When I was young, there was a very famous story about miscommunication during the First World War. Allegedly, the original message sent was, “Send reinforcements. We are going to advance.” but by the time the relay radio operators had finished transmitting and retransmitting it, the message became, “Send three and fourpence. We are going to a dance.” Although this is probably apocryphal, it spawned many variations like, “Enemy advancing with ham-shanks. Send three and four pence.” There are also references to wild Italians and the need for pants to be pressed. It’s improbable that any of the stories are true. Even in the fog of war, people would not make such fundamental mistakes. The least competent message retransmitter would ask for clarification if what he thought he heard made no sense. The most likely explanation is bored copyrighters in newspaper offices were relieving the tedium of spinning out stories from the trenches by adding a little humour. It’s a process shadowing the game Chinese Whispers in which a group of hopefully well-lubricated people sit in a circle. One whispers a message in the ear of the next person and so on until the final person in the circle announces the message received. The opportunities for hilarity are obvious.
The Gist by Michael Marshall Smith (Subterranean Press, 2013) is a very brave publishing experiment which I applaud. Since I speak and read French quite well, it proved an interesting hour or so of study. The point of the exercise is simple. Michael Marshall Smith writes a short story about a man tasked with extracting the gist of meaning from a book thought untranslatable. The story is then translated into French by Benoît Domis and then back into English by Nicholas Royle. The translators were only allowed to ask technical questions. The English translator was not allowed to talk to the author.
The point is to see how far the second English version drifts from the first. It’s a classic exercise in semiotics. The meanings one group of people choose to give to groups of letters is initially arbitrary, but through consistency of usage, significance accumulates. Indeed, as the story itself points out, meanings for individual words drift so what begins its life as a signifier implying a responsible person can morph into a signifier implying an individual with a criminal purpose: the example given is henchman. By studying the context, it’s possible to date a work by deciding which meaning is intended for the given word. Moving from the immediate decoding level of attributing meaning to individual words and rising to a meta level, the reader can aim for an overview. At such a level, the individual words of the source become less significant as we strive to capture the gist of what was written. This need not be a mechanical summary. It can actually ignore much of the text and communicate an underlying truth about it. We can call this analysis or interpretation or, if you want to get technical, deconstruction. Whatever words we use, the point is to encapsulate an element of the meaning and make it stand for the whole.
The good news is that The Gist is a reasonably good short story. It’s certainly not the most original and, in a way, I think it’s a little too preoccupied with setting up the philosophical basis for the publishing exercise rather than allowing the natural “horror” to emerge. I’ve read many better variations on this theme. Perhaps that’s why it changes only slightly when retranslated back into English. Both translators would be familiar with this trope and with the necessary apparatus, e.g. the double-sided desk. It would have been interesting if the work could have been translated into cultures which lack such specific artifacts or locations. In saying this, I’m not taking anything away from the translators who worked on the text. Indeed, we should offer them both a sustained round of applause for having most faithfully processed the words to preserve meaning. The only difference is in the length. As a language, French prefers to use more words to carry the essential meaning. English is inherently more pithy. Thus when Nicholas Royle translates back into English, the result is that the text becomes slightly fuller. That’s really all I need say about this interesting experiment, if you get my meaning, that is.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
In his introduction, Jason Sizemore, the Editor-in-Chief announces a new series titled Apex Voices in which the publisher intends to feature writers with a more unique voice. In Plow the Bones by Douglas F Warrick (Apex Publications, 2013), we’re offered a new(ish) writer with surreal tendencies. And, to prove the point, the first story in this collection is “Behindeye: A History” a most curiously surreal opening. So, if we inhabit a world based on rationality, the author’s intention is to react against that intellectual straightjacket and substitute a positive absence of reality. Now let’s ask what goes on inside another’s head. It would be reassuring to believe the conscious mind is in control. But if the mind is obsessed with the idea of self-harm or, even, suicide. . . As a metaphor imagine a blind hermit who saves a baby which, when it grows up a little, proves to have a pair of working eyes. Such a child can mitigate the suffering loneliness of the man. For all its weakness, he or she might represent hope for a better future. But in a larger context, such a reduction in suffering, if not the introduction of love, cannot be allowed to stand in the way of the looming personal catastrophe. “Her Father’s Collection” is a more straightforward supernatural story in which a father decides to include his daughter in his collection of ghosts. Although it fudges the mechanism of entrapment, there’s a rather pleasing albeit selfish viciousness in the way the ties of love are subverted. This is a most successful story.
