The third issue of Bête Noire features seven short stories, along with visual art and poetry. The stories are all half-decent, with no single standout and nothing terrible. Some of the stories could have been a lot better had they been better edited, and the unfortunate typos can be distracting, whereas the grammatical errors are downright embarrassing.
A Warm Place by William M. Brock 6/10 In what is seemingly the near future, humans are co-existing with an arachnid-like alien through a seemingly beneficial arrangement. This story is so short that a longer description would give too much away. Short is all this piece needs; a neat yet simple concept that works nicely. I wonder what the story could have been if told through the third person. We would have a little more distance and emphasis would like on the darker side of the presented reality, rather than the current lightness of tone. Moreover, this first person narrator is oddly presented at times, since the narrator describes a room sees on a daily basis. I can't imagine walking into my office and describing it's appearance; I'd naturally be taking it for granted. If there is a specific audience, the narrator would be detailing more about the situation, since much is only hinted at. A small point though some attention would improve the story; it is nonetheless entertaining.
Charlie's House by Cody Rosevear 5/10 A mother is awoken by her daughter who claims there are sounds in the walls keeping her from sleeping. An effective little piece with a good ending is unfortunately marred by problematic prose and poor grammar. The opening sentence, "Susan's dreams crumbled away from her like sand turning to mud in the wake of an ocean wave," is nonsensical. The process of sand turning to mud has no relation to the act of crumbling, but instead is a form of dissolution. Many sentences are similarly over-written, and such a brief piece should be building tension which is better accomplished through brief and direct statements. "Susan awoke in the middle of the night" is a better option. "Susan awoke in the middle of the night. There was someone in her room." And so forth. Moreover, there are too many clunky details that also prevent mounting tension, with every "she said" accompanied by an action or a thought or a detail of some kind. Quick dialogue in the context of the plot would better serve the story.
"[H]er skin wrinkled with worry, like old paper." I didn't think old paper could worry itself to wrinkling. Aside from some grammatically ambiguous sentences, or where the subject fails to meet its predicate, are elementary tense switches. The story opens in the past tense and an early paragraph is suddenly in the present. Lastly, the story title along the top of each page is printed in plural: "Charlie's Houses."
Truly unfortunate as the story has potential, and I genuinely like the ending for reason I cannot discuss since it would spoil the work.
Lucky Buck by Jim Valenti 6/10 In a library book Buck finds a dollar on which is written "Lucky Dollar." From then on Buck receives all kinds of luck, but not the kind one would hope to have. (Reminds me of a great story I read years back, "The" by Name and Name.) A quick and amusing piece, with a neat title as it is an alternate way of saying "lucky dollar."
Crossfire by Tony Haynes 6/10 A crime noir private investigator piece, with our tough-talking hero Lasky being jerked around through a scenario in which he is clueless. Entertaining with some genuinely good lines, it is more parody as our hero lacks the brains of the likes of Sam Spade, seems never to get the girl, nor does he profit financially, which is what many of his noir counterparts rely on. Far less of a parody, however, than Robert Coover's excellent 2010 novel Noir.
Invasion by Lawrence Buentello 6/10 Farmer Otis is alone at his farm where he is determined to have a final stand against the locusts that are swarming his property. In fact, locusts are swarming several states, and neither farmer nor government can defeat them. (While the U.S. states are slowly being devoured, we never learn of the rest of the world, so I suppose here in Canada we are safe. A good consequence in a U.S.-centric story.)
Overall a good read, but there do lie a number of problems. Farmer Otis comes across less sympathetic than intended, but I couldn't always take him seriously. There are problems in logic as well: Since the locusts infested every interior, covering the insides of the barn and the truck's engine, how come there isn't a single insect in the house? Not a one. How could he sit in that house without a single locust? Instead of fleeing to the city, the entire city should take refuge in that house. Moreover, the locusts have eaten all the crops, so why are they still there? Normally they move over in search of more food, but these guys just hang around, and more even join the clan, despite the fact that is nothing left for them to eat. Why doesn't farmer Otis just wait it out in the house where he is safe, until the locusts just collapse from starvation.
