Sunday, December 28, 2014

Peter Straub, Mr. X (1999)

Straub, Peter, Mr. X, 1999

Mr. X at Goodreads
Mr. X at IBList

Rating: 7/10

The publication of Mr. X in 1999 proved to be Peter Straub's return to supernatural horror, a genre in which he'd established himself throughout the 1970s and 80s and for which he still most recognized. The work received general acclaim from critics, as well as the Bram Stoker Award in the novel category. It's the third of Straub's novels I've read, following Shadowland (1980; read many years ago) and its follow-up Floating Dragon (1982; read in 2013). Though I tend to lose interest in far-flung supernatural elements, I enjoyed all three books mostly for their character development which surpasses that of most horror-labeled authors. Though I haven't yet tried any of the thrillers he was focused on during the 1990s and later, these might appeal to me more, and I understand they were quite well received.

The main plot and its related threads begin well into the novel, as protagonist Ned Dunstan returns to his home town of Edgerton, Illinois, sensing that his mother is in danger. In Edgerton he takes on the task of discovering his father's identity, a man seemingly obsessed with Lovecraft to the point that he believes his works are fact. Over the course of a few days, Ned is being pursued by a dark entity he refers to as Mr. X, meets his doppelgänger, gets to know his eccentric family while learning their many secrets, and discovers that he has some latent supernatural powers. Amid all this he finds the time to fall in love with the wife of one of the town's wealthier and more influential personages, and thereby becomes embroiled in town affairs. A busy man, this is a busy novel to keep any character occupied.

The novel contains a general mix of family mystery, the supernatural, Lovecraft parody and some horror violence to transcend genre (it is a supernatural horror mystery, with strong elements of family drama along with small town life, which Straub presents with great realism). The novel is complex in both genre and plot, its mystery quite enmeshed in detail, and is quite a fascinating read on many levels.

What is most interesting is that in a novel whose plot is based entirely on some wacky supernatural possibilities, the characters (and the town) are presented with plain realism. Supernatural abilities aside, relationships are presented in complex terms and personalities are attentively delineated. An example of the complexities is the treatment of Ned's lover Laurie Hatch, and here I will offer up some minor spoilers.

Like any standard youthful crush, Laurie comes into Ned's life and, through his eyes, is presented as a kind of female ideal: a beautiful woman, highly compatible, who proves to be actively supportive, sympathetic and great in bed. Yet the ideal wears away as Laurie, over the course of mere days, falls from her the pedestal Ned has placed her on through some remarks from her almost ex-husband that ring believable. As the ideal dissipates, she becomes a real person in Ned's eyes, and our hero must contend with certain aspects of her personality that are not only non-idealistic, but downright threatening. Ambiguities abound around sweet mistreated Mrs. Hatch, who might in fact be an active treasure hunter. Moreover, the complexities with an inheritance set up for Laurie's son Cobden intermingled with her active involvement in Ned's affairs eventually point to the possible truth of Hatch's accusations. At the end we are left with an ambiguous portrait of Ned's lover, and whether she is innocent victim or treasure hunter, their relationship, should it continue, is irreparably marred by the possibilities suggested in the theories that Ned assembles regarding the timeline of Laurie's involvement in his affairs. Perfectly clear, no?

While I generally preferred Floating Dragon while reading, the ending of Mr. X was far more satisfying, and though I was more engaged with Floating Dragon, in a technical sense Mr. X is the better achieved book, and I believe through time it will grow on me. The way Mary Lawson's Crow Lake, which I enjoyed very much while reading, nonetheless grew on me over time primarily due to its complexities and character development.

The novel is certainly not perfect. There is a certain neurosis in the way characters are described via conversation. Straub feels the need to detail mannerisms to a point that it interferes with the story development and is at times genuinely annoying. Like Floating Dragon and many a supernatural novel, Mr. X does not need to be as long as it is. The lengthy development of Ned and his nemesis in the earlier parts of the book, from childhood to school experiences are utterly fascinating and well paced, so that when the older Ned arrives at Edgerton the change of focus and pace, along with the detail orientation, forces the second half to drag at times. Yet a minor complaint for a complex work.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Charles Lambert, With a Zero at its Heart (2014)

Lambert, Charles, With a Zero at its Heart, Hammersmith: The Friday Project, 2014

With a Zero at its Heart at Goodreads
With a Zero at its Heart at IBList

Charles Lambert's Website

Rating: 7/10

Among the many talented contemporary writers I've discovered through the excellent periodical The Fiction Desk is Charles Lambert. Having read and reviewed (positively) his two contributions to the publication, the short story "All I Want" from TFD1: Various Authors, and the novelette "Pretty Vacant" from TFD2: All These Little Worlds, I offered him, via Goodreads, a review of his latest book at Casual Debris. Within a few short days I received a copy of this very attractive little book, and took it with me to London and Istanbul, starting it in the former and completing the last few chapters in the latter.

Because life is riddled with all sorts of minor experiences, along Charing Cross Road I visited the numerous second-hand bookshops there, and on the shelves of Any Amount of Books was a copy of With a Zero at its Heart, selling for 6£, just under half the cover price. (In excellent condition, if you're interested. It might still be there, though this was about four months ago.) Lambert's book is, like life, riddled with an assortment of experiences, major or minor, each equally significant to the bearer.

     24 themed chapters.
     Each with 10 numbered paragraphs.
     Each paragraph with precisely 120 words.
     The sum of a life.

Toss in a final paragraph of a hundred and twenty words and you have a work made up of 28,120 words total. In this oulipian challenge, Lambert's writing is precise, as each paragraph, whether detailing an event or describing an object, must resonate on an emotional level in order that each fragment carry its own significance. There are some sections I found to be stronger than others, with "Danger" and "Colours" being among the weaker, but overall the work is consistent and engaging.

These fragments make up a whole that features a sensitive man in search of self via objects, sex and a plethora of emotions and experiences. There is no traditional plot, but the style offers the opportunity to form character more vividly than most plotted stories would. Removing traditional plot removes the character-building limitations that a structured story-line normally requires. Removing structure also lends the work a sense of chaos, making fiction more like life (to paraphrase Virginia Woolf). This is particularly appropriate here since the work is most likely semi-biographical.

The title references paragraph two of the section on animals: "He's presented with three white mice in a plywood box, divided by a wall with a zero at its heart." (p.38) These sections ate like chambers of the heart, divided and yet connected by an opening, making the heart whole. The novel is like a set of chambers made whole by its protagonist, his life and self being the zero that connects the various experiences and emotions depicted in the book.

