In the scope of the SF New Wave, Disch's work had a more absurdist, humanistic slant than most of his peers, and while some of his stories are playful...moreIn the scope of the SF New Wave, Disch's work had a more absurdist, humanistic slant than most of his peers, and while some of his stories are playful, many of them contain a dark core, exposing the frailties of the poor and the insane, the maligned and the forgotten. The work in this early collection strays off into such themes, while not so much rooted in SF as it is in the horror genre. The most memorable stories in the collection:
'The Roaches' - living in New York City can be quite awful for the lower classes. Amidst tenement living, loud neighbors and dead-end jobs, the main character here is befriended by a cockroach. Soon, she creates a telepathic bond with the insects and she has them do her dirty work. (David Hartwell selected this one in his fine collection, The Dark Descent).
'Come to Venus Melancholy' - a first person account of an off-world computer losing its mind to jealousy and loneliness.
'Linda and Daniel and Spike' - a revolting tale about an imaginary lover who impregnates a schizophrenic woman in Manhattan.
'Descending' - a loser maxes out his credit card in a department store, only to find himself stuck on a never-ending descent on an escalator. To some consumer Hell?
'Now is Forever' - a regeneration machine gives you anything you want, but when there's no more desire and you can have what you want by the press of a button, events take a turn for the worst. This one reads like an apocalyptic version of 'Groundhog Day', the snake eating its own tail, again and again and again....
'The City of Penetrating Light' - the last man of Earth, an astronaut who was in space when the bombs were dropped on earth, now contemplates suicide, but he keeps getting interrupted by some stranger calling him on the phone.
'Casablanca' - Disch here is channeling Paul Bowles in fine fashion. While the nuclear bombs are dropped on America, an elderly American couple on holiday try to figure out what to do. As the anti-American hatred takes hold, the couple go through a series of mundane horrors that eventually turn nasty as they try to find safety. Written in 1967, this story is far from dated, and probably means more to the reader today than in the year it was written.
While volume one highlighted Wagner's more expansive work, this 2nd collection goes for the throat, or should I say, it kicks a steel-tipped boot deep...moreWhile volume one highlighted Wagner's more expansive work, this 2nd collection goes for the throat, or should I say, it kicks a steel-tipped boot deep below the belt. This is not high fantasy, or literary horror with a wide scope. Most of these stories are reclusive, depressing, grotesque, violent and unrelentingly sadomasochistic. It's as if Wagner is no longer channeling the pulp-era icons of Weird Tales but going into the same desperate, raw-knuckled universe that Hubert Selby Jr. wrote about. Whether a prostitute or a drug-addled actress, his characters here get lost in their own addictions, and the brutal sex in some of them comes across so lurid, you'll either laugh in shock, or gag in nauseous reflex. There is no comfort or desire in the sexual act here. 'The Kind Men Like' is a tale of a succubus-type Bettie Page where the bondage goes beyond titillation into brass-knuckled territory; 'The Picture of Jonathan Collins' is a sordid take on 'Picture of Dorian Gray' and features turn-of-the-century porn with none other than a sadistic and cruel, Oliver Wilde starring as the villain; and 'Brushed Away' introduces us to a beaten-down man who grew up fantasizing about the air-brushed anatomies of early pin-up models, only to turn into a psychopath with hopes of recreating the human body in accordance with his own desires (quite predictably sick ending in this one, but still entertaining).
There's some other stories that are quite eloquent, sad and well-envisioned. High school reunions are lined with darkness and regret in 'Passages'. 'Into Whose Hands' shows the ragged and depressing life of a round-the-clock psychiatrist who knows a thing or two about death and how easy it is to control. 'Lost Exits' takes the fragmented story lines of a budding relationship, and meshes the good and the bad versions with a razor-blade tenacity, one in which rivals the climax to Jim Thompson's phenomenal 'A Hell of a Woman'.