Finally, some of the story is over-written, and that opening paragraph is not necessary. A better opening sentence would have been one taken from the second paragraph: "The Agriculture Department promised that the infestation would dissipate in a week or so." Now there's mystery for ya.
Despite the issues I had with the story, I nonetheless enjoyed the thing, and the author certainly did well in presenting these locusts as a threat.
Full Circle by Chrystalla Thoma 5/10 Fantasy told through the point of a huntress appointed by God to deliver fallen angels. The story is told via a conversation between our huntress Luna, and a minor angel and archer Ayil, a figure Luna has feelings for. These kinds of stories are really not my thing, but this one was well written, the necessary information well handled and delivered, so my interest was kept.
Funhouse Mirror by A.W. Gifford 5/10 A young couple visit a funhouse, the husband overly excited while the wife reticent, even fearful. As we expect, some kind of horror in the hall of mirrors will ensue. From the co-editor of Bete Noire, the story is fairly standard, though while we do expect the worse, we don't necessarily see the form in which it comes. Unfortunately, the numerous typos make for clunky reading. ...more
The focus that Hamilton places on Alex McKnight's psyche over what hFor my full-length review, please visit Casual Debris.
(Really it's a 3.5, or 7/10)
The focus that Hamilton places on Alex McKnight's psyche over what happened so long ago, and how it drives him in the wake of seemingly impossible events, works particularly well. It is deeply entangled with the plot and mystery that it never appears heavy-handed, and our concern for the suffering McKnight is genuine. It helps that McKnight is a less than stellar model of the ethical individual, nor is he a fearless former cop who thrives in the wake of violence. McKnight is instead headstrong, often impatient and rude, qualities that might win him some minor battles as a P.I., but in the long run won't garner him any favours. More striking, however, than his reactionary attitude, is the crippling fear that has been plaguing him his entire life, heightened by the shooting in Detroit. This is McKnight's central flaw, one that prevented him from acting against Rose and played a role in his former partner's death, and one that promises to be a handicap for any potential career as P.I. Like Lawrence Block did with Matthew Scudder, Hamilton has set up a protagonist who was directly responsible for the death of an innocent, and gains our sympathy as we read of their struggles and changed moral outlook.
An interesting aspect of the novel is the contrast between McKnight's overcoming his fear yet establishing a deep form of isolation within his community. Though some relationships with minor characters do not change, every positive relationship he has or has had with any important character devolves to the point that, aside from his pub buddies, he is left completely alone. The only exception is, arguably, Leon Prudell, who despite not being a friend establishes the possibility of becoming a future ally.
Though the plot wavers, it is not a drastic wavering and it never gets close to being derailed (no real spoiler here as I only hint at the issue). Half-way through the novel a man is taken down whose involvement in the mystery is obviously a plant. From this event we are led off the so far well maintained plot path, yet the confusion it seems to want to generate only led me to reasoning out the main elements of what was actually transpiring. The problem is that it is so obvious a plant that rather than becoming scattered, my (usually scattered) mind became instead focused, and the spell of suspense was cracked. Regardless, the denouement is satisfying and the character climax, more important in several respects, works nicely....more
For my full-length review & commentary, please visit Casual Debris.
Given its oral tradition and its transcendence of culture which contribute to iFor my full-length review & commentary, please visit Casual Debris.
Given its oral tradition and its transcendence of culture which contribute to its widespread popularity, the folk tale often lacks its intended wallop of surprise. Unless, of course you, are a youngster first encountering these tales. In my youth I was introduced to many such tales through reading young adult fiction (or as we called it back in the 80s, kids' books), including re-tellings of classic tales; one particular volume I recall having had a blast with was The Headless Roommate and Other Tales of Terror, collected by Daniel Cohen (M. Evans & Co, 1980). I don't believe I've before encountered Alvin Schwartz's popular volumes, and reading them for the first time now evokes mixed responses. The book is certainly fun and the illustrations by Stephen Gammell are downright brilliant--unfortunately Schwartz's writing is at times indolent. His notes on these tales and their origins, however, are interesting, and it is great that he made the effort to share these stories with a younger contemporary audience, helping not only to spread them but to conserve them. ...more
For my complete review & review of individual stories, please visit Casual Debris.
