Friday, December 21, 2018

Alan Dean Foster, Sentenced to Prism (1985)

Foster, Alan Dean. Sentenced to Prism. New York: Del Rey/Ballantine, September 1985

Sentenced to Prism at ISFdb
Sentenced to Prism at Goodreads

Rating:     7/10

Del Rey/Ballantine, 1985
As a pre-teen in the mid-1980s, I read a modest of amount of science fiction, and for a few years enjoyed the campy works of Alan Dean Foster. I read about thirty of his books published in the 1970s up until about 1990, including a number of the novelizations. The books are quick reads and I found them to be colourfully imaginative, though many I found, even at that time, to be quite dull (Cachalot and Voyage to the City of the Dead come to mind). Eventually I abandoned his works for more complex books, and soon stopped reading science fiction novels, aside from a book or two a year. Then a couple of weeks ago I was rummaging through my parents' basement and came across a number of his, and other science fiction authors', books. And reminiscing, I thought why not.

I picked up Sentenced to Prism, which, though I've owned for many years (bought for $2.25 at the local secondhand bookshop that no longer exists, so the markings on the first page inform me), I have never read. Perhaps it was the glaring yellow cover that kept it at bay, or most likely I got tired of Foster's books before I got around to this one. Proof of the latter are the handful more paperbacks of his I came across, which I've never opened up.

What I found with Sentenced to Prism was a pleasant surprise: an enjoyable novel despite the light writing, two-dimensional characters, and seemingly lack of depth. The novel deals with an arrogant company research man named Evan Orgell who is sent to a newly discovered planet, Prism, to uncover the fate of a research team which has stopped communicating with home base. Orgell soon learns what a unique planet this is, and, following many unusual dangers, meets up with some native species with whom he forms an alliance. More than the plot, and certainly more that the non-character of Orgell, who we follow throughout the bulk of the story (aside from a couple of glaring point of view shifts), what makes the read a compelling one is the planet and its various life forms. Foster has the reputation for creating interesting worlds and species, but I don't recall his work ever being this imaginative and immersive.

New English Library, 1988
In addition to the interesting world is the late development of some thematic links, which help to elevate the book in the last few chapters from being a simple plotted fare developed only for Foster's imaginings to a narrative that contains, though simplistically, a point. The notions of "Associatives," of community and collaboration, is brought full circle when Orgell and his new friends encounter an unusual, chaotic creature that has its own interpretation of what a community ought to be, and what it can achieve. Furthermore, the idea of the alien Associative challenges Orgell in his own understanding of the purpose of community. The novel fails in that Orgell is so under-developed (we are told endlessly that he is selfish and arrogant, yet since the moment he lands on the planet he appears to be selfless and to understand the importance of team-work in the face of survival), that there is no real transformation from human-thinking to embracing another culture. This is no Dances with Wolves, or say, Toy Story. It is instead a contrived novel that is oddly a pleasure to read.

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

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Joan Samson, The Auctioneer

Samson, Joan. The Auctioneer. New York: Simon & Schuster, January 1976
______. The Auctioneer. New York: Avon Books, January 1977 (my edition, pictured)

The Auctioneer at ISFdb
The Auctioneer at Goodreads

Rating:     8/10

Well received critically and commercially upon its initial release, The Auctioneer has since fallen into semi-obscurity. This unfortunate fate is partly due to the author's death shortly after the novels's publication, and the absence of a second book. I understand that Joan Samson was working on a second novel when she sadly succumbed to cancer shortly before the age of forty. While some novels persist in part because they are the author's only published work, such as John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces (1980) and, most notably, Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird (1960; for many years at least, prior to the publication of Go Set a Watchman in 2015), there was no mystique around this author, nor an attached Pulitzer, to help keep this first and only novel in the literary consciousness. Regardless, the novel is still respected by those who have read it, and its near-cult status will ensure that it will continue to be read.

Or so I hope.

The novel focuses primarily on a family living in the fictional rural town of Harlowe, New Hampshire, comprising of John Moore, his wife Miriam ("Mim"), their four year-old daughter Hildie, and "Ma," John's elderly mother. Having lived their entire lives in that community, amid the hardships of rural farming, Samson explores the affects of a charismatic auctioneer, a contrasting outsider, who moves into the community and progressively takes over. By holding regular auctions to raise funds for the benefit of the town, Perly Dunsmore is able to manipulate those funds and the people they are meant to serve. Professing the values of the "old ways" in a town built on tradition, Dunsmore is in fact quite modern and progressive, albeit amoral, in a business sense, as the reader discovers in the latter parts of the novel.

