Friday, October 30, 2015

The Fiction Desk 8: New Ghost Stories II (2014)

Redman, Rob, editor, The Fiction Desk: New Ghost Stories II, 2014

The Fiction Desk: New Ghost Stories II at Goodreads
The Fiction Desk website

Overall Rating: 6/10

I have fallen behind in my reading of The Fiction Desk and other periodicals. Partly it's because I'm behind on all reviews, having been away, busy, and reading more contemporary fiction that I don't frequently review for this site. Partly it's because I haven't been reading periodicals as much lately, or short stories in general. Partly because my two and-a-half year-old is entertainment enough. And my reading lately has evolved toward picture books.

New Ghost Stories II includes eleven original short stories and a reprint of a medieval poem. Overall I did not enjoy it as much as previous issues, nor as much as their first ghost stories anthology, but there are some good tales included. Though many stories have a fantastical element, and those that don't have the suggestion of one, there aren't too many actual ghosts in the book. This of course is not a bad thing, since it offers a nice variety of subjects, from traditional ghosts to none at all, and some nice ambiguity in between.

Incomers by Amanda Mason     7/10
Emma and Jamie spend the New Year weekend at a port-side retreat where they've rented an old house. Soon Emma is troubled by feelings of a presence in the house, and of Jamie's seeming disinterest in her. The point of view is third person but limited to Emma, and we learn of her insecurities toward Jamie's bond with his former partner and of her feelings of inadequacy in relation to what are, essentially, Jamie's hobbies and interests. Meanwhile, through some acquaintances we discover the history of the house they are staying in, and of a certain scorned woman who once lived there.

"Incomers" is among the ambiguous ghost tales of the bunch. The existence of a ghost depends on the reader's interpretations, since there is no direct explanation offered. Personally I like the ambiguity, and my own rational leanings will conclude that the feelings of a ghost are the result of Emma's own heightened anxieties. Her suspicions that Jamie does not love her are founded on emotionally wrought, though likely accurate readings, evoke the sense of a ghost, and the eventual guilt for something clearly not her fault, despite her having secretly hoped for it. Ghost or no ghost this is among my favourites of the group.

Ms. Mason's other contribution to The Fiction Desk was also a ghost story and also quite good: "No Good Deeds" from the first ghost story collection.

The Bear Got Me by Matthew Licht     4/10
A government worker driving to a base in Alaska is chased by a ghost bear. Again closely limited to a single point of view, though here we have only one character and hence nothing external to interpret. The humour is not my thing and I rushed through the story as quickly as Garson rushed from that bear. Again, there is no evidence that the bear was there, ghostly or otherwise, and in the case of this story with its less than reliable narrator, I am left to believe it was a figment of the driver's overwrought imagination.

This is Licht's fourth appearance in The Fiction Desk, following "Dave Tough's Luck" (Various Authors), "Across the Kinderhook" (Crying Just Like Anybody) and "Washout" (New Ghost Stories).

Next to Godliness by Matt Plass     7/10
Strange occurrences in the home of a young couple lead them to suspect that their deceased little girl has returned home. Told through the father's point of view, it is the mother who wants to welcome the ghostly girl home, while the father is reticent. A strong story steeped in tragedy, well written and quite moving. Ghost or no ghost, the story's plot hinges on the possibility of a ghost and in that regard it is a ghost story.

The Table by Tamsin Hopkins     6/10
The death of the family matriarch reunites her husband and their three children. Told through one of the daughters' point of view, we learn that the mother had a vision of two girls seated perpetually at the titular table, a vision shared at one time by the children. A good and unique little read, it is also surprisingly touching, not just in its final moment, but with the notion of all we let go of as we grow up. "The Table" is most certainly a ghost story.

The Armies by Miha Mazzini     5/10 (Translated by Lenart Pogacnik)
A child's escapism from the unhealthy influence of his mother and grandmother's relationship. Not at all a ghost story since the visions are intentional figments of the boy's imagination, a form of escapism within the self. "The Armies" is, however, potentially more unsettling than many a tale of spectres, and can be included in the psychological horror category (if one were inclined to seek a seb-genre). This is Mazzini's second story for The Fiction Desk, following "I'm the One" from TFD4: Crying Just Like Anybody, and "In the Walls" from TFD6: New Ghost Stories.