I have fallen behind in my reading of The Fiction Desk and otherFor my complete review & review of individual stories, please visit Casual Debris.
I have fallen behind in my reading of The Fiction Desk and other periodicals. Partly it's because I'm behind on all reviews, having been away, busy, and reading more contemporary fiction that I don't frequently review for this site. Partly it's because I haven't been reading periodicals as much lately, or short stories in general. Partly because my two and-a-half year-old is entertainment enough. And my reading lately has evolved toward picture books.
New Ghost Stories II includes eleven original short stories and a reprint of a medieval poem. Overall I did not enjoy it as much as previous issues, nor as much as their first ghost stories anthology, but there are some good tales included. Though many stories have a fantastical element, and those that don't have the suggestion of one, there aren't too many actual ghosts in the book. This of course is not a bad thing, since it offers a nice variety of subjects, from traditional ghosts to none at all, and some nice ambiguity in between.
My personal favourites were those by Amanda Mason, Matt Plass and Jane Alexander. ...more
Racial discrimination is certainly a major focus, as Tibbs, in the few days he spends on the investigatFor my full review, please visit Casual Debris.
Racial discrimination is certainly a major focus, as Tibbs, in the few days he spends on the investigation, faces various forms of racism. Some are extreme and stem from plain ignorance, while more complex forms of racism are explored via Sam Wood, a relatively positive character. Unlike the other inhabitants of Wells, with the exception of the northern and progressive Italians, Wood recognizes and quickly admires not only Tibbs's intelligence and training, but also his respectful demeanor. Throughout the investigation, the emotional and at times hard-headed Wood finds that his views on race are being challenged, that he has been conditioned to view certain people, black or Italian, through the society in which he was raised, rather by reason, and finds himself by the end of the novel not only admiring Tibbs, but in love with an Italian woman.
Another focus is an interesting situation with the Wells head of police, Chief Gillespie. It is made clear that Gillespie is incompetent and has been hired because of his inexperience. The town council can in this way control the police force and pressure the chief to do their bidding, since his post is not too secure, and since he does not have the respect of the rest of the force. Plot-wise this allows Tibbs to handle the investigation as he sees fit, since Gillespie's involvement becomes minimal. An intelligent and conscientious officer would have taken on the investigation rather than be impressed by an outsider, black or white.The adverse effect of this element, however, is unfortunate. As intelligently as Tibbs is presented, the fact that the law enforcement of Wells, particularly its chief, is less than average, undermines Tibbs's own efforts. Simply put, Tibbs would be truly extraodinary had he managed to solve a murder that baffled a competent police force.
The novel is written through a problematic point of view. The third person is limited to three characters for the most part, Tibbs, Gillespie and Wood, with minor awkward interference from others. Most of the point of view rests with the white men, however, so that Tibbs, the character we should be following, is relegated to the role of outsider. Since he is the outsider in the town, it is as though the readers should be identifying themselves with the racist locals rather than the progressive Californian. Of course Ball was focusing not only on a standard who-dun-it plot, so that point of view had to be stretched out. Wood's point of view in particular is required in illustrating how ridiculous it is to judge a person by their skin colour, and his coming to terms with his own prejudice is important to the novel and the genre. Moreover, by relegating Tibbs's investigation to second-tier focus, Ball is able to withhold evidence that Tibbs uncovers early on, and springing it at the reader at specific points in the text. On one end this gives the novel an artificial feel, while on another it increases drama and allows the mystery to maintain its weight against the book's important and inherent social commentary....more
For my full review, and review of individual stories, please visit Casual Debris.
This tiny anthology of five supernatural tales, specifically labeledFor my full review, and review of individual stories, please visit Casual Debris.