The Auctioneer blends many elements into its narrative. It acts as mystery, thriller, horror and even family drama. The scenes of basic survival, as the family members struggle to maintain their livelihood when they have been stripped of most of their belongings, is for me the most vivid. With family dynamics at the fore of the drama, Dunsmore appears seldom in the novel, which is to the story's benefit. Dunsmore unleashes the tensions, but most of the drama is located within the family and within the community, only highlighted and elevated by the presence of this daemon-like figure, who at the end proves all-too human. The real daemon is that aspect of humanity that can allow such usurpation, and it appears Dunsmore's downfall is a result of the members of the community finding themselves in the same building facing that man, as only then do individuals find the courage to fight back.

The ending comes across as a little too convenient, and reveals an odd flaw in Dunsmore's otherwise perceptive understanding of human nature. Yet the novel is not about the ending, and it does not detract from the challenges Samson has set for her characters. These characters are well delineated, strong despite the predicaments in which they find themselves, and it is this strength and drive for survival that renders the situation so bleak, since they are unable to oppose the auctioneer. In particular it is the women in the novel who are both driven enough to fight back, while being rational enough to hold back, as they must defend the family unit. The men are driven more by vengeance, or frozen by the apathy of frustration and hopelessness.

Though the novel enacts a specific period with well-defined characters, it can nonetheless act as allegory. The auctioneer himself is the state rendering its citizens dependent on its continued presence, replacing a mild form of government with a kind of modern, capitalist totalitarianism. The pretense of communal ownership is false, and glaringly fails as its members are robbed of what is essentially theirs.

Also prevalent is the threat of urban sprawl, as large cities, in this case Boston, are overgrowing and becoming stifling to humans who long to connect with the peace of a past, uncomplicated life. Or at least what is envisioned by the urban mass to be an idyllic return to nature, ignoring the hardships that Harlowe's inhabitants have been struggling with for generations. The idea of urban sprawl threatening these communities and this way of life is splattered throughout the novel, as we learn more of Dunsmore's ultimate plan, not just for Harlowe but for the surrounding communities as well.

However one would wish to interpret the novel, it is a powerful work that is deserving of a read, and a later re-read. The weight of these ideas packed into a suspenseful novel adds to the tragedy that Joan Samson was not given the opportunity for a follow-up. Regardless, we should be grateful she has left us with such a profound work.

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

Friday, December 7, 2018

Robert Silverberg, The Reality Trip and Other Implausibilities

Silverberg, Robert. The Reality Trip and Other Implausibilities. New York: Ballantine Books, March 1972.

The Reality Trip at ISFdb
The Reality Trip at Goodreads

Overall Rating:     7/10

Between 1969 and about 1985, the world was subjected to the publication of a Robert Silverberg short story collection on an annual basis. Some of those years even experienced multiple collections. A prolific and fairly consistent writer, the material was plentiful, so that most stories did not need to wait long before being included in a collection; in fact, many were collected the same year they initially saw print, such as "Caliban" in this volume.

The Reality Trip and Other Implausibilities was made up primarily of a small number of new, as-yet uncollected stories, with five of the eight first appearing between 1970 and 1972. The remaining three stories include two recycled pieces from the fifties, though "The Shrines of Earth" had not yet been reprinted, and the first-time collected Hugo and Nebula nominated novella, "Hawksbill Station" (1967), which had already re-appeared as a novel, an expansion of the novella, in 1968.

In Entropy's Jaws     8/10
First published in Infinity Two, edited by Robert Hoskins, 1971

Skein is a Communicator, a skilled telepath who can unite two minds with the purpose of effective communication. During a lucrative communication session, however, the connection damages his brain, and he no longer lives in a linear state, but experiences continuous flashbacks and flashforwards. Now Skein is searching for a purple planet that he has seen in his future which he believes can heal his damaged brain.

A riveting story, well structured and with a vividly created world for such a short piece. Skein is not very likable, a talented telepath who capitalizes commercially on his talent, yet Silverberg manages to reign in sympathy for this man, who undergoes a great transformation throughout his humbling experience. My favourite story in the collection.

