually popular American novel overseas, what appeals to me most in A Separate Peace is not the plot nor the teen anxieties, however extreme, but the chaos of structured life bowled over by war. International conflicts only highlight the natural conflicts found in closer communities, and the sad reality that these boys are being educated and trained in the civilized world of boarding school only to be released to their death as soldiers. This reality is more devastating than the plot-entwined tragedy our protagonist encounters. Moreover there is a striking contrast between living such an isolated existence when all focus, your own included, is on international conflict.

Protagonist Gene Forrester experiences a series of personal tragedies as he slowly discovers his interpretation of reality is flawed. Believing that friend Phinneas ("Finny") is threatened by and attempting to subvert his own successes, Gene fights a passive battle that generates anxiety and guilt, not to mention tragedy. The notion of a skewed concept on reality is effective within a reality that is experiences a world at war. If such incredible, large-scale devastation is possible, then so are the infinitesimal conflicts between recent friends.

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the novel, and the ideas of a shifting view of reality is what raises it to its level. Granted the plotting and central themes are well developed and tightly woven into the fabric of the novel, it is these secondary elements that make the core so much more evocative.

A Separate Peace is linked to author Knowles's personal experiences at Phillips Exeter Academy (Exeter, New Hampshire), and ties in with other, shorter works. The work was initially spawned from a short story titled "Phineas," featuring the charismatic Finny, while similar themes along with the boarding school setting appear in other works, such as the short story "A Turn in the Sun" (Story #4, 1953). I am not familiar with Knowles's other novels, and it appears few are, as the man could never achieve the popularity of his first book.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

In the Shadow of the Gargoyle (1997)

Kilpatrick, Nancy & Thomas S. Roche, eds, In the Shadow of the Gargoyle, New York: Ace Books, 1997

In the Shadow of the Gargoyle at Goodreads
In the Shadow of the Gargoyle at ISFdb
In the Shadow of the Gargoyle at IBList

Rating: 5/10

Cover by Victor Stabin

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

Picked up at a Montreal subway overstock bookstand for three bucks, this anthology has been alternately on my shelves and in a box for nine years. I have anthologies that have followed me around for much longer, and I am not sure why I picked this one up. It was early-August and I wanted to polish off a few stories before a work trip to India, so thought I'd grab a quick read collection of stories. Instead I should've picked the anthology sitting to its right (Zombies: The Recent Dead, edited by Paula Curan, Prime Books, 2010) or to its left (Wild Things Live There: The Best of Northern Frights, edited by Don Hutchison, Mosaic Press, 2001). Alas these gargoyles do disappoint, though while it was on the verge of becoming the second worst anthology I've yet to read, the last couple of stories were actually quite decent.

Though the anthology gives its contributors a wide range of possibilities with the idea or image of the gargoyle, re-imagining the concept of a gargoyle or simply re-defining it, there is still less than inspirational material here, and the three reprints selected for inclusion, beside the fourteen originals, do little to heighten the book. I cannot think of a mostly original anthology so diverse and at the same time so disappointing. Most of the stories are straightforward fantasy, and though it was part of Ace Books's Dark Fantasy series, few of the stories are all that dark. The ones worthy of a read are those by Charles L. Grant, Don D'Ammassa, Wendy Webb, Lucy Taylor and Brian Hodge. The rest are altogether forgettable.

Nominated for a Bram Stoker Award for best anthology, a later reprint features a red bar at the top of the cover proudly proclaiming this feat. The anthology may have been inspired by the popular Disney cartoon Gargoyles that ran from 1994 to 1997.

It does not help the anthology that there are two errors in the acknowledgement pages, of three reprints. The anthology that first featured Charles de Lint's "May This Be Your Last Sorrow" is printed as The Essential Borderland when it should be The Essential Bordertown. Harlan Ellison's "Bleeding Stones" is credited as published in Deathbord Stories, 1972. It was first published in Vertex, April 1973, while first collected in Deathbird Stories in 1975.

The Soft Sound of Wings by Charles L. Grant 7/10
A retired police sergeant struggles with the death of his wife and the school he believes killed her, while a killer is stalking the community. A subtle story focusing on character and guilt. There are many nice allusions to gargoyles, from the eagles at the school to the Watch group trio who stoically keep an eye on the neighbourhood. Well written, gripping, and easily the best story in the anthology.