An important collection despite its excess. Coupled with memories and eulogies written by Wagner's friends and peers, the stories show the unhappiness, fear and abuse that Wagner inflicted upon himself in his later years. And with that, it feels as though we are reading a crypto-biography, a demise told by the author's own short stories.
The last story, 'Lacunae' brings the return of his titular anti-hero, the immortal Kane. But no longer is he high up on the chain; now he's just a scumbag drug dealer, and with that, a hero who has clearly fallen wayside with the passing of time. And that was perhaps what Wagner realized when writing this story, in that he too couldn't rise to the top again, so he simply wallowed in the bottom until the end. Wagner was a brilliant writer and editor, and understood the genre top to bottom, and it's a shame he didn't stick around a bit longer.
Finally, a collected works of Wagner's fiction that doesn't tear the wallet in two and leave one penniless. Centipede Press has released this two-volu...moreFinally, a collected works of Wagner's fiction that doesn't tear the wallet in two and leave one penniless. Centipede Press has released this two-volume collection gathering the legendary writer's horror works (note: his sword & sorcery works are left out of this collection, so look elsewhere for those), along with recollections from friends in the business, who memorialize him with honesty, praising his skill but wary of his lifestyle that supposedly rivaled Sam Peckinpah's, one of his cinematic idols. Wagner never achieved prolific status as a writer, but more so as an editor of the 'Year's Best...' series. However, his skills at prose are on par. While known for the often-anthologized 'Sticks', there's many more tales that show his deft skill at building terror, his well-honed knowledge of the genre, and his bitter sense of humor that in hindsight can be a bit self-effacing.
This collected works includes two of his ghost stories, 'In the Pines' and 'Blue Lady Come Back', both inspired by the classical MR James and Oliver Onions mode of haunting the reader. However, while 'In the Pines' does have its moments of true horror, the novella 'Blue Lady Come Back' does feel a bit forced in fueling up towards an ending that rivals the predictability of an EC Comic. 'Where the Summer Ends' is a near-masterpiece set in Knoxville, Kentucky, where the city is over-run by drug use, poverty, and a fast-growing weed, kudzu, that seems to spread by the hour. What is hiding in the kudzu, you'll just have to read to find out. The most disturbing story, 'The River of Night's Dreaming' is stripped raw from a nightmare, and it's as sadistic as it is surreal - truly a blood-soaked gem. A female prisoner is the only survivor when the bus she's riding crashes through a rail and into a river - she makes it to the other side of the river unscathed, and once on ground, the line between reality and dream is blurred masterfully (one image stung me while I was reading in full daylight - again, masterful). She encounters an elderly woman living with her maid in an old house on a cliff, the decor inside untouched by time, and soon she falls victim to either her fevered imagination, or a hideous, lurking terror. Wagner is at high form here, and one comparison would be King's 'Misery' meets Chamber's 'The King in Yellow'.
We also get a bleak tale forecasting the future of the medical ethics, a tale that beckons Machen and 'The White People', and his classic Lovecraftian ode to the Pulps, 'Sticks'. One of the more entertaining tales, 'Beyond Any Measure' helps close out the collection. It's a maddeningly humorous tale of the success and failures two fantasy writers endure in a two-decade period, and while it is playful at points, it turns a rather scornful face on the parasitism of fans, conventions and literary success. Truly classic work.