Included in Terry Carr's The Best Science Fiction of the Year (1972).

The Reality Trip     7/10
First published in If, May/June 1970

After eleven years in New York City, studying humans and transmitting copious data daily to Homeworld, an alien visitor must fend off the attentions and advances of a neighbor, Elizabeth Cooke. Cooke is a bohemian, a pot-smoking poet who is attracted to the alien's otherness, his loneliness and social distancing. A highly entertaining story, the first person narrative focuses both on the alien's struggle to deal with the attentions of Cooke, alongside his intense loneliness. Despite the seeming contradiction, there is never in the protagonist's mind the notion that such a relationship with such a human, or any human, can make up for his extreme isolation, and in addition, despite that loneliness, he is not interested in relocating until the situation with Cooke escalates.

Though considered to be among his best short stories, "The Reality Trip" was not included in any of the "Best of" anthologies for 1970. Terry Carr only began his run as sole editor of a "Best of" series the following year (he was previously co-editor with Donald A. Wolheim), and did include "The Reality Trip" in the relatively forgettable paperback anthology, This Side of Infinity (Ace Books, September 1972).

Black Is Beautiful     6/10
First published in The Year 2000. Edited by Harry Harrison. New York: Doubleday, February 1970

In the year 2000, Manhattan has been taken over by African Americans, as whites have moved out to the suburbs. The story follows an angry senior high school student, James Lincoln, who prefers to go by James Shabaz, as he festers with anger over the centuries of oppression blacks were forced to face in the hands of the ruling whites, and the seeming apathy of those in his community. The story envisions a future racial peace in the US as a result of total segregation, with different minority groups taking over different areas across the country. Like most racial stories of the period, this one is  certainly dated, though it is surprisingly not a bad read. It is, however, interesting that with all this seeming social progress, black men still speak as though they lived in 1970, when you think language would evolve differently with a reduction in the influence of white culture.

Ozymandias     7/10
First published in Infinity Science Fiction, November 1958
Published in the UK in New Worlds Science Fiction #94, May 1960

Exploring the rim of the galaxy is a vessel run jointly by the military and a small group of archaeologists. These two opposing groups struggle to compromise amid differing agendas, and the tension is thick, brought to a head when they reach a planet which the archaeologists wish to explore, whereas the military believes has no value.

The story begins in the third person, though this voice is eventually revealed to be one of the five archaeologists, which is an interesting shift not often used. Since the story is primarily about two distinct social groups, each appropriately stereotyped, the lack of individual characterization makes for a good third person tale. Though names of some of the minor players are given, we are essentially dealing with two distinct groups rather than individual characters, a detail highlighted by the fact that each group's only standout character is their leader. Though the military is responsible for the larger portion of the mission's budget, the archaeologists do have some contractual weight, and essentially force the ship down onto the dead planet for a week's worth of investigation. They quickly make an incredible discovery, and do their best to conceal it from the other party, which is not interested in extraterrestrial culture, but in practical materials, either resources or weapons technology.

By far the strongest of the earlier stories, it is elevated by its original and well structured narrative form, and pays off with a tragic ending.

Caliban     6/10
First published in Infinity Three. Edited by Robert Hoskins. Lancre Books, 1972

A man awakens in a future where physical beauty is the norm, and people can exchange their body parts and take on any appearance they wish. A world where everyone looks exactly alike. A blatant, humourous take on extreme conformity, basic body image issues and the need to fit into one's social circle. In this world, however, the other, that ugly time traveller, is accepted rather than ostracized, and while this future society attempts to mold him into one of their theirs, his difference is instead leaving an influence on the beautiful people. Certainly not original, but entertaining, particularly in light of the protagonist/narrator's self deprecation, and that breathing underwater scene. The title refers, of course, to the half-breed Caliban of William Shakespeare's The Tempest.

Included in Terry Carr's The Best Science Fiction #2 (NY: Ballantine Books, July 1973).