How Do You Think it Feels? by Neil Gaiman 4/10
Unlike with Grant, I never cared much for Gaiman's short stories, and this one leaves that opinion unscathed. A story of rejection and break-up that only incidentally includes a gargoyle of sorts that appears to be so arbitrarily tossed in it makes me wonder if Gaiman simply stuck it in simply to meet the anthology's requirement and hence get included.

The Gargoyle's Shadow by Katherine Kurtz 4/10
Borrowing from the anthology's title (or inspiring it), Kurtz delivers an overlong and overly dull tale of a gargoyle reclaiming stolen treasure from the its church. In this fantasy comedy, gargoyles can leave their posts for a night and for some reason attend a municipal meeting of gargoyles instead of a night on the town. How this convention functions alongside the mystery is unclear, and Kurtz could have chosen to present us with the mystery without the this back-story. Unfortunately both the comedy and the mystery are lacking.
NOTE: Kurtz expanded the story into a not-too-well-received novella: St. Patrick's Gargoyle, Ace Books, 2001. (Thanks to Richard from The Broken Bullhorn for this info.)

Scylla and Carybdis by Don D'Ammassa 6/10
Named after one of Odysseus's challenges, a pair of gargoyles reside in front of an old house, and little Kim has taken to reading amid their company. A bond is created and Kim is forever protected from various (primarily masculine) threats as she matures. Despite lacking in surprise, I genuinely enjoyed this quick story.

Studies in Stone by Jane Yolen & Robert J. Harris 4/10
The first of three collaborations. Gargoyle Gryx dislodges itself from the Scottish university to join the campus's freshman class. Pure fantasy-comedy, the story is unfortunately lacking in a solid basis to make it interesting. We read as Gryx manages to enroll in university, finance his education, select a major, study, drink, and so forth, without investing in any kind of serious challenge until the last couple of pages, when one seems to be arbitrarily generated so there is a purpose to what we are reading. An idea with potential that doesn't develop into a story.

Hagoday by Melanie Tem 5/10
Erik is speeding along a dark highway, drunk and stoned, unable to escape the fact that he killed a man in a car accident under similar circumstances. Time in prison hasn't healed his wounds, and his conscience has manifested in visions of gargoyles in pursuit. I had difficulty in believing that a man so guilt-ridden years following an accident would now be re-enacting the circumstances of that tragic night when claiming he wants to forget, boozing and toking while speeding along dark streets. I also wonder how prison therapy managed to fail so miserably since it appears his guilt is worse than it was immediately following the incident. A little more on the intervening years could have clarified some points. Not bad, just not fully realized. Perhaps another old idea with a dash of gargoyle to make it into this anthology?

May This Be Your Last Sorrow by Charles de Lint 5/10
(First published in The Essential Bordertown, edited by Terry Winding and Delia Sherman, New York: Tor Books, August 1998)
A lonely runaway girl has come to Bordertown where she confides to a silent gargoyle. A story of pathos that tries to garner sympathy via circumstance, rather than earning it through solid characterization. I didn't find that this particular runaway stood out from the many teenage or pre-teen runaways one encounters through fiction. However, the anthology it was originally intended for (and published in) features stories of runaways.
NOTE: The acknowledgements page incorrectly lists the original publication as "The Essential Borderlands."

Little Dedo by Nancy Holder 5/10
An unhappy law student commiserates while in Paris with lawyer husband about her unhappy relationship and unwanted career path. When characters don't take responsibility for their roles in their life paths and are just hating everyone and everything, I have a hard time caring. Yet there is strong late sequence that managed to penetrate my cynical barrier; too bad it wasn't part of a better story. "Little Dedo" was reprinted in the Stephen Jones anthology Summer Chills: Tales of Vacation Horror (Carroll & Graff, 2007).

The Gargoyle's Song by Alan Rodgers 4/10
"...she couldn't take it anymore; if it went on another moment even one solitary fragment of a second she'd scream, she really would." Which is ironic since that's exactly how I felt about this story when I read this melodramatic sentence. Similarly to the previous story, our female protagonist Cathy is feeling sick as a result of her life choices. This heroine is less stable, believing a gargoyle from her Manhattan building is singing to her. When Cathy and I are both unable to take it anymore, the story's focus goes through a significant shift which makes the tale a little more interesting. Even more interesting is that despite a second unexpected turn, the story speeds off in so many directions that it doesn't really go anywhere.

excerpt from The Luststone by Brian Lumley 3/10
First published in Weird Tales, Fall 1991
In the distant past, tribal leader Chylos prepares a ritual orgy to unite members of formerly warring tribes. This excerpt reads like an excerpt, incomplete and lacking in direction. Even if the complete story were included, I have never been fond of such fantasies, hence I am admittedly prejudiced.

