Since I had recently finished Williamson's classic Darker Than You Think, I figured I'd check my list of "stories to be read" and polish off anything...moreSince I had recently finished Williamson's classic Darker Than You Think, I figured I'd check my list of "stories to be read" and polish off anything short by him. There was only one tale and though "short" it was not (really, it's a novella), I got it off the web and read it. I'm putting the review here because "why not?" but please note "Wolves Of Darkness" is the only thing I read in this no doubt fine anthology (well, technically that's not true, I've also read 5 other stories here, but not recently enough to have reviews in my head).
So, "Wolves Of Darkness" - well, it's certainly pulp, in both the positive sense that it's a cracking weird mystery sci-fi horror fantasy hybrid, and in the negative sense that it's repetitive, action-focused and mostly surface level stuff. But then you don't really read pulp for literary depth, right? For a good yarn, sure, and for occasional flashes of visionary oddness and resonant strangeness...
A man arrives in a lonely, snow-bound West Texas town in answer to a strangely worded telegram from his scientist father. The locals live in fear of a weird wolf-pack that haunts the area, killing people and seemingly running alongside human beings. Eventually, our hero discovers his father and female assistant out on the farm acting strangely, with chalk white skin and glowing green eyes, assisted by a pack of similarly-orbed wolves, and the smashed remains of an experimental multi-dimensional gateway machine in the now-enormous basement.
While this is a good example of the weirdness the pulps could get up to (black onyx chambers lit with low red lights, an inter-dimensional view of a black-light city populated by fiendish shadow creatures, a woman chewing into a man's leg as a form of torture) it's also a good example of how frustrating they can be to read (and I'm a man who likes 19th century literature!) - endless repetition and circular plotting, the by-now-obvious stated baldly, little sense of atmosphere, mystery or larger resonances. Williamson is better at it than most, I'll give him that, and he does occasionally generate a weird atmosphere (the leg-chewing scene is unexpected and shocking, the view through the portal is weird and Lovecraftian, if over-written, and the setting and blizzard paralyzed town are nicely atmospheric) but, on the other hand, this isn't any different than some sci-fi potboiler movie, in the end. Lack of realistic characters is probably a big culprit in this feeling. Worth reading if you like pulps but if you're just a horror fan surveying the field, not essential. (less)
So, this is the second DANNY DUNN book in the series, which I just read for work. I never read this one as a kid because, let's be honest, a desert is...moreSo, this is the second DANNY DUNN book in the series, which I just read for work. I never read this one as a kid because, let's be honest, a desert island? who cares, right? Surprisingly, this was actually very entertaining. Prof. Bullfinch and Dr. Grimes get into an argument about who is more practical and end up betting that one will be better at island survival camping than the other. Danny and Joe wangle their way into the bet and join the scientists when they fly to Peru put their bet into action... BUT... the plane goes down and so all of them are really marooned on an actual-factual desert island with only about half the supplies they'd brought for the contest. And, they're not alone...
It struck me with this book that the DANNY DUNN series has an outline in its mission to get children interested in science and that each book (maybe less so as the series goes on) is aimed at a particular branch of science. ANTI-GRAVITY PAINT gave us astronomy & astrophysics, HOMEWORK MACHINE was computers and here we get... Engineering, as the boys learn about building simple machines and tools. As usual, there are some nice grace notes (really, given the seriousness of their situation, Danny gets off a little easy for hiding the crank-handle to the emergency radio transmitter for a couple of days - but then this isn't DANNY DUNN, BLEACHED SKELETON ON A PERUVIAN ATOLL, is it?): The Professor again proves to be a voice of calm and reason, Grimes shows his heart under his sour exterior and the boys also learn a few things about approaching people and first impressions. Joe does end up in a big pot surrounded by natives, but it's not what you think. And a turtle gets eaten. Danny's mom, as usual, puts up with a hell of a lot! (less)
Re-read this for work. The first of the Danny Dunn adventures and thus a little less-streamlined as usual, as most of the major elements are being int...moreRe-read this for work. The first of the Danny Dunn adventures and thus a little less-streamlined as usual, as most of the major elements are being introduced. Professor Bullfinch accidentally invents a liquid that, when a current is passed through it, repels gravity. Bullfinch and The U.S. Government quickly build a spheroid ship to test the material but Joe and Danny accidentally cause a premature takeoff while inside - launching the two boys, Prof. Bullfinch and Doctor Grimes into orbit! As they pinball their way around the solar system, will they ever be able to make it back to Earth, or instead freeze/starve to death in their metal sphere grave hurtling forever into the dark void?
Well, like I said, it's the first of the series so you know the answer. And even if it wasn't, you STILL know the answer because these are optimistic books intended to get kids interested in science, in this case trying to defuse a lot of the pulp-era's whiz-bang space-age imagery with some solid scientific facts about the reality of space travel (not too much, as I said, the Dunn books stressed real science but often there was some kind of minor fantastic element to get the plot going. Surprisingly, this book also commits the old "sound in space" mistake as well). Things I liked - seeing as how they slingshot from Earth to Mars and then past Jupiter to Saturn,the book makes the point that they are actually in the ship for quite a while (a number of weeks if not months!) and Bullfinch and Grimes have long beards, as they weren't planning for the expected travelers to be on the ship long enough to need a shave. Also, Prof. Bullfinch shows some solid psychological knowledge as he remains decidedly cool and calm when the actual dire state of their situation becomes apparent, thus keeping the boys calm. I like that Grimes (the perpetual old sour puss) thanks the boys for accidentally allowing him to live a dream he's always had. I like when Bullfinch gives a very noble speech about how scientists should not fear death but just see it as another chance for discovery - all very New Frontier in the making! Joe is still the dour voice of the kids (interesting that you could argue that the Bullfinch/Grimes dynamic is something like an adult reflection of the Danny/Joe personalities) and I like that Danny actually gets to deliver to his ridiculous homework punishment the teacher demanded of him, and undercut the whole point of it ironically (he has to write out 500 times, for daydreaming in class, "Space Travel is still a 100 years away" and is able to do just that, as he tells his teacher, during the long trip from Mars to Jupiter!). I like the floating shoe! All in all, this was a nicely imaginative way to kick the series off (Danny and Joe are world famous AND met the President of the U.S.!). (less)
I read this as a young boy and just recently had to re-read it as part of my job (we're prepping them for e-book releases). This is the third installm...moreI read this as a young boy and just recently had to re-read it as part of my job (we're prepping them for e-book releases). This is the third installment of the Danny Dunn boy scientist/inventor (note, NOT boy genius) series and switches up the formula by introducing the third member of the cast, Irene Miller, in this book (her Dad just moved to Midston, you see) alongside Danny and his bosom companion the thin, dour poet Joe Pearson.
In this installment, children reading this boook will learn about computers circa 1958 - how they work, what programming them means, what they can do, what they CAN'T do and what they are not (self-aware). The Danny Dunn books, to my recollection, usually had one slightly fanciful element included while attempting to generally teach kids about some aspect of science and this was no exception. It's a tight little story where Danny (and, more reluctantly Joe and Irene) use Professor Bullfinch's new MINIAC computer to do their homework for them while the Doctor is away. Hijinks ensue due to the sabotage of "Snitcher" Harris, perpetual foil for Danny. In the end, the kids learn that by having to do the work of programming the information they needed for their homework into the computer, all they were really saving themselves was some time, as they were still learning what they needed to know (Irene does a bang-up job recovering from her garbled, MINIAC sabotaged report on Peru by basically remembering every page she entered on the spot! Good for her!).
There are some surprisingly nice grace notes here for a book aimed at 8 to 10-year-olds: short conversations about class sizes and effective teaching, if children should be allowed to use modern "tools" to help them in class ("you wouldn't expect us to write with quills and ink?" argues Danny). Eddie "Snitcher" Phillips, interestingly, while the obligatory "mean kid," is not dumb and figures out how to sabotage the computer pretty effectively (unlike his cohort Fatso). Irene stands up for women scientists, the choice to have Joe be a somewhat morose young poet is an interesting one (he might not have made it out of the 1960s counter culture as a young adult!) and the very subtle and underplayed attractions and jealousy between the various young characters is nicely done.
Two things struck me - one is the odd irony of people reading this on a kindle, the other that someone needs to create a character for children nowadays to make them interested in the practical and visionary aspects of science, ala COSMOS. (less)
Thanks to inter-library loan, I'm now only one story away from reading everything on my "Cornell Woolrich short story list", in this case they found a...moreThanks to inter-library loan, I'm now only one story away from reading everything on my "Cornell Woolrich short story list", in this case they found a book so obscure that I had to create the Goodreads record for it!
Of the 6 stories here, two have already been read by me, so let's repurpose those reviews first:
"The Moon of Montezuma" takes a traditional story idea ("cold murder is revenged on the perpetrator long after the fact by 'natural' coincidence") and sets it in poverty-stricken, rural Mexico - telling it in achingly beautiful (but sinister) poetic language. Not amazing or anything, but a nice change of pace than the usual Woolrich.
"Guillotine" (aka "Steps Going Up") is a masterpiece and should be more well known. It's perhaps the ultimate "race-against-the-clock" suspense scenario ever devised by Woolrich, and also an interesting example of how true suspense writing can be almost deliberately amoral in its deployment (more on that in a second). We start with a condemned man in a prison cell, detailing his mundane last moments (the honorary glass of rum, last rites, the shaving of the neck, last cigarette) before he begins that long walk up the 21 steps to madame guillotine (this is present day France, 'natch, there is some talk of the "savage" Americans who fry their criminals with amperage). Cut into this forward progression are slices of flashback that ratchet up the tension as we learn the whole scenario that led the condemned man there and why he seems unperturbed by certain death - the robbery, the murder, the betrayal, the capture, and then the plot with his female accomplice to save him from the blade - all it takes is for the state executioner to die on the day the criminal is scheduled to be put to death. And so, out of love, she moves to put this into effect. The two story threads eventually join at the scaffold, merging together seamlessly - and here is where that interesting amorality comes in. Much like those moments in heist movies where you realize that you want nothing more than the criminal's scheme to succeed (because you've seen all the hard work they've put into it), this story plays on those same discordant notes - you feel for the condemned man, because no one wants to die; you feel for his lover, because she works so hard to attempt to poison the executioner (some wonderful scenes of tension here); you feel for the executioner, first because he is a lonely man easily duped by a young beauty and then, later, an honorable man struggling against a dying body to do his final job, whatever the effort and cost! It's simply amazing and, on top of a killer plot, the writing just flows like water, with a marvelously sketched bar scene in a den of iniquity at the opening and some subtle twinning of actions (rolling the drunk in the opening versus poisoning the executioner, the executioner and criminal's struggles up the same scaffold steps). Those who read only for edification miss the chance to experience wonderful tales like this - a perfect exemplar (the work of P.G. Wodehouse is another) that the term "style over substance" is not always an insult and instead can hide the pure joy of effect-driven writing (which, to do well, is just as hard as edifying writing). I myself had to unlearn such dismissiveness and I'm a much happier reader for it. One of the most enjoyable stories I've ever read (with a killer last line too boot)!
“Don't Wait Up For Me, Tonight” ("Goodbye, New York") - this is the story I hunted down the collection for and it didn't disappoint. It's, in some ways, the usual suspenseful "race against the clock" narrative as a poverty-stricken couple (I love Woolrich's honesty about the meanness and desperation of the poor - lessons learned by the Great Depression, coming again soon to all of us who aren't of the landed classes!) deals with the husband's rash actions. The opening, as the wife returns home to find her husband in mid-suicide attempt, is a grabber and it only gets better from there as, denied release, he disappears into the night with only a "don't wait up for me, tonight". When he returns in the early morning he's $500 richer and his abusive ex-boss has been murdered. Now his deeply loving wife must organize their flight from the city as the police close in....
Woolrich's mastery of suspense writing is not to be forgotten - he has *such* control over timing, pacing, incident and word choice as to take one's breathe away. Adding the meat to these bones, as the couple flees from street to subway to train station, is his masterful writing of human emotion - you feel for this woman who loves her husband so much, a man who has given up on everything and himself. Here again is the anguish that the author excels at. This really is a masterful story... for reasons which must be talked of behind the spoiler zone (but I urge you to seek it out for yourself, or some publisher to reprint it):
(view spoiler)[I've talked before about how Woolrich's "cold, random universe doesn't care about you" philosophical underpinning actually makes his suspense stories more suspenseful, simply because you're never totally sure if events in the fiction are going to turn out well or badly, as they would from an optimist or pessimist writer. Now, in a race against the clock story, you would seem to be left with two options - they get away or they get caught. Granted, with Woolrich, it could always be "they get away... but the train crashes" or "they get caught but it turns out the husband didn't commit murder and it's all a misunderstanding" (pardon my clunky attempts at spinning possibilities) but here, in a beautiful turn of events, it's neither of these - the couple do get away and the husband DID commit murder, and one might ask how that can be a satisfying story, even with the unconscious, in-the-moment "identification with bad guys trying to flee their actions" thrill familiar from all heist movies. And the answer is simplicity itself - because what's been driving this narrative are not the events but the wife's deep love for her husband and the life they have, the only thing they have against a world eating them alive dollar by dollar, and so at the height of success, Woolrich ends the story, powerfully and unexpectedly, on a single thought - the wife's realization that their love is now ruined by the events, that she can never truly love her murderer husband the way she did 24 hours before, and that eventually, even if they succeed in fleeing and resuming a "normal" life, their marriage will fall to pieces from that distrust. And THAT, my friends, is really excellent writing! (hide spoiler)]
I had bought a paperback of this when I was a wee lad (the edition pictured above) - tried to read it, gave up, and later lost it. Looking at it as an...moreI had bought a paperback of this when I was a wee lad (the edition pictured above) - tried to read it, gave up, and later lost it. Looking at it as an adult, I can see why it was tough for me to engage with it, as I even had some problems reading it as an adult now. I like lots of different styles of writing , including some experimental stuff that drives most people batty, so saying I had a tough time made be taken as code by some that this book is poorly written. It isn't.
It's inelegant and clunky at the start (Williamson was trying to stretch beyond his 30's pulp roots) and so it's repetitious and redundant at times, with a frustratingly weak-willed main character in one Will Barbee, a near-alcoholic newspaper reporter still nursing hurt feelings towards his Anthropologist Professor father-figure - a man who rejected Will from participating in the Prof's exploratory archeology team, now returning from the Mongolian desert with a rumored world-shaking discovery dug up from an ancient tomb. But during a dramatic press-conference at the airport, the Professor up and dies mere seconds away from making his revelation and the rest of his team bolt into hiding to protect the secret from shadow forces arrayed against them. And what does all have to do with the alluring, sensual red-head April Bell, cub reporter in town, who sidles up to Barbee for info and may (or may not) have secretly killed a little kitten at press conference in an act of primitive, sympathetic magic?
If you're interested, I will say that the writing smooths out at about the halfway point where, water-treading exposition out of the way, the plot really starts to cook, eventually reaching a fine crescendo suffused with both sickly demonic glee and powerful dark fantasy imagery (the book is less horror, despite the folkloric/demonic figures, than it is a strange mix of dark fantasy and science fiction - nowadays it would be considered an "Urban Fantasy", I think). So if you're considering reading it, I'd say gird your loins a bit for the frustrating first half (although honestly, the opening scenes at the airport had a kind of Doc Savage feel to them) because it does get good. Beyond that, I have to enter.... the spoiler zone...