The Shrines of Earth     5/10
First published in Astounding Science Fiction, November 1957
Astounding Science Fiction (UK), March 1958

Following three thousand years of peace, terrans on Earth have become passive and non-confrontational, focusing primarily on the arts. Among the colonies scattered throughout the galaxy, terrans have earned the reputation of being innocent and inconsequential. Yet when the terrans learn that a group of aliens plan a takeover of Earth as part of their conquest of the galaxy, they must find a way to defend themselves. Since they are unable to use weapons, they must rely on craft. A slight story, whose initial premise immediately reveals what is to come. The bulk of the story features somewhat repetitive scenarios that lead us to the obvious conclusion, during which one of the terrans expositorily explains the already obvious crafty plan to the reader. The weakest story of the collection, and not previously reprinted.

Ringing the Changes     5/10
First published in Alchemy and Academe. Edited by Anne McCaffrey. New York: Doubleday, November 1970

Humans take vacations via shunting: the act of entering another person's consciousness and thereby experiencing that person's life. When a malfunction occurs, a group of consciousnesses are separated from their bodies, and technicians must link them back together, by requiring that each person enter each separated body in turn, and for the person to raise their hand once they are re-connected with their body. However, there exists the risk that a person might deceive in order to permanently take on the identity of another.

Told through a series of experiences through a single consciousness, the story appears to be more invested in relaying diverse life experiences than in dealing with its themes of risk in this kind of technology. The focus also indicates that there is perhaps only so much to discuss with this idea. The weakest of the newer stories.

Hawksbill Station     7/10
First published in Galaxy Magazine, August 1967

In the politically rife and repressive future, those with strong opposing political views, rebels, dissidents and even philosophers, are sent to Hawksbill Station, a prison set up in the distant past. The trip to prison is a one-way affair, and lies in the Precambrian era, on a bit of land that would eventually lie underwater.

We experience this extreme penal colony through the eyes of its leader, a role earned through seniority. Vivid and detailed, with many characters and a suspenseful plot, this is an excellent novella that is tightly woven into its premise. It is odd, however, that the suspicious newcomer does not develop a better back-story when navigating through Hawksbill Station, or that he takes notes rather than leave details to memory, but these are small qualms as the story is overall fascinating and well developed.

The novella was expanded into a novel, and released by Doubleday a year after its original publication. In the UK the novel was published with the title The Anvil of Time. I will likely hunt this down at some point.

Included in:
World's Best Science Fiction: 1968. Edited by Terry Carr and Donald A. Wolheim. NY: Ballantine Books, 1969.
Best SF: 1967 (The Year's Best Science Fiction No. 1, UK). Edited by Brian Aldiss and Harry Harrison. Berkley Medallion, March 1968.

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

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Fritz Leiber, Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz. "Conjure Wife." Unknown Worlds, April 1943
______. Conjure Wife. Witches Three. Twayne Publishers, August 1952
______. Conjure Wife. New York: Ace, November 1977 (my edition, pictured)

Conjure Wife at ISFdb
Conjure Wife at Goodreads

Rating:     8/10

Fritz Leiber's tale of witchcraft run rampant in modern society was first published in a shorter form, in the April 1943 issue of Unknown Worlds, edited at the time by John W. Campbell, and with illustrations by Frank Kramer. Conjure Wife saw print in its entirety in 1952, as the lead-in story for the triad Witches Three, alongside stories by James Blish (There Shall Be No Darkness) and Fletcher Pratt (The Blue Star). It appeared as a stand-alone novel the following year, published by Twayne Publishers in New York.

In brief, the novel involves a small-town college professor who discovers that his wife is a practicing witch. A man of unshakable reason, he forces his devoted spouse to do away with all her charms and anything associated with witchcraft. Ever obedient, her purge has results that are entirely unexpected for our professor. Witchcraft and the competitive nature of academia are hand-in-hand in this well-regarded novel, Leiber's first.

Among the most interesting aspects of the novel is that, though the author is bound tightly to his narrator, both being intellectual and logical (Leiber was a competitive chess player, for one), it is the superstitious world that supersedes the rational. As much as we wish to believe the world functions the way that science would have us believe, it is the spells and charms that control our destiny and station in life.

Though the plot focuses primarily on how the supernatural drives our lives, the world Leiber has created is one of balance; the supernatural exists to balance out the rational. Without the rational there would be nothing deemed supernatural, as the latter would be the norm. In addition, the world is balanced by other factors touched upon in the novel, from big city glamour and debauchery to the conservatism of a small college community, to gender roles. Indeed, gender roles is among the most important elements of the novel, as men and women have clearly defined roles and are viewed apart by both society and individuals. Told through the point of view of a male rationalist, women are seen as the subjective and domestic counterparts of working men. It can therefore be read that what upsets the rational, male world order, is not the existence of the supernatural, but the reality that women are the driving forces of society. Our protagonist must, alongside with accepting that witches and their powers are real, accept that women make men's careers and are the driving forces behind the success of individuals and family.