The Time of Your Life by Lucinda Bromfield     5/10
After the sudden death of his father, a young lawyer inherits his father's position as well as his watch. The wearing of the watch leads to changes in our hero, and gives meaning to memories of his father's visits to a certain mysterious old man. The fantastical element is present, but not spectral, and though not a bad story it is somewhat lacking.

End of the Rope by Melanie Whipman     6/10
At school our young narrator is buddied up with the strange new girl in class, and the two outcasts soon become friends. Escapism and implications of abuse propel the narrative and the bond between the two girls. The title serves a dual purpose: escaping off the ground as well as from reality. The ending is reminiscent of some the original Twilight Zone stories of escapism. The ghost element depends once again on interpretation, as the narrator's vision at the end is not supported externally, and can hence be a creation of her own over-wrought imagination. Granted she is a trustworthy narrator, but recent knowledge and experience is helping shape her outlook on things.

According to her website, Melanie Whipman's first short story collection, titled Llama Sutra, is to be released later this year by Ink Tears Press, and based on this well written story, it's a collection to look out for.

Hell for Leather by Bernie Deehan     5/10
Technician Terry is called up to install a security system at a bar that is soon to re-open. The same bar that, in its initial incarnation, served as the launching pad for a tragic event in Terry's youth. "Hell for Leather" is a fairly standard ghost story and hence predictable. I don't mind the coincidence of Terry being the one to be called to the bar, but I am suspicious that an establishment that's about to have its grand opening orders a security system at the last minute. You'd think it would be one of the first things the owners would get organized, rather than leaving the place un-secure while the renovations and preparations are being done, especially when we learn the place is already fully stocked with booze.

Twice a Day with Water by Die Booth     5/10
In this one, loner druggie Bren hallucinates the existence of a "spirit" that enters his body whenever he consumes pretty much anything. An interesting idea with a strong ending, I just could not care for the character who is never quite fleshed out, but presented as an agoraphobic user and seeks sympathy from that fact alone. The ghost element is a figment in the mind of Bren, particularly in light of the fact that as she is presented, she would not be able to bake a cake or pour a glass of vodka. This is Booth's third appearance in The Fiction Desk.

Watching Kate & Gustav by Alice Adams     6/10
Trapped in the apartment in which she was murdered, a woman's ghost watches the new tenants and their gloomy cat, and attempts to reach out to them. A good story with an unfortunately flat ending. Something a great deal more tragic could have been achieved with the circumstances at hand, and while the implication of tragedy is there, it comes across as passive as its narrator. Despite this, I genuinely liked the narrator, our ghost, and new tenant Kate, and would have enjoyed reading more of their exploits.

In Yon Green Hill to Dwell by Jane Alexander     7/10
A woman is troubled by her husband's lethargy and the memory of his former lover. Well written with a strong ending, I was strangely not as engaged in this one as in some of the others. Alexander's story received the prize for best ghost story and despite my lack of connection with it, I agree with the decision. The story is not only well written, but its thematic elements are well presented. It was inspired by the Scottish traditional tale in verse, "Tam Lin," which is reprinted after the story.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

John Ball, In the Heat of the Night (1967)

Ball, John, In the Heat of the Night, NY: Harper & Row, 1965
______, In the Heat of the Night, NY: Bantam Books, July 1967
______, In the Heat of the Night, London: Pan Books [X711], 1967 (pictured right)
______, In the Heat of the Night, NY: Bantam Books [020], 5th printing (my edition, pictured below)

In the Heat of the Night at Goodreads
In the Heat of the Night at IBList

Rating: 6/10

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

In the Heat of the Night is best known in that it helped generate a remarkable and memorable film. It's been years since I've seen the film, and having now read the novel I am inspired to re-watch it, but not before writing this review since I want to focus only on the book. Incidentally, the novel received the 1966 Edgar Award for Best First Novel, whereas the film received the Academy Award for Best Movie.