“Zen and the Art of Gordon Dratch’s Damnation” asks a rather pertinent question for all of us who are atheists. Suppose we are wrong. In our rather self-congratulatory way, we’ve been denying Him only to discover the price to be paid is damnation for eternity (which is rather a long time to suffer). So how would we cope? Well, in this answer, it looks to be a good strategy to be into Buddhism. That way, you might actually be able to rise above all the Heaven and Hell schtick and break out of the cycle of damnation and redemption. It’s a neat trick if you can maintain the right mindset. “The Itaewon Eschatology Show” continues the discussion in a slightly different way. When you go to live in a foreign country like Korea and scrape the outside of the culture, what kind of life can you make for yourself as an outsider looking in, understanding so little of what goes on around you? Perhaps you need to believe in something, even if it’s about the end of the world, as a hook on which to hang your hat. Except even that won’t make Korea your home and won’t bridge the gap between you and the Koreans. We’re all just passing through until we reach the end of days. And in “Come to my Arms, My Beamish Boy”, when you’re eight-four years old and your mind is shot to pieces, you really do feel you’ve reached the end of your days (when you’re able to think coherently about anything, of course). The actual process of disintegration is like having your mental sustenance sucked out of your head by a lamprey which is something you used to know about when you were a biologist. At such a time, the only thing you have to hang on to is the love of a good woman.
“Funeral Song for a Ventriloquist” is nicely metafictional as the story tells itself, speaking of secrets we cannot know the answers to and telling us, no matter how much we aspire to some degree of permanence in our lives, our common destiny as humans is to die and be forgotten. “Inhuman Zones: An Oral History of Jan Landau’s Golem Band” reminds us of the mythology we create about the times we live through. In this case, this group of people were present when a new music movement took off. They were at ground zero and knew the band before they were famous. That was when it was all real, before the record company executives came along and signed up groups and tried to make money on their backs. Those golems. They were the best, man. Similarly “Drag” has a small group of students go through one of the rituals associated with the place where they sleep. It’s been handed down from one generation of students to the next so the tradition of what happens in the closet is never lost. Sometimes the point of these rituals is to confront and overcome fear of the supernatural. Except not all rituals turn out the way the older, more experienced students expect.
“Ballad of a Hot Air Balloon-Headed Girl” echoes this as a young man training to be a soldier becomes infatuated with a girl who thinks her head might catch fire. Then the war comes and innocence is lost as young men on each side kill each other for their beliefs. No-one actually knows what they are fighting for. You don’t have to know what the cause is, just believe in it. Later the girl’s head generates such heat, she becomes her own hot-air balloon and floats away. This is such a loss he also rises in more mundane terms to become president of the land. He never forgets the girl who was the source of her own freedom. And talking of freedom, the “Rattenkonig” wants to be free but it’s, well, stuck and it needs just a little help to get where it needs to go. Perhaps this couple can help or if not the couple, this woman.
“Old Roses” tells us that as dentists give birth to poets, the next generation after that may also have poetic tendencies. But when parents die what do we have left except our memories of them. Houses are not conveniently haunted so we can continue to share our lives with them. “Stickhead (Or. . . In the Dark, in the Wet, We Are Collected)” introduces two seventeen-year-olds who find a rotting corpse in a culvert. At least, it seems to be dead. Perhaps that’s just a working hypothesis we could debate, out of curiosity if not for some better reason. Perhaps we could try prodding it with a stick to see if it moves. “I Inhale the City, the City Exhales Me” takes us to Osaka, the home of manga and anime where drawings are their own reality and journalists can make the news tell the stories they invent. And I wonder whether Camille Paglia said, “Every generation drives its plow over the bones of the dead.” Finally, in the world of adult entertainment, “Across the Dead Station Desert, Television Girl” we wonder whether Television Girl can cross the desert to the City of Life. Of course this use of computer simulations is just a different form of human trafficking. These AIs have exactly the same emotions as human women. Well that can’t be right, can it? Fantasy women must match the archetypes men want, not have their own wants and desires. So if they show any sign of independence, we’d better wipe them and start over again.