There is a certain element of sexism in the novel, but this is a bi-product of the period, and not the result of misogyny. Leiber was specific with his plotting and writing, and despite a male narrator stating that women are largely irrational, this is an element of plot and character and not a comment by the author, as by the end of the book the reader understands that it is the woman who succeeds in overcoming all the challenges faced by the male narrator, both his academic and supernatural challenges. By the end of the novel, the husband plays the role that the wife has single-handedly devised in order to defeat the evil influences in their lives. During the climactic sequence it is she who is at the forefront of the action, battling the other wives, whereas he is standing well behind her, like a bodyguard watching attentively. The juxtaposition of the novel's opening chapters against this scene is worthy of a close look, as it is clear the husband has consciously given up the role of master of the house which he so firmly and rationally acted on when forcing his wife to do away with her superstitions.

Rather than being sexist, the novel is quite progressive.

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

Thursday, August 2, 2018

John Saul, Asylum (1997)

Saul, John. Asylum. New York: Fawcett Crest, June 1997.

The Stereoscope at Goodreads
The Stereoscope at ISFdb

Part One: The Doll
Part Two: The Locket
Part Three: The Dragon's Flame
Part Four: The Handkerchief
Part Five: The Stereoscope

Rating:     4/10

And the hexalogy closes with a whimper. The final book of Saul's Blackstone Chronicles completes the serialized work as expected, since throughout the series there has been only one logical suspect behind the distribution of the asylum artifacts. I did not mind the explanation and can even forgive the sickeningly overt sentimental closure as it is in keeping with the rest of the text, but there is an immense flaw in this final entry that I cannot overlook.

The revelatory explanation for the strange events that have occurred in the town of Blackstone is altogether rational, and yet the events themselves are depicted as being supernatural. Therefore, the explanation contradicts the events they are attempting to explain.

For further explanation, here be spoilers:

The overarching plot deals with a number of objects mysteriously delivered to residents of Blackstone, and each of these objects leads to the downfall of the recipient and his or her family. Some of these objects, the doll and the locket, result in a kind of possession of a family member, whereas the handkerchief and the stereoscope cause characters to experience vivid hallucinations. The possession of these objects is the direct link to the downfall of the recipients, therefore there is a supernatural element at work, enabling these objects to psychologically disrupt the otherwise mentally stable victims. The only other alternative is to accept a series of incredible coincidences. As in, the people who received these objects, all five of them, just happened to go nuts shortly after coming into their possession.

There is nothing supernatural about the items that were distributed, nor about the person distributing them, and yet the presence of these objects resulted in supernatural occurrences. Perhaps if Saul had created a universe in which unusual occurrences are commonplace, we can buy these events. Instead, his world of small town life is too realistic and rational, as he depicts financial audits and traditional community history and relationships. This world is as real as our own, and we are nonetheless expected to believe that otherworldly events can enter this all-too-rational universe.

And now that my article is done I will go teleport to the park.

For more of this week's Friday's Forgotten Books, simply link to them telepathically. Or visit Todd Mason's blog.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

John Saul, The Stereoscope (1997)

Saul, John. Day of Reckoning: The Stereoscope. New York: Fawcett Crest, June 1997.

The Stereoscope at Goodreads
The Stereoscope at ISFdb

Part One: The Doll
Part Two: The Locket
Part Three: The Dragon's Flame
Part Four: The Handkerchief

Rating:     6/10

So far the strongest entry of the series. Despite some suspense fiction cliches, Part Five of John Saul's serialized The Blackstone Chronicles is better paced and more focused than the previous books. It is through the focused narrative of this part that I became conscious that the presence of the mysterious, evil figure is distracting, adding little to the narrative, and actually decreasing the mystery element of the work as a whole, and I wonder what kind of read we would have if the scenes with the figure were excised.

Plot-wise, the main focus is on Bill McGuire, who unknowingly takes the cursed gift of a stereoscope into his home. His family is quickly (and forcefully) set up as ultra loving, with overly supportive wife Bonnie and sweet 'n innocent daughter Amy, along with the over-sized loving puppy. (Yes, yes, we can immediately foretell the fate of the beloved family pet.)