The problem with many auto-biographies are that they are too steeped in reflective meditation, or heightened with such drama that they are fueled by f...moreThe problem with many auto-biographies are that they are too steeped in reflective meditation, or heightened with such drama that they are fueled by fiction and not by the realities buried in the past. Harry Crews, the controlled and comical son-of-a-bitch, avoids both missteps and just writes earnestly, with the flair of somebody born, worked over and educated by the land - in this case the deep south, Bacon County Georgia. Most important, Crews doesn't labor the reader with a year-by-year progression as his life as a boy into a man into a writer (and so on), but just focuses on his childhood, which he considers began with his birth and ended before his sixth birthday. He writes of the Georgian people with earnest strokes and shows them as hard-working farmers reliant on the land and nothing else; superstitious, volatile, fearful and a tightly knit group, even though some brutal incidents may show otherwise. Crews begins the book by focusing on his father before his marriage to Crews mother, how he worked the road lines through Georgia/Florida, beat the living shit out of a foreman and had his life in jeopardy, and lost a nut to a Cherokee Indian by the swamp lands...and like a soulful spectator, Crews hovers between the omniscient and the personal, describing himself as a young boy perusing the Sears Catalog as if it were the only visual gateway to the world beyond; to his bout with polio and how in a legless state, he encountered superstition and prayer; how he processed that his real father died months after his birth, and that his 'father' was not really what he imagined, but just his uncle; and his months after his mother left her 2nd husband, where he roamed the Jacksonville streets and learned how life wasn't all that much better outside the pine-laden, rough land of deep south Georgia. Crews is a brilliant writer who doesn't overwrite - he's economical without being stiff, brutal without being excessive, and he can even bring a tear to your eye with one unsuspecting sentence (shit, he made me get soppy about a tree in a backyard, one of the only landmarks that remained from his childhood). In a day where the biography is propped up by the pens of ghosts and fabricated pasts, this is a landmark of not only detailing memories, but of writing in itself.(less)
While this collection is marred by too many ultra-short pieces (before flash fiction) that nick the surface and dissolve from memory shortly after rea...moreWhile this collection is marred by too many ultra-short pieces (before flash fiction) that nick the surface and dissolve from memory shortly after reading, there are three stories that really show Donleavy as masterful. Balancing two elements of writing that can drown a story one way or the other, Donleavy succeeds at weaving the melancholic and the satirical.
'A Fairy Tale of New York', 'Franz F' and especially 'Whither Wigwams' - all taking place in Manhattan and Boston, and focusing on a disillusioned traveler, the stranger in a strange land, the academic/the artist without place, without home. In 'Fairy Tale' an ex-Pat is on a journey from the UK back to his birthplace of New York City, mainly to show his wife 'the great land', America - but the wife falls ill on the boat and once docking in lower Manhattan, she's carted off in a makeshift coffin. The story flawlessly shows this husband's outer and inner struggles as he meanders this strange city, trying to find a decent funeral home to give her a proper funeral. Comedic, absurd and yet leaden with a grey, pressing sadness. 'Franz F' moves north to Boston and Donleavy dips into the glum existence of a Russian immigrant in a slum of the North End. Franz has a roach problem, an aching heart, and he wonders if and when (if ever) he can make an acquaintance with one of the 'horse-faced women' of this city - the Brahmin class. Of course, things don't go as easily as they appear in his daydreams. And 'Whither Wigwams' - mainly a wounded love song to New York City, and how it is inspirational a city, yet also parasitic. The characters thrust themselves through the constant flow of the city only to yearn for a new land, a new life in Europe, but most of them can't find a way out of the endless streets, subway stops, bars and nightclubs. And if they stay they know that their options are limited: the middle-class, the train tracks of the MTA, or the corridors of Bellevue mental hosptial. Tragic at points, but with an ending so absurdly uplifting.
If it weren't for these three tales, then the collection would be strictly for Donleavy completists. Otherwise, if I were teaching short fiction, 'A Fairy Tale' would surely be on the list.(less)
An inferior follow-up to the first installment published back in 1991. The first version was an inspired compilation where writers picked out one of t...moreAn inferior follow-up to the first installment published back in 1991. The first version was an inspired compilation where writers picked out one of their favorite horror books, and waxed the passionate on what made the book leave such an impression. This sequel tries to recreate the same, but the selections don't have the overall juice as the list meanders towards the mundane. This volume contains a more 'web best-of list' approach as some commentaries read like general synopses, dry and formal, while others prattle and rarely touch upon what makes their selection such a great read. At points, the academic tone of the first collection is still present, but it's not as lively, as interesting.