Plow the Bones is not a book to run through. The author has invested considerable effort in constructing some, at times, rather beautiful prose which rewards careful attention with the revelation of pleasing ideas. We flirt with surrealism and notice elements of the supernatural. Philosophical abstractions try to attract our attention as we lie alienated in different settings. There are occasional snatches of weird as if overheard accidentally in real settings. And overall there are symptoms of intelligence at work. As a collection, it’s a positive delight from start to finish!
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
It’s perhaps appropriate to start off by noting the dominant approach to storytelling on display in Snodgrass and Other Illusions: The Best Short Stories of Ian R MacLeod by Ian R MacLeod (Open Road, 2013). Unlike the majority of writers, this author prefers a dense prose style and often avoids dialogue. Many of the stories are in the first person, involve interior monologues or use reported speech. Personally, I find this a welcome change, particularly because the author’s voice is so pleasing. Indeed, the whole collection is a delightfully eclectic array of themes and authorial concerns. Being a “best of” collection, this draws many stories familiar to me from previous collections and reprints in Best of the Year anthologies — the overall quality of this collection is outstanding.
“The Chop Girl” is a story from my era, a story of life and death on one of the World War II RAF stations which used to send bombers off across the Channel or the North Sea, and wait for them to come back. I’ve encountered this type of superstition before in the real world. It’s the idea of a jinx or hoodoo which is carried by a person and passed on as bad luck by contagion. In this case, the Typhoid Mary is a young girl who, like all young people thrown together in the heat of a war, is not averse to showing affection to the pilots. Except, those she favours seem not to return from their missions. When the penny drops, she’s shunned, of course. Only a phenomenally lucky pilot could break the jinx. But what would happen both at the time and after the war? The answer is straightforward and utterly realistic, as it should be when you’re dealing with superstitions. “Past Magic” pursues this slightly melancholic view of the identity we shape for ourselves and impose on others. It uses the fictional reality of cloning to speculate on whether the replacement version of the person can ever be the same as the original. The problem is that, even with access to all the previous person’s recorded memories, the clone would still be a new person who came into being too recently to have had all these past experiences. Or if a child was replaced, it would grow up in ways that might be similar but. . .
“Hector Douglas Makes a Sale” offers us a brief meander through the thickets of door-to-door selling, pausing every now and then to unravel some of the mysteries of technique that can distinguish between an average performer and a salesman who can charm birds down from trees to buy what he’s selling. “Nevermore” explores the world of unreality we sell ourselves when we fall in love and later use to deceive ourselves when the grief we feel on the death of the loved one threatens to overwhelm us. When reality can be overwritten by technology, so that even the dead can continue in an existence of sorts, how do we feel when the body of our spouse dies but the ghost continues in existence as if nothing had really changed? The collision between technology and the reality of emotion is nicely explored as the artist loses his muse but ultimately remembers what’s important to him.
“Second Journey of the Magus” sees Balthasar, the only surviving member of the original three Magi, return to the Holy Land to see how Jesus is getting along. Curiously, even though he sees what others might take as incontrovertible evidence of the existence of God and the potential accessibility of Heaven, he can’t quite shake off his doubts. Of course, scientists have always had doubts about whether there’s intelligent life anywhere else in the universe, hence “New Light on the Drake Equation”. In all the world, perhaps the only thing we can ever really be certain about is that humans have an innate capacity to surprise us by the things they do. Indeed, in many ways, humans as a species of diversity are probably as alien as creatures from another galaxy when viewed through the prism of age, one generation looking at what the later generations have become. And sometimes regretting decisions made earlier. And talking of decisions we might regret, here comes a wonderful alternate history story dealing with something far more significant than what the world would have been like if Germany had won the war. “Snodgrass” considers what might have happened to John Lennon if he’d left the Beatles before they really took off. I suppose the moral of all these stories is you should never look back with regret.