Side plots feature Oliver Metcalf learning more about his deceased twin sister's death, and on his wish to exorcise the demons of his past. Whereas Rebecca has been kidnapped and locked away in a cold room of the asylum. As these segments are brief and well interspersed, they come across as more effective than the sub-plots in previous volumes, and do not interfere with the main plot.

This level of focus should have been achieved by part four, since by then the formula of these little books have become too predictable and tired, and thereby part four comes across as the weakest; I for one hurried through its pages and paused before picking up "The Stereoscope." The denouement of "The Stereoscope" is, with slight variation, essentially the same as each predecessor, but does, with its elevated structure, act as a better precursor to the final volume than any of the previous books.

For more Friday;s Forgotten Books, please visit Todd Mason's blog.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

John Saul, The Handkerchief (1997)

Saul, John. The Handkerchief. New York: Fawcett Crest, April 1997.

The Handkerchief at ISFdb
The Handkerchief at Goodreads

For Part One of the series: The Doll
For Part Two of the series: The Locket
For Part Three of the series: The Dragon's Flame

Rating:     5/10

The fourth part of John Saul's serially published The Blackstone Chronicles focuses on a handkerchief. If italicized prologues are to be believed, this cursed item is embroidered with a fancy R by an asylum patient who deliriously believes she is living at society's upper social echelons. Drama ensues, which includes the less-than-pleasant nurse using the handkerchief to wipe spaghetti sauce (I'm assuming tomato) from her uniform, and, tossed in for good measure, some old asylum water therapy/torture.

Enter our buddy Oliver Metcalf, editor of Blackstone's local paper, The Chronicle. Arriving at the office he learns from his assistant that local gossip Edna Burnham has been spreading theories related to the recent trend of violent deaths. Burnham connects the three deaths to the mysterious gifts each household received shortly before tragedy struck, and in addition links it all back to the asylum. Editor Metcalf refuses to believe there is any connection, is not aware of any mysterious gifts, and generally scoffs at the woman's ideas. Yet the reader, aware of the all-too-obvious connections, is left to wonder if perhaps town gossip Burnham should depose Metcalf and serve as The Chronicle's, and Blackstone's, top investigative reporter.

Following her aunt's death in Part Two, Rebecca is taken in by librarian Germaine Wagner and her wheelchair bound mother, "Miss Clara." As I discussed in my review of "The Dragon's Flame," Germain is only one of two negative characters in the series (this was before we were introduced to Clara), both being unmarried women. In her previous home Rebecca was likened to Carrie, whereas here she is treated like Cinderella, with Prince Oliver delivering the cursed handkerchief as though it were a glass slipper. Germaine usurps the gift, passing it onto her mother who seems to know something of its history. Germaine takes it back and begins to hallucinate, and the predictable occurs.

Our side plots include Oliver rummaging through old asylum case files, and bankers & contractors & lawyers (Bill McGuire and Ed Becker and a woman, all interchangeable) visiting the asylum to help assure themselves the investment is sound. There Becker comes across a chest of drawers he decides to purchase (a presentiment of things to come?).

Part Four is more of the same. It reads like filler in that nothing new is discovered, only some minor details regarding Oliver's father which we already suspected. Both build-up of the main plot and its drawn out climactic sequence are familiar. Saul tries to escalate suspense by pairing the climax alongside Olliver's realizations about his father, but since the former is predictable and the latter delivers no surprises nor conclusions, the effect is flat and I found myself rushing through it all. I expect the fifth book to be a similar filler-type entry, with part six being the most interesting, at least of the second half of the series.

Finally, amid all this drama, the most intriguing mystery is left unsolved. When Germaine takes the handkerchief from Rebecca, she notices it is "spotless and neatly pressed." (29) Now, how did the asylum staff get all that spaghetti sauce out of the fabric?

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

Friday, June 15, 2018

Casual Shorts: Michael Blumlein, Keeping House (1989)

Blumlein, Michael. "Keeping House." The Brains of Rats. Scream Press, September 1990. 89-100
______. I Shudder at Your Touch. Ed. Michele Slung. New York: ROC, May 1991. 86-96

Rating:     7.5/10

Following her appointment as Associate Professor of Classics at the nearby university, a woman, along with her husband and their baby daughter, move into their new home. Rather than taking on the challenges of the shabby, broken down yet affordable house on the block, they settle on the more costly, yet renovated house beside it. What is quickly set up as a ghost story becomes something entirely difficult, relying on the psychological rather than the paranormal to illustrate an intelligent and hard-working woman's mental decline.