The book is attractively designed by Vaughan Oliver, and the internal formatting and design are great (too bad about that typo on page 60). Another error is more technical. On page 129 watching the excellent Psycho in the cinema, "[t]hey both spot Hitchcock pass in front of a car." In the actual Psycho the director is standing outside the door, silhouetted in the glass, when Janet Leigh as Marion Crane walks in. Minor but distracting, at least for a Psycho(tic) fan. Though perhaps he is only pausing as he is passing by a car.

Note that this review is late so as not to conflict with my review of the same book at Black Heart Magazine, which you can read here.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Bookshops: Famous Book Store (New Delhi)

This past August my search for books in New Delhi led me through Connaught Place where many a bookshop can be found, and more variety than I imagine any quarter in any part of the world wouldn't dream of maintaining. The difficulty with second hand books in India is similar to that which I encountered in Turkey: due to heat and humidity, older books are warped, browned and spotted with mold. (Surprisingly, in the oddest backstreet shops in Istanbul I found many an old pulp anthology, including several Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and while all were dirt-cheap, most were unsalvageable due to decay.) Expecting to find variety in New Delhi, I was disappointed in my search for British editions of paperback anthologies, but impressed by the number and variety of bookshops available.

My time was limited, however, and while I'm sure plenty more books lie outside Connaught Place; I was only a few blocks away. Furthermore, additional bookshops exist in and around Connaught Place, including many booksellers who set up on the streets (and who, it is claimed by locals, sell pirated books that are often incomplete), and in about four hours I was unable to visit even the ones I knew about; my search having begun with this 2010 Hindustani Times article, and I managed to visit:

  • BMP Books
  • The Oxford Book Store
  • New Book Land (Janpath Market, below Connaught Circus)
  • ED Galgotia & Sons (B Block)
  • Jain Book Store (B Block)
  • Rajiv Bookshop (Palika Bazaar)
  • Amrit Book Company (N Block)
  • Famous Book Store (Janpath Market)
  • Anil Book Corner (H Block)

My favourite of these was Famous Book Store, a hard-to-find little shop just outside the Janpath Market (where I tried to purchase a Superman shirt for my twenty month-old son, but they did not have baby sizes). The shop was packed full, mostly with novels and children's books. I was tempted to purchase some books by the likes of Shaun Huston and Ramsey Campbell that were quite cheap, but since I've decided to no longer purchase mass market paperbacks (with perhaps some exceptions of the anthology ilk), I passed. One reason I nearly left empty-handed was that a store employee was shadowing me throughout what should have been my browsing pleasure. It was irritating. He did, however, dig through some piles to pull out a few odd titles I wanted a closer look at.

One of these titles was 50 Crime Murder Mysteries and Detective Stories, published in 2007 by Indiana Publishing House, a publisher located in New Dehli whose official email addresses are with gmail and yahoo, and whose website expired on October 28th of this year. The anthology has no credited editor and a table of contents that includes mostly people I have never heard of, alongside the likes of Ross Macdonald, G.K. Chesterton, HRF Keating, and the Edwards Hoch and Gorman. It was wrapped in plastic and I wasn't able to peruse the contents or pages prior to purchasing, but at 195 (about $3) it wasn't much of a gamble. The production is inexpensive, with font I haven't encountered since I was in grade school; as though the pages are photocopies of newsprint articles. The shop did have other titles from Indiana House, mostly collections of authors whose works are in the public domain. Perhaps I should've purchased others, since they might now be extremely rare and valuable. If only I hadn't removed it from its original packaging! (I am not being serious here.)

In addition to my single purchase, the shop gave me a nice little cloth bag that fit the book perfectly (pictured at the top), and I took one of their business cards (above).

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Bete Noire #16 (2014)

Bete Noire #16
. A. W. Gifford and Jennifer Gifford, rds. Dark Opus Press, 2014.

Bete Noire #16 at Goodreads

Overall Rating:     6/10

[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 compromised. I have removed the link and hopefully all is now well.]

Issue sixteen of Bête Noire includes, along with four short stories, visual art by Eleanor Leonne Bennett ("Shot Down 225"), Denny E. Marshall ("The Last Promise"), Wojciech Wolinski ("2") and two by Luke Spooner ("Backseat Driver" and "Group"), who is currently a finalist for the Spark Anthology cover contest.

There is poetry from James Frederick William Rowe ("Bristlecone"), Marge Simon ("Rock On"), J. J. Steinfeld ("The Art of Becoming Invisible") and Carol Hornak ("House").

For the short stories...

The Devils of Somerset, Mississippi by Jeremy Lloyd Beck     6/10
An atheist moves to small town Somerset to teach high school English, and his ideology quickly conflicts with the churchgoing townsfolk, particularly with their culturally ingrained racism. Well written for the most part, and a promising two-thirds is unfortunately capped off with an ending that does not address the author's most interesting ideas. I would elaborate, and am dying too, but as the publication was just released I shouldn't. Good concrete images and ideas that are well woven into the story body.

Transient Number Five by Christian Riley     5/10
A disgruntled man stalks a transient. A little flat.

Eyes of the Dog by Tobacco Jones     7/10
In a future totalitarian society, where children are raised in vast orphanages, one mother struggles to keep her two children at home. Divided into five sections, each with a separate character point of view, the story develops nicely, and the title eventually reveals itself, The strongest, darkest piece in the collection. What I like best about the story is not the cold society it depicts, but that citizens are each looking out for their own selves. This points to the true bleakness of this world, for since there is no one to challenge the system, the system will not only remain unchanged, but will strengthen in its resolve.

Blood Debt by J.D. Cano     5/10
Our narrator awaits his turn in a line-up of Aztec blood sacrifices. This piece is a scene that does not quite make a story.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Aside: Funding Publications

Without the various publications now available, the struggling writer concept would quickly metamorphose into the incidental writer, a writer who writes for self but has utterly given up on the dream of print. Publications need support, often financial, and the best way to support any publication is to purchase or subscribe.

At the age of thirteen I asked my parents, near Christmas, to gift me a subscription to Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, which they happily did. That excitement each month of receiving a collection of stories has remained with me ever since, though I've long since stopped that subscription. Since then I've held subscriptions to Prairie Fire, Riddle Fence, Prism International, Exile Quarterly, Grain MagazineDark Moon Digest, Glimmer Train, current favourite The Fiction Desk, and many others. Receiving a package from any publication, whether a journal, an advanced copy for review or a book via Book Depository or Bookmooch is a treat equalled by little else. In return for a subscription I receive not only fiction and articles, but  excitement and pleasure. Also, I am happy to know I am helping to keep the publication in print and the writers employed.