“The Master Miller’s Tale” is a very clever story making the transition between old and new. We start with artisan worlds where sometimes taken-for-granted skills born of generations of experience seem like magic. But as technology progresses, machines replace the craftsmanship and improve on performance. Over time, few consumers notice or care. Indeed, the products they need are often cheaper and more plentiful. Only the craftsmen feel the pain of redundancy and understand what has truly been lost. “Isabel of the Fall” also deals with the interface between humans and technology, looking at a future world in which the key to survival is light. Here faith by rote has become stronger than knowledge and understanding. In this case, the happy accident of avoiding the ritual blinding proves the saving grace for the people. In the world of the Dawn Singers, only the blind are Kings. The problem then is how to react to what can be seen when our heroine is not supposed to be able to see it.
“Tirkiluk” is a strangely beautiful story of a man sent a meteorological station on a distant patch of land, sometimes visited by Eskimos. When a pregnant Eskimo needs help, he provides shelter and food. All is under control until there’s an accidental fire. Then we gain an insight into the power of the mind to maintain the body so that the woman and her newly born son will survive the rigors of winter. Finally, “Grownups” is one of these slow reveal stories in which the growing boy speculates on exactly what it’s like to be an adult. Of course, to us mere mortals, this is quite easily divined. But suppose the world was complicated by the presence of a third sex. In such a place, it might actually be rather more difficult to understand where babies come from. Indeed, adults might be significantly less inclined to discuss the transition from child to adult and the subsequent need to consider reproductive matters. Out of fear or natural perversity, some children might try to hold back time.
Snodgrass and Other Illusions has everything you could hope to find in a collection from science fiction, through fantasy, to horror. But above all, the quality of the writing and the ideas shines through. It’s a must-read!
For a review of another collection, see Journeys
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
Underworld: Awakening (2012) is the fourth in the series and a sequel to the second film. For those of you who like to keep things in order, the third film was a prequel. You should understand it’s not really necessary to watch these films in order. They exist and share a historical context for the continuing feud between vampires and werewolves. Three of them have the same lead character. But they have minimal plot continuity.
OK, where are we with this latest exciting episode? As always, you can rely on humans to completely overreact when they discover supernatural beasties are real. I suppose, to those in power, the idea that vampires have been living among us for centuries might not be such a hard sell since both groups feed off the uncaring masses. But, as is required, we now go in for a shock and awe campaign to eradicate both the vampires and the werewolves. Martial law is declared. Repression is put in place. After all, the politicians must get fringe benefits if they are to take out their competitors. Let the mass cleansing begin as all who fail the tests are executed on the spot. Death Dealer Selene (Kate Beckinsale) and Michael Corvin (Scott Speedman) attempt to escape the purge but Michael is “lost” and Selene is captured.
Twelve years later, our heroine awakes in a cryosuspension chamber in a lab run by Dr Jacob Lane (Stephen Rea). It’s always impressive to see how quickly supernatural beings recover from being frozen. One minute they lie naked on the floor to give all the voyeurs an early taste. The next minute they are dressed in the leather gear so helpfully left to hand and they are running and jumping (and killing) as if nothing had happened. Then, after a quick snack, it’s into the streets for a quick memory recovery exercise and reorientation on current market trends for vampire teeth. Needless to say, after fighting off a few remnant werewolves and meeting up with David (Theo James), another vampire, Selene is reunited with Eve (India Eisley), the daughter she never knew she had. It’s a touching moment since it turns out the girl released the mother from the lab. Slightly later, there’s a nice line to explain why Selene does not immediately go all motherly, “My heart is not cold. It’s broken” by the news of Michael’s death. Then it’s underground (good to see Charles Dance again). Can she rally the remaining vampires to defend themselves rather than merely hide away? Meanwhile Detective Sebastian (Michael Ealy) is called to the lab from which our heroine (and her daughter) escaped. He knows immediately that Dr Lane is lying but he does not know why. When he meets up with our heroine, they conclude a faction in the government is protecting the werewolves and planning to harvest immunity to silver from Eve. Oh what a surprise, Dr Lane is the key player and his son is the first superwolf. And then the alarm went off and I woke up.
