Thursday, July 20, 2017

John Saul, Twist of Fate: The Locket (1997)

Saul, John. Twist of Fate: The Locket. New York: Fawcett Crest, February 1997.

The Locket at ISFdb
The Locket at Goodreads

For Part One of the series: The Doll

Rating:     5/10

"The Locket" is the second novella in John Saul's Blackstone Chronicles. It is weaker than it's fairly average predecessor, "The Doll," but the broader story is made more interesting as characters peripheral to the main plot are further developed, generating expectations for their own stories in later chapters of the series. In addition, the focus on the peripherals helps crystallize the community and develop readers' interest in the over-arching tale.

We saw in the first part of the Blackstone Chronicles that a doll stashed away at the local derelict asylum was reclaimed by a mysterious figure and planted at the home of the McGuires in an act of unspecified vengeance. The goal was to destroy family harmony, which was successfully achieved. In the second part a locket is obtained from the same closed off stores of the asylum by the same mysterious figure, and delivered to another happy home, that of banker Jules Hartwick and family. Clutching this locket leads Jules to develop an outwardly aggressive persecution complex, which escalates in a straight line until the expected climax.

Saul makes sure to set up his victim as an all-around likable rich guy. The family members, parents and one grown-up daughter, Celeste, love each other undeniably. Daughter is about to marry a super cool dude who works at dad's bank and daddy dotes on him. They are good, community-oriented bankers who do good for their fellow townsfolk and, despite being top dog, daddy wishes good morning to all them common folk, like the tellers and what-not. He never even asks his female secretary to get him coffee! A true modern male role model. (Arguably, Saul could have created a female manager and a male secretary, but perhaps that was too modern for the bygone days of 1997. Alas, despite the date of publication and setting, the community presented in the series is an old fashioned one that hearkens back to Bedford Falls.) The streak of good people we have so mat in Blackstone is unevenly balanced by the few (I count two so far) "bad" characters, both dissatisfied middle-aged women who lack a man in their lives. Character depth is certainly not something this series boasts.

The fall of good people is tied to heritage, as we learn there are familial ties between the asylum of the past, where treatment of patients was less than ideal, to the happy families of today. What we do not yet know is the source of the vengeance, who is conspiring against the good folk of Blackstone, and from where doth ye olde magic manifest itself from. We also know that the local journalist has a supernatural connection with the asylum's past, and receives visions and headaches whenever something is up. As his pa was once curator or director or some such at the asylum, we can suspect that he will likely uncover the plot of vengeance that is a-brewing, using his reporter skills and advice from the kindly uncle. Uncle aside, he has no family so perhaps will not be the object of an asylum trinket, or perhaps kindly uncle will meet an awful demise in Book Six.

Overarching story aside, the plot of locket is a straightforward tale of paranoia. It escalates in a straight line, without twist or any deviation whatsoever, and the trigger is the locket that its victim Jules clutches. At least with "The Doll" there was a tie-in with the object, while the locket is incidental; might as well have been a crown or a ring or a hot dog. Without the greater story riding astride this plot, as a piece of fiction it would be unnecessary and un-publishable.

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

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

John Saul, An Eye for an Eye: The Doll (1997)

Saul, John. An Eye for an Eye: The Doll. New York: Ballantine Books, February 1997

The Doll at ISFdb
The Doll at Goodreads

Rating:     5/10

John Saul's The Blackstone Chronicles is a series made up of six interlinked novellas that were originally published monthly between January and June 1997. (The publication month printed in the first book is February though each installment appears to have been released the month before the printed date, according to the coming soon notices on the inside covers.) This review is restricted to Part One of that series, looking at the novella as a standalone piece, with incidental comments on the whole. Once I complete the six novellas as they were originally published, I will write an article reviewing the work as a whole.

This first novella in the series opens with introductory italicized text sharing the backstory of a boy being brought to an asylum, separated from his mother, but not from his doll. We are then gathered along with the townsfolk to witness the demolition of that asylum which for nearly a century loomed over the small New Hampshire community of Blackstone, and that will now make way for the construction of a modern commercial complex. That night a figure enters the asylum via a hole made by the ceremonial first demolition strike, and takes from its storage a doll that once belonged to an inmate.

