Thursday, November 2, 2017

Isaac Asimov, The Super Hugos (1992)

Asimov, Isaac, editor. The Super Hugos. New York: Baen Books, September 1992.


The Super Hugos at Goodreads
The Super Hugos at ISFdb

Overall Rating:     8/10

Credited to Isaac Asimov as "presenter," the iconic author passed away during the preparation of the anthology. The idea for the book came from prolific editor Martin Harry Greenberg, and had the book been released before Asimov's death, it might have been another of the many books credited as a collaboration between the two. Along with co-editors Asimov and Greenberg, Charles Sheffield might have been the third name, as he supplies the main introduction and a brief intro to each story, which he informs us in a note were all written before Asimov's death. Indeed, many hands were involved in compiling the voting for the best Hugo Award recipients, a process which Asimov likely had little (or nothing) to do with. It is possible he might have contributed a preface to the book, though there is no evidence in the book for this.

In production for the book, members of the Science Fiction Writers' Association (SFWA) were invited to vote for their favourite past Hugo winners, and the book includes the three most voted novellas and novelettes, and the four most voted short stories, for a total of ten stories. I like the idea as well as the end result, since when dealing with such quality, though not every story is for every person, there is not one bad story in the group. At the same time, however, because these are such popular and successful works, they are oft anthologized and, aside from compiling them together, is there need for additional presentation of stories that have been presented enough, while other quality stories get ignored?

But I digress...

Of the ten stories, three I had not yet read: Simak's "The Big Front Yard," Niven's "Neutron Star" and Asimov's "The Bicentennial Man." Of these, "Neutron Star" was my favourite. Of the entire collection, I would select "Sandkings" and "Flowers for Algernon" as my top stories, with "Enemy Mine" close behind. The only story I outright dislike is "Weyr Search," but that is mostly due to personal taste. I read "Weyr Search" many years back in Nebula Award Stories Three and did not like it then; I tried re-reading it here but could not get past two pages. I also did not care for "The Big Front Yard," though acknowledge it has some interesting elements. Of all these stories, those with the highest rating on ISFdb (as of the writing of this article) are "Flowers for Algernon" (9.63), "Sandkings" (9.38), and "Enemy Mine" (9.20).

Originally I had thought of writing a separate article on each story, but since these pieces are all well-read, overly anthologized and frequently written on, I figured I would have little to add to their lexicons and will keep my comments brief. I will also include the interesting details as per the voting of each category, according to the information in the appendices and introduction. Finally, I will mention that I liked Sheffield's additions to the anthology, which added unity to the work and kept its purpose at the forefront. Something often lacking in anthologies, and lacking in many of Greenberg's, in particular. I will return to the notes at the end of this article.


Sandkings by George RR Martin     9/10
(Omni, August 1979)
Listing on ISFdb

Self-interested Simon Kress searches for a unique pet to entertain both himself and regular party guests. He settles on sandkings, socially advanced insect-like hive creatures. What interests Kress is that the hives can wage war with one another, something he believes will provide excellent entertainment. However, lacking the patience to allow the creatures to evolve, Kress instead starves them in order to initiate combat.

I first read "Sandkings" in Nebula Winners Fifteen when I was a pre-teen more interested in science fiction than I am now. That same anthology included two other greats: Barry B. Longyear's "Enemy Mine" and Orson Scott Card's "Unaccompanied Sonata." The oft-anthologized and oft-praised "Sandkings" is strengthened with a re-read; while I clearly remembered many of the details of this story, including the ending, I was nonetheless wrapped up in re-reading the novella.

Martin takes liberties with the end paragraph, since the idea... well, what Kress sees (avoiding a spoiler here) has no bearing on anything we have learned about the sandkings. We understand that the creatures carve faces of their perceived god into their fortress walls, and that they drop their plating as they are in constant evolution, but there is no indication that the biological evolution can take on something that is obviously external to the creatures. Martin tosses this is for effect, and it is quite effective.

There is a possible nod to Theodore Sturgeon, or perhaps a stretch from my end. While shopping for a pet the salesperson informs Kress that they have a mimic from Celia's World. Though the mimic is a simian, I immediately recalled Sturgeon's suspenseful short story "The Other Celia," which involves an alien who must transfer herself over to a new body each night.