The question you always have ask when you watch films like this is whether the eighty-eight minutes running time is filled with sufficient content to entertain. This has everything you would expect. Vampires get to jump around like they escaped from the set of the Matrix. If you’re lucky they bite a few people to boost their strength and/or to heal more quickly Werethingies transform into ever bigger and badder doggies. They may not be endowed with the same brain power as the vamps, but they make up for it in brute strength. To this mix is added the new mother/daughter dynamic, the missing daddy and a policeman with vampire sympathies (but not Renfield tendencies) for additional emotional heft. No-one who pays to see this type of film expects anything subtle and, in this case, they won’t be disappointed. The plot moves along briskly and, for the most part makes sense. I suppose we shouldn’t think about how far up the government hierarchy the conspiracy goes. Underworld: Awakening is a film you admire for its technical proficiency. The effects are good. There’s an inexhaustible supply of bullets for Kate Beckinsale to fire plus the chance to let off a few grenades and generally blow stuff up. But there’s no emotional connection. You watch it. It ends. You wonder what to see next.
As an opening paragraph, I’m forced into a brief consideration of what constitutes a coincidence. At its simplest level, this is two, or sometimes three, events which happen more or less at the same time. Some external observers believe the timing of the occurrences indicates a causal relationship. But, against objective criteria, there’s nothing to actually link the two or three events together. The outside observer is making connections where none exist. The magic word is synchronicity — the magic coming from Police who wrote a song about it, “Effect without cause, Subatomic laws, scientific pause”. This is not a sign I’m desperate to pad out this review. It’s just a coincidence the forces of law and order chose to write lyrics about things that happen at the same time.
For authors, everything is under control in the worlds they create. They can write whatever they like. So when some choose to juxtapose two events, this is not coincidence. This is deliberate plotting. In most cases, the temptation to see a connection is easily resisted. We readers have hundred of t-shirts and know when the author has made a forgivable misjudgment. But the entire plot of Blackout by Mira Grant (pseudonym of Seanan McGuire) (Orbit, 2012) (Book III of the Newsflesh Trilogy) depends on a particularly outrageous coincidence. Indeed so outrageous is this coincidence that it somewhat spoils what would otherwise have been considered a worthy ending to a good trilogy. Why is it so outrageous? Because it’s unnecessary! The author has very carefully built up the credibility of an internal government challenge to the CDC. There’s no reason why this group could not have extracted Georgia without the need for this “spontaneous” meeting in a corridor followed by the appropriate explosions.
Having got that off my chest, what about the rest of the book? As an idea, I think the trilogy is rather clever. It manages to take the zombie novel to a new level of sophistication. Not only do we get a detailed context for their unexpected emergence, but there’s considerable credibility in how American society reacts. It has coherence as a near(ish) future history or science fiction extrapolation on current trends in medical research and the politics of government. Obviously we’re nowhere near the level of technology required to achieve some of these “breakthroughs” but there’s enough inventiveness on display to carry us through to the end. Unfortunately, the same can’t quite be said of the writing. By my standards, like those that went before it, this final book goes on too long. The text finishes on page 632 (we can ignore the Extras). I think it could safely have been trimmed by at least 15,000 words. I’m not denying the interest in some of the discussions and explanations but, overall, more editorial intervention would have produced a manageable length with improved plot momentum.
As a completely idle speculation, I wonder whether the emergence of a separate person in Shaun’s mind is a feature of his reservoir condition. If the virus is adapting to humans and there’s clear evidence it enhances the intelligence of the zombies once they come together in sufficient numbers, perhaps the more intelligent voice in his mind is the virus or an enhancement of his mind manifesting with a different voice (with occasional hallucinations). So where does this leave us in overall terms? On balance, there’s enough constructive thought invested in this trilogy to make it worth reading. The explanation for the zombies is pleasing. There’s a slight loss of balance in that the developments in computing and medical technology is way too advanced without there being more general visible progress in society. Even though the Rising of the zombies would have thrown a spanner into the works, I would have expected there to be more applications in everyday life, e.g. better weapons with which to fight the zombies, lightweight armour to resist bites, biomechanical body parts to replace limbs or to augment human performance, different fuel-type vehicles, more use of solar energy to replace reliance on centrally generated electricity, and so on. That said, the science fiction feels reasonably good. The trilogy also works as a political thriller with the relationship between the blogging community and the rest of the world carefully worked out. So Blackout is quite good as science fiction, it has good thriller set pieces as the characters flee from or fight the zombies, and the various political manoeuvres and conspiracies are plausible. This gives us a reasonable momentum to recommend reading, but be prepared to skip over the slow-moving bits where the editorial pencil failed to strike.