Found Angels by Christa Faust & Caitlin R. Kiernan 5/10
Obvious story of a troubled young man who encounters a young and talented artist who collects gargoyles.

The Hour of the Sisters by Jo Clayton --/10
A fantasy including tribes, hunting, gargoyles and a game of some kind. After ten pages I just stopped. Not my thing.

Smiling Beasties by Wendy Webb 7/10
Rebecca Stern from social services appears at the door of Mrs. Lillian Wicker's asymmetric home to evaluate whether or not she is capable of taking care of herself. A classic idea and approach to irony. We know what's transpiring and the fate of the social worker nearly at the story's onset. Despite the familiar idea and the predictable plot, Webb constructs the story well and it is a pleasure to read. The asymmetric house is a nice touch, as our innocent and dedicated social worker enters a warped world, one beyond her innocence, when entering the elderly woman's home.

Now Entering Monkeyface by Marc Levinthal & John Mason Skipp 5/10
In the near future Frank takes a passage to Mars where a colony is being established near the ancient sculptures that resemble monkeys (or some would have you believe). Frank arrives at the request of an old friend who is promising a goldmine, but when he arrives he is less than thrilled to see "Snid" selling souvenirs along a deserted Mars road. While the story started off well, it unfortunately wasted its potential by becoming little more than a tired slasher ride. The story also suffers from some inattentive writing/editing. There is an out-of-place comparison early on, when a woman's voice is described as sounding "the way it feels when you bite down hard on tinfoil." The problem with this is that in a future, when colonizing Mars is a reality, humans are still having their teeth filled with mercury, when already in 2013 we have largely moved away from that practice. Even in 1997... but I'll let it drop.

Tempters by Lucy Taylor 6/10
A cuckolded man, abandoned by his wife, searches for the two children she has taken with her. The search leads him to two lewd garden statues that launch him on an aggressive stance on depraved sexuality. Similar to "Monkeyface" in that the narrative follows a man on a rapid psychopathological descent, "Tempters" is the better of the two stories, earning its violent end, as the descent is brought on by a subtle inner flaw in our narrator, whereas "Monkeyface" uses a deus ex machina style to launch the story to its climax. First person male perspective written by a woman, it at times feels a little conscious of itself, and I can't always place the character in solid perspective. Overall, however, the story works, and is among the better entries in the anthology.

Cenotaph by Brian Hodge 6/10
Pulitzer-winning photographer Kate and her younger, vain lover Alain, take an extended holiday to Britain, and while she is enamoured with the English countryside of her youth and the lineage her mother had once traced. She is captivated by a particular church and its renowned fourteenth century architect Geoffrey Blackburn, with whom she has distant family ties. Like Grant's story "The Soft Sound of Wings," this one is a quiet piece of dark fantasy. There is a nice surprise in the latter part of the tale, yet it slows down at the end with a semi-satisfying conclusion, since by then we can figure out what is actually going on. Despite the slump at the end, the story features good writing, some fine contrasts between the male characters, and between characters and their stoic stone counterparts.

Bleeding Stones by Harlan Ellison 5/10
First published in Vertex: The Magazine of Science Fiction, April 1973
Graphically violent episode featuring St. Patrick Cathedral gargoyles escaping their constraints due to pollutants (this was 1973) and massacring everyone in sight. Nowhere near Ellison's best work, and rarely collected.
NOTE: The acknowledgements listing for "Bleeding Stones" is also incorrect. It is listed as first published in Deathbird Stories, 1972. Ellison`s collection Deathbird Stories was in fact first published by Harper & Row in 1975.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Peter Straub, Floating Dragon (1982)

Straub, Peter, Floating Dragon, Underwood-Miller, November 1982
__________, Floating Dragon, G.P. Putnam's Sons, February 1983