The Bicentennial Man by Isaac Asimov     7/10
(Stellar #2, edited by Judy-Lynn Del Rey. NY: Ballantine Books, February 1976)
Listing on ISFdb

When an android shows an inexplicably creative side, its owner and family help it to achieve its ambition: to become human. Over the course of two hundred years, the family and their descendants do what they can to change bylaws and physical make-up, but continually need to deal with human prejudice.

The story received three major awards: the Hugo, the Nebula and the Locus awards for best novelette. It was originally intended for publication in an anthology dedicated to the US bicentennial, but the project was dropped.


Enemy Mine by Barry B. Longyear     8/10
(Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, September 1979)
Listing on ISFdb

Published one month after Martin's "Sandkings," I also read this for the first time in Nebula Winners Fifteen. Amid a viscious war between humans and Dracs, human pilot Willis Davidge and Drac soldier Jeriba Shigan crash onto an ecologically hostile planet where they are immediately forced to unite resources in order to survive. An excellent story not just for its anti racial message, notions of family and survival, but the fact that it is written with such energy and clarity amid a chaotic setting elevates the story above its social vision.


The Star by Arthur C. Clarke     7/10
(Infinity Science Fiction, November 1955)
Listing on ISFdb

Returning to Earth from an expedition to the site of a supernova, a Jesuit priest is in deep existential meditation, the reason for which is slowly revealed as the narrative progresses. Without giving anything away, the surprise ending of the story does not stop at the surprise itself, as Clarke asks a fundamental metaphysical question, which of course can be answered differently depending on your faith, or lack of.


The Big Front Yard by Clifford D. Simak     6/10
(Astounding Science Fiction, October 1958)
Listing on ISFdb

Hiram Taine's house is infiltrated by alien beings that transform his home into a doorway to another world. This other world serves to access several other doorways, each to another world. Though the story is certainly interesting, its tone and simplistic approach to its protagonist unfortunately weighs the story down to its decade, leaving it feeling dated.


"Repent, Harlequin!" Said the Ticktockman by Harlan Ellison     7/10
(Galaxy Magazine, December 1965)
Listing on ISFdb

In a dystopia that functions through regimented punctuality, where time lost is taken away from a person's expected life-span, a Harlequin wreaks havoc on the orderliness of things. Ellison's story is presented without ambiguity, with lines and characters that are so black/white no other colour or shade has the opportunity of creeping in. The story works due to its level of satire and the interesting structure in which it is presented. I loved this story when I first read it in my teens, from the entertaining Leo P. Kelly anthology Fantasy: The Literature of the Marvelous (McGraw-Hill, 1973), but unlike the excellent "Sandkings," this one has since lost appeal to me, and as I get older, so does much of Ellison's work. Still a good story, particularly if one has not yet read it.

This is the third most-voted short story, and from the top five list, one of three written by Ellison.


Weyr Search by Anne McAffrey     --/10
(Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact, October 1967)
Listing on ISFdb

Unrated because I could not re-read the story. I read "Weyr Search" a number of years back in the anthology Nebula Award Stories Three (ed. Roger Zelazny, Pocket Books, 1970), and did not like it at all. However, I acknowledge that my dislike for the story is due primarily to my own taste and not necessarily the story itself. I simply struggle with stories of dragons and that kind of fantasy. The fact that the story received both the Hugo and the Nebula in its category says much about my taste, but I also believe that over time these fantasies have diminished. Interestingly enough, it is the only story that has a single rating on ISFdb (which is my original rating from a few years back), which is to imply that the story is not read much anymore.


Neutron Star by Larry Niven     8/10
(Worlds of If, October 1966)
Listing on ISFdb

Unemployed and heavily in-debt pilot Beowulf Shaeffer is hired to fly to a neutron star that inexplicably claimed the lives of two researchers. It is a dangerous mission, with a near death guarantee, and Niven does well in trapping Shaeffer in an offer he can't refuse. Aside from the mystery of the neutron star and the death of the researchers, the story is nicely shaped into something more complex, with the inclusion of the fascinating alien race of Pierson's Puppeteers, Shaeffer's own persona and agendas, and the special, unbreachable ship (the Skydiver) that is constructed for the mission. Highly satisfying and entertaining.