This has been my week for catching up on series or, in this case, I should more properly say serials, because this is definitely one story being told in installments. The technical problem when it comes to writing these books is how to keep the evolving plot fresh when you place a limit on the corps of characters to draw on in each exciting episode. This is not perhaps so much of a problem when writing, say, a serial about a group of crime-fighters. You keep the team the same, add in or subtract their sexual partners, and then introduce new villains to fight in each book. To keep it interesting, the team must be continuously training to add new skills to their existing repertoire so that, as each new challenge presents itself, they can defuse the threat in different ways. Sadly, this approach cannot work for a serial like Devil Said Bang by Richard Kadrey (Sandman Slim Volume 4) (Harper Voyager, 2012). Why? Because from the outset, we’ve been following the everyday story of God and the Devil as seen through the eyes of James Stark, aka Sandman Slim. Since, by definition, you can’t get any more powerful than God and the Devil (although some of the senior angels and demons do their best to take down their respective top dogs), this limits the overall inventiveness of the supernatural systems of divine and diabolical “magic”. The only person who can develop in ability is James Stark.
For those of you who’ve failed to pick up on this serial, James Stark is distantly related to Wild Bill Hickok but has achieved a rather unique status. Depending on who you ask, he’s either a stone-cold killer or an Abomination, i.e. a mixture of fallen angel and human. Because he’s inherited “powers”, his early years see him develop as a magician on Earth. Then he’s involuntarily sent to Hell, survives and manages to find a way back. We pick up the story with him back in Hell. He’s been given the job of the Devil — the old one had grown rather tired of it all and needed a gullible twit to take over power “downstairs”. We therefore spend the first half of this book watching our hero trying to introduce a little order into the chaos.
This is an opportunity for some mild satire on organisational bureaucracies. At the end of the last book, Hell came in for a little pummelling. This means endless committee meetings to draw up plans for rebuilding, dealing with the problem of financing the entire project, looking at the need to beef up the military against the risk of further attacks, and so on. If it’s one thing Hell is good at it’s procrastinating. After all, this form of afterlife is not supposed to be comfortable so, with all the destruction, everyone at the lower social levels is going through real hardship and privation. The rich have their palaces and are insulated from the day-to-day awfulness. All they have left to occupy their time is plotting the assassination of the current Devil. There’s racial prejudice at the heart of this. A human as the Devil is a supreme insult to the hard core demons. Most of them fought the losing war with God and have been feeling pretty suicidal about being stuck in Hell. This latest development just adds insult to the original injuries.
The second half of the book has our “hero” escape Hell again and then confront serious problems for the human Earth back in LA. It’s at this point that the book grows increasingly less successful. In the previous episodes, we’ve had a mystery element as to who the villain is and how he or she plans to cause the maximum death and destruction. Coming to the fourth installment, the choice is villain is somewhat limited so, to distract us, the author introduces multiple plot strands. There’s so much going on with different people/beings coming and going, it’s quite easy to lose track of who might ultimately be behind it all. Indeed, I think there’s a slight air of desperation about the plot. Although it’s actually quite clever when you sit down to analyse it, the execution is overcomplicated and rushed. Ironically, I suspect it would have made a better plot for a single installment. That would have given us time to develop the individual plot strands into more substantial narrative arcs and we could have been given a better chance of working out what was going on. Because it’s only half a book, we have the wrong tone set in the first half. The slight humour militates against the seriousness of the threat when it emerges. Then because there are space constraints we get the set-up and then explanations of what was going on.