Rating: 7/10

Floating Dragon at Goodreads
Floating Dragon at ISFdb
Floating Dragon at IBList

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

The populace of affluent Hampstead, Connecticut, and its outlying regions are unknowingly facing the fallout of leaked bioweapon DRG-16. Simultaneously a generation-dormant supernatural evil awakens to claim vengeance on the descendants of four families that had defeated its previous incarnations. This unusual mix of mad science and outright supernatural horror is a rare combination, and Straub's attempt is a worthwhile read. Admittedly there is at times a lack of balance between the two elements, with the supernatural kidnapping the reigns throughout the better portion of the latter parts of the novel, while I was hoping DRG-16 would interact more directly with the supernatural. Straub does attempt to meld the two with characters considering the possibility that the supernatural exists only their virus-affected minds, a great notion which he does not build upon beyond some brief discussion. While this would have been an excellent additional element to complicate the narrative, even eliminating some of the nightmarish visions in order to maintain its current length, I do understand that readers would be invested in the supernatural and this would only be a distraction; few would be caught up in this additional mystery, unless Straub set it up at the start of the novel.

The novel's build-up, or complication if we were to turn to Aristotle, is superbly presented. A layered narrative involving various styles, approaches and innumerable characters is solidly constructed. The town is delineated to such a point of clarity that I feel I can make my way through its streets, and the people are so invested in, though of course a fair share of stereotypes are included in their number, that like the town we see them clearly and never really lose track of even the minor players. The novel incorporates an incredible number of sub-genre elements, including serial killers, hallucinogenic experimental drugs, telepathy, doorway mirrors, walking dead, suicidal pets, a haunted house and a big bad monster. These items do not stray, since most are linked to either to our vengeful dragon or DRG-16. Some are hallucinations rendered by one of these evils, and Straub, for the first half of the novel at least, manages to balance each element well. Only when the book delves deeper into its hallucinatory faze do I feel his grasp has slipped.

The two elements that weaken the novel are the over-utilized visionary sequences and the elongated climax. Mid-way through the novel, as I was wholly immersed and speeding along, Straub shifts gears and guides us into a traffic jam of fire-bats, walking dead and beached corpses. The supernatural dragon is evoking hallucinations for our four heroes, and this overly-long section contains serious faults. Not only is it overly-long and repetitive in scope, it is unclear why the dragon, knowing who the family descendants are, did not attempt to defeat the four before they managed to unite. Was the dragon not yet strong enough? He seemed strong enough to at least attempt it, since his enemies too were unprepared at that time. This was the dragon's moment of defeat.

Overall I found myself more interested in the many sub-sequences littered throughout the novel. Leo Friedgood's descent into sexual depravity; the Norman brothers bullying Tabby while catering like puppies to a career thief; hack reporter Sarah's attempts to uncover the odd goings-on in the region; Richard Allbee's reminiscences on a 1950s television sitcom set; Clarke Smithfield's escape from his father; and so forth. The dragon distracted from these many interesting moments, and other than his incarnation as Bates Krell, he never manages to generate the tensions we encounter with real people. I suppose the supernatural is so fabricated that we are more invested in the real tensions devoted to the many characters.

Another element I enjoyed were Straub's post-modern touches, the notion that this novel is a creation of one of its characters, fictionalizing the actual events. If only Graham Williams was able to edit himself when describing those hallucinatory attacks, and that long climactic sequence. The singing, in this context, is perhaps a touch of modern absurdism, but even then a little silly.

Stephen King's more popular IT (1986) is similar to Floating Dragon in several aspects: from the notion that a group of close-knit friends mus battle some unseen evil that kills off townsfolk over different generations, down to the sexualization of the group's only female member. While King's novel holds up better at the finish line, Straub has a tighter build-up and proves, at least technically, to be somewhat superior. Perhaps Floating Dragon should have been a pre-The Talisman collaborative effort.

There is also a strong similarity between Floating Dragon and the recently reviewed Castle of Otranto (1764): both novels feature a vengeful spirit bent on destroying the descendants of a former enemy. Between the two we can see either side of a coin: whereas the family in Otranto is the antagonist and the spirit seeking proper justice, Straub's novel features a malevolent spirit, as is more common in horror .

As a final note I wanted to approach the novel through Robin Wood's idea that the monster in horror fiction (though he was referring to film) is an outsider, a creature marginalized from society's norm. In Floating Dragon our four heroes are themselves far from the norm: two are telepathic, one can foresee while the other can back-see (like Prometheus and brother Epimethius). If we were to apply the theory (more complicated than how I am presenting it here) along with the monster's relationship with the protagonists, perhaps this isn't a horror novel at all.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Horace Walpole, The Castle of Otranto (1764)

Walpole, Horace, The Castle of Otranto: A Story. 1764

Rating: 7/10

The Castle of Otranto at Goodreads
The Castle of Otranto at ISFdb
The Castle of Otranto at IBList

For other Friday's Forgotten Books, this week please visit B.V. Lawson's in reference to murder.