(view spoiler)[The desire to spin a science-fiction take on the werewolf myth seems to have been buzzing around quite a bit in the 40's and 50s. This book brought to mind the extended novella "There Shall Be No Darkness" by James Blish, which I reviewed in Zacherley's Vulture Stew - although Blish's scientific rationale for actual physical shape-shifting involving pituitary glands is here replaced with a much easier to swallow (if slightly more nebulous and ill-defined) projecting of the will out of the body into a malleable energy form which can also bend probability to its desires (but which is hampered by sunlight and silver) - all a mutation possessed by a secret parallel species of mankind, homo lycanthropus, who are, for lack of a better term, witch-people living amongst us since the Ice Age, responsible for stories of monsters, vampires, sorcerers, etc.
Williamson crams a lot into this novel, and honestly does it only somewhat successfully. Partly it's down to that repetition I mentioned, as the novel's voice is a very "internalized but still surface-level observational" POV - Barbee repeats and repeats himself and experiences things and then questions them and then experiences them again and then questions them while blocks of exposition appear in the middle of tense scenes. When we do get Barbee's feelings, they are an anguished conflict over his desire to be a good man and his being driven (not too strongly, it must be said) to commit acts of evil - which is fine, but it does get repetitious as I said and you begin to get frustrated with him. Partly, this is always the problem of a book in which a main character is having a vast conspiracy revealed to them - it's almost inevitable that they have to sit back and listen to exposition or conjecture at various points, while wondering how far down the machinations go and how deeply they and their friends are involved. For the time period, there's some nice attempts at psychological detail involving unrequited love, wish fulfillment, sexual desire, parental attachment, addictions and even the vaguest whiff of sadomasochism in some of the transformation sequences involving Barbee and April. Those transformation scenes are some of the book's strongest, as they allow Williamson to indulge in a little sense-based (scent/sound) atmospherics during the character's wild, passionate stalkings through the night (although the actual details of the transformations are clumsily deployed at first - I like the detail that the forms remain invisible to mankind unless the transformed wishes to be seen, but we can only assume that they are "talking" through telepathy, and the fact that they leave their bodies behind is not made clear until later).
Similarly, the race-war aspect of the narrative is potentially interesting (Barbee's secret nature fighting against enculturated social training), with an initial flirting with a question of whether the Lycanthropes are inherently evil, but for the plot to continue, that question gets settled fairly easily, which makes Barbee's continued waffling frustrating, as I said (he basically seems driven to continue to question it simply because of his lust for April and his deep-seeded enjoyment of his exciting new form's freedoms - only that latter part seems justifiable). The hybrid status general humanity allows a bunch of "mixed blood" plot devices to move things along as well. Another level of frustration is found in the novel's decision to extend the "is it real or am I dreaming/crazy?" approach - understandable as a starting point but it continues on for far longer than the reader could desire or enjoy - perhaps more subtle writing at the start could have played this better, leaving the reader unsure and wary, perhaps even playing much more off Barbee's alcoholism (which, nicely, *is* subtly implied as extending from his rejection of his true nature), but Williamson doesn't seem up to it. Which is a shame, because April as Femme Fatale and Barbee as boozy sap, gradually transforming from that noir starting point and into something more mythic and horrific, would have really made this a classic. There are flashes of potential for that here, but it doesn't seem to have been Williamson's particular approach of interest as a writer...
The book's turning point is reached when Barbee checks himself into an asylum (even though he mentions his problems with booze, they assure him he can still have three bourbons a night, one before dinner and two after! Ah, the 1940s!) and the plot really picks up steam from that point. This was never going to be a deep, thoughtful book but as dark fantasy pulp yarn, it works a treat, getting more and more desperate and unnerving, verging on Cornell Woolrich territory (in plot and feel, if not actual writing), until a nicely nightmarish car chase in the rain and then the dramatic ending (this being a book about parallel races, sadly you do have to maneuver a bit of clumsy "who are your parents, really?" malarkey, which seems somewhat tacked on, along with an unsurprising revelation of "who is the Child Of The Night?", the answer to one of two pivotal questions in the book - the second question, "what's in the box" is really only half-answered, but that's okay). I liked that the ending is neither triumphant nor apocalyptic, but open-ended - a success for evil but a minor success for Barbee's better nature (I'll be interested to hunt down the otherly-authored sequel short stories in The Williamson Effect) and it occurred to me that this could make a quite entertaining modern cgi-effects film.... (hide spoiler)]
So, I liked it. It had problems, or maybe I had problems with it, but especially as the second half clicked along I could see how it had had such an impact at the time. Interesting read of a key text!
Got this from Inter-Library Loan unexpectedly (who really thought they'd track down a hardcover printing from 1943?) for the title story. I'd already...moreGot this from Inter-Library Loan unexpectedly (who really thought they'd track down a hardcover printing from 1943?) for the title story. I'd already read 3 other stories here in other books(sorry "Last Night", not enough time. Maybe when I'm retired) so let's repurpose those reviews first:
This quote seems apropos for "Nightmare": “If a man could pass through paradise in a dream, and had a flower presented to him as a pledge that his soul had really been there, and if he found that flower in his hand when he woke – Aye, and what then?” - Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ANIMA POETAE (1816)
A man wakes from a terrible nightmare of violent murder, only to discover that there are physical traces and evidence of it having actually occurred. He is haunted by this until a trip in the countryside (with his sister and police detective brother-in-law) triggers deja vu and they discover the site of an unsolved crime meeting the exact details of the nightmare. This is classic Woolrich - a man agonizing in his soul over something he believes he didn't do but all evidence points to the contrary. The *explanation*, when it comes - (view spoiler)[hypnotism (hide spoiler)] - may seem a bit much but you *are* reading genre fiction, to make the point, and I like how Woolrich upends the conventions of these type of stories to resolve the conflict, yet still make the events resonant, terrible and unnerving (view spoiler)[(the main character was hypnotized into being a murder weapon because of his weak will - he DID kill but only as someone else's instrument - which is cold comfort, even though the victims are made out to be less than innocent (hide spoiler)]. It's a really enjoyable read. Given some choice lines, one can read a subtext of Woolrich agonizing over his secret gay identity in this tale as well and, as usual, there's that point that Francis M. Nevins Jr. makes - that one of the strengths of Woolrich's oeuvre is that, given his focus on random chance as a manifestation of a malignant universe, you the reader are never actually sure (or relaxed) in how his stories are going to turn out, for good or ill. This fact is very true of "Nightmare" and makes it that much more of a suspenseful read.
"Three O'Clock" - another Woolrich classic, a crackerjack suspense story in which an average watchmaker fellow sets a bomb in the basement of his suburban home to kill his wife and her secret lover - only for him to become, let us say... detained (the set-up does a wonderful job of starkly informing us of the fact that it isn't just mere jealousy that drives him, but odd, random homicidal thoughts he has nursed since receiving a concussion in a car accident). It's an excellent, mechanical device of a story, proving Woolrich's suspense chops and ability to ratchet up desperation to unbelievable degrees. Gripping. You can hear a pretty good (a bit rushed) reading of it here (just right click and save as to your desktop to download)
"Dark Melody Of Madness" (aka "Papa Benjamin") - one of those Woolrich classics that's been adapted (and ripped off) many, many times in all forms of popular media. In a nutshell - a jazz musician steals the scared voodoo music rhythms and is cursed. Exceptionally well done - atmospheric descriptions of seedy backstreet alleys and the secretive haunts of a voodoo cult (love the recurring details like the woman in the window of the alleyway who acts something like a sentry). Also, of course, race issues creep up here in interesting ways - voodoo is representative of primitive, atavistic beliefs (coded "black") and how can they possibly trump modern rationalism (coded "white")? There's also a minor-note theme about worries of racial mixing in your past (not as virulently presented as in H.P. Lovecraft).
"I Wouldn't Be In Your Shoes" - this story is top-level, second tier Woolrich. It lacks the anguish of his best work but gives us a mechanical, random uncaring universe ("Fortune's smile was a crooked one, just then"), a race against time ending and a final turn wherein a small lie takes apart a man's life. Also, there's some nice detail on Depression era poverty, which is something I always like in Woolrich. Here, yowling cats on a hot night cause a tenement dweller to toss his shoes out the window - followed by a fruitless search for them in the dark. They turn up the next day on his doorstep. Meanwhile, an old recluse down by the waterfront is murdered that night for his cache of money - the killer leaving a distinct footprint in the mud. Then, the tenement dweller finds a wallet on the street with a lot of money. Is it all random chance, calculated murder or a frame-up? Which aspects get which answers may surprise you. As usual, this has a dogged detective following scarce clues, random events ("I never remembered it until tonight. It was such a little thing. I didn't think it was anything") and love destroyed by trust being undermined (perhaps just the tiniest shade too abrupt, but this is pulp writing) - and the uncaring wheel of life grinds on, as cats still howl in the dark. Good story. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
So I got this from inter-library loan to read one story ("Too Nice A Day To Die") but as I've previously read three other stories here, and the first...moreSo I got this from inter-library loan to read one story ("Too Nice A Day To Die") but as I've previously read three other stories here, and the first chapter of Woolrich's final, unpublished novel, I figured I'd repurpose those reviews first (so my review above is for these 5 pieces and not the entirety).
The "Penny-A-Worder" is a non-crime story, more in an O Henry mode (including an ironic surprise ending), a structure Woolrich uses here to sketch his personal knowledge of the realities of writing fiction for pulp magazines under strict deadlines as an up-and-coming wordsmith must craft a story overnight tailored to fit a lurid cover painting. There's some very well-observed details here on the mechanics of writing and the flow of imagination.
"The Number's Up" is an excellent story - a brutal tale of Mob violence directed at a young couple, it has a particularly cold and cynical view of the world as events keep progressing beyond the point where hope dies. And then a little fillip at the end to drive home the belief in a cold, random universe. Great stuff.
I read the opening chapter of Woolrich's unpublished later novel THE LOSER (retitled here as TONIGHT, SOMEWHERE IN NEW YORK for reasons unknown to me), but stands alone as an interesting character study of a man who opens the tale having just committed murder and then follows him to his eventual night in jail on completely different charges. Very engaging.
"For The Rest Of Her Life" is a masterpiece here and possibly the grimmest, darkest story I've yet read from Woolrich. It is a suspense tale that ends on such a horrific note that it could be considered a horror story. There's some powerful, observational writing at the start about relationships and love and "attachments", and I'll assume that Woolrich's homosexuality helped inform his wonderfully well-written female character's assessment of men's attractiveness. The story starts in an almost "Woman's Gothic thriller" mode - in that a young woman marries a wealthy and charismatic New-Englander she meets in Europe and moves to his home in the countryside, only to eventually discover his dark secret of sadism - but told with psychological depth and Woolrich's master's touch of suspense writing. There's a thrilling "hiding in a closet from a threat" scene, and and even more exciting car chase. As has been said, one of Woolrich's superior strengths is that, due to his cynical worldview of random fate working against human desires, you never *really* know how his stories are going to turn out - triumph or tragedy, cold acceptance, laughs or tears - which makes his suspense sequences that much more effective. There is *no* light present in the horrifying ending of this story!
Finally, "Too Nice A Day To Die" is a later, somewhat gentler piece by Woolrich. I've mentioned in other reviews how Woolrich's view of a random, uncaring universe gives his suspense stories an interesting dynamic - because, since the universe doesn't care, it's just as likely that there'll be a happy ending! Later ion life, though, one can see Woolrich slipping close to cynicism in a story like this, which opens with a lonely young girl being interrupted in her suicide-by-gas attempt when a mis-dialed phone call for a local delicatessen disrupts her plans. She decides to continue with her plan for obliteration the next evening and spends the next day walking around New York, reflecting. A random event, a purse-snatching, pairs her up with a perfectly charming young man and she ends up spending the say with him as love slowly grows between them. Her instruments of suicide still wait back in the apartment and, when she changes her mind, fate has other plans. This is, as always with Woolrich, a study in anguish - here the slow, controlled, lonely anguish of the forgotten individual. The ending, while typically Woolrich-esque, seems slightly curdled and bitter, as if cynicism or nihilism have begun to take hold. Still, a very solid story, with some great writing. (less)
I sought out a digital version of this old book to read the first story here: "Jack Long; Or The Shot In The Eye" from 1855. The story was praised by...moreI sought out a digital version of this old book to read the first story here: "Jack Long; Or The Shot In The Eye" from 1855. The story was praised by Edgar Allan Poe and is generally seen as the first example of the "Western Gothic" (as a distinction from the dominant, city-based strain of American Gothic novel like the works of Charles Brockden Brown).
"Jack Long" is a serious revenge story set in the lawless time and place of East Texas sat the time of the Republic (1840s) when it was run by The Regulators - bad men who had the local Planters blackmailed and under their thumb through threats of violence, but who also took it upon themselves to "police" their ill-gotten piece of the pie. Sadism, lynchings and murder ruled. The story proper gives us the quiet, unassuming figure of Jack Long, an unassuming backwoodsman hunter who keeps out of conflicts and strives only to keep his wife and children safe. But when Jack inadvertently humiliates the hotheaded leader of the local Regulators in a shooting match, some good-ol', down-home retribution and torture is required. And then, a few years later, a mysterious sniper periodically emerges from the woods to kill all the men involved, one by one, with a single shot through the eye from a distance, slowly working his way back to the man most responsible for an unkind outrage.
This was a good read and you can see why Poe liked it - the narrative has an obsessive quality and is wise enough to focus on recurring imagery like eyes (not just their destruction, but Long's unending glare at his persecutors as they torture him in front of his family - "they were REGISTERED!" as the text says) and resonant folkloric details like the victim's horses returning home riderless with their saddles bloodied, or the striking image of a silent, glaring, bearded wild man dressed in animal skins and toting a rifle who appears along the roadside or is vaguely stalking through the fastness of the forest (put me in mind of Sasquatch and other "wild man" myths). It would seem to knowingly or unknowingly inform the works of all later writers on the "violence and the West", like Cormac McCarthy. Worth hunting down.(less)
So, for my work, I read this - a mystery novel from 1918 by prolific writer Carolyn Wells which introduces her Pennington "Penny" Wise series detectiv...moreSo, for my work, I read this - a mystery novel from 1918 by prolific writer Carolyn Wells which introduces her Pennington "Penny" Wise series detective character. Penny Wise does not actually appear until 2/3rds of the way into the book, as we get an elaborate set-up involving some bored rich people who, when debating the truth or falsity of spiritualism and ghosts and the like, decide to find a "real" haunted house to rent for the summer where they will conduct an investigation. It's kind of neat to see a horror trope like this being used this early (although occult detectives and the like had done it earlier) and with such a variety of viewpoints.
So, they settle on a place called "Black Aspens" up in the wilds of Vermont and rent it (empty, because of the ghost, donchaknow...) and move in. And a candlestick moves from one room to another. And a few people see an eerie skull-faced specter (especially when they sleep in the titular "room with the tassels" in which a murder supposedly occurred). And then, a ouija board predicts death. And then....
Well, it's a murder mystery novel, right, so you have some idea what happens next but perhaps will be surprised at the how (in the moment) and the who.