Niven's story is credited to be the first to investigate the neutron star, doing so before science had a firm grasp on its properties. "Neutron Star" was the second most voted short story. The sixth most voted, according to the notes, is Niven's "Inconstant Moon" (All the Myriad Ways. NY: Ballantine Books, 1971), which is listed as a novelette at the ISFdb.


I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream by Harlan Ellison     7/10
(Worlds of If, March 1967)
Listing on ISFdb

In this post apocalyptic story, the five seemingly last people on Earth live inside a super computer that, once a war machine, has gained sentience and wiped out the rest of humanity. Motivated by an insatiable hatred for humanity, the computer, AM, preserves the five humans in order to mount an everlasting series of extreme punishment and torture. Told through the point of view of one man, Ted, the reader is taken on a journey with the group to find some canned food, while getting glimpses of the kinds of punishment the humans endure, alongside snippets of backstory. A dark and engaging read despite the borderline misogyny.

The story garnered the most votes for the Super Hugo, one of three for Ellison. I prefer this one over his "Ticktockman" though both are nicely titled, but I do prefer Niven's "Neutron Star" overall for best short story.


Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes     8/10
(The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, April 1959)
Listing on ISFdb

It is difficult to dislike this widely read novella, the story of intellectually disabled thirty-seven year-old Charlie Gordon and the experiment that transforms him into a uniquely brilliant individual, only to see its effects reversed. Despite the vats of cheese and sentiment in the story, the writing spans the gamut of emotion, from humour to desperation, maintaining dramatic focus. It must be read.


Appendices
The anthology includes detailed sections on the voting process and results of voting in all categories. I will reproduce the top five voting results for the four main sections here, with their year of publication.

Best Short Story
1. I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, Harlan Ellison, 1967
2. Neutron Star, Larry Niven, 1966
3. "Repent, Harlequin!" said the Ticktockman, Harlan Ellison, 1965
4. The Star, Arthur C. Clarke, 1956
5. Jeffty I Five, Harlan Ellion, 1978

Best Novelette
1. The Big Front Yard, Clifford D. Simak, 1958
2. The Bicentennial Man, Isaac Asimov, 1976
3. Sandkings, George RR Martin, 1979
4. Unicorn Variations, Roger Zelazny, 1981
5. Blood Music, Greg Bear, 1984

Best Novella
1. Flowers for Algernon, Daniel Keyes, 1959
2. Weyr Search, Anne McCaffrey, 1967
3. Enemy Mine, Barry B. Longyear, 1979
4. Ill Met in Lankhmar, Fritz Leiber, 1970
5. Soldier Ak Not, Gordon R., 1964


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



Thursday, October 26, 2017

Ellery Queen, The Lamp of God (1935)

Queen, Ellery. The House of Haunts. Detective Story Magazine, October 1935
______. The Lamp of God. The New Adventures of Ellery Queen, 1940
______. The Lamp of God. NY: Dell Books (Dell Ten Cent #23), 1951


The Lamp of God at Goodreads


Rating:     6/10


Published 32 years ago this month, the Ellery Queen novella "The Lamp of God" is technically a supernatural story. The premise finds Detective Ellery Queen invited by lawyer acquaintance Thorne to help escort a young woman, Alice, to her father's isolated house to retrieve her inheritance. Arriving at the isolated Victorian "Black House," they spend the night in the adjacent "White House" where the deceased man's remaining kin have settled. Upon waking the next morning, the black house has entirely vanished!

Though readers can deduce early on that a rational explanation will be available to explain the house's disappearance, the fact that the plot hinges on the possibility of a ghostly house categorizes the story as supernatural. In fact the story can potentially be categorized as a ghost story, if one were to be inclined to argue that vanishing house is a ghostly object, but since the plot does not reflect it being an apparition, only that it disappeared, I would refute the claim. The story was, however, originally titled "The House of Haunts," whether by the authors or publisher, but despite this detail the supernatural element is not directly investigated, nor speculated upon, so nothing in the text claims that a haunting is a possibility.

It is only at the story's denouement that the supernatural element is entirely and indisputably removed.