The small South Carolina town of Wells is faced with handling the murder of white Italian musician Maestro Mantoli, who was instrumental (pun intended) in organizing a large-scale music festival in the hopes of generating a tourist economy for the suffering region. The conductor's body is discover by deputy Sam Wood in the middle of the night, and in search of suspicious characters he picks up a well-dressed black man at a train station, who turns out to be Pasadena violent crimes investigator Virgil Tibbs. Tibbs is brought in on the case as a potential fall-guy so that the city council can save face over such a high profile investigation, should anything go wrong. Essentially, blame the unsolved crime on the incompetent black guy. Tibbs, however, proves to be highly intelligent and an excellent investigator.

Racial discrimination is certainly a major focus, as Tibbs, in the few days he spends on the investigation, faces various forms of racism. Some are extreme and stem from plain ignorance, while more complex forms of racism are explored via Sam Wood, a relatively positive character. Unlike the other inhabitants of Wells, with the exception of the northern and progressive Italians, Wood recognizes and quickly admires not only Tibbs's intelligence and training, but also his respectful demeanor. Throughout the investigation, the emotional and at times hard-headed Wood finds that his views on race are being challenged, that he has been conditioned to view certain people, black or Italian, through the society in which he was raised, rather by reason, and finds himself by the end of the novel not only admiring Tibbs, but in love with an Italian woman.

Another focus is an interesting situation with the Wells head of police, Chief Gillespie. It is made clear that Gillespie is incompetent and has been hired because of his inexperience. The town council can in this way control the police force and pressure the chief to do their bidding, since his post is not too secure, and since he does not have the respect of the rest of the force. Plot-wise this allows Tibbs to handle the investigation as he sees fit, since Gillespie's involvement becomes minimal. An intelligent and conscientious officer would have taken on the investigation rather than be impressed by an outsider, black or white.The adverse effect of this element, however, is unfortunate. As intelligently as Tibbs is presented, the fact that the law enforcement of Wells, particularly its chief, is less than average, undermines Tibbs's own efforts. Simply put, Tibbs would be truly extraodinary had he managed to solve a murder that baffled a competent police force.

The novel is written through a problematic point of view. The third person is limited to three characters for the most part, Tibbs, Gillespie and Wood, with minor awkward interference from others. Most of the point of view rests with the white men, however, so that Tibbs, the character we should be following, is relegated to the role of outsider. Since he is the outsider in the town, it is as though the readers should be identifying themselves with the racist locals rather than the progressive Californian. Of course Ball was focusing not only on a standard who-dun-it plot, so that point of view had to be stretched out. Wood's point of view in particular is required in illustrating how ridiculous it is to judge a person by their skin colour, and his coming to terms with his own prejudice is important to the novel and the genre. Moreover, by relegating Tibbs's investigation to second-tier focus, Ball is able to withhold evidence that Tibbs uncovers early on, and springing it at the reader at specific points in the text. On one end this gives the novel an artificial feel, while on another it increases drama and allows the mystery to maintain its weight against the book's important and inherent social commentary.

Though the investigation itself is quite interesting, the resolution is a little anti-climactic. Not because it is predictable (that it certainly isn't), but because it is so unremarkable. I was piecing together a council conspiracy which, admittedly, would have been an obvious suspect.

The love story sub-plot is unbelievable and poorly delivered. Aside from allowing Wood to fall in love with an Italian, it serves little purpose. Moreover, though author Ball does well in presenting non-white characters, he unfortunately fails in delivering positive, or even realistic female characters.

Interestingly, the N-word is used quite liberally in the novel, yet only in full by the less than likable councilmen, including the mayor, Gillespie's boss. Other, more positive characters, have the word on the tips of their tongues, such as deputy Sam Morton, who occasionally mutter the word's first syllable, as Ball, wanting these characters to be likable despite their views on race, prevents them from saying the despised word while still portraying them as locals of a deep-rooted racist community.

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As of 24 December 2015