And then pleasant, smart, affable young detective Pennington Wise offers to solve the mystery and moves in with the remaining group. And all goes pretty much as you'd expect, with a rather abrupt wrap-up. Notable, to me, for Penny Wise's "pound foolish" assistant, the remarkable Zizi, a slim, elfin 15-year-old girl supposedly a film star and artist model (Pennington Wise illustrates dime-novels on the side) who he uses as a disarming snoop, sounding board and all-around character analyzer. She's fun to read, sassy but not insolent and extremely good at disarming and provoking people. As for the rest - well, you're reading a mystery novel from 1918 - you tell me.(less)
Well, this was a random buy, thrown onto my anthology shelf years ago - I grew up reading Scholastic Scope bookmobile anthologies and so I'd hoped for...moreWell, this was a random buy, thrown onto my anthology shelf years ago - I grew up reading Scholastic Scope bookmobile anthologies and so I'd hoped for a bit more from this - not anything "great" mind you, but maybe some good little stories.
Sadly, that's not what this is - although I'm sure it's fine for what it was, at the time - stories with the hook of "ghosts" for young readers in the just burgeoning YA market. Sadly, none of them (save one) are "real" ghost stories, instead they are "weird menace" stories (or, as a cartoon just debuting around when this was published would later have it "Scooby-Doo Mysteries") wherein the ghost is revealed to be human trickery. The stories are all basically HARDY BOYS level mysteries with a focus on teenagers and their problems (c. 1967) - thus, they're really of no interest to anyone nowadays. That one "real" ghost story involved a teenage girl who finds a rock inhabited by the ghost of a friendly teenage girl who occasionally possesses her body to make her go out and be more sociable and do her homework and such.
Like I said, fine for what it was intended as but nothing almost anyone nowadays, including myself, would care much about. You pays your money....(less)
Read this for my work, minus three stories ("Freedom", "Revolution" and "Subversive").
As I've said before (but who knows who's reading a review when?)...moreRead this for my work, minus three stories ("Freedom", "Revolution" and "Subversive").
As I've said before (but who knows who's reading a review when?) science-fiction isn't really my thing, personally, but I read some Ray Bradbury growing up and J.G. Ballard later in life. This made an interesting read immediately after The Third Eye collection of work by Theodore R. Cogswell because you could argue that both authors were basically writing for the same markets, but with Reynolds about a decade behind - as the sci-fi pulps began to mature and specialize. So there's a sold sampling of the same type of stuff from the Cogswell book - jokey, short and punchy sci-fi pulp shorts built around an idea, usually with a punchline - sometimes onvolved by Reynold's fondness for Charles Fort. But then, he also has later work that starts to delve more deeply into concepts (Reynolds was, notably, one of the few genre authors to incorporate an understanding of modern economics into his work), and is more interested in characters, political history and spirituality. Which, for some, will come across as didactic at times, but as modern short science fiction, from what I can tell, seems more focused nowadays on the personal and individual over the general and conceptual, that's probably inescapable.
As always, let's get the less interesting stuff out of the way first - although it should be said that Reynolds knows his writing basics and even the unappealing (to me) stories are well-written, tight and considered.
"Business As Usual" is one those presumably cute time-travel stories everyone was writing once upon a time - traveler from the past arrives in the future and gets conned into believing he has to take "proof" back with him. Eh. "Prone" is about a space army cadet whose accident prone nature exhibits at a near catastrophic (and telekinetic) level - so what do you do with him? "Your Soul Comes C.O.D." is another popular item of the time, the Faustian Bargain (which we'll see yet again before we're done), here playing cannily with language as a man makes a deal and then lives an honorable life for 40 years, only to wonder whether it will make a difference. Cute but slim. "Good Indian" is a strange little story, set in a future where all Native Americans have been assimilated, about what happens when representatives of the last 50 Seminole show up to bargain for a treaty - it's built around the supposed fact that the Seminoles have never signed a treaty with the U.S. - but for all that, ends on a joke most would now consider racist (although it isn't as if the representative of the white-man is shown in a positive light either). "No Return From Elba" is a near-flash piece about an alien dictator who modeled himself after Napoleon - and how he doesn't take defeat easily. Cute but, yup, thin. "The Enemy Within" is an odd little piece about an automated flying saucer, a lost boy and a mother determined to rescue him. Eh, again. "Down The River" has Earth's absentee landlords show up to apologize about the fact that they've had to transfer ownership... to another party that isn't as "hands off" as they were. A cute trifle with an obvious point, but daring in 1950. "Earthlings Go Home!", written as a parody piece for a travel magazine, throws together a bunch of fun goofy ideas into an essay on visiting Mars as a swinging bachelor, but still saves room for a short little barb at the end.
Reynolds, as I said, seemed to like using his short science-fiction to get in some solid social commentary of varying levels of complexity. Thus, in "Albatross", Earth shoots down the first alien craft to arrive, only to discover just a small part of an important message in the wreckage. "Second Advent" has Christ himself return, just to reveal the truth about Earth and its history to the President of the United States, and then make an odd request of him. "Utopian" has a 20th Century rebel leader unfrozen from cryogenic sleep in the future, only to find that everything he worked for has come to fruition, creating a utopian world with unforeseen problems. "Compounded Interest" is one of those logical time-travel stories that someone had to write, and Reynolds is to be commended for making the punchline as caustic as it is. "Pacifist" is also acidic, as a devoted member of an underground organization dedicated to removing war-mongers goes about his terrible business (which he loathes but finds inescapable) while philosophically jousting with a Professor about how to effect change in the world. "Burnt Toast" features another Faustian bargain - this one is slight when it comes right down to it but so well-written and conceived in its details that you can't help but like it (PLAYBOY magazine certainly did).
There are a few oddities here. A piece written for inclusion in a guide for school-age readers, "Come In, Spaceport", is a gripping narrative about a space-lifeboat and the desperate pleas of a teenage boy, hoping to rescue himself and his injured sister but unsure how to pilot the craft and operate the radio - it's very good, just slightly marred by a slight and unneeded twist ending. "Survivor" is a nicely done during-and-post apocalypse story about who in a big city chooses to survive, and how, and why. "The Adventure Of The Extraterrestrial" has an aged, doddering, possibly senile Sherlock Holmes and a grumpy and tired Dr. Watson hired to prove that aliens are living in London - sure, it's just more pastiche but I thought the depiction of Holmes (which must surely have rankled some purists) was interesting and especially enjoyed the deal he strikes at the climax.
The two stories I enjoyed most were "Spaceman On A Spree" and "Fad." The former features the same societal/economic projections of "Utopian" as a retiring space pilot, extremely happy to have left his work behind him, enjoys a last night on the town before settling down. But lack of motivation and ambition in the welfare state have made him the only candidate for continuing space-flights that *must* occur if mankind is to find a new challenging horizon and not stagnate. So a tired man must be conned... It's, perhaps, not as well-written as some other pieces here but very heart-felt.
"Fad" had me both laughing and shaking my head in sad awareness of just how pathetic our modern culture is. Reynolds, in 1965, was sharp enough to know that modern economics also meant creating demand for endless production, thus the codifying of the advertising, demographics and consumer research fields as economic staples of the United States, endlessly dedicated to getting us to buy useless crap we don't really need with money we don't have by convincing us how pathetic we are, the more to create a middle class of low-self-esteem consumers, or, as a traditional con-man would have it, a mark or a rube.
And so here we watch a conosortium of wealthy men plot and plan, with the help of psychological modeling and up-to-date research, to deliberately create a cultural fad for adults that will make thems millionaires. After some very pointed and truthful commentary on the whole "Dan'l Boone/Davey Crockett" fad of the 50s out of the way, the plan just needs to find a historical figure to exploit. But some figures resonate more than others... "Fad" is cute sci-fi, which should make it disposable, but it's so on the money (It's basically the same point as ADBUSTERS magazine would make in the 1990s, just 30 years before the fact, identifying this shitty, reductive, culturally deadening, resource destroying social engineering we've all been subjected to by hyper-capitalists for 30 plus years at that time - 50 years, now - we just keep getting stupider and they just keep getting wealthier and more powerful) that I can't help but love it, even more so because Reynolds has chosen to make the prime motivator's of the scam two aging, traditional con-men with dialogue straight out of a Damon Runyon story (even though this is taking place in the "future"). Really fun stuff.(less)
Well, technically I only read the Bulldog Drummond shorts for my job. While I've been aware of the character for ages, I never had any strong desire t...moreWell, technically I only read the Bulldog Drummond shorts for my job. While I've been aware of the character for ages, I never had any strong desire to delve into any of Sapper's novels - as manly, two-fisted adventurers are not really my area of interest, especially not in novel form. But here in this collection are all 5 of the Bulldog Drummond short pieces, so...
Bulldog is the epitome of Conservative Edwardian British Manhood, noble and effectual, never effete or cowardly. In truth, he's also a blank and a bit of a bore - the only times I found him interesting were the two brief moments where the slightest bit of actual character or friction leaked through into these very conventional "mystery" plots. Drummond is, almost essentially, a character for British schoolboys to look up to and model themselves on - at least as presented here. Adults need not apply.
So what you get is our hero accidentally stumbling into criminal or dastardly situations and effecting change for the good, usually accompanied by Algy or one of his other cronies who have even less character than Bulldog (Algy exists merely to be the slightly - *slightly* - less moral example in contrast to Bulldog's certitude). Murder plots, drug smugglers, inheritance scams, espionage - everybody knows Bulldog is a fine, upstanding chap full of fortitude who will set things right by taking action. He barely ever thinks about anything. He's not a detective, just a keen observer.
Those two moments I mentioned? "Wheels Within Wheels" starts with Bulldog leaving a late-night soiree and being accosted in the street by a running man. Bulldog is, at the moment, just slightly "well-oiled" let us say, and reflecting on young woman at the party. Later, after the stranger who thrust the mysterious note into his hands and ran off is found dead, Bulldog laments being in this slightly tipsy state as he was not totally on his game and might have reacted differently.
"Lonely Inn" has an interesting ending in that, having foiled a dastardly plot by dastards to murder a girl by dropping her in a well, Bulldog is faced with the problem - he can't call the police because no crime has been committed - he foiled it. So, how will the guilty be punished? The solution perhaps best sums up Bulldog's character - he chooses to beat the living shit out of the guy until Algy pulls him off with a "Steady, old Hugh! You'll kill him."
And thus we leave Bulldog Drummond, blood on his hands and virtue rewarded...
I read this as part of my new job. I don't normally read science fiction (outside of, say, J.G. Ballard and vague related authors) so take this with a...moreI read this as part of my new job. I don't normally read science fiction (outside of, say, J.G. Ballard and vague related authors) so take this with a grain of salt - I thoroughly respect science fiction without being particularly interested in it.
These are a handful of stories Cogswell wrote for various science fiction and related genre magazines of the time. Of course, writers in this situation weren't worrying about creating art or even timeless tales for future generations, just stories with creative ideas and competent writing that would sell to an editor and maybe get them noticed - pulps, essentially. Most of the stories here are science fiction, with a small smattering of weird/deal-with-the devil type fantasy stories.
There's a few clunkers here: "Impact With The Devil" is a clunky science-fiction demonology story about a criminal, a bank heist, a time machine and a demon - it's muddled and way too ambitious for a short story. "Lover Boy" is the hundredth reiteration of John Collier's "The Chaser" - you write the ending. "Minimum Sentence" is one of those comedy sci-fi stories, in this case involving some criminals and a faster-than-light spaceship, with an ironic ending. "One To a Customer" is an ironic twist time-travel story and "The Other Cheek" is a long, drawn out space-opera farce about an attempted truce between humans and an alien race, with a second alien race that abhors violence thrown into the mix. Ugh.
Most of the stories here are amiable time-wasters in a straight sci-fi, sci-fi comedy or fantasy mode. "No Gun For The Victor" is set in a future of "Consumers" and "Producers" where children play real war games, until an accidentally sabotaged weapon gives away what's really going on - again, ambitious, but it also jams a whole lot into exposition at the end. "Limiting Factor" features human super-mutants who decided to abandon Earth for outer space so they can survive being ostracized by xenophobic mankind, only to get a short lesson in cosmic evolution. Cute.
On the sci-fi comedy front (wry or broad comedy, mostly) - "A Spudget For Thilbert" is about future breakfast cereal manufacturers and the search for a new giveaway premium that ends up causing massive problems - it reminded of those jokey episodes of X-Minus One and was notable for featuring a mention of cannabis sativa. Hashish is mentioned in "Machine Record", in which a mad scientist hires a consultant to help his master plans get started - but they don't. "The Man Who Knew Grodnick" is about a washed-up "controversial" author from the 1920s (once "banned in Boston") who's nearing the end of his talk-circuit rope when he's accidentally thrust 100 years into the future - to little difference in his overall career. Cute but slight.
On the fantasy front - "Mr. Hoskin's Heel" is a somewhat extended, strange melange of Collegiate humor and Spiritualism as a milquetoast Professor ends up getting help with his (unexpected) gangster problems from an (unexpected) spirit guide. The part where he becomes the Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer for a short stint was amusing, as were the Chaucer shout-outs.
There are occasional stories that rise above these workmanlike levels: "Conventional Ending" is an interesting meta-aware story told in epistolary form about the author and his writer friends contacting an editor about a story idea that would take place at a science fiction convention. "The Cabbage Patch" is a somewhat gruesome riff on how alien biology and reproductive systems might differ from ours. "Disassembly Line" features a nosy old lady who unaccountably finds herself held at a facility - with no knowledge how she got there - where she has to undergo painful daily tortures for some unnamed crime. The story's resolution might be predictable (and even rather questionable in its reliance on physical attributes as indicators) but having said that, it is heartfelt and offers a surprisingly Asian metaphysical twist on an old standard. "Training Device" contrasts a scared, new young soldier on a brutal battlefield with a parallel strand of alien cadets in training - to quite excellent effect.
The best, and most atypical piece here is "The Short Count" which eschews the pulp model for something more human, humane and Bradbury-esque. A young couple discuss their past histories of dating and anxieties involving the opposite sex as it slowly becomes apparent that they're awaiting something else in the current moment. Nicely done.
So... if we accept that there is a tradition of a certain type/subgenre of story - in this case, "the British ghost story" - and thus a continuum that...moreSo... if we accept that there is a tradition of a certain type/subgenre of story - in this case, "the British ghost story" - and thus a continuum that arises out of larger areas (Gothics/Supernatural) and through early writers (say, Dickens/Collins and the Victorians, for the moment) and on into general acceptance (Benson) and then into experimental areas that in essence are seeding their OWN sub-genre mutations (Aickman/Campbell) AND if we accept that there, almost by default, have to be masters of said tradition (M.R. James, natch) THEN we also have to accept that for something to be a tradition and have masters, there has to have been a point when a a whole lot of writers were churning material out, right? Portions of some careers of early anthologists (Peter Haining, Hugh Lamb) and then, later, whole presses (Ash Tree, Violet Books) have been founded on a position for those who sift through this vast body of material and discover the forgotten gems amongst the dross. But, given how industrious these folks have been, and the sheer volume of material, diminishing returns must begin at some point... correct? Because not all of those people putting pen to paper were masters, or even competent, right?
Here you have the collected "ghost stories" of W.J. Wintle from 1921. You may be intrigued (I had only run across one story by him in an anthology - "The Spectre Spiders" - before this) and so, perhaps, you may have coughed up for the expensive Ash-Tree press re-release of this public domain rarity. Well, you can save your money. This is available on line - not the Ash-Tree edition and it's introduction and extra tidbit, but the basic texts - to be fairly easily found. And one read will convince you you are not missing anything too notable. That's the short version...