There are also funding projects available at times for both journals and one-off publications, and there are terrific ways in which readers can feel as though they are in some small way part of the publication. The first actual donation I gave was to Riddle Fence through a Rockethub campaign granting special subscription offers to those generous enough to support financially, and just the other day I was enticed to support Dark Regions Press for a shared world anthology project titled Madhouse. This particular campaign was attractively set up via indiegogo, and promised additional artwork and authors by offering "perks" to those helping fund the project. These perks range from copied of the final product to having a character named after the funder, or having a particular author kill off the funder in some creative way. I happily purchased a Madhouse Grab Bag, and having done so am suddenly quite excited about the project, which is to be delivered April 2015. (Though I'll likely forget about the entire thing until I receive a package from DRP.)

The recent publication Pulp Literature recently launched a kickstarter campaign in order to fund their second year as a paying print publication. I will soon familiarize myself with the publication (beginning tonight) and will likely make a donation/purchase to help them out as well.

There is still plenty of time to help fund Madhouse or Pulp Literature, if you're so inclined. Otherwise I would urge any reader and writer to support a publication with a subscription. A year subscription to most journals is equivalent to a meal or two (or three, depending on how you like your meals). They make excellent and unique gift ideas and generally look nice on a bookshelf. Moreover, in this age of electronic communication, it gives us something to look forward to in our mailboxes.

If you do decide to support a publication via a new subscription, let me know which one you've selected. Or let me know of others campaigns currently underway.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Casual Shorts: Frank Scott York, The Magic Boondockers (1957)

York, Frank Scott, "The Magic Boondockers," Leathernecks: Magazine of the Marines, Volume 40, issue 4, April 1957

Rating: 5/10

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

Among the most obscure short stories I have encountered is this little tale of military and the supernatural by someone named Frank Scott York. Until recently I haven't been able to even identify its original publication space and date.

For four years in high school I had the same English teacher. I liked her quite a bit and she helped introduce me to many authors and stories. One of her practices was to bring seemingly random short stories to the class in the form of photocopied pages, even though we normally had some kind of anthology we were working through. One of these stories was the obscure piece titled "The Magic Boondockers" by Frank Scott York, and it came in the form of a mimeograph, twelve pages with illustrations. (Apologies for the poor reproduction; I will upload a better shot soon.)

Private Andrew Bonner, a man who has never liked wearing shoes, receives a pair of military boondockers that make him feel good and light, and soon he discovers that while wearing them he can fly. This ability soon alters his personality from shy mountain boy to hot-shot, and both the military officers and his best friend, our first person narrator, grow concerned. Together they solve the issue of the magic boondockers and of Andy's arrogance by setting up a flight performance for their mates, while our narrator has replaced the shoes with ordinary ones, causing Andy to fall flat on his face.

The story is simple and simply written, with glaring faults. In reality, the military would no doubt confiscate the shoes and attempt to discover their secret; they certainly wouldn't allow a private to wear them, especially one so keen on using them. Military brass are concerned that Andy might be flying around, worried he and the shoes would fall into enemy hands who might uncover their secret, yet the colonel says taking the shoes away won't solve any problems. Moreover, part of the problem solving is to confiscate the shoes, contradicting the colonel's earlier statement. The story employs a light tone and the military officers are presented as kindly, simple and even naive, so we can't expect a more realistic approach where both shoes and trooper would be confined for intense scrutiny. Besides, the unlisted speak to the officers is too casual tones so that one might wonder if this is not instead a story of Boy Scouts.

For the story to work, however, it is important that the military be unusually lenient toward Andy; any X-Files cover-up wouldn't allow the narrative to survive the opening scene. Moreover, army intelligence must be relegated to idiocy in dealing with the boondockers mystery since our narrator must be readily involved in order for that final twist to exist. Finally, the story is not about the flying as much as it is about Andy's persona alteration. York is writing a tale of warning to anyone who might grow too big for their own boondockers when they find themselves with some kind of benefit or advantage, and clearly his intention was to bring Andy's arrogance down from the clouds. The relief his army buddies express at the end is not that the magic has disappeared, but that nice guy Andy can be just another normal trooper among a platoon of normal troopers.

Which is why I was so surprised to learn where the story was first published.

Originally I suspected my English teacher found it in some anthology for young people; never would I have guessed that it was aimed at a military readership. A search on Google elicits only two results, both of which are for Leathernecks: Magazine of the Marines. The issue is dated April 1957, Volume 40, Issue 4. On the site the story is titled with a slight alteration, "The Magical Boondockers." If this is the original publication source, it is likely not where my teacher found her copy; it's unlikely she was a member of the Marine Corps. The different titles also indicates she discovered the story as a reprint somewhere.

Any information on this story and its publication history is welcome.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Aside: 100,000+ visitors

A little over four years and a hundred thousand visitors, humans and bots alike. Perhaps other creatures as well.

At a young age I started taking notes on my readings, writing synopses and collecting publication data. I started reading serious short stories at the age of ten, and quickly developed a compulsive need to record. This has stayed with me in varying degrees, and a blog was just a part of the evolution of my compulsion. Having an avid reader as a mother, who introduced my to Alfred Hitchcock at an early age and other story-telling influences, not to mention a house full of books, has helped feed this inclination.

Thank you for encouraging this irrational need, with your comments, emails and simply by reading or even just glancing at the semi-random thoughts I've jotted down on this site.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Lawrence Block, The Sins of the Fathers (1976)

Block, Lawrence, The Sins of the Fathers, 1976

The Sins of the Fathers at Goodreads
The Sins of the Fathers at IBList

Rating:     8/10

For this week's Friday's Forgotten Books, please visit In Reference to Murder.

An integral element in the private investigator novel is the urban world in which he exists. With Matthew Scudder the reader is immediately immersed in the gritty urban landscape, one shaped not only by the violent and chaotic society that upholds it, but by Scudder's own broken perception of the world around him. Whether New York or the outlying farmlands, wherever Scudder chooses to live that world, through his eyes, would become broken and damned.
Like many readers I was quickly immersed in the dark and gritty world of Matthew Scudder, excited that there are many more to follow. Before even half-way through Lawrence Block's first Scudder novel I was convinced I'd finally come across a character I wanted very much to pursue. Having now completed The Sins of the Fathers, I know I will read In the Midst of Death soon.

The novel contains two story-lines; the murder investigation of prostitute Wendy Hanniford and her roommate Richard Vanderpoel, and the daily existence of former cop Matthew Scudder. Most interesting was Scudder's world, his attitude toward the complex urban society he lives in, from its horrid crimes, corrupt police and the regular people who attempt to eke out an existence amid the chaos. I certainly enjoyed the mystery and the straightforward interrogative and investigative approach, yet the circumstances around the crime were enhanced by the world in which it occurred. Figuring out what really happened is not difficult, yet the reasons behind the crimes and the punitive act of revelation overshadows the reveal. It is not a who-dun-it, but focuses more on the tragic aspects of the crime, to the point that for once in such a novel I was extremely sympathetic toward the victims and understood the tragedies of the death not simply because death in the form of murder is tragic.