Though it appears that by employing the supernatural as a possibility, the authors are challenging their own conventions, along with challenging the conventions of early detective fiction. However, they are taking safe refuge with how the supernatural element is presented. The story opens with a brief segment that establishes Ellery Queen as a strictly rational man, so that no fanciful ideas can act as potential realities in his mind. When the house disappears Queen is flabbergasted, as are the other, more impressionable, witnesses. Though Queen does, on occasion, comment on the fact that God's world is shaken and there are some minor comments on his faith in the rational being challenged, his thoughts are kept conveniently away from the reader and we later discover, though it is obvious, that throughout the plot his rational brain is picking up clues and piecing the evidence together. The questioning of Queen's reality is simplistic and certainly not terribly existential; Thorne and Alice are the ones whose cores are affected, but they are secondary players in the plot so their realities are further removed. Because even much of Queen's portrayal is distanced, and though we might receive the glimpse of a thought along the lines of his worlds being shaken up, his investigative mind is kept wholly secret, so that we are left to wonder what in fact was spinning in that head of his.

As a mystery story it is a product of its time. It features stock characters and is high on melodrama. However, it is quite entertaining, and the explanation of the house's disappearance is a good one. Some might figure it out; I admit that I did not.


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

Thursday, September 7, 2017

John Saul, Ashes to Ashes: The Dragon's Flame

Saul, John. Ashes to Ashes: The Dragon's Flame. New York: Fawcett Crest, March 1997.

The Dragon's Flame at ISFdb
The Dragon's Flame at Goodreads

For Part One of the series: The Doll
For Part Two of the series: The Locket

Rating:     5/10



The third part of John Saul's Blackstone Chronicles series is an improved entry over its pair of predecessors, as its formulaic bits are more focused and intertwined.

The italicized introductory pages present a disturbing account of a young woman being ostracized by family and community as a result of an accidental pregnancy. This is followed by the horrific loss of the baby while mother is still locked away at the asylum. Though the sequence is brief, it is effective primarily due to its content. In addition, the brief narrative is directly linked to the plot of this novella, as opposed to the random connection in Part Two's "The Locket."

"The Dragon's Flame" introduces us to Andrea, Martha Ward's prodigal daughter, and cousin to heroine Rebecca Morrison. Her employer/partner has fired her from her job and tossed her out of their apartment. Pregnant and abandoned, Andrea returns to Blackstone and to her mother's home as she has nowhere else to go. Unlike the previous recipients of possessed asylum memorabilia, Andrea lives not the perfect life of the financially comfortable, but is already a victim of life prior to getting victimized by whatever vengeance-seeker is spreading the asylum toys throughout the town. Because of her situation and the reader's natural empathy, we care more about her than we did about the McGuires and the Hartwicks of the previous books. Moreover, since the likable cousin Rebecca is deeply involved in this plot, we have another layer of interest and empathy dropped onto us.

Because the characters, though fairly two-dimensional, are better developed than those in the "The Doll" and "The Locket," the reader is more invested in them, and Saul, by accruing this investment from the reader, has thereby taken on the responsibility of delivering a better book. If we invest and the author flops out at the end, our investment will fail and we will be less likely to trust in the author in the future. However, a good return on our investment will have us rushing over to part four of the series. The ending here is two-fold, with Andrea's expected fate occurring rather early, followed by a not-too-surprising additional climax that leaves Rebecca homeless and the series delivered directly into the story-line of Part Four.

Though I am using adjectives along the lines of expected and anticipated, as there are no surprises and the linear plot is all too linear, this entry is a slightly better read not only due to our own empathy, but in the further development of the overall story. The players Rebecca and Oliver, protagonists involved primarily on the periphery, have now climbed over the plot border in order to take part in the main story. This usurping of the narrative by Rebecca and Oliver places conscious emphasis on the fact that this novella is not a stand-alone work but a chapter of a novel. As a novella there is no real protagonist since Andrea, Rebecca and Oliver serve that role at different points. Though the book promises, with its initial focus and premise, to be about Andrea, she is conveniently cast aside so that the focus shifts over to the larger plot's protagonists.


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.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Joe R. Lansdale, The Bottoms (2000)

Lansdale, Joe R., The Bottoms, NY: Mysterious Press, 2000.