... which is not to say that these stories are terrible or dross, but they aren't very good, either, seen as works of fiction (and please know that I'm saying this as a well-read fan of the ghost story in many forms, dating back much further than these specific tales). Or, put another way, we see an individual trying and barely succeeding at getting down a ghostly narrative. Or, perhaps, we see something else half the time - an attempt to write in the style of, say, Elliott O'Donnell who did not (mostly) write "ghost stories", exactly, as much as he wrote attempts to record supposed "real-life" instances of ghostly happenings... even if he embellished or flat-out made stuff up occasionally (see also Hans Holzer). I have no proof that this was what Wintle was doing but a good half of these stories feel like exactly that - dry, prosaic recitations or records of run-of-the-mill "ghostly happenings" of the usual kind: figures seen where they should not be, lights on when they shouldn't be, spots of cold or dread, voices from nowhere, odd dreams, housekeepers fleeing in droves...and the usual, folkloric "and so it was discovered that there was money hidden in the wall" or "and so it was said that someone had once died in the house", etc, and so forth. And yet, they're not up-front presented as such and a few borrow some ideas from M.R. James. And when not telling dry sketches of true-sounding prosaic ghosts, Wintle does seem to be attempting to scare, and so stretches his writing chops a little. But they aren't very strong chops.
Okay, down to it. "The Red Rosarie/Rosary" is such a familiar tale it's barely worth commenting on - stolen Buddhist snake rosary will strangle you - blimey! "When Twilight Fell", the second story here, was such a familiar catalog of "ghostly happenings" that I began to get wary. "When Time Stood Still" is a formulaic "time slip" story - a man hanging out by a cave sees a wooly mammoth, then a cave bear, then a family of cavemen (don't call them ghosts, dear reader!). "The Haunted House On The Hill"... is haunted (gasp) by disappearing figures keeping the lights on in the attic room and digging in the garden. Dig the garden up and you solve the mystery. "The Light In The Dormitory" is shed by a ghostly monk holding a gold cross and always disappearing when he reaches the wall. Open that wall!
Now, that may sound kind of dismissive so let's stop for a moment and mention that in the midst of his spare, deadeningly journalistic style, Wintle does show an aptitude for three things. The first begins to appear almost immediately and can occasionally be found in even these previously mentioned, eminently forgettable tales. It is setting - Wintle does a good job giving us effectively sketched settings (which he then uses to no great effect), whether it be the rambling hallways and light and dark rooms of "When Twilight Fell"'s Mostyn Grange or the newly reopened old monastery wing housing a dormitory of young boys in "The Light In The Dormitory. I will discuss his other skills anon.
Wintle has a few things he likes - lights being seen in rooms that should not have inhabitants, figures that are mistaken for people but then disappear, a recurring joke about a female servant who wishes to be called by one name and so is called by another (?!?) and, seemingly, he also enjoys there to often be no logical or discernible reason for the events happening (on the occasion when it isn't thunderingly obvious, of course).
Of note of the "ghostly happening" stories are: "The Watcher In The Mill" in which a newly inherited home comes complete with a ruined mill on the grounds, a mill whose door cann't be locked shut and a room of which (that contains nothing but a disused cupboard) evidences a light at night when there shouldn't be one (see...), as well as a ghostly figure that comes too and fro (see...). It's more of the same, mostly, but Wintle almost succeeds in generating some frission when our main character sees something indistinct and malignant in the open cupboard and KNOWS that its going to come out and that he really doesn't want it to. "Almost", I said... you take your thrills where you can. Also notable is "Father Thornton's Visitor" which features a new parish priest slowly becoming aware of s shadowy figure in his garden that disappears before he can engage it (see...) - it even comes to his confessional! It's a solid build-up for a familiar variant of the "death omen" story.
Also notable details from: the haunting/quasi-doppelganger story "The Ghost At The 'Blue Dragon'" which evidences the potential for a good story (a man can't figure out who is sleeping in the other bed in his hotel room, until he realizes it's a spectral figure that looks just like him and can be seen by others) but then squanders it. And, yes, that is a lift from James' "O, Whistle And I'll Come To You, My Lad" in the story kernel of a hotel room with two beds and one occupant that ends up showing mutual occupation. Traditional, but not really "ghostly happening" stories include the predictable "The Black Cat" (takes some balls to reuse that title) which has an ailurophobic man beset by a ghostly cat until he is found dead with.... duh duh duh... claw marks on his throat (best moment: he sees the beast leap from furniture and disappear before touching the floor) and "The Voice In The Night" (another reused title, although certainly less known) which is your traditional folkloric story of animal predation, sheep worrying and attacks by a large dog/wolf on small children out in the countryside before a gypsy witch, buried in the forest, is identified as the culprit (notable for being a story where, true to folklore and preceding the Universal Picture and Monster-Manual style codification of evil creatures, the werewolf is a dead witch and acts more like a vampire half the time).
That "slowly becoming aware" comment to the "Father Thornton" story will allow us to note something else that Wintle begins to be better out - pacing out small events on the story. He starts haphazardly, and never really gets to the point where they build to much of anything, but it is notable in some of the preceding stories and more to follow.
Another section of stories could be segregated from the preceding - in a sense, they're just as familiar as the "ghostly happening" tales but you can feel Wintle stretching for something more. Usually failing, but often creating bizarrely lurid or strange details in his familiar narratives. Thus "The House On The Cliff" has a great setting and set-up (writer borrows friend's lonely, cliff-side cottage in the hinterlands to work on his novel) and then has the main character beset by a strange, malevolent bird creature... or something (see that preceding comment about odd, ambiguous endings - "Cliff" is told by scraps of records, so there's no witness to the climax). "The Chamber Of Doom" and "The Horror Of Horton House" are very similar, featuring a secret passageway/chamber in an old house and an inscribed familial curse. Both feature cool details (when the secret chamber pf "Doom" is opened, something seems to have been waiting there at a table next to a coffin, having written a note on which the ink is still fresh, while "Horton House"'s mysterious passageway seems occupied by a burning, six-fingered specter) but, if those descriptions get you interested, be sure that the story itself does almost nothing with them.
The only two stories left, "The Spectre Spiders" and "The Footsteps On The Stairs", are really the only two stories worth reading, and even they aren't superb or anything. "Footsteps" does a nice job of featuring Wintle's third skill - he has a flair (sadly, never really expanded into many stories) for humorous, dryly ironic writing and this story about a criminal fence has some nice little chuckles in it. But it also suffers from failing to in any way gesture towards why the criminal main character becomes haunted in the first place, unless ghosts are very interested in making sure justice is done in the cases of theft and burglary just as well as in those of murder.
"The Spectre Spiders" is a passable story that lifts "plump, furry" imagery from James "The Ash Tree" for the story of a man plagued by phantom arachnids (here, you can see Wintle trying out that "pacing of events" I mentioned before). And while it has much to commend in its creepy and gruesome (the "too light" corpses) imagery, mention must be made that Wintle still succeeds to snatching defeat from the jaws of victory in presenting the symbolic motivation for why our main character is so beset - it's because he's a genteel, money-grubbing, usuorious Jew, you see, whose greatest claim to personal pride is that he never anglicized his name to fit in.
And there we will leave William James Wintle, an also-ran. (less)
You have to love Alan Moore - keeps putting out the quality work and keeps getting reductive, surface readings from smart, usually younger critics/rea...moreYou have to love Alan Moore - keeps putting out the quality work and keeps getting reductive, surface readings from smart, usually younger critics/readers who get to posture and pout as they 'take down the out-of-touch old man' with their 'superior' wit and skills. Hilarious. Dare they stop and think about what they've read - not the surface, but the resonant themes and images (since, as I keep saying and as The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier made apparent, the series is NOT taking place in a 'real world', nor some 'alternate earth' where characters from literature live - but something far more fascinating)? Dare they spend even a moment to consider how it relates to what has come before - both for the specific character and the other preceding series set in the 20th Century? Of course not, that would take time and they need to dismiss it and move on to the next thing as quickly as they can - there are apps to download, after all. And yet they still continue to buy them, it seems, always ready to be disappointed over and over again . I wonder why that is? Probably a creative artist of Moore's skill and talent could tell me, if he really felt it was worth conjuring on. But it really isn't, he's got heartfelt, resonant adventure stories to tell. So if you didn't like this, or the preceding book, or any of CENTURY, or THE BLACK DOSSIER - you really should just stop reading them by this point. And stop reading this review as well...
Still with me? Let's have some fun! Simple plot first - In 1941, Janni, daughter of Captain Nemo, and her lover/first mate Broad Arrow Jack, launch a two-person rescue mission into Germany/Tomania's technologically advanced Metropolis to retrieve their daughter, Hira, and son-in-law (notorious air-pirate Jean Robur) from captivity. But it's a trap, paying due on a debt from the preceding book (Nemo: Heart of Ice)
It's always one of my benchmarks that a creator is doing something right if most of the dualistic factions are complaining (re: blinkered critics of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century 1969 and their uncharming online whining that Moore was an aging hippie who was too teary-eyed and nostalgic for his precious psychedelic age, while others complained just as loudly that he obviously *hated* the era of peace and love, because he chose to show its dark side) and so Moore seems to be continuing to do things right. It has always been an easy, dismissive reduction that the LOEG books are now just excuses at loading up references for pop-cultural train-spotters, so it comes as no surprise that one can now find complaints that there weren't *enough* pop-culture shout-outs in ROSES OF BERLIN. *Sigh* - so it goes. (Those of you holding the latter view might note that the always reliable Jess Nevins and his band of annotating madmen have not identified - or even acknowledged - the fussy little midget parading around in the brothel with his electrically-charged penis sign - so there you go, you don't need to be outside of the fun circle of cool kids anymore - have at it! And tell me who Hynkel's second-in-command is, while you're at it!). Yes, long gone are the days of breathlessly looking forward to maybe watching (deep breath - this is always my favorite part) Lordy Snooty and His Pals taking down Dr. Quartz while JimGrim looks on. Instead, we get something a little deeper. Oh, and one last thing for the complainers - yes, there are panels and a few whole pages in German, a language I believe some people in the world still speak, as frustrating as that may be for you. You can find translations of those pages at the preceding link - yes, I imagine if you took this book with you to bed, to the bathroom or on vacation, where you had no recourse to the internet, this might be vexing. Please lay it aside until you have such access or, maybe, teach yourself German as an alternative!
I had some theories as to what the underlying themes of the NEMO series were going to be (because, yes, I do believe there are themes to these books, and a point to it all, as I've said - even if some can't see it) and I reservedly expressed some of those in my review of Nemo: Heart of Ice. But it really took a second volume for these theories to clarify, and so here we go.
The NEMO books are intended as a counterpoint to the LOEG: CENTURY books, on at least two levels. CENTURY was a mad spin through the highs and lows of the 20th Century accompanied by adventurous and immortal figures and it was, at least in part, about how progress and advancement had made the 20th Century a giddy whirl, and how being immortal and living through that could be both fascinating and damaging. The NEMO series is the flip side of that. Instead of immortals, we get real humans who can be wounded and die easily. Instead of grand gestures on a broad scale (saving the world from the Anti-Christ, say), we get small skirmishes, the emotional dangers of trying to live up to larger-than-life forebears who have passed on and trying to live in a world of larger-than-life forces, whether they be monetary (Charles Foster Kane), despotic (Hynkel) or cosmic (The Great Old Ones). It is no surprise that the inherently anarchistic pirate lifestyle of Janni comes into conflict with both unchecked Capitalism (the preceding volume) and Totalitarian control (here). The previous volume showed us Janni coming up against those who had bastardized her father's "heroic" science into mere perverse Gadgetry (Tom Swift and his ilk) and in ROSES she sees these technological advances (presented as all whizz-bang rocketry in BLACK DOSSIER), with their dark underbelly of social control, militarization and enslavement exposed. (In the end, you see Maria the Automaton cut down by "friendly", but uncomprehending and remote-controlled by no one, fire). As I said in my HEART OF ICE review - Janni learned there that the grand exploring adventure of the 20th Century was a trip into her own humanity, her heart, her emotions - the real unexplored country that the 20th Century opened up for all people. Here, we see her advanced in that - a lover killed, a beloved daughter threatened, a lifestyle renounced.
And then there's immortality as the second theme. CENTURY showed us the problems of living as an Immortal - becoming outmoded and re-addicted in an age of addictions (the 20th Century in a nutshell) like Quatermain, or desperately chasing youth culture while never dealing with your internal damage (again, the 20th Century in a nutshell) like Mina, or the endless chasing down of stimulation while never being satisfied and just plain bored with it all (the 20th Century in a... well, you get my point) like Orlando. The pain of immortality is great. And despite all that, CENTURY shows us, you can still be a hero.
And in Janni's series, as I said above, we see the dangers of being human in a world of vast powers - the dangers of NOT being immortal. Grand forces plot their plots and scheme their schemes and you scrabble for survival, dying every moment, dodging the grinding gears of systems you don't believe in, while those around you - comrades and loved ones - drop away or are chewed up as you try to live by a code that you can *live* with... until you die. And despite all that, NEMO shows us, you can still be a hero.
Janni, in these books, is the Anti-Mina Murray. Ayesha here embodies all that's wrong with immortality - the dwindling telescoping of compassion over vast stretches of time, the cold hubris, the disconnect from humanity, the inability to recognize love, honor and humanity (how fitting she dies with the name of Janni's love on her lips). Immortality can easily make you a monster - better to be human, as painful as that is.
The journalistic article at the back, just as last time, features some quality stylistic writing while filling in gaps. Pirate utopias, Godzilla and Robur's struggles in Vietnam. Fascinating for the larger resonant picture.
Regrets? I have a very few. Part of me feels like I would have liked to have seen one full scene with Hynkel being crazy - but then I figure if anyone has gotten his duly undue exposure in popular culture it is Der Fuhrer and who really needs to see the clown dance one more time? Besides, since the next (and last) Nemo book takes place in South America in the 1970s, perhaps we will yet again see Herr Hynkel one last time... as a raving head in a jar?
A selfish part of me wanted more Caligari and Mabuse - but, I will say that the two character's brief scenes of dialogue are masterfully done and satisfying if examined for details: Here we have two very intelligent, if evil, men who both seem aware that they have hitched their wagons to an unstable star due to fall very soon - Mabuse perhaps a bit more aware than Caligari, or perhaps that's just because the Gambler has always been an arch-schemer and manipulator ("To crime" he toasts Janni, in one of those wonderful details of dialogue - and he even acknowledges that the sleep-commandos deaths are no different than anyone's, while also noting there are thousands more to be procured from the concentration camps). So, yeah, I can't say I wasn't satisfied.
I would have liked a bit more of Robur - but again we have a small line of dialogue that speaks volumes, as he apologizes for Hira's presumed death, giving us a glimpse of the odd nobility and honor of the pirate code.
All in all, a thoroughly satisfying read - full of depth and charm - for those who can look with the right eyes, of course. And now, on to RIVER OF GHOSTS, sure to cause continued wailing and gnashing of teeth!(less)
So, working my way backwards through the Datlows (thank goodness, less of them than Jones' MBOBNH series) on the lookout for a good read and maybe a s...moreSo, working my way backwards through the Datlows (thank goodness, less of them than Jones' MBOBNH series) on the lookout for a good read and maybe a story purchase for the PSEUDOPOD podcast (although, since I'm working retroactively here, some have already been submitted, bought and produced). This was a solidly successful installment of the series, as there were no stories I actively disliked or felt indifferent about. It's a cliche at this point to say that all anthologies are a mixed bag, but one hopes for a slightly higher quality mixture in a "Best" selection and it was nice to see this borne out in the contents. Even more interesting (to me at least) on finishing was to peruse the Goodreads reviews - which often are more indicative of the particular reader's specific tastes than any indication of a semi-objective "quality".