Though published in 1976, the novel is set in 1973: Wendy Hanniford signed a lease in 1970, which according to Scudder was three years ago. (p. 40) I'm not sure of the relevance of 1973, of setting it in the near past upon publication, as it seems to be a minor detail in the book. What is important is that the story is set in the 1970s, and not for any social reference. For one thing, the murder of Hanniford would today be solved quickly due to DNA testing. For another, there are small incidents that are dated, though these have no impact on today's reader.

First there is a visit to the bank. "It was my first visit since the first of the year, so they entered some interest in my passbook. A computer figured it all out in the wink of an eye." This is no longer impressive. The only thing that hasn't improved about baking since 1973 or 1976 is the amount of interest rewarded for allowing them to invest your money.

DNA testing and outdated bank computing is irrelevant since the poignancy of the novel is Scudder's world, the gritty, corrupt and utterly unsympathetic New York. Yet in this damaged world, our broken hero manages to exude sympathy, both while delivering sensitive information and while delivering painful punishment. Among the straongest scenes in the novel is when a young, inexperienced thief tries to mug Scudder, and though it has nothing to do with the novel's mystery plot, it has everything to do with Scudder and with Lawrence Block's New York.

A terrific read.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Jane Urquhart, The Underpainter (1997)

Urquhart, Jane, The Underpainter, Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1997

The Underpainter at Goodreads
The Underpainter at IBList

Rating:     7/10

Like many a modern painting, The Underpainter grew on me steadily. At first I was a little disinterested, dulled by the cold, distant narrator, Austin Fraser. Though I did like the few early scenes featuring Fraser's friend George and some other supporting characters, it wasn't until after a hundred pages, when Augusta was telling her wintry tale of youth, play and the cold winter farm, that I became wrapped up in a cloak of interest.

Urquhart's excellent prose helped, but I was more fascinated by the ideas behind the tale, and by the fact that we were in the head of an easily dis-likable character. The Underpainter is Urquhart's fifth novel, book-ended between her two most successful works: Away (1993) and The Stone Carvers (2001). Though I haven't read any of her other books, I understand there was concern in her tackling a male first person narrator, and an American; the work might as well have been written by an American male.

Contrasting elements co-exist in Austin Fraser's art and life. Fraser believes that every aspect of his life must exist for and contribute to his art, and at the same time, thanks to the influence of the charming Rockwell Kent, he believes that every aspect of one's self must be invested in life, and the results should then be captured in art. Fraser is unable to invest in life as he is a reclusive, self-interested person, and hence what he captures in his art is controlled, whether a scene or a landscape, lacking spontaneity and "life." Moreover, the technique of underpaiting is his final attempt to mask that interpreted reality from the world. Not only is Fraser shut out from the world and people, his art is just as distanced.

Fraser is comfortable in an ordered landscape. He attempts to control the world and the people around him, possibly to create a scene in life that he can then transpose onto canvas. Like his paintings, hints of good peak out from the layers of selfishness. His love for his friend George is genuine; he is merely unable to understand the man, just as he is unable to understand any of the players in his life, which make it impossible for him control his environment, and hence impossible to control his art.

Fraser is summed up by Augusta, a former war-time nurse and the most interesting character in the book: ""Though so much of everything," she said, "is unexpected, Isn't it? Accidental--even if it's hard to believe that. Still, it's almost impossible to believe the opposite--that everything is planned." (p. 290) Moreover, he is a reflection of the man-shaped peninsula, The Sleeping Giant that bookends the novel: "Behind her the stone man slept on, unmoved by her journey, his body hard and rigid and unchanging. // Heart of granite. Bed of ice." (p. 333)

Just as Fraser is in essence the embodiment of his underpainting technique, his friend George is the embodiment of the ceramic he paints: fragile, easily shattered. Unlike Fraser's underpainting, George's depictions are sensitive and up front, though he is a complex man with many hard-kept secrets.

What is most interesting to consider in Urquhart's narrative technique is Fraser's purpose in setting down his story. It is difficult to accept that this narrative is a recollection of Fraser's, a memoir of his life, as he lacks the sentimental nature and the sensitivity to construct such an emotionally wrought narrative. Instinctively we approach the text with the belief that Fraser is less than a trustworthy narrator, and yet he is honest with his own deficiencies, and we accept that he presents his story without, in a sense, underpainting it. Perhaps there are hidden elements in his bringing an old acquaintance back to Ontario, but this is speculation. All this leads me to wonder if he is not a better writer than he is an artist, and maybe he should have replaced his brushes for the inkwell he receives from George early on.

Whatever Fraser's true calling, Urquhart masters the craft of writing in this somewhat conceptual novel, difficult to render and well accomplished.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Stephen King, Insomnia (1994)

Signet, 1995
King, Stephen, Insomnia, NY: Viking, 15 September 1994
___________, Insomnia, NY: Signet, September 1995 (my copy)

Insomnia at Goodreads
Insomnia at ISFdb
Insomnia at IBList

Rating: 4/10

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

Preparing for a trip to India, one offering plenty of reading time due to extended commutes, I was searching for a lengthy yet quick read, something I don't need to think about and simply doze through. During my last trip to India I was pleasantly accompanied by Peter Straub's 1982 novel Floating Dragon, and decided that this time around I would carry something similar. I hemmed and hawed over stuff I had in a box of horror novels, and considered Straub's Mr. X (1999), Robert McCammon's Stinger (1988) and a couple of others I can't now recall. Settling on Insomnia was due partly on the fact that I hadn't read a King novel in a long time, and partly on the fact that my edition, found in a book sale reject pile, is completely battered, and I knew whatever I lugged around with me would receive a bit of a beating. Mr. X, also found in a reject pile, is quite pristine, and I am anal about my books. Even the cheapo paperbacks.

Insomnia is a lesser-known, little read and mostly neglected Stephen King novel. And for good reason. The novel is a plodding, generally uninteresting and often silly, over-sentimental fantasy. I often like a slow, plodding tale, but this one is padded with details that do little to serve the whole of the novel and nothing to build suspense.

Hodder & Stoughton, 1995
We are served up tension with the idea that our senior citizen heroes, Ralph Roberts and Lois Chasse, must save the world (or at least the Derry Civic Centre) within a matter of hours! (This urgency after a few hundred pages.) Pressed for time, at their wits' end, our swift heroes decide quickly to take a lovely meandering stroll through Derry toward their destination while thoughts are leisurely focused on their new abilities, like floating and becoming semi-visible, and their local haunts, like the neighbouring park where old friends play chess and argue about social matters which are related in so much detail that we forget what our purpose is and all tension is sucked dry.