The story toys a little with the conventions of haunted house stories, referencing some of its tropes, like unpleasant scents and mirrors that reflect things that don't appear to be present at all, but instead of being a ghost story, it is far more akin to Charlotte Perkins Gilman's excellent psychological tale of deterioration, "The Yellow Wallpaper" (1892). Like Gilman, "Keeping House" is told through the point of view of a new mother in a new environment who begins to believe that her surroundings are coming alive. Rather than believing someone is living trapped in the wall or its paper, Blumlein's unnamed heroine believes that threatening spirits are trying to infiltrate her home, entering from the adjacent, broken down eyesore of a house she chose not to purchase. To prevent this threat from destroying home and family, she does battle via an obsessive cleaning/cleansing routine.

Though the story can arguably be read ambiguously, there is enough evidence in the text to indicate that the visions and scents stem from the woman's overwrought mind. Possibly following postpartum, as is the case in Gilman, the un-named narrator goes through various extreme mood swings, which eventually culminate in her taking on all aspects of a family provider, and believing there is a threat attempting to pervade the house and harm the order and harmony she is struggling to maintain. She fights back by increasing the need for order and cleanliness to a dangerously obsessive degree.

Our narrator finally snaps as she begins preparations to have sex with her husband. This is the only indication in the story of any form of intimacy between them, hinting that they have not been physical sine conceiving their only child. Like her obsessive cleaning routine, her preparations for sex become ritual-like, and the story hence makes a connection between the couple's intimacy and the invading spirits, at least in the woman's mind. As she fights to prevent threats to invade her home, she is fighting to prevent her husband's invasion of her body. Following this scene we are informed that the husband is grumpy and increasingly absent due to work, though likely he is staying away from his wife in response to her increasing obsessiveness ("You are sick," he tells her), and perhaps also out of basic sexual frustration. The consequence is simply that mother-wife, as in Gilman, becomes increasingly isolated in response to the husband's unsympathetic assessment of her condition.

Thematically the story can be read as a modern woman struggling with the pressures of a career and balancing the traditional mother and wife requirements of home. Husband is absent from much of the story as he is struggling at a new job, or so the narrator presumes, and in a sense re-living the postpartum environment as mother is trapped at home with baby. Whatever we wish to read behind the woman's deterioration, it is the process itself that is the focus of the story. Again as with Gilman, our heroine is at the outset of the story already in her isolated state at home, though Blumlein's narrator does have the freedom of escape as she goes to work. The latter portion of the story, however, takes place during the summer, and as a teacher she drops her summer work option and remains at home to battle the demons behind the walls. The ending lacks the pure creepiness of Gilman's final scene, but does give us quietly depressing final act of cutting oneself off entirely from the world that surrounds.

"Keeping House" has evidently only been published in Blumlein's first short story collection The Brains of Rats (1989), and only reprinted in the Michele Slung-edited sex-focused horror anthology I Shudder at Your Touch (1991). It deserves greater exposure.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Stephen King, The Revelations of 'Becka Paulson (1984)

King, Stephen. "The Revelations of 'Becka Paulson." Rolling Stone #426/427, 19 July & 2 August 1984.
______. I Shudder at Your Touch, Michele Slung, ed. New York: New American Library, May 1991.

The Revelations of 'Becka Paulson at ISFdb

Rating:     7/10

Image result for rolling stone 426/427 1984
Published during his extraordinary commercial peak in the 1980s, "The Revelations of 'Becka Paulson" is an as yet uncollected short story by Stephen King. First published in a special double summer issue of Rolling Stone magazine, The story was later incorporated into the novel The Tommyknockers (1987), in which Rebecca Paulson was a secondary character (or perhaps tertiary; I have not read the novel). Outside of a limited edition Skeleton Crew by Scream Press, it has not yet appeared in a Stephen King collection, and has only been anthologized in the highly readable Michele Slung-edited I Shudder at Your Touch. As an adapted screenplay, it was produced as an above average episode of The Outer Limits.