And so, in doing this review, am I putting myself above this aspect - well, no, but perhaps I'm just more self-aware and willing to undermine my own thought processes. I'm a long-time horror reader and my tastes have shifted and changed over time (I hate to say "grown" or "matured", exactly, because that presumes some kind of formalistic end result to what is, in the final examination, subjective opinion) but I am blessed by two aspects that help me in being both a reader and editor (well, more than two, but two are worth mentioning now) - one, I'm a generalist. "Horror", and what I like and don't like, personally - interest me less than the entire warp and woof of the genre, the edges where it bleeds into other things, its creative core, its literary brains, its juvenile heart. So I'm more interested in what works and what doesn't and why than in trying to argue for "literary depth and intellect" over "visceral thrills and storytelling" or vice versa - both approaches have their strengths and weaknesses to me, in their myriad manifestations. Two - is that at this point in my life I'm pretty widely read - oh, there's writing styles and genres I don't have much use for but I still try to make myself understand what makes them tick. And these two facets I recognize in the two name editors of the "best series" (Datlow, Jones) - although both have their tastes they tend to favor, they at least can see beyond "one" way of doing things. And so those who want "y'know, stories that are SCARY" are likely to only find some offerings here of interest and despise the ambiguity and wordiness of others, and those who want "you understand, stories that say something more, through direct or indirect language" are likely to be in the same boat when a monster story or straight ahead EC-style horror yarn pops up. My interest is whether or not, given my experience of the story "type", it is successful or not. So that's where I'm coming from, review wise, just to lay it out.
A minor word on the introduction. As in Jones' MBOBNH "Year In" sections, Datlow provides a vast and daunting overview of everything released in the entire field - at times both depressing and interesting, you leave the perusal of it feeling that, if one can say anything, it's that horror is doing fine as a genre (if sheer volume means anything). As for the rest - as usual, this review may be too long for some. And, as usual, it's least to best....
And "least" here, as I intimated above, in this case means a pretty solid, good story with some flaws, as there's nothing overtly unlikeable here (unless one has specific tastes). "Roots And All" by Brian Hodge has two cousins return to their grandmother's rural home (where the guy's sister disappeared eight years ago) to clean it out on her death. They find local changes both environmental (strip-mining) and cultural (the rise of meth cookers) and something surprising in the attic - all of which ties into the Grandma's tales of the genius loci, "The Woodwalker". This was a perfectly serviceable slice of character driven dark fantasy with some nice details (the size variance of the spirit is very Old World fairy tradition, the spirit's desire to keep crime in the area for its own purposes) - not very visionary or, for that matter, surprising, but emotionally honest. Meanwhile, in Livia Llewellyn's "Omphalos", a severely dysfunctional family (hiding dark incestuous secrets) goes camping in the woods and things turn strange. This *is* very visionary, while also being raw and psychologically ugly in its truths - while also frustratingly fragmented in its narrative - that ends up undercutting some of the effectiveness with deliberate obtuseness (still unclear as to why/how teleportation was involved).
A bluegrass singer follows an Alan Lomax-styled music ethnographer into the Appalachian backwoods to discover the "Final Verse" of a well-known but incomplete folk ballad and, as might be expected, horror results. I've seen versions of this type of story before (in a sense, it could be seen as an Americana take on M.R. James' "antiquarian" story form) and I felt like Chet Williamson's tale was reasonably successful, with a lot of verbiage and plot detail for what is essentially a very simple story. Certainly not poorly done or anything (although the intimated "slight twist" ending feels a bit bolted on - maybe if we'd been given more of the main character as a womanizer?). On the other end of the spectrum, "In The Absence Of Murdock" gives us a friend investigating the disappearance of his brother-in-law's writing partner, during which he discovers... well... what? I've written in other reviews about the various ways ambiguity can be used as a tactic or style in horror fiction. Terry Lamsley has some sharp dialogue in this well-written piece, and some great weird imagery (an underground forest complete with gigantic nest) but, as to whether all the elements add up in a satisfactory way - I guess that really comes down to your tolerance for ambiguity as a fiction strategy. I enjoyed the ride, basically. And yet again alternatively, you've got Glen Hirshberg's "You Become The Neighborhood" which, at its core, is a very simple Stephen King-like pulp horror story (think "Grey Matter") of long ago events in an unassuming neighborhood home, but padded out with familial dynamics, social/psychological details and perhaps a *smidge* too many descriptions of facial reactions and body language, all of which undercuts the vaguely comic book horror imagery at its core. Not bad, but a little long in the tooth, prose-wise.
There are a gaggle of good, solid stories here, of course. Starting from the top, Stephen King (remember him?), turn in.... well, "The Green God Of Agony" doesn't really become a proper *horror* story until very close to the end (and even then one more along the lines of a monster tale) but King has such a great handle on character and plot-rolling that it doesn't matter. In fact, "Agony" highlights an interesting aspect of King's ability - as the story and character sketches build, he shows great capability in putting forth a rationalist worldview (in opposition to presumed huckster chicanery) that we, as outside readers, *know* has to be overturned for their to be any point to the story (or, at least, it being a genre story) and yet, when it comes that overturning doesn't reverse our views or opinions of the admirable and despicable characters. Very deft work. Those looking for visionary, deep, literary or artistic genre work should look elsewhere - this is meat and potatoes stuff (which is a harder meal to cook well than you may think!). Simon Bestwick has two stories here - the first is "The Moraine", another solid monster story, where a couple having relationship troubles (a standard go-to for up-front horror stories, it's true) goes hiking in the mountains and gets trapped in small valley (the titular geologic formation) by a very crafty *something* moving under the rocks. It's all immediacy of threat and occasional big budget movie action ("Run!") but the setting and mood - the isolated, quiet valley shrouded in an icy white mist - has great atmosphere (pardon the pun) and the threat that lurks under the loose stones is effectively drawn - while never being actually seen (the trick it has up its sleeve is especially good). An enjoyable read.
Laird Barron is turning into an odd author for me. As I've mentioned before, I know him more by reputation than actual reading of his fiction and that reputation is quite good (with perhaps the usual grain-of-salt, over-blown quality that occurs whenever any talent or skill peeks its head above the morass of mediocre material). In actual experience though (and this is only my second Barron story proper) I find him a little wanting. He's great at taking up Karl Edward Wagner's torch of modern horror genre writing heavily informed by pulp-forebears (here, in "Blackwood's Baby", Robert E. Howard's manly men having two-fisted adventures - and some of the machismo, if not the actual style, of Ernest Hemingway shine through - I presume the title is meant to foreground Algernon Blackwood's rural prose in the reader's mind as well but I felt that Barron's gestures towards this in "Baby" lacked that author;s visionary and transcendent aspects) and also excellent at generating strong historical and character detail (he seems to have learned the lesson that tough guy characters are more appealing when wounded). And yet, I find the actual horror "stuff" (the moments of terror or dread or panic or however you define that "stuff"), when they arrive, to be somewhat lacking. Not weak or poor, I just somehow want a little "more", I guess. Between the wars, in "Blackwood's Baby", our wounded Great White Hunter character is invited to a very exclusive nature preserve and a rare hunt that one must either be wealthy or skilled enough to participate in. Set loose in a massive estate near Seattle, they set their sites on a legendary, demonic stag. Good, solid pulpy fun but the ending left me a little flat, given the story's length. Back in modern times, Priya Sharma gives us the back-story to a very special episode of "The Show", in which fake TV psychic investigator/ghost-busters investigate supposedly nasty hauntings in the basement of an urban bar and, as might be expected, uncover more than they bargained for. There's nice character detail in Sharma's sketching of a fake medium with real psychic abilities (her background reminded me a bit of a detail from Fritz Leiber's "Smoke Ghost") and a nice contrast between the sanitized, calculated "awfulness" of modern television "history" and the bloody, gritty, grotty reality of the actual past. Plus, this reminded me a bit of GHOSTWATCH, which is always a plus!
Two of the stories here had previously been purchased by me and produced as episodes of PSEUDOPOD. David Nickle'S "Looker" (which can be heard here) has a sketchily unscrupulous young man ditching a dubious party and meeting a... "differently gifted" woman on the beach. After joining her for a late-night swim, he begins a relationship with her, but strictly to exploit her gifts in his ongoing voyeuristic obsession with an old love. More a "weird tale" than a horror story proper, this is a good read and gets extra points for the deliberately undetailed hints at the main character's social milieu and his coterie of dubious "friends". In a similar vein of controlled detail is A.C. Wise's "Final Girl Theory" (the Pseudopod episode of which *nearly* won us a Parsec award, and which can be heard here), which opens with one of the most arresting set of paragraphs I've ever read - an evocative description of the beginning of a lurid, hideous, stylish and notorious underground exploitation film called "Kaleidoscope" (some similarity here to Tim Lucas's powerful novel Throat Sprockets: A Novel of Erotic Obsession). From there, the story follows the narrative of an obsessed fan as he tracks down the lead actress, long missing, and learns about the details of the film. This is definitely worth your time, just don't expect fireworks but, instead, something like a slow burn in a work that challenges current popular notions of the "Final Girl" figure and questions concepts of empowerment.
Touches of Ray Bradbury highlight Alison Littlewood's evocation of childhood fears in "Black Feathers". The childhood POV is a frequent "go-to" in horror fiction (for reasons so obvious I need not state them) and it is also more difficult to pull off than perhaps immediately apparent, and Littlewood does a good job with it (the concern over status, fear of the unknown), relating the story of a young girl and her adventurous younger brother, the girl's instinctive, innocent belief in raw, practical magic (think Merricat in We Have Always Lived in the Castle) and what happens in the woods (that haunt of suburban children everywhere) with some ravens. Add a few touches of "The Monkey's Paw" and you've got yourself a satisfying, spooky read. Anna Taborska's "Little Pig", on the other hand, is a brief tale of necessary cruelty in service of survival, flash-backed to by an elderly woman. It's less a story than a scene wrapped in a frame, but what a scene!
Another study in contrasts can be seen between two other stories: "In Paris, In The Mouth of Kronos" by John Langan is kind of like Robert Ludlum by way of Laird Barron (maybe) as two disgraced ex-Army officials, torture assistants to be blunt, are contacted by an old co-worker who now works for a Blackwater-styled (or whatever name they're now selling their "private army for the highest bidder/plutocrat goon army" services under) firm and would like them to waylay another old compatriot, a mysterious torture expert known as Mr. White. But, as might be expected, Mr. White is more than he seems. Langan has a nice, breezy character/plot style that just slides the story along. The nature of the threat is hinted at in details - a lazy part of me would say something like "clumsily" or "clunkily" introduced - but that's not fair. Langan obviously knows that deploying the information that will allow readers to put the pieces together in their minds (in the order that he'd like for the story to succeed) is a difficult task and comes up with an okay compromise hinging on a visit to a toy store and some unlikely questions from the lead. But still, one might ask if such details are even needed (which would make this a more ambiguous story) or can't instead be intimated through evocative writing and atmospheric detail - landscape description is your friend in this regard (which would make this harder work for Langan). The ending is inevitable but has some nice imagery, even if it includes a bit of 1990's comic-book whiz-bang (a (view spoiler)[demi-urge being tricked by fluorescent paint (hide spoiler)]?). On the other end of things, Peter Straub's "The Ballad of Ballard And Sandrine" (bit of a stumbly title, there) seems to have split readers - I liked it but its definitely a heavy slice of "Lit Horror" as a wealthy, decadent, jaded pair of sadomasochists live "life" in endless, constrained loops during a cruise of the Amazon on a yacht, as details at the edges begin to even more slowly take the whole experience apart as it endlessly recreates itself. This is challenging stuff, oneiric and obsessive and not to all tastes but there are moments of real menace and fun details (the changing names of the yacht are great) that distinguish it from other "time loop" stories. Yes, in the end, you might reduce this to (view spoiler)["JACOB'S LADDER featuring with Amazonian nature-spirits in the place of the Cenobites from HELLRAISER" (hide spoiler)] but that *would* be a reduction, as the ending is ambiguous as to the overall intent of the exercise and its outcome. I liked it but, as I said, not for everyone.
And now Goodreads tells me I must drop down to the comments as I've run out of space!["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
This is my first Datlow "Best Of", so I'm interested in seeing if I can dope out similarities and differences between her and Stephen Jones. More on t...moreThis is my first Datlow "Best Of", so I'm interested in seeing if I can dope out similarities and differences between her and Stephen Jones. More on this at the end.
The "Summation 2012" that starts the volume is the analog of Jones' "Year In Horror" entry that starts his collections. I found it as thorough and about as useful, in both the positive and negative readings of that statement.
So, given all that, here we go - weakest to strongest: The only story I actively disliked was "The Word-Made Flesh" by Richard Gavin, which struck me as overblown and overwritten and too much like a special effects movie written on page - it's about a man who, thanks to his cousin, stumbles upon the ability to remake the world with language... or something like that. Didn't click for me. Also not clicking for me was "The House On Ashley Avenue" by Ian Rogers - an extended riff on the time-honored trope "team of psychic investigators in a notorious haunted house" - in all honesty, it seemed more interested in taking potshots at "non-professional psychics" (not even "fake psychics"!) while setting up two series characters for stories I'll probably never read and not really worrying too much about pacing, atmosphere or scares except in the hasty ending. A surprisingly weak inclusion for this anthology. "Sleeping, I was Beauty" is a poem by Sandi Leibowitz, giving us a dark-fantasy take on a fairy-tale - fine for those who like that kinda thing, I guess.
Just "okay" stories were: "A Natural History Of Autumn" by Jeffrey Ford in which a couple stay overnight at a hot-spring/hotel in Japan and run afoul of some supernatural creatures. It's a well-written and very pulpy monster story and while some of the spooky imagery is surprisingly striking I didn't appreciate how blithely the existence of supernatural monsters was treated and the story also throws away its atmosphere for a fairly familiar plot in which all of its grace notes end up as gilding for the usual twist/double twist. Not bad but kind of pedestrian. Terry Dowling's "Mariner's Round" has a fine opening with three delinquent Liverpudlian friends roaring through a night at the carnival, and I was rooting for the story as the three friends reunite as adults, featuring some wonderfully canny dialogue... but the dark fantasy elements (a mystery involving an occult carousel designer and a lost adornment) seems to come out of nowhere and is ill-explained (a common problem with "magickal"-based mysteries in genre fiction) and the ending is just the usual comeuppance. It almost seems like something that would work better as a longer piece (with a stronger ending) or a shorter piece (with the extraneous details stripped out).
I actually thought "The Pike" - a story of a man with skin cancer exploring old buildings and fishing in a canal that runs through a desolate urban landscape - was well-written by Conrad Williams and very interesting if kind of depressing (but I'm personally okay with depressing). Now, unless I'm wrong or missed something (which is always possible) I failed to see what element of this qualified it as "horror". Anyone? Similarly, "This Circus The World" by Amber Sparks reads like an extremely abstract, near textual-Cubist work with snatches of image moments laid over and next to each other. As a fan of the Gysin/Burroughs cut-ups I found it intriguing but without a hook I again fail to see how it qualifies as "horror". "Bajazzle" by Margo Lanagan starts with a women's movement of 'Sheelas' who chant drones in public while exposing their decorated vaginas and then moves on to (married?) couple in trouble because the husband/boyfriend doesn't find his partner attractive anymore - which means he's ripe to be seduced by an erotically charged stranger. Hard to really see what the greater point of this was, aside from the obvious "punishment for straying" trope. I also thought the decision to provide information on the Sheela-Na-Gig (luckily, I was an Anthropology major once upon a time and knew about them already) through a clunky block of text at the story's climax to just be lazy and inelegant. Yeah, it would have been hard to work it into the story - that's why writing is a job.