This tiny anthology of five supernatural tales, specifically labeled "ghost stories," is essentially made up of tales widely available over the internet as well as across numerous print anthologies. Surprisingly re-printed in 1994, the anthology will likely never be printed again, as the internet has made most tales in this vein and in this period so readily available. The initial packaging of this five-some appears quite generic and nondescript, though I do like the simple cover (pictured), while the 1994 reprint is packaged as a set of tales for young adults, with an amusingly colourful cover by Mia Tavonatti. By packaging such a volume for a younger readership, the implication is that the stories would not frighten adults, and yet many of these tales have serious threads that only adults can appreciate. (Of course I'm generalizing.)
I mention that the stories are "labeled" as ghost stories because, if we are to examine each one of them individually, four of the five are not ghost stories at all. In fact, many nineteenth century and early twentieth century ghost stories are not actually ghost stories, including some popular tales consistently labeled and anthologized as such. The separation of fiction into genres, eventually associating stories with a certain "class" of readership, was a practice popularized in the early twentieth centuries (thereby H.G. Wells and R.L. Stevenson are considered literature, M.R. James is sometimes considered literature, while latter twentieth century authors of the supernatural are most often considered trash--another generalization). In more recent years the practice of classifying stories has increased drastically and the expansion of sub-genres has exploded to the point that contemporary readers have become obsessed with classifying fiction the way entomologists have been classifying insects. From a revisionist point of view, we can examine the stories collected in Midnight Fright in light of genre, and re-classify them in light of of contemporary approaches to genre. I will here examine the stories as ghost stories and in most cases de-classify them as such, and invite others to attempt to properly re-classify them. The benefit in such an exercise is to understand the development of genre in fiction, as well as to examine our changing perceptions of genre. More importantly, the author's own intention is clearer since often specific genres have adverse affect on the fiction itself, and as discussed below, in particular the Dickens's "The Signalman" and Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" are vastly different if we were to view them as ghost stories rather than as what they actually are....more
The Suicide Club is a triptych of individual narratives focusing on separate characters, while interlinkFor my full review, please visit Casual Debris
The Suicide Club is a triptych of individual narratives focusing on separate characters, while interlinking a single main plot. The concept is excellent, though Stevenson's aim is adventure rather than mystery or moral conundrum, both of which are serious potential avenues. To the modern reader this is unfortunate, since the strengths of each of these stories is the heightened suspense and mystery. Despite the emphasis on adventure, the three tales are nonetheless enjoyable and certainly well written.
Since each story has a stronger third, it might be interesting to re-visit this work and create a version that begins with the Hansom Cab, continues with the Cream Tarts, and finished with the Saratoga Trunk. Of course there would be no resolution to the main plot, but even Stevenson rushed his own resolution via an odd decision. The final conflict, a dual between our Bohemian prince and the president of the Suicide Club, is presented away from the action, with two minor characters waiting to know who comes up victorious. Potentially tense, the scene lacks suspense as it is brief, not to mention that it is obvious which party will come out victorious, and which will fall at the blade of the sword...more
The literary myth surrounding Marie Belloc Lowndes's most famous work is that it stemmed from a dinner party conversation. Someone reported that they knew of a former cook and butler who temporarily housed the Whitechapel Murderer, today better known as Jack the Ripper. First published in 1911, just under a quarter of a century after the infamous crimes, Lowndes's novel reflects an interest in that particular scenario and hence does not focus primarily on its titular character. Instead, it focuses on the aging and struggling couple and their strained relationship more than it does on the crimes and the killer. This is to the novel's benefit, as the tense relationship does more to enhance the murders than would any amount of blood.
Moreover, the work acts as an interesting position on the actual crimes: it was written early enough to have avoided the modern Ripper canon, so that there are more murders attributed to the moniker. It also appeared at a time when censorship prohibited any kind of accurate description of the Ripper's brutal slayings. No dismembered corpses and displaced organs; just a little bit of blood.