In the short story, a neglected and isolated housewife accidentally shoots herself in the head, and consequentially receives odd visions and, as per the title, revelations. As visions and memory begin to bind. disrupting her daily routine, her fate will certainly be locked in to how she handles this new perspective.

With all the story's quirkiness, King focuses primarily on character, to the story's benefit. 'Becka's life is controlled by a dominating masculine trinity, made up of Jesus Christ, her husband Joe, and her late father. Interestingly, her connection to all three is via some form of insurmountable distance. Her connection to Jesus is through her devotion to her religion, and she communicates with him through a photograph of Jesus as shepherd that has become animated. Her connection to her father is through her memory of his domineering ways, as he passed away years before but continues to deploy a daily influence. Finally, her husband Joe is at work during the day, and entirely absent to her when at home, preferring to play poker with his buddies or sleeping with a new co-worker. In addition, their house is located in a desolate rural setting, so that 'Becka has no immediate neighbours, and Joe must drive a ways for his job.

This is an indication that it is not only her stagnancy she is attempting to escape, but also the grasp of faulty masculine influence. She is essentially the sheep that animated Jesus bats away within the photo frame. Jesus tells her he is her saviour, and this is the point at which she listens. Through her revelations, 'Becka becomes aware of her actual situation, the unhappiness of her unfulfilling life, and as she does not have the capability for change, she opts to simply put a halt to the status quo. Without revealing the ending, it is appropriate to the story and her character, since 'Becka is not one to just pack up for the big city for fame and fortune.

The episode adapted for The Outer Limits is quite good, with a strong performance by talented Catherine O'Hara as Rebecca, who received a Gemini nomination. The episode captures the story's essence and keeps quite consistent with the source material, though replaces Jesus with a photograph of a model (portrayed by episode director Steven Weber, who also portrayed Jack Torrance in the 1997 television adaptation of King's The Shining). This change is most likely not to offend sponsors, and though it helps to eliminate that element of male dominance in her life, as a model is less effective than one's religion and its central figure, much of King's story is intact.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Joe R Lansdale, Prisoner 489 (2014)

Lansdale, Joe R. Prisoner 489. Dark Regions Press, October 2014

Dark Regions Press website
Prisoner 489 at Goodreads
Prisoner 489 at ISFdb

Rating:     6/10

As the second installment of Dark Regions Press's series of novallas by established genre authors, Dark Labyrinth, Prisoner 489 welcomed Lansdale back to folds of traditional horror. The novella takes place on a small burial island near a maximum security prison, where the executed are laid to rest. Doing time for their own misdeeds, three men live and work the island, and are faced with an unusual situation when the corpse of the latest prisoner, labeled 489, is brought to the island for burial.

The novella can be broken down into three distinct sections: the premise, the tale of Prisoner 489, and the final ensuing island chase. The strongest third of the book is the first, where we learn of the burial island and its three inhabitants. The island setting and the repetitive routine of the three occupants is so interesting that the book, what is essentially a stretched out short story, could have been further stretched out to novel-length. For the United Nations to invest so much in the burial of executed prisoners is a fascinating detail in itself, indicating that these prisoners are unique, a fact confirmed by the unnamed 489. There is a rumour that this setting is to be featured in other, forthcoming Lansdale stories, which I would look forward to. Whether this is an alternate universe or the near future is not defined, nor if this is a secret present-day reality the public is unaware of but the author has insight into. You never know.

While Lansdale does well in serving up an excellent premise and landscape, the characters who inhabit this little island are a little too generic. While being serviceable, the climactic chase scene manages to somehow diminish them a little, rather than allow them to blend into the drama. The attempt at humour during the tense moments unfortunately does not help. Despite this aside the book is a good read, and gorgeously presented in layout, and particularly with the inclusion of the excellent artwork by Santiago Caruso. Generous in number, each illustration is worth its page. In fact, the little book's entire design is sleek and attractive, adding to the reading experience. For me the physical book itself can be as valued as its contents, and in this case it even enhances the experience of reading.

This book was part of an exciting purchase made through Dark Regions Press. Along with Prisoner 489 I received Lansdale's Hot in December, the Michael Bailey edited The Library of the Dead, James Chambers's Resurrection House, Gary McMahon's Tales of the Weak and the Wounded, and a bundle of e-books.

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As of 24 December 2015