Next up are the "good but somewhat weak" stories: "Mantis Wives" is another abstract, experimental piece, abandoning the story structure entirely for more of a late-period J.G. Ballard approach, describing the varied poetic ways female mantises dispose of their husbands. These methods are at times anthropomorphized - the point of Kij Johnson's piece is somewhat abstruse. Not for everyone. I wrestled mightily with "Tender As Teeth" by Stephanie Crawford & Duane Swierczynski, a post-apocalyptic zombie story (a "cure" has been invented so essentially this is about the shame, grief and animosity experienced by the previously "undead"). Yes, I'm tired of zombie stories (being a horror short fiction editor, possibly even more tired than *you* are). Yes, the idea of "curable" zombies is problematic. But I'm always willing to read a good story, vetted for me by a good editor or a trustworthy slush reader (shout out to the poor souls who slush for Pseudopod). It's a good story, no doubt. I'm on the fence about a number of details - it seems rather judgmental in portraying the actions of a paparazzi-equivalent photojournalist (in a situation which I'm sure most would consider the events very newsworthy and unique) as a reason for scorn after the fact when a completely unlikely cure (for being "dead", remember) is invented. I enjoyed the read but its literary trick of moving the main narrative to the aftereffects of the horror (which we'll encounter again in this anthology) makes me consider it more dark fantasy/lit than horror qua horror.
A boy visiting his grandparents escapes some young toughs by ducking into a sinister bingo hall, much to his dismay, in Ramsey Campbell's "The Callers". As usual with Campbell, the writing is top-notch but I have to admit I found the central conceit of this piece more goofy than threatening - extra points though for the subtle May Day details, the typically lame mainstream movie the boy intends to see (that bit actually made me laugh out loud) and the disturbing intimations of granny-sex (if not sacrifice). "Two Poems For Hill House" are poems (duh) and thus I'm a little hesitant to comment, but I found them cute and interesting. Shirley Jackson's source work is such a monument one would expect such subsequent filigree (no Theodora fan-fic after-the-fact, Jacksonites?) so that's all fine.
"Wild Acre" had a similar problem for me as "Tender As Teeth". I really wanted to like Nathan Ballingrud's story from the opening, which has a very strong, Richard Matheson-like set-up of a building contractor and his pals staking out at an isolated job site overnight to catch vandals. Things go badly and only the contractor survives. Now, here's the thing, this is an excellent story about survivor guilt and how making it through acts of terrible violence can destroy the individual's life slowly (here exacerbated by encroaching poverty and the recurrence of anger). Great stuff, expertly drawn Raymond Carver-esque, prosaic sketches of a life going south. But... this is also obviously a story attempting to be "modern" Lit Horror and for me the problem is that the fantastic element absents itself almost immediately from the narrative and never returns. Oh, you can tease out a hint here or there of the vague conceit that this is an abstracted exploration of the "Werewolf Curse" trope, I guess, but the story never commits to a recurrence of that fantastic element at all. Now that's very "adult" and "genre-busting" and what-have-you but it seriously made me question the story as "horror". I'm not a genre Nazi, I have pretty nuanced and subtle definitions of genres and sub-genres and how they interact but this is a good example of some of the potential flaws I see in the Lit Horror approach - as a story it just seems to want to tell a straight Lit story and uses the fantastic element as a prompt towards that end, and to add a little extra cache, when it could just have easily been a story that started with a bear attack, been just as good if not better, and never have been included here. As I said, a very good story, but I have problems with it as an example of a valid approach to the genre.
As a variant of that same problem, there's "Final Exam" which features a heavier horror element (mass appearance of "things from the sea" coinciding with a woman's disintegrating marriage) but here the author decides to tell the story in the form of a multiple choice quiz (including the answers). Clever - and that's both a positive comment and the problem for me - I give Megan Arkenberg credit for actually trying to generate some fear with the creatures in amongst all the relationship detailing but the over-considered, nearly cutesy "hey-look-at-me" framing choice of the quiz makes everything too distanced and reminded me of similar problems I have with Kelly Link's calculated tweeness. Good writing, it should be said - I don't know, is it that hard to just write/enjoy a straight narrative nowadays or are we that bored that we need novelty/frippery like this, even if it undermines the overall effort? Well, another example is "Dead Song", set after the zombie apocalypse as we listen to a voice-over artist record his narration for a documentary about musical movements during and post Z-Apoc. The central concept, while inventive, is "too clever for its own good" in my book, and the setting is just an excuse for not giving us a story, just the idea wrapped in exposition - you might think, "how do they make that into a horror story?" and, well, Jay Wilburn kinda tries at the end, thanks to some ill-defined zombie black magic death-cult... or something. Anyway, po-mo horror like this really brings me down....
An interesting flip side to this is Laird Barron's "Frontier Death Song". I've been aware of Barron as a name for a bit of time but haven't had the opportunity to read anything by him and so this is his first work I've sampled (well, technically I heard the audio version of it first at TALES TO TERRIFY, which can be downloaded or listened to here). Anyway, Barron seems the complete antithesis of the calculated Lit Horror approach - instead he's a full-blooded modern pulp author, Robert E. Howard to the currently more fashionable H.P. Lovecraft pulp fiction model. It's manly man prose and a yard wide, generally well-considered and adventurous. Sure, occasionally the language gets just a bit overripe but then that's pulp in a nutshell and I like the old Decadent writers who engaged similar tactics so how can I complain? Barron does a good job lacing enough horror into the dark fantasy (even with all the burly, proactive characters) that this effectively walks the razor line between the two genres pretty deftly. Being pulp-derived, you also have to expect to swallow two shots of willing suspension of disbelief for every one generally prescribed for genre fiction (here, it's not enough that we get The Wild Hunt and random occult scholars, but the friend's island retreat just happens to have been founded by a warlock - 'cause just 'cause). It's all big screen panoramic effects, very visual and it's interesting to me to contrast this with my dislike of the same approach in the earlier mentioned "The Word-Made Flesh" - certainly, the overall tone of the prose has something to do with it. Anyway, not my usual fare but just fine as an occasional rich cheesecake for dessert.
Next up are all the stories I found unconditionally "good": Another pulpy tale here is "Nikishi" by Lucy Taylor which has a diamond thief washed ashore on the African Coast and details his attempts to connive his way out of the desperate situation while being stumped by the local demons. A fun read. Dan Chaon's "Little America" is pretty close to a zombie apocalypse story (kids turned into predatory monsters - close enough) told from the POV of one of these young creatures as he travels cross country with his captor/savior. Interesting.
Gemma Files undoes so many of the problems I mentioned earlier as having with Kelly Link's work by managing a level of control of tone and detail in her fiction. Here, in "Nanny Grey", we have the classic "hunter is the hunted" trope, as a ruffie-dosing sleaze-thief takes the wrong mark back home, with some effective filigree of history, background and speech patterns. Nicely done. "Some Pictures In An Album" by Gary McMahon is a creepy story that assembles ominous images to conjure awful thoughts. Perhaps a bit too willing, in the climax, to put concrete explanatory words to the pictures, but still, a good read.
A bracing piece of neo-noir crime fiction is presented here with "None So Blind" by Stephen Bacon. Grim, understated, it takes a similar tactic to "Wild Acres" but is so wholly non-fantastic (the repercussions of a vicious acid attack on a young woman) that it felt like something from Akashic's NOIR CITY anthologies. Maybe a little too understated for a horror anthology, but... The recent financial sacrifice of the Celtic Tiger on the altar of international commerce (all of the benefits, none of the risks when you've bought whole nations - now fuck you, peasant, and bring me more champagne while I purchase your democracy) underlays Priya Sharma's "Ballad Of Boomtown" - where a woman waits in her "new home" in an abandoned rural housing development (left to weed and ruin when the economy went belly-up), waits for the retribution she knows is coming from the old magic in the hills, a retribution deserved for personal and symbolic failings. Effectively creepy, heartfelt and honest.
"Pig Thing" by Adam L.G. Nevill opens with a tense scene of three sibling children hiding from an awful monster that may have already killed their parents. Then, the aftermath. In a sense, nothing new here but a well-handled monster story and extra points for sustaining such a tense opening for so long (small demerits for a familiar payoff with little invention). "Into The Penny Arcade" by Claire Massey is a very interesting story of a schoolgirl and a kind of creepy man in a van. Not what you're expecting. It's got an ambiguous ending fitting with the modern urban setting and I found it nicely unsettling. I liked Lucy A. Snyder's "Magdala Amygdala" - which starts as a seemingly overly-technical zombie story before progressing into dark and mythic grandeur - I repeat I liked it so much that I bought it for PSEUDOPOD and the episode can be downloaded here. "Kill All Monsters" by Gary McMahon features a very angry man, a frightened wife and a seemingly oblivious daughter as they stop at a roadside diner to grab a meal... and check for monsters. Nicely understated, this had that Matheson-vibe I like so much, a real-world scenario briefly sketched.
I found two stories in this collection absolutely excellent. "The Magician's Apprentice" by Tamsyn Muir is ostensibly a month by month record of a modern girl's training in the art of real sorcery. The writing is sharp and flowing and the details are all wonderful - very observant modern fantasy writing until the end is reached and the truth of what fuels magic is revealed. I'd like to buy this for PSEUDOPOD in the future. Equally good, and just as likely to get an acquisition query from me was Bruce McAllister's "The Crying Child" about a young boy, his missing dog, and a harrowing night spent in a isolated village in Northern Italy. Entrancing storytelling.
So, in the end, I believe I can see similarities and differences in Jones and Datlow's approaches. Jones likes reliable structures and always has time for a quiet ghost story while Datlow seems to have a penchant for experimentation and the poetic - thus, Datlow can be less stuffy but more prone to featuring stories that get stuck out on their own limbs, while Jones can keep delivering the same familiar goods, for good or ill. Both seem to have a higher tolerance for dark fantasy than I do (again, as I've said many times before, not that I hate dark fantasy at all I just think that it dilutes the strength of horror anthology when too much of it appears). More to come, I'm sure... (less)
And round we go again, with the "Best New Horror Fiction" of 2012 as chosen by Stephen Jones. The Year In Horror was as it always is - a waste of time...moreAnd round we go again, with the "Best New Horror Fiction" of 2012 as chosen by Stephen Jones. The Year In Horror was as it always is - a waste of time for some and a useful resource (if somewhat dispiriting slog) for others (I fall into the latter category). Jones' soapbox moment at the end of this one is comments on the vast welter of self-publishing thanks to e-books and how little of it is actually worth reading - this makes him a curmudgeonly greybeard gatekeeper of the old for some or an honest commentator on the state of his genre for others (again, I fall into the latter category) - take your pick, neither is actually "true".
The stories, as always, least interesting to most entertaining. No marks for "Witch Work" by Neil Gaiman, not because it's bad, but I simply have no handle on "horror poetry" as I basically have barely a handle on "poetry". So consider it unknown territory. Weak or just okay stories for me: "Where The Summer Dwells" by Lynda E. Rucker name-checks one of my favorite Karl Edward Wagner stories but not towards any resonant goal I could perceive, being more of a Ray Bradbury-esque "idylls of our youth" reflection transplanted to the rural South and onto modern alt-teens (i.e. - lost of alternative music shout-outs) as the female main character revisits old haunts with new friends. I found the story's construction distracting more than confusing and the end result underwhelming but it's also prime dark fantasy and so YMMV. Thana Niveau's "The Curtain" is a well-written tale of a man scuba diving after a powerful storm who comes upon a sunken boat, and then bodies, and then more bodies. I liked the setting a lot (great use of setting to amplify unease) but the piece as a whole didn't click with me, being an example of that oddest of subgenres, the ambiguous monster story. "The Fall Of The King Of Babylon" has another kick-ass setting (a Dickensian stone edifice sitting on a water-logged swamp island and ruled by the king of the local criminal underworld) and the usual solid Mark Valentine writing - but then there's the eel-men and the oddly abrupt ending. Again, good dark fantasy but not really my thing. In "The Old & The New" by Helen Marshall a vacationing couple, newly minted, explore the catacombs below Paris, moving among the bone hoard as we get details of the origin of their relationship from the woman, and hints as to how unsettled it might really be. This is a fairly low-key story, a psychological exploration of love and emotions and how they relate to death. Not really bad or anything but not seemingly my kind of thing in this author's voice, but certainly respectable and accomplished.
Next up, the "good but a little flawed" stories: Alison Littlewood's "The Discord Of Being" has a daughter summoned back to Morocco by her expatriate father because her mother's grave has been vandalized only to later see, in the teeming, riotous Djemma El Fna marketplace of Marrakesh, her long-deceased mother in the crowd. This is a subtle, somewhat psychological story, a take on the djinn mythology that might be better classified as dark fantasy, as I'm not exactly sure the ending was intended as horrifying. There's a second Littlewood tale here as well - "The Eyes Of Water" - which has a diver retrace the path of a drowned friend through the underwater tunnels of the Yucatan, only to discover a hidden chamber and more than she expected. Perfectly serviceable fiction but it didn't grab me. "The Hunt: Before And The Aftermath" is a "zombie apocalypse story as character study" piece, quite fine in the sense of what it is and its message (men never change) but which seems to me lacking in any threatening, direct horror aspect, more along the lines of lit horror. A good read by Joe R. Lansdale but I wanted more than just a backdrop of zombies for a sketch of human failings, which Romero had given us decades ago. A boy visiting his grandparents escapes some young toughs by ducking into a sinister bingo hall, much to his dismay, in Ramsey Campbell's "The Callers". As usual with Campbell, the writing is top-notch but I have to admit I found the central conceit of this piece more goofy than threatening - extra points though for the subtle May Day details, the typically lame mainstream movie the boy intends to see - that bit actually made me laugh out loud - and the disturbing intimations of granny-sex (if not sacrifice). Just as last year there's a rescued story by pulp writer Evangeline Walton (author of Witch House, which I reviewed quite some time back), here being "The Other One". It's the story of a woman with a secret, a mentally ill twin who mimics here every move - or is that really the truth? I was actually surprised how far this story was willing to go, relative to the time at which it was written, into the imagery and actions of the (view spoiler)[doppelganger/astral body/succubus (hide spoiler)] concept. Familiar pulp fare but respectable. I wanted to like "Slow Burn" by Joel Lane more than I did - the ingredients are all there: a sense of place and history, an elemental quality (woods, mines, fire) and a hard-bitten policeman's narrative voice. But they didn't seem to gel too well into a full-blown story here, as Lane's detective character looks into mysterious fires in the local park-lands, tied to an old mine shaft. I guess part of it is that the detective doesn't *do* anything, he's just told everything. Felt more like a sketch for a better story, more fleshed-out story. On the other end of the spectrum from subtlety we get Stephen Volk's "Celebrity Frankenstein", a brash, inventive and funny exploration of its title conceit. It may tend towards the "clever" side in lieu of "unnerving" a bit too much for its own good, however. Cute. "October Dreams" by Michael Kelly is a short flash piece evocative of Halloween and not really my thing as I still struggle with gauging the success and limits of flash fiction.