(Yes, our elderly heroes develop powers as a trade-off to their sleeplessness. I won't discuss plot points so if you wish to for more story-line info, please see the myriad reviews on Goodreads.)

Characters abound by the thousands, and many are needless, barely mentioned, while some are arbitrarily done away with. One seemingly major character (I will avoid a direct spoiler here) is done away almost as an aside fairly early on, in such a way that I'm left with the impression the author just didn't know what to do with him and couldn't be bothered to re-write the first few hundred pages. Maybe he was also too bored with the work to invest in a re-read. (King has, since the book's publication, claimed not to have plotted the novel, and has also stated that a novel that is not properly plotted ends up lacking. Insomnia is in need not only of proper plotting, but some severe editing.)

The lengthy conversations between characters and the genuinely uninteresting reflections of protagonist Ralph Roberts are among the easily expendable portions, and a pared down version of Insomnia might actually have been an above average read. There are some interesting elements that could have contributed to a half-decent novel, such as the idea that the elaborate emphasis on abortion is merely a ploy for something entirely different, and though his prose falters with alarming frequency, King manages nonetheless to create a mostly vivid geography.

Speaking of abortion, the subject is approached via many points of view, and in no way objectively. It is clear who the bad guys are on the abortion issue (though personally I have no qualms for this and I doubt King cares if he's potentially alienating any anti-abortionists). He does attempt late in the novel to present us with a semi-sympathetic anti-abortionist in the form of a diner waitress, in another needless scene. It is, however, too little and too late to generate any equality among the figures on either side of the debate. Besides, she quickly falters to become a less than likable caricature. If anything, however, King is genuinely sympathetic with the plight of battered women, and I think it is important for that reality to be presented in mainstream fiction.

Hodder, 2008
There is a cautionary lesson less than subtly embedded into King's arguments on spousal abuse and its consequences. Throughout the novel women ill-treated by men have an instinctive trust of other women and an instinctive distrust of all men. Our male hero Roberts reflects on this several times, again slowing the work, and is disapproving of this trust/mistrust issue. Roberts comes across here as naive, since of course battered women would instinctively mistrust all men they do not know, just as a battered animal would mistrust all humans as a result of being battered by one, just as all men would instinctively distrust women (or relationships with women) if in any severely way wronged by one. Any major traumatic event leads to fear, regardless of gender, race or one's role in the animal kingdom. Despite this logic King pursues his argument, and the women's shelter is infiltrated by a women as a result of the natural trust they share with all women. This character is mentioned shortly before the infiltration scene as a danger to Roberts, and then brings about the downfall of the shelter; she is clearly mentioned only to bring about this scene and only to bring about the argument that battered women should not have instinctive responses to strangers as a result of their gender. Perhaps that is so, but King is being punitive, less interested in exploring the nature of the mistrust, that the base human survival instinct is to protect oneself in areas where one has experienced danger, particularly when that danger is life-threatening.

Tossed into this mish-mash of a novel are some glaring errors. In 1992 Ed Deepnau is thirty-two years old while his wife Helen is thirty (p. 169), yet they kept all the vinyl records they purchased back in the 1960s (p. 84). What a thing for toddlers to do with their allowance. Later, Roberts receives a visual of May Locher's death, and there is a "companion" stabbed to death beside the old lady's death. What of this? Are we deliberately being misled to believe the culprits are cold-blooded killers by the visual aid of a bloodied corpse, a corpse that does not actually exist? Or is this part of King's lack of plotting, and he forgot about this moment entirely as he continued winging the novel on a whim. Shame on you Mr. King!

Luitingh-Sijthoff, 1994
Insomnia does appear to serve a minor purpose: to thread the ties of King's fictional universe. References to both the Dark Tower series and his far better lengthy novel It are splattered throughout. I haven't read any of the Dark Tower books but I get the gist of some of what it going on. On the other hand I have read and enjoyed It. I do not believe Insomnia is in any way improved by these references, nor do I believe these references improve the other works. It has been argued that some of King's obviously weaker works are artificially inseminated with references to his superior works, and I would not be surprised to learn that this is the case, at least with Insomnia . I haven't read enough of his novels to have a full understanding of his mythos, and (because life is short) I have stuck to those works that have received general praise, such as It, Misery, 'Salem's Lot, The Stand and The Shining. Reading Insomnia was a fluke travel decision, as was the unbearably awful Dean R. Koontz novel, Twilight Eyes.

For covers, that first Viking edition at the bottom is mirrored by two opposing coloured prints. I'm not sure if the two flip-coloured prints were released simultaneously, the way those for Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell were ten years later in 2004. I also don't see a significance to the two versions the way I assume there is one for the black and white of Clarke's work. I do like the first paperback edition, that of Signet (1995) at the top; with more detail and colour, this one evokes more mystery. There have been many covers and reprints, a surprising amount (but I guess it is Stephen King), and many of them quite good. The ghostly and full of implication Hodder & Stoughton pillow corpse and the simplistic death referential Hodder reprint from 2008 are both vastly different and quite good, though the second having a different significance to one who has read it, and is hence exclusive of the non-reader. But I'm partial to the cartoonish Dutch version on the left, from Luitingh-Sijthoff, translated by Eny van Gelder (1994).

Viking, 1994 (?)
Viking, 1994

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

There Was Once a Place: Stories from the Fiction Desk 7

There Was Once a Place: Stories from the Fiction Desk 7, edited by Rob Redman, The Fiction Desk, 2014. 148 pages

The Fiction Desk website
There Was Once a Place at Goodreads
Review of The Fiction Desk 6: New Ghost Stories

Overall Rating: 7/10

The latest issue of The Fiction Desk features this year's flash fiction competition winner and runners-up, tossed in with some fine short stories. As I mentioned in my review of TFD5: Because of What Happened, I am not a fan of flash fiction, yet again those selected here are worthy reads, and among the shortlisted entries, I completely agree with the selection that received the honour of "best": Jo Gatford's "Bing Bong."

My preferred stories from TFD7 include Melissa Goode's "Exile," which I would vote as the issue's top story, followed by some strong genre entries: Alex Clark's "The Stamp Works," Edmund Krikorian's "Santa Maria" and Chris Fryer's "The Loop."

I Say Papaya, You Say Pawpaw by Mike Scott Thomson     6/10
The once owner of a now defunct grocery store is forced to seek work at the large chain that helped close his own shop. Here he must contend with the faceless aspects of consumerism, at both the client and management ends. A good story, though the ending doesn't address the issue of corporate take-over, unless the point is simply that big bad companies are helmed by normal folk. Or perhaps without being aware of it, he has been assimilated into the mass commercial machine and the individualism of small business is no longer of import. Perhaps we're being told that the big chain is the opium of the little guy?