Lowndes's prose is gaslit: dark and hazy, tight and claustrophobic. Immediately the gloom is established, the room cozy yet in a "grimy" London neighbourhood, where the focus on our heroes is in light of their poverty. Effective too is the contrast between husband and wife: Mr. Bunting is "leaning back in a deep leather arm-chair," while Mrs. Bunting is "sitting up in an uncomfortable straight-backed chair." This contrast is important as it accurately delineates the characters, and might as well be describing how they are settled within their own skins. Whereas Mr. Bunting is mostly relaxed and easy-going, Mrs. Bunting is a ball of anxiety. It is she who first suspects that their Lodger might be the Avenger, and she clutches at this secret though it makes her incredibly tight and wound up, bordering on a nervous breakdown. Mr. Bunting only suspects their lodger fairly late in the narrative, and while he too becomes unbearably nervous, it is clear that his wife has the strongest sensibility and is better able to cope with the anxieties, though unfortunately she releases steam by snapping at her devoted ans sensitive husband.
Mrs. Bunting can come across as unlikeable in her extreme treatment of her easygoing husband, yet there is the understanding that this side of her is a result of the stresses of poverty, heightened by the suspicion she is housing a serial murderer. Most interesting in her characterization is an instinctive, irrational need in the early part of the text to defend her lodger. While part of this is denial that Mr. Sleuth is a killer, there is a side of her that feels compelled to protect the man. Having been servant and servient throughout her career, she harbours a sense of responsibility to the man whose basic household needs she is catering to. All this despite the guilt--and in this she is guilty--of allowing the Avenger to commit more murders. In protecting his identity she is an accomplice to the deaths that occur during his stay at her home. An unlikeable character who is accomplice to murder makes for a unique protagonist, and this heightens the novel both in interest and in complexity.
For my review of the individual stories, please visit Casual Debris.
The January 1969 issue of AHMM replaces the usual "Alfred Hitchcock" introductionFor my review of the individual stories, please visit Casual Debris.
The January 1969 issue of AHMM replaces the usual "Alfred Hitchcock" introduction with a colourful "Merry Christmas and Happy New Year." Moreover, the usual signature at the end of each story (at least when there's space to print it) is now encircled by a yuletide wreath. Moreover, inside is a full page subscription offer at the "Christmas Gift Rate" of $6.00 (which I can't place in proper context as I was not yet alive). I can, however, compare it to the current annual subscription rate of $34.97 USD (or $49.97 if, like me, you live in a foreign land). That is quite the Chritmas Gift Rate, and I'm tempted to fill it out and send it in to see the response, but I wouldn't want to damage the (browning) issue and certainly not that page add printed all in (of course) green.
Overall the issue is quite good with only one flop (Edwin P. Hicks's "Chaviski's Christmas"), and while there are no spectacular stories, there are some good ones. My favourite is Jack Ritchie's "Dropout" (though I tend to be partial to his shorts), but I also like those by Richard Deming, Miel Tanburn and the issue's novelette by Ed Lacy. What highlights this issue is the variety: two quick shorts with surprise endings, some private investigators, criminal protagonists, some humour, a serial killer and even a UFO....more
The 22 November 1957 edition of The Spectator blurbs that Lady Killer is a "readable" crime novel featuFor my full review, please visit Casual Debris.
The 22 November 1957 edition of The Spectator blurbs that Lady Killer is a "readable" crime novel featuring "yet another mild-mannered man" in a work that adds "little to what Mr. Iles did, once and for all, in Malice Aforethought." I'm not familiar with Francis Iles's novel, though it appears to hold up well, while William Hardy's Lady Killer seems to have been immortalized in lukewarm a Spectator review blurb. In fact, I had to manually add the novel to Goodreads where it did not yet exist, though a small number of little-read Hardy works do (intermingling, incidentally, with other books written by other William Hardies).
In Lady Killer, mild-mannered Earl Borstleman decides, on his fortieth birthday to kill his wife. As a mathematician he feels he can, via the supreme logic afforded by his intellect, produce a perfect crime. With some pondering, both patient and impatient, he settles on a plan to confuse the crime amid others, to essentially kill five unrelated women in his college town, and insert wife into victim slot number three. Conveniently, a bright student, a recent returnee from the Korean War, would fit in nicely to take the fall for the crimes, and Prof. Borstleman could live happily in his little OCD world.
The flaws in the novel are numerous, yet as the reviewer of The Spectator pointed out over half a century ago, it is readable. Quick, somewhat enjoyable, somewhat interesting. Utterly flawed....more