During the latter era of the Crusades, Prince Manfred, overseer of Otranto, is profoundly shaken when his sickly son and only heir is killed by an over-sized helmet on the morning of his betrothal to the beautiful Isabella. Alas, the curse of Manfred appears to be coming to fruition, vengeance against his lineage that had unlawfully taken ownership of the region and castle of Otranto. Soon thereafter heroic peasants, ominous knights, comedic servants and colossal spectres abound at the castle while Manfred attempts to salvage his lineage via some vulgar attachments.

A great deal has been written about this little novel, from the elements that help establish Gothic fiction to its historical context, and much of the criticism and historical evaluation of The Castle of Otranto is fascinating. Walpole chose to publish the text under the pseudonym William Marshal, and went to great lengths to convince the public that Marshal was merely translating a recently discovered manuscript by the (fictional) Italian Onuphrio Muralto from the early medieval era. Critics were fascinated by the translation and the work itself, and the book sold well, so that Walpole admitted to its authorship, resulting in critics panning the book for its overly melodramatic style and its purely Romantic approach. Readers, however, continued to be entertained.

The novel is marred for modern readers due to its incredible level of melodrama and the sudden reveal of information, a kind of deus ex machina, that exposes secrets unknown to the reader and most characters, information withheld, that brings the plot to its conclusion. With patience, however, the novel is enjoyable partly because of its melodrama, and though the prose is uneven, the ambitious use of language is often unique and a treat to the linguistic portions of our brains. Taken tongue-in-cheek of course, the nearly absurdist humour continues to be effective, though the villain Manfred is at these moments comical himself in his frustrations, diminishing his status as über melodramatic bad guy. The intense melodrama and wild humour make for an unusual mix, yet help to raise the novel above the weights of darkness and gloom that otherwise drag after steady, uninterrupted reading.

Despite its positive and eccentric elements, The Castle of Otranto remains consistently reputed as a terribly dull work that launched an incredibly rich and lucrative literary and eventual film (sub)genre. The novel's quasi-historical elements, broad yet ruinous landscapes, gloomy themes and tone, powerful characters and emotions, not to mention the requisite appearance of a ghost, helped to enliven imaginations of the later Victorians who themselves propelled the literary Gothic forward into the twentieth century. Since then film has broadened its scope so that the Gothic appears a full-fledged genre of its known. The seventeenth century Gothic borrowed from medieval history and poetry, whereas current Gothic fiction borrows heavily from the eighteenth century, reminding us of just how long the genre has been striving, since while it borrows heavily from the past, the contemporary form finds itself attached to a century beyond the genre's initial works.

What I liked about The Castle of Otranto as a novel rather than a literary artifact is the mysterious giant phantom whose body parts appear at different parts of the castle. Truly creepy to this day, its effect weakened by the comedy surrounding servants trying to explain their sight of it. The idea of two leaders planning to marry each other's daughters in order to guarantee that each has an heir to their respective kingdoms is both interesting and sickening, controversial even in its day. We have a medieval priest who fathered a son, and two princess heroines who love the same heroic peasant. Walpole wrote in a later edition preface that he was attempting to combine elements of both traditional and contemporary romance. I believe the intention since the book has elements of traditional chivalric romance along the lines of The Romance of the Rose, mixed in with quite modern ideas, like the hero who settles for the woman he does not love since she understands his grief over the woman he has lost and cannot stop loving. Life even for our heroes holds misery, a far removal from notions of classic romance.

The Castle of Otranto is not a book I would recommend to the casual reader, nor to the canon of western literature. It is a fascinating and important literary artifact, but not necessarily a good book. Anyone wishing to trace the evolution of English literature, or to even grasp certain threads that bind contemporary mainstream fiction to the past, would benefit with a close read. Anyone wanting an entertaining summer read, classic or otherwise, has numerous superior options.

A scene from the 1979 short film by Jan Švankmajer
Not only an interesting postmodern film, a false documentary of a false history, but The Castle of Otranto was adapted into a short comic. Less an adaptation but a kind of interpretation, dropping and exchanging some major story elements, and they managed to get the publication date wrong. You can read the comic here.

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As of 24 December 2015