Thomson is the author of "Me, Robot," which appeared in TFD4: Crying Just Like Anybody.

Dan and the Dead Boy by Mark Taylor     6/10
A man tries to come to terms with living with a dead teenager's liver, guilt-ridden by allowing his own youth to pass by. The story features good dialogue and humour.

Little Bird Story by James Collett     5/10
Flash fiction featuring a man at a bus shelter and a stunned bird that is, ultimately, a reflection of himself. Collett also wrote "The Clever Skeleton," another shortlisted flash that appeared in TFD5: Because of What Happened.

Constructing an Exit by Peter Clark     5/10
This second person narrative goes on for too long, so that the momentum it builds quite nicely ends up falling in on itself.

Misson to Mars: An A-Z Guide by Sarah Evans     7/10
The story of a "reality-tv" survival series set on Mars and the unseen and uncaring audience that leaves them to perish is told via an alpha-narrative (as in alphabetical). The result is both interesting and effective, and the detached third person "we" tone works particularly well.

Throughout the anthology the story's title is spelled "Misson," while on the TFD website it's "Mission." I think the print copy erred. The story is among the flash contenders, and to me a close second choice. Sarah Evans is the author of the the fine story "Stuck" that appears in Unthology 2. For an article of Ms. Evans's process is launching "Mission to Mars," please click over to this TFD page.

Santa Maria by Edmund Krikorian     7/10
Future science fiction tales that appear in serious literary journals tend be dark and fatalistic, yet despite its opening set in that direction, Krikorian's "Santa Maria" switches gears and offers hope in a way that we forget the story is science fiction. Man's state of affairs remains bleak, but there is hope in the unchanging facets of humanity. The gear-switching is effective, not at all jarring, and both moods work well.

Colouring In by Cindy George     6/10
Another shortlisted flash piece, this time with a good concept. The story revolves around the idea that every child, no matter how unimpressive, should be recognized for something they are good at no matter how trivial that something appears. George was voted by her peers as the author containing the best story in TFD5: Because of What Happened.

Badass by Die Booth     6/10
Shortlisted flash. A simple story of a stereotype is surprisingly good, genuinely sympathetic. Booth is the author of "Phantoms" which appears in TFD4: Crying Just Like Anybody, and co-editor if Re-Vamp.

The Guy in the Bear Suit by Dan Purdue     6/10
Third flash in a row is a second person tale of paranoia and a dark secret buried in childhood.

The Stamp Works by Alex Clark     7/10
An industrial archaeologist is hired to map out an unused mining compound for a company hoping to revive it, and immediately some odd occurrences come to play. Ms. Clark's story is apparently her first published, and it's quite good, with a genuinely unsettling and well detailed set, a good suspenseful story and a believable narrator. I would argue some of the end is perhaps over-explained and over-sentimental, but I wouldn't argue too hard. For her take on the story, please visit this page.

Exile by Melissa Goode     7/10
The tension in this one is excellent, both in the situation and in Melissa Goode's approach. A woman has come to meet a former lover, someone she was involved with for an extended period while he was married and his son was quite young. The notion of exile permeates the story, as the former lovers have been in exile from each other, the man is living in solitary exile, the woman is exiled from her mores. What works so well is that despite our own proper moral viewpoints, or so we pretend, we do understand and sympathize nonetheless with these two less than exemplary individuals. My favourite entry in TFD7.

The Loop by Chris Fryer     7/10
I like ideas of loops, and though Fryer's story is not the most original, and because of its nature the resolution or lack thereof is inevitable, the story is well constructed and a good read. The structure around different characters and that first person plural voice works effectively, as does the less than likeable genius that generates this particular loop. Also, I like the double words words.

Loss Angina by Nik Perring     6/10
A man shaves his lips off and is troubled when no one seems to notice. Motivated by a break-up, the character is inherently self-centred as his grief takes a back seat to the fact that no one notices his the consequences of his pain. Though not quite Perring's idea, I suspect; he appears more interested in the notion that we are all openly scarred, but what I like here is that the character's own injury (self-inflicted despite the result of someone's departure) has him transfixed, and he is hence unable to see the wounds of others.

Bing Bong by Jo Gatford     7/10
A mother and son are at the dentist's, and the son, with a peculiar affinity to sound, needs desperately to hear the chime that calls for the next patient. A genuinely touching bit of writing, it deserves its prize for "best" flash fiction.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Peter Haining, Space Movies (1995)

Haining, Peter, editor, Space Movies, London: Severn House, 1995
_____, Space Movies, London: Pan Books, 1995
_____, Classic Science Fiction, London: Pan Books, 1998

Space Movies at ISFdb
Space Movies at Goodreads
Space Movies at IBList

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

Overall Rating: 7/10

Of the two titles the anthology has appeared under, Space Movies is by far the most appropriate. Haining's focus in both the selections and the introductory material is on film, more specifically on special effects, and not on the related literature. While the anthology collects a few short stories that have been adapted to the big screen, it also contains some "fictionalizations" of scripts for both film and television, as well as a script treatment. There is an introduction by Haining, "The Fiction of Possibilities," that discusses the early evolution of special effects, and each story has its own mini intro, focusing primarily on the film the selection is highlighting. The introductions are interesting though not revolutionary.

Unfortunately what the book gains in its unconventional material and interest it loses in overall sloppyness. There are far too many typos throughout the book, including character names (Parkette in "The Lawnmower Man" is at one point Parkett, whereas Bierce in "The Unreal McCoy" is also Beirce).

There is also fault with both titles: Space Movies and Classic Science Fiction. For one not all the movies are set in space, and for another not all are science fiction. The last entries, those by King and Barker, are both horror fantasy, supernatural tales that have absolutely no science fiction elements, and while the film linked to the King story is certainly science fiction, the film linked to Barker's story certainly is not.

Three of the stories here are re-reads for me and all three hold up well: Clark's "The Sentinel," Dick's "We Can Remember it for You Wholesale" and King's "The Lawnmower Man." My favourite new reads are Barker's "The Forgotten" and Moore's "The Lot," and along with Dick these make up my preferred three stories in an interesting though far from fully achieved anthology.

Like many famous science fiction films, the book had a sequel, as Space Movies was followed a year later by Space Movies II. The two anthologies were combined by Carroll & Graf in 1999 under the title Vintage Science Fiction.

extract from Rocket Ship Galileo by Robert A. Heinlein     5/10
Destination Moon directed by Irving Pichel, produced by George Pal (1950)

This extract from Heinlein's novel does not stand on its own. The older leader appears unnecessarily bitter toward his youthful comrades, though I haven't read the novel and am taking it in context of what I am being given. The 1940s vision of the moon is laughable, but more amusing than irritating. The movie Destination Moon was a big achievement for its time and a cinematic event, and that and the use of Heinlein's name are likely the main reasons the excerpt was selected for inclusion in the anthology. The film, incidentally, was only co-scripted by Heinlein, along with Alford Van Ronkel and James O'Hanlon.