This doll is delivered mysteriously to the house of the McGuires, Bill and the very pregnant Elizabeth, and daughter Megan immediately takes a liking to it. An unusual struggle for the doll develops between mother and daughter, which the doll seems to somehow be perpetuating. This struggle is the most interesting aspect of the book, as it keeps the story hovering between the psychological and the supernatural, but it is unfortunately under-developed and seems even incidental. This idea is a little reminiscent of Ramsay Campbell's little known but good Night of the Claw (St. Martin's Press, 1983), where the supernatural generates the psychological, and while Campbell establishes the supernatural element, Saul in his book skirts it. There is enough evidence that the doll has some kind of supernatural link, though there is no overt supernatural occurrence in the book; everything can be explained rationally. The evidence in the supernatural is the sudden change in the two characters, Elizabeth and Megan, with the appearance of the doll, highlighted by the lack of change in Bill. Perhaps Elizabeth, in her near delivery state, can accommodate such a shift in personality, but for Megan to believe that a doll is communicating telepathically with her is a stretch. There is no indication whatsoever that Megan has experienced any kind of psychological phenomena that would include hearing voices, but instead the entire family is presented as a solid, upstanding family. Elizabeth has been struggling with stresses around her pregnancy, such as the fact that this is her final chance at giving birth to another child, but these details are included for plot purposes only, since it is this pressure that leads to the community's later accepting the eventual events that I will not divulge, but that honestly are fairly predicable.

The story is not terribly original but interesting enough for its briefness. The piece is potentially creepy but the straightforward and light telling leaves it with little impact. The story reads like a young adult novel or televised horror story, with slight creepiness and no real horror. I have previously read only one work by John Saul, the novel Sleepwalk, which at the time I did not care for. Similarly that novel is equal in quality of both writing and plotting as "The Doll," in that it read like young adult fiction, and though it too contained little moments of interest, they appeared spottily throughout the book.

With "The Doll" I was more interested in the side story of the audit being conducted at the Blackstone bank, wherein the lending practices of the bank were being externally scrutinized, a practice that can have dire consequences not only on the bank itself, but on those relying on these loans for employment. This kind of reality is a far greater horror than a life-like doll, and I do hope this storyline is pursued in later segments of the series.

So far I do intend to continue reading the installments as they are quick and the community of Blackstone is interesting enough to keep my interest. Each novella is set up by an object from the asylum, with the exception of the last as it is titled "The Asylum" and hence promises to focus on the building. "The Doll" also presents us with a kind of protagonist in reporter Oliver Metcalf, as he seems to have some sort of psychic link to the building, not to mention a familial link as his father used to run the institution. This detail will likely develop throughout the books and culminate in Part 6.

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

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Clive Barker, Books of Blood, Volume I (1984)

Barker, Clive. Books of Blood, Volume I. London: Sphere Books, November 1984

Books of Blood, Volume I at the ISFdb
Books of Blood, Volume I at Goodreads

Overall Rating:     7/10

This book not only introduced Clive Barker to the world, but also established his reputation in the realms of horror fiction--a feat for a first book publication. Stephen King's oft-quoted "the future of horror" blurb was in relation to this little book.

The first in a series of six Books of Blood, the volume includes two lightly humourous tales intermingling with three darker stories, and by far the more effective works are the ones abstaining from humour, which includes in its ranks the introductory framing piece that attempts to unite all these tales of blood.

Compared to most generic horror novels of the eighties and nineties, Barker's stories are infused with detail pertinent not only to plot but to the overarching ideas that propel the stories. The theatrical "Sex, Death and Starshine" is infused with references to Shakespeare, whereas the more complex "Pig Blood Blues" intertwines the identities of its characters with that of the detention centre in which it is set. Barker certainly placed effort in the literary aspects of the stories, and his work, at least here, is more effective than most mainstream stories that aim only to scare. The stories are accomplished and there is little surprise that he this book had an impact with professional writers of the genre. I own all six books and will certainly complete the series.

The Book of Blood     8/10
In this opening framing narrative, the dead have come to a crossroads where they can communicate with the living through the vessel of a young man. The young man, however, is a hoax, and the one with any communion with the dead is the woman scientist who believes so much in the boy.

As a framing narrative this one serves a dual purpose: it works very well also as a standalone piece. Most framing narratives come across as artificial attempts to bring disparate fictions together. Barker conceives a great concept and delivers a strong story with, despite its limited length, strong characters. The only issue with the framing narrative is that, with its grisly tone it seems to exclude the comedic stories, as they don't quite fit the mold of the book of blood as conceived in this introductory narrative.

The Midnight Meat Train     7/10
Among the more recognizable of Barker's shorter works, this story deals with a series of disappearances in the New York City subway system. The narrative of an out-of-state and alienated office clerk, disillusioned with the dream of NYC, is contrasted with that of an aging killer. The narrative flows well and the build-up is appropriately handled. The story's gritty and dark urban landscape helps to drive this story that essentially portrays life as the cogs of a major urban centre. While the characters themselves are straightforward and familiar, the story is not about these people but more about the landscape and the place of the individual within a vast urban beast of a city.

A far superior telling than the flat movie version, which alters the characters in such a way that much of the point of the original story is swept away. The cover to the left is from the limited special edition, including additional material and colour paintings by Barker, released by Dark Regions Press in 2014.