This leaves me in some difficulties in reaching a conclusion. Because it’s a serial, there’s no reason to start with Devil Said Bang. You won’t know who anyone is nor what they are doing. As with all these serials, you should start at the beginning. For those of you reading the serial, I find this the weakest book so far. Indeed, I would go so far as to advise the author to stop while he’s still ahead. I think, unless he comes up with a different approach, the serial will repeat the formula once too often and run out of steam.
The Inexplicables by Cherie Priest (The Clockwork Century Volume 5) demonstrates the strengths and weaknesses of a longer running series. When it’s new, everyone can be genuinely excited by the novelty of the ideas and the loving craft that has gone into realising those ideas on paper. Those who follow the genre will know Boneshaker was nominated for both the Hugo and Nebula Awards. This is no mean achievement. It signals a book that has striven to reach the pinnacles and only just fallen short. I think there were three reasons for its success in 2009. The first was the resurgence of steampunk in the oughties had not produced the greatest of works. This novel had a depth of invention that none of the others had achieved. The mechanics of survival in the gas-infected Seattle were beautifully worked out. Add in the claustrophobic atmosphere and the flesh-eating rotters, and you had a winner. The next three books see the author ringing the changes to keep the ideas fresh. Although there was some overlap in the characters, each novel or novella featured a different set of technological innovation. Despite this braveness in continually expanding the extent of the alternate history and looking in more detail at developments in the dirigibles, steam-power generally and submarines, I had the sense the series was slowly running out of steam. This is confirmed by the latest book’s return to Seattle. I think this was a fundamental mistake.
Assessing the “big picture”, there were fascinating possibilities in moving up to proper authorial omniscience and looking squarely at the broader conflict between the Northern and Southern states with Texas almost neutral. We’ve only viewed this version of the Civil War tangentially. There have been mere glimpses of the politics of the conflict and of the various attempts to resolve the core disputes and produce peace. Yet instead of helping us understand the context for this war, we revert to a Young Adult format rerun of Seattle with tedious results. This time, young Rector Sherman reaches his eighteenth birthday and gets thrown out of the orphanage. Driven by guilt that he might have been responsible for the death of Zeke, he decides to enter the city and try to lay the ghost. It should be said the boy is a fairly hopeless sap addict and not wholly rational when he takes this decision. But, as is always the case with books like this, once the primary protagonist has committed himself to the roll of the dice, you have to go with it.
Thereafter, we have all the faults of a YA approach holding this book back plus a genuinely silly introduction. Dealing with the latter first, about a third of the way through the book, I decided there must be a zoo within the walls or just outside, and one or more orangutans had escaped and entered the city. Boy was I barking up the wrong tree! You see I’d thought the essence of steampunk was some degree of realism and not outright fantasy horror. Even the author’s decision might have been defensible if it had been scary. But when Captain Cly can restrain it. . . Even allowing for the gas weakening this usually unstoppable force of nature, this plot element is a non-starter except in a YA novel that’s pulling its punches. Now add in one of the boys can sooth the savage beast. Well that’s what you get when you mix youngsters with the supernatural. They’re all so dim, wandering around the place as if they were invulnerable. After all, the rotters have either been carefully shepherded from the city or pulled to pieces by the newcomer(s). That reduces the danger factor to an effective zero level. So they can do their Famous Five freelance crime-solving act with only a few relatively ineffective adult drug dealers to worry about. It’s a sadly inadequate contribution to a reasonably entertaining series. Even the steampunk element is glossed over. Rather than repeat all the descriptions from the earlier Boneshaker, we’re given a whistle-stop tour of underground and how to get around safely.
So no matter how innovative and successful the first two books in this series, this is one to avoid unless you are reading as a committed fan. I hate to say it but The Inexplicables is terrible.