The Meteor by Ray Bradbury     5/10
It Came from Outer Space directed by Jack Arnold, Produced by William Alland 

According to Haining, this piece is a treatment of the script by Ray Bradbury, but it reads like a straightforward novelization (or story-ization) of the movie, perhaps for this anthology, perhaps even ghosted by some unknown (Haining?). While I enjoyed the movie, this treatment does not read well; it is dry and completely removed from any of the film's spirit. It is a serviceable play-by-play, with less independent inventiveness than the James Blish adaptation of Star Trek's "The Real McCoy," which will be discussed later.

The Conquest of Space by Werner von Braun     6/10
The Conquest of Space directed by Byron Haskin, produced by George Pal (1955)

Like Sir (or Saint) Thomas More's Utopia, Braun's work is a pretend story that is merely framing views on a utopia-like society. Though the narrative begins with a fair amount of suspense, all elements of tension are removed early. Story-line is replaced by a primarily descriptive narrative of an advanced society that has lost its sense of adventure and need for exploration, presented as an antithesis to the youthful human race, whose desire for exploration is venturing into the new, exciting (and possible) realm of space travel. The Mars of 1955 is replete with life, technology and scientific intelligence, though despite Braun's attempt at thoroughness in depicting this society in such a brief space, the reader is left to wonder about a few things, such as where they get their materials for all that infrastructure, or even for their clothing. I am not familiar with the film, but this print version is, with its lack of story, nonetheless interesting.

Lot by Ward Moore     7/10
First published in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, May 1953
Panic in the Year Zero! (1962) directed by Ray Milland, produced by Arnold Houghland and Lou Rusoff

I am not familiar with the movie, directed by actor Ray Milland who I quite like (that performance is Dial M for Murder truly elevates the film), and Haining's comments on Milland's drive to deliver a dark apocalyptic film for the early 1950s has certainly peaked my interest. Moore's short story is very effective. Well written with fine characterization and diologue, the entire piece takes place at the very beginning of a family's departure from home during a post-apocalyptic crisis, and though we don't travel too far (though we really want to), the entire future plight of that family--and humanity--is so expertly suggested by the appropriate twist at the end (or the beginning). Definitely worth a second read.

Sentinel of Eternity by Arthur C. Clark     6/10
First published in Story Fantasy, Spring 1951
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) directed and produced by Stanley Kubrick

Clarke's short story "The Sentinel" is best remembered as the originator of Kubrik's far more famous film. Yet the short story, first published seventeen years before the movie's first screening, was decently anthologized prior to being immortalized, so it would likely not have remained unforgotten in the new millennium. The story re-appeared in the popular British science fiction anthology series edited by Kingsley Amis & Robert Conquest, Spectrum III (Gollancz), as well as Damon Knight's future-themed anthology Worlds to Come (Harper & Row, 1967). Originally published by major science fiction editor Donald A. Wollheim in Story Fantasy 10 (Spring 1951), it was reprinted in the influential magazine New Worlds Science Fiction 22 (April 1954, edited by John Carnell), and in three of Clarke's own collections: Expedition to Earth (Ballantine Books, 1953), Across the Sea of Stars (Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1959) and The Nine Billion Names of God (Harcourt, Brace & World 1967). (For as complete a bibliography as is available, visit the story's ISFdb page.)

"The Sentinel" works better as an idea than a short story--it is a concept disguised as a story, with a pretend plot and character that culminate in Clarke's speculating of an advanced alien race waiting centuries for humans to evolve enough to be worthy of contact. The aliens planted a machine in a hard-to-find place on the moon as a kind of test, is absolutely fascinating, and Clarke furthers his speculation by wondering how lonely such advanced space-travelling beings must feel in the vastness of space where intelligence is a bona fide rarity.

And of course there's that incredible film.

extract from Logan's World by William F. Nolan     unread
Logan's Run directed by Michael Anderson, produced by Saul David (1976)

I skipped this extract of Logan's World, partly because I often skip extracts, and partly because I didn't much care for the novel Logan's Run (1967) by William F. Nolan and frequent Twilight Zone contributor George Clayton Johnson, though I did enjoy the somewhat silly movie. Logan's World was published a year after the movie's release, and possibly written in a rush at the success of the film. There was a third book in 1980, Logan's Search, which quickly fell out of print.

Note that Logan's Run co-author George Clayton Johnson also wrote "The Man-Trap," the first aired episode of Star Trek, which was later adapted by James Blish as "The Unreal McCoy," and included as the following story in this anthology.

The Unreal McCoy by James Blish     6/10
First published in Star Trek, Bantam Books, 1967
Star Trek: The Motion Picture directed by Robert Wise, produced by Gene Roddenberry (1979)

This is Blish's novelization of the first aired Star Trek episode "The Man Trap," tele-scripted by George Clayton Johnson. Blish was novelizing the original Star Trek series from 1967 until his death in 1975, and produced twelve volumes for Bantam. This rendition is fun and nostalgic to read, and unlike the other adaptations in the anthology, its author takes small liberties in adding to the story-line, such as internal character responses and interpretations of emotion.

We Can Remember it for You Wholesale by Philip K. Dick     8/10
First published in  the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, April 1966
Total Recall directed by Paul Verhoeven, produced by Ronald Shusett and Buzz Feitshans (1990)

Dick's story of a man's desire to visit Mars to the point of having memory implants installed in his brain holds up well nearing its half-century anniversary, and also as a re-read. The blatant coincidences are so absurdist that they are hilarious, and if you stop to think about, quite revealing on a more serious level. For one thing, humanity is eventually doomed for there is only so long you can keep a man from dying, a man whose actual life is preventing Earth's destruction. Dick's ongoing interest in the idea that one's life is not the life they have in reality lead does not grow tiresome, particularly in the vast and varied ways it can be approached.

The Lawnmower Man by Stephen King     7/10
First published in Cavalier, May 1975
The Lawnmower Man directed by Brett Leonard, Produced by Gimel Everett (1992)

"The Lawnmower Man" is zany and fun, and I still recall the first time I read it as a pre-teen, struck by its originality (as I was with much of Night Shift). The story holds up and remains fun, the character details are good in the depiction of Parkette, though the devil references are not necessary, and without them the story might even work better. Comical devil references are reminiscent in the work of earlier twentieth century genre writers like John Collier (best known for "The Chaser"), and like those lighter stories the potential dark overtones are wholly removed. Without explanation, the lawnmower bloke might have been just a little more sinister.