The Yattering and Jack     5/10
Like its Tales from the Darkside rendering, I didn't care too much for this one. As a disclaimer I very rarely enjoy comedy as a horror subgenre, and this one is overstated and weak. After having been duped by a woman, the devil sends a minor demon to claim the soul of the woman's excessively passive son over the Christmas holidays. The daemon must act within a set of prescribed rules in order to achieve this end, a task he is pressured to accomplish by the scarier upper echelons of hell. This story might have been more effective with a grittier tone, and the idea that perhaps Jack was less passive and more of the devilish manipulator would thereby maintain a darker aspect. Unfortunately the lightness of the piece just makes me not care enough either way.

Pig Blood Blues     7/10
This lesser-known Barker story might, aside from the introductory segment, be my preferred piece of this collection. Former police officer Neil Redman begins his new job as an instructor at Tetherdowne, a juvenile detention centre. He has left the force to make a difference in running the centre's workshop, but quickly experiences alienation from both the uptight staff and the uninterested residents. As with "The Midnight Meat Train," our protagonist is the outsider who is consumed by his new environment.

The current problem at the centre is that the residents are treating a recent runaway by the name of Henessey as a kind of saviour, and believe he is now embodied by a large pig that lives at a nearby farm. The spirit of Henessey is also believed to be persecuting the mate he had initially escaped with. Their belief that this pig is a kind of incarnation of the runaway leads to a strange kind of worship, and determines behaviour at the centre. Moreover, the kid who had originally run off with Henessey, Lacey, is marked for sacrifice, and Redman seeks to save him.

Spoilers herein. The story is essentially a bit of psychological horror rather than supernatural, and is deftly handled. We discover that the awful smell emanating from the farm belongs to the rotting corpse of the runaway that is hanging inside the sty. This bit of reveal is essentially informing us that the pig is an ordinary, albeit a large, animal, and not the incarnation of a boy who escaped the centre by taking his own life. The worship of this pig is dangerously and disturbingly misplaced, and it appears that all hope laid onto this boy, who represents a form of escape for residents and the adult staff alike, is transferred over to the first available form. Neither residents nor staff of the centre have much hope of any kind for a proper future, and the worship of this over-sized, grotesque pig is all these people have to indicate that a life away from the desolation of Tetherdowne is a possibility. In fact, an appropriate dichotomic title would be Tetherhope.

Barker employs some interesting plays with wording. The most obvious is that a policeman is a "pig" while staff and residents are respecting a literal pig. The centre is called Tetherdowne, which of course means to tie an animal down using a restraint of some kind ("tether"). We are deliberately informed that the centre is a Remand Centre for Adolescent Offenders, whereas the former police officer's name is Redman, clearly a shuffle of "remand" as the "d" is nabbed from the back and plunked into the centre... Just as Redman is plunked in to the juvenile centre.

Sex, Death and Starshine     4/10
I first encountered this story in the John Joseph Adams 2008 anthology The Living Dead (Night Shade Books), and immediately did not enjoy it. The anthology itself, though it had some fine stories, was overall underwhelming, and I thought perhaps it was the overall disappointment in the anthology that marred the story for me. However, while I was more involved at the beginning with this re-read, my interest plummeted half-way through and did not recover.

In this zombie tale, former theatrical performers usurp a stage production of William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, casting a once great, but now dead, stage star to counter the awfulness of the soap opera actress who was set to perform. Little happens in this predictable story, and though Barker infuses his text with references to the bard and his other works, it is not clever enough to make the reading enjoyable. My second reading of this piece will likely be my last, despite its appearance in a handful of zombie anthologies.

In the Hills, the Cities     7/10
A couple driving through a neglected rural part of Eastern Europe encounter the product of an odd ritual: the inhabitants of two villages strap themselves together to form two anthropomorphic colossi. I first encountered this one in the enjoyable Dennis Etchison anthology Masters of Darkness III (Tor, 1991), part of a trilogy collecting stories selected by their authors, each choosing a personal favourite. I was impressed with Barker's piece then though many of the details of the story have been overshadowed by the mesmerizing colossus itself; I enjoyed revisiting those details in this re-read.

The strains of the relationship are countered by the physical strains these village inhabitants must undergo as part of this incredible ritual. The couple experiences a routine of fighting and sex, and fall of a colossus can be the reflection of the turmoil the men experience. The fact that the couple is a pair of men does not detract from the story at all, and to me appeared incidental, though I presume Barker had reasons for creating a homosexual couple for this piece, perhaps simply to mirror the make-appearing colossi.

An odd and highly original story that was later included, appropriately, in the Ann and Jeff VanderMeer anthology The New Weird (Tachyon, 2008), which I own but have not yet had the pleasure of reading.

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

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