For reviews of other books by Cherie Priest, see:
Bloodshot (The Cheshire Red Reports 1)
Hellbent (The Cheshire Red Reports 2)
Those Who Went Remain There Still
A few reviews ago, I was asking myself why I continue to read horror. The answer I offered then was that the discovery of Victorian and Edwardian authors during the 1950s set me off on a hunt. Like these more modern people who obsessively seek out roller coasters in the hope of matching or beating their last white-knuckle ride, I live for finding my next frisson of alarm or fear when reading. Ironically, as I’ve grown older and more “sophisticated”, the thrills are fewer and farther between. Too many modern authors either try to get an effect simply by being more extreme, or they slavishly follow the magic formulae that used to work twenty or thirty years ago. The area in which it’s most difficult to hit the right contemporary note is the Mythos. For all his faults, and there were many, H P Lovecraft was a very sophisticated writer for his day. This was not simply in the level of creativity where he excelled by creating a detailed context for his fiction, but also in the rather florid writing style which, probably more by accident than anything else, suited what we’ve now come to call cosmic horror. As the years have passed and more people have come to play in the Lovecraftian sandbox, it’s become very difficult to keep the content fresh. To be considered “good” today, you have to be way better than those writing twenty and more years ago.
The Strange Dark One. Tales of Nyarlathotep by W H Pugmire (Miskatonic River Press, 2012) is my second look at this author. In the late 1990s, I read Tales of Sesqua Valley and thought the content quite interesting but the style somewhat overdone. With Pugmire becoming a more regular figure on the Lovecraft scene, I though the time had come for another look. We start of this slim collection with the titular story, “The Strange Dark One” and we’re immediately pitched back into Sesqua Valley. For those of you new to this author, the valley is home to a group of beings who are not, strictly speaking human. Although they have have taken human form and some might say this involves acquiring a soul as well, they have created an enclave for themselves. Most human folk never manage to find this “hidden” valley and its community. You need to have an affinity with outside forces to gain admission. Of course, having found your way in, there’s no guarantee you’ll ever be able to get out again. This time, the granddaughter of a book dealer who has taken over the business on her grandfather’s death, decides to sell some of his old books to a man from the Sesqua Valley. This is sufficient connection to open the door for her. What she finds proves upsetting as she learns not everything comes without a price to be paid. Although it has moments when the prose rescues the rather thin plot, I found the whole rather mechanical. “Immortal Remains”, on the other hand, is shorter and has a more pronounced sense of wonder about it. The young being confronts the ineffable and, after initial and not unexpected apprehension, embraces the chance to merge. It’s a pleasing balance between the prose style and the content.
“Past the Gates of Deepest Dreaming” is less successful because the conversations between all the interested parties both within and without the valley, lack credibility. People don’t speak to each other like this in real life. They speak using ordinary words even though what’s going on around them is wholly extraordinary. Indeed, it’s the incongruity between the everyday and the weird that heightens their and our emotional responses. This story is just trying too hard to use the heightened prose style throughout. It’s the same with “One Last Theft” where there are some genuinely strange vocabulary choices to distract the reader from a reasonably interesting plot. For example why “debauch” a plot rather than frustrate it? And what are we to make of this question, “Will you tell me of your rhubarb with the beast?” This must be an American usage of rhubarb meaning dispute or argument. “The Hands That Reek and Smoke” is more naturalistic and, set in a city, is more effective as Nyarlathotep offers himself as a muse. “The Audient Void” is another linguistically overwrought story with oddities, e.g. “. . .a blackness that whirled with spectral sentient.” “Some Bacchante of Irem” again falls into this strange hinterland of quite interesting plot and language which I find a poor fit. Finally, “To See Beyond” proves to be the most successful story as the series character from Sesqua Valley recruits an author from the human world and introduces him to a musician.
Taking an overview, we have some interesting plot ideas and, at times, the use of heightened language is very effective. But when the plot calls for the denizens of Sesqua Valley to interact with humans, I think the dialogue should moderate to something more everyday. The dissonance in the juxtaposition of the ordinary and extraordinary will usually enhance the sense of wonder. When everything is at the same linguistic pitch, it produces a slightly monotonous quality — no thrills for the roller coaster fans among you. This is also my first look at this small press. Sadly it fails to give the most professional impression. The type setting is left justified only and there are some setting mistakes, particularly in the use of linefeeds. Surprisingly, there are proofreading errors, e.g. entré as the past participle instead of entrez the imperative. So overall, I’m not beguiled (the author’s favorite word) by The Strange Dark One. Tales of Nyarlathotep as either a text or a physical object, although jacket artwork and internal illustrations by Jeffrey Thomas do hit the right notes.