Next are the "good" reads, the meat of the book and all solid stories. Terry Dowling's "Nightside Eye" is an interesting twist on the Psychical Research/Hell House motif of the scientific team investigating a haunting. Here, it's a haunted mantlepiece in an abandoned Grand Hotel, upon which nothing can sit for too long. The researcher is deliberately duplicating a previous attempt to solve the mystery which failed spectacularly with some dark revelation. Now, such a build-up is both very exciting and in hazard of disappointing unless the author comes up with something extraordinary and unprecedented (unlikely, as a probability) and the reader enjoys the ride enough to dial down expectations somewhat. I dialed down and enjoyed myself and the story should be appearing on PSEUDOPOD later this year (and I'll return to post the link when it does).
Although I'm not the biggest fan of Steve Rasnic Tem's fiction I found "Waiting At The Crossroads" a nicely done, impressionistic tale of an odd father bringing his family to a desert hotel to await... something... There are some nice Lovecraftian touches in this meditation on parenthood and lost progenitors. Glen Hirshberg gives us a duo of series characters (a man, The Collector, and his female assistant, who find things for people) in the very dark fantasy, not-horror-at-all story "His Only Audience". Here, it's all about a nighttime excursion into the foggy ocean in search of a stray radio signal that may feature a lost recording by a famous musician - but who's the pirate of the airwaves doing the transmitting? Not my normal kind of thing but well-written and the hook of audio ephemera mavens made me dig it (I'm currently converting hours and hours of my old cassette recordings into digital format). Ymmv.
"Marionettes" by Claire Massey is a concise little weird tale, familiar but enjoyable nonetheless (so who can complain?) about a couple visiting Prague who run across a marionette shop with some distinctly recognizable figures in the window. M.R. James's "A School Story" gets some back-story and a sequel in Reggie Oliver's Jamesian pastiche "Between Four Yews" - I'm not sure how I feel about the motivating idea of the collection that this originated in (it strikes me as a tantamount to fan fic, and is quite rage nowadays) but the story itself, if perhaps a bit *dry* in the actual fear department (in other words, there's little "Jamesian whallop"), is perfectly acceptable reading.
Gemma Files's "Slick Black Bones" attempts to do the Lovecraftian pastiche industry one better with a story purportedly informed by Robert W. ChambersThe King in Yellow and Other Horror Stories. It's an interesting story of South Sea Islanders, forensic archeology, a religious massacre and the island's inescapable mythology. Pulpy fun. "Blue Crayon, Yellow Crayon" by Robert Shearman starts strongly with a very real-world dilemma, Richard Matheson vibe (specifically his "Dying Room Only") as a business man returning home by train is annoyed by a loud young girl who then seemingly disappears from the closed car. As it turns out, though, what seems like a prosaic story is really a psychological character examination. I liked it (especially the repeated shifts in the climax from disturbing to reassuring and back again) but I can understand if others were disappointed.
Finally, the two stories I found most entertaining will also be appearing on PSEUDOPOD in the near future. "The Cotswold Olimpicks" by Simon Kurt Unsworth is a cracking good story in the tradition of THE WICKER MAN as a photographer visiting a town for an ages old festival discovers the dangers of not joining in. Loved the hallucinatory, near psychedelic imagery of the ending. On the other hand, Dale Bailey's "Necrosis" is a short little love-letter to the classic "club story" frame, with a powerful last line. Maybe not for everyone but I really enjoyed it and liked how the distancing of class expectations amongst supposed "peers" helped extend the horror for one individual. Nice.
And that's it. Hopefully I can get another retroactive volume or two in before I read 2013's culling in early January of 2015!["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
Now, usually I would use this as an excuse to re-read all these classics and take the opportunity to present a formal review on Goodreads. But... this is a thick book (1079 pages) and, more importantly, it's an inter-library loan. So there was no way I was going to be able to read and review it all in time. Instead, I decided to simply read and review the eleven stories here.
There's a nicely succinct introduction that lays out the basic structure of the collection - the first half is Tales Of Terror (that is to say, "naturalistic"), the second is Tales Of The Supernatural (self-explanatory).
Thomas Hardy's "The Three Strangers" is less of a "terror tale" and more of an ironic suspense story, while also having the feel of a local legend or bit of folklore. Three strangers turn up at an isolated homestead on a stormy night when the farmer is celebrating the christening of his daughter... but this is not a religious allegory at all, and the tale turns on identification and mis-identification. I enjoyed it for the authentic and interesting portrayal of rural gatherings and the accepted rules of social etiquette of the time, but less as a supposed "scary" story.
The famed author of "The Monkey's Paw" (hands down one of the greatest scare stories ever written - and if you think you're too familiar with it to find it effective, go ahead a re-read it sometime soon. It's a masterpiece), W.W. Jacobs, only had fair-to-middling success with his other tales (although I did like "The Well", which I reviewed in Ghost Stories). Here we are given his piece "The Interruption", which is a tightly written tale in which a man succeeds at murdering his wife, only to realize that the overlooked housemaid now has much more power in the household. I dug it - like something from a later Alfred Hitchcock anthology.
"Pollock And The Porroh Man" is an H.G. Wells story that's long been on my "to be read" lists and, having now read it, I can see why. The "white man stumbles against tribal magic" story trope may be old hat by now (see also Kipling's "Mark Of The Beast", White's "Lukundoo", and endless pulp and EC comics stories, etc. etc.) but Wells does an amazing job here making it very exciting indeed. This may possibly be my favorite story of the 11 I read (or it at least ties with the Aiken piece). A British soldier is cursed by a tribal witch doctor and takes a nightmare plunge down into the classic scenario of flight, terror, rationalizing and anthropological reinforcement. It's brilliantly handled (Wells has such a great touch for detail like the character and dialogue of the Portuguese Jew, Perea, or the initial "upside-down" look the witch-doctors casts backwards at the soldier, and how it resonates throughout the tale) and thoroughly entertaining and I wonder why no one has even made a short film of it (it's a very *visual* tale) - at least as far as I know of. Its placement in the book is an interesting and valid choice as well - and what a last line!
Wells appears again with "The Sea Raiders", a monster story in which he mixes a number of writing styles - scholarly science, journalistic distance and snappy, realistic action all feature in this recounting of mankind's first encounters with an aggressive new breed of cephalopod. Fun stuff.
Conrad Aiken's "Mr. Arcularis" is a personal favorite of mine but I've never read his justifiably acclaimed "Silent Snow, Secret Snow" until encountering it here (although I do remember the adaptation of it on Rod Serling's NIGHT GALLERY, narrated by Orson Welles). A deceptively simple story (in his mind a young boy begins to withdraw from the world behind an imaginary layer of snowfall) that has been widely interpreted (analogies of sensitivity, creativity, escapism, adolescence, even deafness) but I believe the introduction to the story gives the most likely reading - the onset of mental illness (possibly schizophrenia or autism) or obsession in a young mind, the drawing further and further away from the real world and deeper and deeper into imagination, the fascination with repetition and a calm, controllable environment. It's a fascinating, at times lyrical piece.
Next up is Ernest Hemingway's "The Killers" - a stripped-down noir piece (without the hysterical trappings of, say, Cornell Woolrich) that has echoes forwards in time to, for example, Cronenberg's A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE. We get a simple setting (a small town diner) and two threatening thugs come to deliver a message. It's all clipped, small phrases and repetition because it's Hemingway, but the best part of it (outside of the thug's mannerisms) is that the target of the threat, when finally warned, is resigned to his fate. In that, it's very much like Woolrich, the unknown and unknowable human machinations of fate that grind away behind the facade of society, waiting to chew up people who step over lines.
"Back For Christmas" - by another personal favorite writer, John Collier, is familiar to me as it was adapted a number of times on old radio dramas (SUSPENSE, etc.). That's understandable as its a slick, whittled down murder story - not a mystery or even much of a crime story, like the Jacobs piece earlier it's more in the line of an ironic ending ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS episode - not a "whodunnit" but a "willhegetawaywithit?" Another slight but fun read.
Moving into the "Supernatural" portion of the book, I'll always look forward to an unread Henry James ghost story as I consider "The Jolly Corner" an absolute masterpiece of his work in the area. The editors bemoan their inability to include The Turn of the Screw due to length and so here present "Sir Edmund Orme". It's kind of bracing to come from Hemingway into James so quickly - they have completely opposite styles and approaches (exterior versus interior) and yet both are masters of their chosen mode. James' dense style builds an entire culture around the characters through specific word choice, phrasing and detail of action - it's heady stuff. "Orme" is a ghost story but not a horror story, a very "proper" ghost story, actually, about a very proper and well-behaved ghost who exists more as a "sins of the parent visited on the children" than any actual malevolent force. I wonder if all those DOWNTON ABBEY fans realize there's worlds of manners and courting and great reading awaiting them in James?
Rudyard Kipling's "The Return Of Imary" (sometimes presented as "The Recrudescence Of Imray") is another India-set ghost story - this time dealing with a mysterious disappearance from and a bothersome poltergeist in a bungalow. It's fairly straight-ahead, plot-wise, but I liked the very practical military characters and their handling of the disturbance.
Walter de la Mare is another very subtle writer who rewards close reading and "Out Of The Deep" is an enjoyable story but somewhat hard to crack, as the author sometimes surrenders narrative clarity to British upper-class colloquialisms of the time. The basic plot is simple - a young wastrel inherits the home of the deceased family who rescued him as a child. He has a morbid fear of the attic bedroom where he once slept, and of the various pull-ropes used to summon servants. As there are no servants left in the house, at least at night, he's very surprised when his deliberate attempt to overcome his fear and pull the bell rope does actually summon... someone... and then something. I enjoyed it but, as I said, I'm not entirely sure I grasped the psychological detail due to the playful language at times - with de la Mare, a single word in a short line could turn the whole meaning of a paragraph on end. I'll have to see if there's any secondary analysis on the web somewhere.
And finally, "The Sailor-Boy's Tale" by Isak Dinesen is a fable-like story of a good deed, an accidental murder and debt repaid by a Norwegian witch. It flows along lightly, with some wonderful scene setting in a port town and some blunt dialogue on the part of the witch. Entertaining.
And that's it. I'll have to say that the "terror tale" first section seems to me to be a more muddled definitional slough than the second "supernatural" one - how does one distinguish mystery from crime from conte cruel, for example? I know how *I* distinguish them, but lumping all these types into a "terror" category seems a bit of a hard swallow. Still, this is a classic volume and deserves to be on any fans' shelf simply for the vast variety and opportunity it contains.(less)
Late to the game on this one - which is fine because I could never keep up with the endless swell of everything old I want to read AND everything new...moreLate to the game on this one - which is fine because I could never keep up with the endless swell of everything old I want to read AND everything new I want to read. I'd read 3 stories by Joe Hill before, in various collections, and was immediately struck by his authorial strengths. Here we have a collection of most of his early short fiction in one package - proving that he is not just a horror author but a non-genre lit author as well.
"Best New Horror" is, simply put, a masterpiece - not just because in some sense the main character is me (harried & slightly burned out horror short fiction editor still dedicated to quality despite the vicissitudes of the field), nor that it does a marvelous job spinning an engaging and plausible story, nor even because of the masterful downshift into tense, suspenseful thriller mode as it ascends to its climax - No, it's because of that psychologically brilliant and totally believable moment of conflicted exultation that it ends on.
"20th Century Ghost" is another home-run knocked out of the park, reminding me of David J. Schow's story "One For The Horrors" in terms of it being a love letter to the soon-to-be-dead theater-going experience. It's the tale of a haunted movie theater, the ghost that resides there and the man who she has haunted most of his life - oh, and movies: the spectral, ineffable, awful (in its original sense) phenomena of cinema and the movie house - the real "ghost" of the 20th Century. It ends on a sad and beautiful note, as well. Hill's impressive story control means that even details that would, in lesser hands, signpost later plot points are integrated so well and misdirected around that you don't see see them until they pay off (FANTASIA - I should have seen it coming!).
Hill explores whimsical territory with "Pop Art", the story of a boy's friendship with an inflatable friend and it's melancholy outcome. It just asks you to accept its conceit and then runs with. Hard to say what exactly it's a metaphor for - creativity and imagination in a philistine culture? sexual or racial identity? physical or mental illness? - but entertaining, regardless.
"You Will Hear The Locusts Sing" is a strange variant of Franz Kafka's "The Metamorphosis" recast for a post-B-Movie ("atomic radiation"), post-Columbine world. In a way, a story that strongly resonates with his father's pulp film/blue collar fiction.
"Abraham's Boys" is about the conflicted, adolescent offspring of Bram Stoker's vampire slaying character and their gradual questioning of whether their abusive father's lifelong narrative of supernatural threat is really true or a religious/fetishistic obsession. Excellent read.
A nuanced study of a young boy with anxiety/OCD issues and his relationship with his father, "Better Than Home" is the first solidly lit piece in the collection (although it also features a scene with a horrifying discovery of a dead body). It's an emotionally honest and compelling read (the aforementioned dead body scene is a high point) but I also felt that the early focus on the father's televised temper tantrums didn't really pay off relative to the time spent on it, story-wise.
"The Black Phone" is a taught and engaging scenario of a boy kidnapped by a predator and imprisoned in a basement - given an extra jolt by a touch of the supernatural evidenced by the titular object.
An extended character study of a cynical, rebellious young adult welded to a suspense narrative, "In The Rundown" positions the guy in a very bad place through no fault of his own. While the ending may leave you hanging, I appreciated that it didn't spell out the obvious danger to the main character.
"The Cape" is a bit of magical realism with a central conceit - a boy's lucky blanket, when worn as a cape, allows him to "fly" (well, float). In truth, I was digging this up until the ending, which seemed both a bit nasty (given the character established) and perfunctory.
"Last Breath" has a fine, near surrealistic conceit at its core (a museum of death rattles and their curator) and is only let down a bit by the ending - but then, its short enough to function more as an entertaining bit of flash and not be judged as an actual story.
...which I cannot say for "Dead Wood", which struck me (as a lot of flash does) as a "cool idea" (here: ghosts of trees) that the author failed to build a story around. The acknowledgments section of the book hides another flash piece, "Scheherazade's Typewriter" about a device that continues to produce fiction after its owner's death, that I liked a little more.
More straight lit fiction appears in "The Widow's Breakfast" where a Depression-era hobo connects with a lonely and kind widow. I liked it.
"Bobby Conroy Comes Back From The Dead" may feature George Romero and Tom Savini but this story is not horror, instead it's a charming tale of a failed comedian and his college crush accidentally reuniting on the set of DAWN OF THE DEAD where they're auditioning as zombie extras. Great, human character detail and again I appreciate that Hill didn't feel the need to state the obvious (the real parentage of the woman's child).
Probably the oddest and most ambitious piece here is "My Father's Mask", in which a boy spends time with his odd parents on a visit to an isolated family cabin and has a number of strange encounters. Surrealistic, disturbing, symbolic and even coldly erotic, it's an ambiguous and haunting piece.
Equally strong, although more direct, is "Voluntary Committal". Hill really seems to have a knack for the "Bradbury approach" - that is to say, he seems to have been mentally recording every sensation and thought he experienced as a child for later use in fiction. The story is a rumination on troubled adolescence, friendships, siblings and a very Stephen King-like examination of the "wild talents" of the "differently gifted" ("Mrs. Todd's Shortcut" comes to mind). This a great weird tale, confidently deployed and absolutely justifying its extended length. A great note to end on. (less)
In my review of The Mammoth Book of Monsters I opined a little bit about the sub-genre of the "monster story" in horror fiction and it's structural di...moreIn my review of The Mammoth Book of Monsters I opined a little bit about the sub-genre of the "monster story" in horror fiction and it's structural difference to similar forms like the "ghost story". Here we get a late 60s' take on the same idea as the Jones book - a late 60's anthology themed on monsters, which I'm sure was a popular sales niche for paperbacks, especially when aimed at younger readers. But as I've also said before, back then editors weren't afraid of giving teen readers adult stories to chew on and develop their literary eyeteeth (would that it were so today). I'm sure I'll pull a few more examples off the shelf for review as the years go by...