King makes an unfortunate oversight in the story. Parkette tells the lawnmower dude that the mowing should be quick and straightforward since the backyard has no obstructions, yet we later learn there's a birdbath in the centre of the yard. Was the grass so high it kept it hidden?

It's amusing that the anthology ties the movie to the short story since Stephen King successfully sued to have his name removed from the credits of a movie that was clearly trying to cash in on his name at the height of his career. Even without the lawsuit it is evident that the connection is fabricated; a wonder King didn't sue Haining and Severn House to boot.

The Forbidden by Clive Barker     7/10
First published in Fantasy Tales, Summer 1980
Candyman directed by Bernard Rose, Produced by Steve Golin, Alan Poul and Sigurjon Sighvatsson (1992)

A white photographer visits the slums to capture the unusual array of graffiti covering much of the foreground, and soon becomes enthralled by both landscape and the gossip of killings that, despite their severe and violent nature, have been completely ignored by media. She investigates, and as you can imagine enters not only the foreign neighbourhood of the slums, but the surreal landscape of Barker's darker notions. Very well written, it is both social commentary and mild satire, featuring dis-likeable characters, good dialogue and a strong setting. I am not familiar with the movie that displaces the story from the UK to the US, which is not necessarily an issue since sadly such a story could be effectively told through much of the western world.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

George C. Chesbro, Shadow of a Broken Man (1977)

Chesbro, George C., Shadow of a Broken Man, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1977
Simon & Schuster, 1977
_____, Shadow of a Broken ManNew York: Signet, 1981
_____, Shadow of a Broken Man, London: Severn House, 1981
_____, Shadow of a Broken ManNew York: Signet (reprint), ca 1983
_____, Shadow of a Broken Man, New York: Dell, December 1987 (my edition)
_____, Shadow of a Broken Man, Apache Beach, October 1999

Shadow of a Broken Man at Goodreads
Shadow of a Broken Man at IBList

Rating: 6/10

Dell, 1987
George C. Chesbro's semi-popular dwarf private detective, lecturer and criminologist Dr. Robert Frederickson, better known as retired circus acrobat "Mongo the Magnificent," first appeared in various magazines in the early 1970s, most notably Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine and Mike Shayne's Mystery Magazine. Chesbro was fundamentally a mystery writer, but much of his work was infused with elements of the supernatural, as were the Mongo novels. AHMM was not averse to publishing mysteries that contained elements of the supernatural, and featured many mixed genre mystery stories, including a handful by Chesbro himself. The novella that was the basis for the first Mongo novel, Shadow of a Broken Man, was titled "Strange Prey" (Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, August 1970), and featured the plight of telepathic New York architect Victor Rafferty. The novella predates "Mongo," and did not feature an investigating detective of any kind, but instead pursued Rafferty's plight from agents wanting to recruit him for talents that could help transform him into a natural, undetectable super-spy.

Shadow of a Broken Man is set several years following the events of "Strange Prey." Detective Mongo is hired to find the missing architect. For those reading the novel without having read the novella, the secret to Rafferty's disappearance is one discovered alongside our detective's own investigations, while those who have read the novella are aware of many of the facts Mongo is in the process of unveiling, and there is less suspense offered to the reader. I had read "Strange Prey" a number of years ago, but was not aware of its connection to the novel, and only when I was well into the book did I realize that the elusive Victor Rafferty was the sympathetic character in Chesbro's novella, which as a pre-teen was among my favourite AHMM stories.

Severn House, 1981
Most striking between the two narratives is the perception of character. In the shorter version we read of Rafferty's experiences coping with his new powers, whereas in the novel we are quite removed from the man, and he comes across as cold and confident, not at all the sympathetic anti-hero of the earlier version. Of course the novel is set years later when Rafferty has taken on a new identity, has properly trained himself to control his powers and, most importantly, has found a purpose in life for his new, "improved" self. Moreover, this change is actually properly in tune with where Rafferty, having made a decision to take charge of his fate at the end of "Strange Prey," is expected to find himself years later. Otherwise the stories are closely connected, and the novel for most part, even in smaller details, follows the events of "Strange Prey" quite accurately.

Shadow of a Broken Man begins as a conventional mystery, as Mongo is hired by the former Mrs. Rafferty's new husband to investigate the possibility that Mr. Rafferty is still alive. Our detective follows the expected path in interviewing and investigating, and it isn't until we're quite drawn into the case that the reader becomes aware that there is a supernatural element involved, and even later as to the extent of that element. The work is quite solid and satisfying, and though I like "Strange Prey" and loved it as a kid, I do wonder how I would have responded to the novel not knowing the nature of our mysterious Rafferty; namely how I would have responded to the supernatural element and its introduction into the mystery.

One clear distinction in the novel form is the incorporation of action and violence. I mentioned that the work fuses elements of mystery and the supernatural, but the novel also interweaves elements of the thriller, as acrobatics are provided and bullets whizz by, many making their mark and leaving a bloody path of corpses. Not my thing usually, but I didn't mind it here. There was some violence in "Strange Prey," but primarily the defensive kind as Rafferty protects himself by lunging out with his mind. Chesbro does nonetheless manage to sneak in some flying bullets.

Apache Beach, 1999
One element emphasized in both versions is that of suffering and anguish of its protagonist. In "Strange Prey" Rafferty's mental torture of having no control in reading the minds of others, forcing him to keep away from others, including his wife, is at the heart of the story's premise, and what leads Rafferty to eventually be discovered by the government. In Shadow of a Broken Man, hero Mongo must suffer horribly at the hands of an evil Russian and his own inner strength is challenged in the process, though in this case that anguish is necessary to the plot, but since that would be a spoiler I won't go into any more detail.

Comparisons aside, the first Mongo novel is highly entertaining, competently written, and well plotted. The resolution becomes obvious and what really is going on in that climactic scene is not something the reader can't figure out as soon as the scene begins. In a sense, though we are witnessing events occurring years after "Strange Prey," the ending is essentially the same, only Rafferty himself is a different person. As far as I know there are no additional sequels or stories featuring Rafferty, as Mongo finds new supernatural mysteries to detect over the course of another nineteen years and thirteen novels.

Many a cover has Shadow of a Broken Man seen. The first edition Simon & Schuster is quite excellent, and I like both the Signet paperback reprint (ca. 1983) and the Apache Beach from 1999. I like the Dell (1987) which was a mass market series reprint, though the image of those ghostly sensual hands has no bearing on the story. Dell projects a cool, sexy Mongo, while that Severn House from 1981 is satisfied with a more emotional and reactive detective.
Signet reprint, 1983 (?)

Signet, 1978

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