Also frustrating are the author bios that follow each commentary, which make it seem the reader shouldn't be focusing on the books themselves, but the authors' own resumes. A bit of a blowhard approach, I think. Of course, there's many great books mentioned here, and although a disappointment, it still warrants a slot in the reference shelf.
Go figure I found out about John Blackburn's rarely-mentioned 'A Scent of New Mown Hay' in this book, and then the next day found an original hardback in pristine condition. Guess the book does have some mojo.(less)
While McQueen wasn't the best actor of his generation, he surely was one of the most memorable. His ice-blue glare, his reckless abandon with both aut...moreWhile McQueen wasn't the best actor of his generation, he surely was one of the most memorable. His ice-blue glare, his reckless abandon with both automobiles and women, his Aries-fueled 'who gives a flying fuck' attitude. Author Marshall Terrill paints a vivid picture of McQueen through many of his friends, peers, ex-wives, and while at times flourishes like a fan-boy, keeps things moving along as a proper bio should. McQueen went from short-tempered orphan, to Greenwich Village moocher, to TV superstar and then, cinematic idol. He did drugs, slept around, drove motorcycles, lived fast without the bullshit - but what I didn't know about 'the king of cool' was that he was on the death list of Charles Manson's cult - that he was supposed to be at Sharon Tate's house the very night she and her friends were murdered - and that towards the end of his life, he found God and avoided cancer treatment to go to a holistic center in Mexico. And man, the roles he turned down - 'Apocalypse Now' (he'd have been a great Kurtz, or even Martin Sheen's role - both which Coppola offered him), 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind', 'Dirty Harry', and 'Sorcerer' (which could have been HIS film - Roy Schieder was good as the lead, but McQueen would have carried this underrated film into new territory -- it was perfect for him, little dialogue and much physical energy). At times, the book doesn't go into the making of his movies with much detail, and instead focuses on long-winded quotes from his friends - all praise with no sense of painting his character more vividly. But overall, this big book inspired me to re-watch many of his films, and appreciate ones I've never seen, for example, 'Tom Horn', an eloquent swan song to the Western and a fine, understated performance by the man himself. They don't make em' like McQueen anymore, that's for sure.(less)
Naturally, there's some dubious thoughts prepping to read a fat, hyped novel that has been getting both praised and ridiculed by press and web alike....moreNaturally, there's some dubious thoughts prepping to read a fat, hyped novel that has been getting both praised and ridiculed by press and web alike. It's by no means a failure, and after getting to the end, I realized I'd read it rather quickly, and expecting to ridicule it with some acidic envy (man, Harbach made a killing on his advance by Little Brown), I found in a rather enchanting novel - a romantic take on the purity of America's past-time, told through a collegiate scope peopled with frail characters who don't always find the easy way out. It's a postcard love-letter to literature (Melville figures into this as a focal point), baseball, and newly-minted love. The most interesting relationship is the one between Skrimshander, the shortstop who suffers from 'the yips' aka 'the Steve Blass' disease (where a player suddenly can't throw the ball to the desired target), and fellow teammate, Mike Schwartz, the philosophical shit-kicker, the team's hard-working catcher who prophesizes as much as he pops painkillers. The two of them share the makings of a literary 'bromance' penned by John Irving, and this element is the sharpest, truest within the novel. The other characters have their moments, but they are painted askew with some godawful dialogue, some ruminations that Harbach should have mightily trimmed down, and some insight that falls flat. Not to spoil, but one relationship in the book is the least convincing union of young and old I've encountered in quite some time, not to mention, quite underdeveloped when a change in one's sexual preference is explained. Incongruous, to say the least. And some of the prose/dialogue really could have used the sharp cut of an editor. At one point, the phone rings. But it doesn't just ring, it 'ring a ding dings'.....Jesus H...!?
But negative remarks aside, this exceeded my expectations and while not the best novel about baseball and college life, it surely isn't a waste of time. Harbach deserves some praise and makes this book move along while keeping the scope and heart of the novel intact. A summer read, damn straight.(less)