So here we have MONSTER MIX, edited by the redoubtable Robert Arthur, a hero of mine and general genre journeyman who wrote many things (some short fiction, THE MYSTERIOUS TRAVELER radio show, the ALFRED HITCHCOCK & THE THREE INVESTIGATORS book series of my youth) and edited many things (he was the written "voice" of Hitch when he edited the director's paperback anthology series) - and here's another one! Arthur uses the introduction to mostly bemoan the fact that "monster", at that moment in time, meant Kaiju and giant atomic insects, and while I don't share his lament, it's an understandable viewpoint from the time period and from a particular age group at that time.
And what you get here is a nice assortment of monster stories of various hues, which is interesting. A third of them I'd read before (but re-read for the review) and a third were on my "to read" list, which leaves a last third of unknown quantity. Excellent...
One example of those "different hues" is "Fire In The Galley Stove" by William Outerson. This tale acts as a roundabout "explanation" for the mystery of abandoned ships (see The Marie Celeste) and is told in a dry, workmanlike manner and barely exploits its plot details for any effect (Why is it in this collection? Well... (view spoiler)[the ship's crew is dispatched with by a run in with some giant octopi (hide spoiler)]). Not bad for a young reader as a potential adventure story but told as a journalistic report, it also lacks the *zing* of that same adventure.
Another hue, and a bit unexpected, is "monster story as humorous political folklore" with Stephen Vincent Benét's "Daniel Webster And The Sea Serpent", a follow-up to that affable title character's run in with Old Nick. Here, the always trustworthy politician has an encounter with an amorous sea-monster named Samanthy just as he's trying to negotiate a treaty with England. There's some political digs ("Britannia rules the waves") and understatement ("it was what you might call kind of an impressive sight") and overall it's a cute slice of odd, whimsical fantasy.
E.F. Benson gives us our vampire story, with the classic "Mrs. Amworth" (previously read, but which went up a notch in my estimation on this re-read). It's a traditional tale, in a way, but only because it existed to add to that received tradition. So here's Benson giving us a small, rural English town upon which falls the curse of vampirism but his twist (re-invention would be a bit strong) is that the source is a plump, healthy and robust British widow, all bustle and energy in the bright sunlight and little friendly visits in the evening to play cards - very social and chummy (the better for her own ends). It finishes the way these things traditionally finish and is best read and enjoyed for its grace notes on a familiar theme.
Another giant of the field is represented here with "The Mannikin". This Robert Bloch story is from early in his career when he was still digesting Lovecraft, using HPL's invented cosmology as an extra tint to standard black magic doings but enlivened by Bloch's style of the grotesque - in a sense, this is Bloch exploring ideas he'd later use in his story "Enoch", while it also fiddles with a variant of the big reveal of The Dunwich Horror. A professor meets up with a fellow scholar - a deformed, sombre, hunchbacked genius who's researching occult knowledge and occasionally doesn't act like himself. A perfectly serviceable, if unexceptional, story with a predictable twist, some plastered in Lovecraftian tomes, and one of those endings where a note is seemingly desperately scribbled out explaining what's going on even as the horror advances.
And here we come to one of those occasional things that happens. Everyone has a classic story or two, beloved by almost all, that just doesn't click with them. "The Wendigo" is one of those for me ("Green Tea" is another) and so I looked forward to the chance to re-read it after some time had passed and see if I'd reevaluate it on less critical terms. I did, much like the Benson, move it a notch up but that's not because my initial problems with it have dimmed in any way, but more because I have a better grasp on Algernon Blackwood's approach, along with his relative strengths and weaknesses. Two men camping in the deep Canadian forests find themselves beset by odd occurrences that lead to one's disappearance. When the rest of their party returns to the campsite later, more horror ensues. There's lots to like her - Blackwood does a great job with group and interpersonal dynamics and character psychology (keep an eye out for the unintentional - or is it? - homoerotic aspect of manly men in the woods and its culmination in the tent scene). And, as might be expected, there's some marvelous wilderness description here (drawn from personal experience), with his usual focus on the fastness, awe and sheer power of nature and the open, wild space that spills out loneliness, solitude and madness. The "monster" here is strange and folkloric, part animal and part air spirit - thus both primal and ethereal - and the way it "abducts" its victim (and the appearance of that classic Fortean phenomena "the human voice calling for help from an empty sky") make for some strong eeriness (not to mention the feet licking!). There's even a powerful and weird manifestation of it at a campfire late in the story. But given all that, I'd still say that the slow accrual of detail (which Blackwood usually excels at) here comes across as long-windedness at times (a problem he himself seemed to work at, fine-tuning and tightening his writing later in his career) and, yes I'll say it, I still find the evocatively intended "last words" to be more absurd than eerie. Still not my favorite Blackwood but I now think it would make for an interesting, if difficult, short film.
Moving on to the solidly good stories, we come upon "The Day Of The Dragon" by Guy Endore, a somewhat satirical tale that starts with a classic piece of Forteana (a Toad In A Hole), moves on to yellow journalists exploiting a scientifically ignorant public (how contemporary!) and the mad dreams of an impoverished professor of Biology, and finishes with the end of mankind! Darkly humorous.
William Sambrot's "Creature Of The Snows" is a Yeti tale and a good example of a monster story that is not, specifically, a *horror* story, and instead falls into that area of suspenseful, ARGOSY-style, Men's Own Adventure writing. There's even a emotionally complicated sentiment at the climax for a young reader to puzzle over and widen their world...
"Mimic" by Donald A. Wollheim has been around long enough to be turned into a movie franchise but the originating text is a terse little monster story of natural camouflage in an urban setting. It's still just as concise and precise as it needs to be - less a story than a sketch of an idea, but that's all it really needs to be to not waste your time. The final moments, which imply even greater subterfuge, are a brilliant topper.
I read a spate of Manly Wade Wellman's Silver John stories back in the 80s and only recently began to run into his work again, to be examined by my more seasoned eye. I've always felt Wellman's writing was something of a mixed bag: great ideas but solid to shaky execution. This would be my first Silver John story read in more than a decade and, never having read this particular one at all, I found myself enjoying it. Wellman's conception of a backwoods, Okie monster fighter using basic purity and goodwill (not to mention love, perseverance and song) against Appalachian evil is certainly a great one, charming and sensible in a way that seems to craft the stories into oral legend right before your eyes. In this one ("O Ugly Bird"), John runs into a malignant old cuss who keeps the inhabitants of a valley under his thumb with the help of a large, sinister buzzard-looking bird. And, once again, humble forthrightness and silver guitar strings save the day. A charming little dark fantasy monster yarn.
"Aepyornis Island" by H.G. Wells, a story I read as a youngster, is a fun "Monster tale as Robinson Crusoe-style survival story." An operative for museums gets stranded on a desert island with a similarly stranded (and rapidly maturing) prehistoric throwback. A splendid yarn, not a horror story at all, with some nicely dry British humor regarding the relationship between the man and his fellow castaway.
I've read some Lord Dunsany before but encountering his tale "The Hoard Of The Gibbelins" here for the first time, it suddenly clicked that Dunsany occupies a very interesting, transitional position in fantasy writing - sketching out an approach to "Modern Fantasy" based on recapitulating the fantasy tropes of old in a new, somewhat ironic and studied mode, for modern audiences (and his influence on Clark Ashton Smith and H.P. Lovecraft in that specific regard should not be underestimated). And in this mode, in this tale, Dunsany is extraordinary - here we have The Gibbelins, living just outside Terra Cognita, who feed their rapacious appetites by sowing stories into the real world of their vast treasure holdings. And so there are noble(?) quests to steal the loot, and so, food. And so, a knight tries to out-think the scenario. An archly fun tale of fantasy with an archly ironic ending, perhaps intended as a warning about bringing too much "realism" to fantastic tropes, and how little that will help?
Here also is the redoubtable William Hope Hodgson with another nautical horror story that also involves fungus, "The Derelict". Following a storm, a schooner stumbles across a derelict ship adrift nearby, indeterminately old, and upon boarding the hulk the usual exploratory venture below decks is blocked by a hideous discovery that the ship is literally encased in mold. In fact, a voracious and vigorous mold blob that turns the exploration into an attempt to survive and leave the derelict alive. It's a marvelous monster story: engaging, exciting, atmospheric (I love that as they approach initially, the derelict is framed against and nearly blotted out by the crimson light of the setting sun) and creepy in turn (it bleeds purple ichor!).
Also quite enjoyable is Robert Arthur's own "Footsteps Invisible" in which (as you may have guessed from the title) the monster never actually "appears" but we still experience the travails of a British archeologist fleeing the shuffling thing that pursues him around the globe and a blind news-seller he befriends. An exceedingly aural tale, which is a wise choice given the whole approach, and I like the little fillip on the end of the story that implies a continuation of the curse in unexpected ways. Good stuff.
So, a monster anthology from 1968 - take your pick! ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
This is an interesting themed anthology - children as a major focus of a mystery or crime story: sometimes as victim, sometimes as target, sometimes a...moreThis is an interesting themed anthology - children as a major focus of a mystery or crime story: sometimes as victim, sometimes as target, sometimes as detective. But, as usual recently, I only got this through inter-library loan for one story, Cornell Woolrich's "Fire Escape", so that's the review and grade.
"Fire Escape" (aka "The Boy Cried Murder") is a variant on the "Boy Who Cried Wolf" story, updated here and streamlined into a classic Woolrich "nobody believes me/race against time" vehicle. Interesting that Woolrich is flexible enough to modify his anguished, malevolent universe approach into a child's viewpoint of helplessness because adult do not take children seriously.
The plot, as this is not a Woolrich "vast conspiracy" story, is simplicity itself - a boy in the city, attempting to catch an errant breeze on a sweltering hot night of sleep, climbs up one story to sleep on the fire escape and happens to view a murder through the window of the apartment above his. Unfortunately, the boy has a propensity for telling tales so - his parents don't believe him, and then, neither do the cops - and so he's left in a situation where a faked telegram draws his mother away from their apartment (his father works the overnight shift) and he's left to contend with the killers himself.
It's a very engaging story, as might be expected - Woolrich gets the boy's voice just right, neither too worldly, nor ignorant. The climax is exciting (and, kudos to Woolrich, effectively under-written, as it offered many chances for bombastic extrapolation - but then Woolrich is only bombastic with emotions, not situations). Also, the helplessness of a child at an adult world that will not take him seriously, even as he's trying to do the right thing, is well-portrayed. Extra special bonus - an important clue overlooked by the police hinges on an OTR (old time radio) broadcast! The story was made into the film THE WINDOW in 1949, then again as THE BOY CRIED MURDER in 1966, then again as EYEWITNESS in 1970, then again as CLOAK & DAGGER in 1984.(less)
So, in my further pursuit of these last few Woolrich stories from my "to read" list, I was able to get this as a stand-alone novella (slim, small book...moreSo, in my further pursuit of these last few Woolrich stories from my "to read" list, I was able to get this as a stand-alone novella (slim, small book with obvious OCR character problems when scanned from the original text - all lowercase letter "L"s are numeral "1", for instance, and printed in LARGE TYPE to fill out the book) through inter-library loan.
A story that proves that previously paranoid psychotics should not smoke weed!
Woolrich, being a crime writer, occasionally touches on drugs. I haven't been able to catch up with "C-Jag" (his cocaine story) but the use of cocaine in another story ("The Living Lie Down With The Dead") makes me think he had no personal experience with that substance. I'm not sure if "Marihuana" was contracted as a deliberate anti-drug story (the scattershot, short and generally unhelpful afterward by Sam Sloan doesn't have many answers) or just something Woolrich chose to write which then became co-opted by the Moral/Legal forces of the time as an indication of what "The Devil's Weed" could do to you...
Now, of course, much of this posturing seems absurd, even quaint (until one realizes how such propaganda approaches just happened to help lay the framework for prohibition and the codifying of "organized crime", among other things) and so I imagine there are those who will read this for the same reason one enjoys watching Joe Friday lecture hippies on some DRAGNET episode - ironically, for the laughs. But I'm reading Woolrich here, not out for shooting fish in a barrel, and still I must say that this was just an "okay" read. It's one of the standard Woolrich plots (man kills or thinks he kills someone and then, while on the run, kills more - even though he is, we presume, an ordinary guy - compare "Dusk To Dawn" from Nightwebs to "Marihuana") but in this case tinted with cannabis as our poor schmoe, King Turner, is all hopped up on the boo by some practical-joke-playing, ne'er do well "friends" and Mama Sweetleaf is treating him rough just for sparking up one "J".
Woolrich gets the time dilation right (fleeing his initial "crime", it seems to take him an hour to get down a hallway), the fixity of focus, and the paranoia (not to mention, oddly, the munchies!) so perhaps he did partake as, uh, research. Our main character accidentally stabs a woman while having a hop-head vision of his estranged wife, kills another person during a paranoid freak-out in a phone booth and then kills again - this is all the proof one needs that the fellow really wasn't "up to code" to begin with and that his vipering the muggles really just sets a match to the fuse of a time bomb.
It's a page turner, like all Woolrich in this mode, and even has one of his blackly ironic endings (note that "practical joke playing" earlier) and "random universe doesn't care" scenarios (a "missed by seconds" moment with two elevators), as well as an over the top ending: (view spoiler)[it all ends on a ledge 15 stories above the city street, and then off that ledge... (hide spoiler)]. There's a detective named "Spillane" by the way and, for those interested in the history of slang, when he first lights up, one of his friends says Turner is "tuned in". Silly fun, an interesting document of its time and the exploitative and propagandistic approach to a substance that no less than Thomas Jefferson was quite an advocate of. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
As usual recently, I only got this anthology from inter-library loan to read the Cornell Woolrich story in it.
That story is "All At Once, No Alice" -...moreAs usual recently, I only got this anthology from inter-library loan to read the Cornell Woolrich story in it.
That story is "All At Once, No Alice" - it is perhaps fitting that as I near the end of my Woolrich reading, I hit a story that comprises aspects (and attendant problems) from the first Woolrich story I read in this general overview (the vast conspiracies and attendant problems of dismantling same in "Graves For The Living") and also closely replicates a plot of a mid-point read ("I Won't Take a Minute" aka "I'll Just Be a Minute" aka "Wait for Me Downstairs" aka "Finger of Doom"). Much like that latter story, we open with a happy couple (newly married in this case) who arrive in town on their honeymoon to find no rooms available to rent. The hotel finds a makeshift cot and small room and the husband spends the night at the YMCA, only to return the next morning to find his wife missing and everyone at the hotel adamant that they've never seen her and never met him before....
Woolrich handles this nightmarish scenario with a bit more aplomb than the aforementioned "I Won't Take A Minute" - charting the downward spiral of desperation and anguish as every possible avenue of proof leads to a dead end. Finally, (view spoiler)[one small flaw unravels the whole skein of mystery, leading to a plot for a wealthy inheritance, a faked death and funeral, and some good old-fashioned fisticuffs (hide spoiler)] . It's very satisfying and as usual Woolrich is more interested in the emotional anguish of his main character and the ease with which the normal, sane world can slip out from under you than in logically selling the reader on how the plot could have occurred as stated. Still, a good, solid read.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)