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.

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