The Bottoms at Goodreads
The Bottoms at ISFdb


Rating:     7.5/10


The Bottoms
Vintage Books (2010)
Eleven year-old Harry Crane and his little sister Thomasina "Tom" stumble upon the mutilated corpse of a black woman along the Sabine River in East Texas, 1933. The boy's farmer father, Jacob Crane, acts as the community's lawman, and through the boy's perspective we are brought into the investigation of brutal slayings amid a racially charged place and time.

Though I picked out the guilty party relatively early on, along with piecing together the mystery of the folkloric Goat Man, I nonetheless enjoyed the book tremendously. Lansdale's novel is elevated from basic mystery by its historical subject matter and, for the most part, the presentation of that subject matter.

There is a vividness to this novel that is important to its period setting, as the sights and scents of place and time come across clear and distinct. At no point did I feel that scenes had been inserted in order to deliver "local colour," as the plot was interwoven with each locale and character that steps onto the page. Nor did the novel feel at any time to be overlong or winded, so that even if Lansdale did include some pages for the sake of backdrop, he succeeded in weaving them into the overarching story-line. Perhaps because the plot is so tightly interwoven with each of the book's individual elements, much else can be forgiven. Despite this I would like to mention two points for thought.

While I enjoyed reading the characters of the novel, they are depicted with little ambiguity. It is suspect that any white person of 1933 would be so clearly one-sided in their estimation of persons of colour, since character is a product of its time, place and culture. I will stress that this issue does not detract from the novel nor did it from my reading the novel; the story precedes its presentation, and the plot is so tight that there is no need to complicate it with additional details. Regardless, those characters that are racist are full-fledged racists, which is believable, whereas those who are not racist are entirely without prejudice, which can be a little challenging. The only middle ground is offered by a minor character (when I locate my copy I will include his name here). A surprisingly sensitive portrait is given to this character whose function in the plot is clear and precise. He is trusted (practically forced) to watch over a black man who is brought in early as a suspect, and though, dim-witted as he is, he does try to do a capable job despite his obvious prejudices, which are enhanced by the fact that his daughter had relations with a man of colour, something if known publicly would be a death-call to the family. These details are not integrated into the plot and no resolution is offered, which is wise; but this detail complicates the hiding of the black man and, though the man entrusted with hiding him appears up front to be a pure racist, there are some touches that imply another side to his outlook on the situation, which I won't discuss here as it would reveal an important turn in the plot. In short, the bulk of the characters are defined with strict boundaries, as though the author were pointing at each one, saying "This one is good, we like her," or "This is a bad dude, we don't like him at all."

The other point I'd like to pause on is the representation of memory and voice. Without dalliance the reader is expected to accept that a dying man in his eighties is able to reconstruct, with an acute grasp of detail, events that occurred seven decades earlier. Collins recalls the minutest of details from conversation to observations, and has the added imaginative touch to describe his surroundings with the most visual of similes, such as the moon coming through the clouds as though it were awakening and peeking out from underneath sheets. Memory is inherently inaccurate and unreliable, and if we are to apply this reality to the narrative, we would be struggling with the idea that Crane is sharing an interpretation of events rather than the facts as he believes them to be. However, if we simply accept him at face value as a trusted narrator, we can immerse ourselves into the story.

The Bottoms.jpg
Subterranean Press (2000)
The Bottoms received the 2001 Edgar Award for novel of the year (2000). The book is is currently in pre-production for a theatrical release that was originally slated for 2017. The man attached to directing the film was the recently deceased Bill Paxton, from a screenplay by Brent Hanley, who also scripted Bill Paxton's full-length directorial debut, the enormously entertaining Frailty. Sadly we will not see the results of a second collaboration between these two, though likely the project will continue at some point with another director attached.

On a completely irrelevant side-note: I read this novel about a month or so before posting this article and could not recall Harry's family name. Checking on Goodreads I saw immediately it was Collins, so inserted that into the appropriate spots. However, it did not right with me, and taking up my copy I saw that it is actually Crane. Beware of taking data from the internet without checking a more appropriate source, such as the book itself (or perhaps this very article).


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



Testing a new map (as of 24 December 2015)