Other Seasons: The Best of Neal Barrett, Jr. by Neal Barrett Jr. (Subterranean Press, 2012) leads me to ask one of these silly-clever questions. When you’re publishing a collection of the best of an author’s work, the editor has a choice. Either the running order of the stories selected can be chronological so we can observe the writing styles or authorial concerns evolve, or it can group the stories by theme (all the vampire stories together — only joking). This collection groups by decade, but not in strict chronological order. What advantage is derived by the reader? Apart from putting two historical fantasies back-to-back, I see no benefit, only confused editorial thinking. Normally, this would not matter but, when the author offers up such a wide range of content, why not formally separate the SF from the crime from the alternate history? Or would this detract from the fun of unexpectedly passing from humour to seriousness, from post-apocalypse to contemporary crime, from straight SF to weird, and so on?
“In the Shadow of the Worm” (1964) is one of these deceptive stories about the “end of humanity” that manages to cram a short novel into 40 pages. Why might our species end? For generations, we’ve gone forward, always pushing on to see what’s on the other side of the horizon. But suppose we came to a vast ocean and were overtaken by fear of the unknown. What would happen to our “soul”? Would we only experience spiritual degeneration or might we lose the essence of what made us giants? If the latter, would we fall back down to a level more like the animal? “To Plant a Seed” (1963) plays the Hal Clement game of allowing us to watch over the shoulders of a pair of humans whose job it is to observe an alien race. Naturally, our happy couple have no idea what the lifecycle of these aliens is so, when it looks as if they are all about to commit suicide, their duty of noninterference is challenged. In terms of semiotics the story is also making the point that humans don’t interpret signs and signals in the same way of the locals. What may look like a half-empty glass to one, might be a half-full glass to the other.
“The Stentorii Luggage” (1960) is typical of stories from the Golden Age of the magazines. There was an honourable tradition in presenting heroes with a puzzle and then watching them solve it. In this case, a hotel acquires an infestation of chameleon-like pests. The staff then have the problem of tracking them down. This is fun. It’s a little like Keith Laumer writing the preview of The Trouble With Tribbles (1967). “A Walk on Toy” (1971) asks a very pertinent question about identity. How far should a society go to eradicate differences? Through peer socialisation, we try to create the next generation in our own image or in an image we hope will be better than ours. But what do we do with the square pegs who won’t or can’t fit into the round holes we so carefully craft? I suppose, in the days when we still had land to explore and colonise, we could send off all our misfits and become the perfectly homogenised society. But would that actually be an improvement for those left behind?
The Flying Stutzman” (1978) is the kind of story you used to see on The Twilight Zone in which a man finds himself on the way home but by a rather devious route. In terms of human endeavour, you should never do anything unless and until you can do it right. In “Nightbeat” (1975) we learn of a new set of responsibilities for the police when nightmares come. For the minor outbreaks, shoot drugs into the body. For the older first timer, a physical bridge may be needed to bring the patient back to awareness. “Hero” (1979) is one of these timeless stories about the frontline soldiers who survive the traumas of war and wonder what to do with themselves when they have a chance for a little R&R. While “Survival Course” (1974) reflects all the frustration we non-computer-literate people feel when we can’t quite persuade a machine to do what we want — in this case, save us from death. There can be similar problems in debating the nature of the precise nature of the afterlife with aliens as “Grandfather Pelts” (1970) so perfectly demonstrates.It reminds me of “Beyond Lies the Wub” by P K Dick.
“Diner” (1987) captures the desperation survivors feel post-apocalypse when their local community comes under the control of the Chinese military. The locals rub along, tolerating each other’s eccentricities. With language and cultural divides, the Chinese are less sympathetic. How will can-do, collaborator mayors cope? “Sallie C” (1986) is an rather engaging alternate history fantasy in which a young Rommel witnesses the Wright brothers first flight as Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid watch from the wings, as it were. Pursuing this alternate history, “Winter on the Belle Fourche” (1989) is a wonderful story of a trapper who comes across Emily Dickinson in the wilderness, fights off a few Indians, and explains his need to carry written poetry. “Stairs” (1988) is weird, suggesting a world of high-rise living that’s broken down but not in the hard SFnal or traditional post-apocalypse sense. It has a slightly trippy, LSD-downer feel Burroughs or Ginsberg might have crafted to show the breakdown in capitalist systems. “Ginny Sweethips’ Flying Circus” (1988) was shortlisted for the Hugo, Nebula and Locus Awards for Best Novelette — I can’t think why unless all the men who read it thought a speeded-up fantasy might be fun to try and damn the danger. This is how post-apocalypse should be with dog-eat-dog or possum-skin-dog as the scavengers of the world unite — they have nothing to lose but their independence.
“Highbrow” (1987) shows that, during courtship, the man who can not only turn a girl’s head but also take her hundreds of feet in the air, stands the best chance of success. “Perpetuity Blues” (1987) is wonderful. I read it years ago when Gardner Dozois picked it up for The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Fifth Annual Collection and it’s as good today as it was back in 1988. Suffice it to say you should always trust the man who tells you his spacecraft disintegrated over the Great Salt Lake and he’s stuck until he can recreate the technology to get himself where he ought to be. “Tony Red Dog” (1989) is a great crime story about a Red Indian trying to make a living working for the Mafia in New York. This is not a place he can relax because no-one likes him, except the women. For some reason, they do like him until circumstances change. “The Last Cardinal Bird in Tennessee” (1990) is a one-act post-apocalypse play which is something you see as the titular bird. As a professional, you always want everything to go off exactly as you’ve planned it. The “Hit” (1992) shows the flip side when everything that can go wrong, does go wrong — even the dog thinks you’re a sex object. “Cush” (1993) is another wonderful confabulation where the Kuttner/Moore Hogben stories get religion (and not in the strict Lovecraft sense although some knowledge of Dunwich would be helpful).
“Under Old New York” (1991) is another post-apocalypse story, this time an economic collapse in which no-one has any real work except the chance to rebuild some of what the lost generation burned down. “Rhido Wars” (2001) is back into the more experimental, slightly weird mode as a group are forced to leave their forest where the grub is good and go out on to the plains where the sun is hot and danger lurks. While, in “Slidin’” (2008), we get to visit Dallas so we can be reminded what it was like in the Time Before. And if your world had all gone down the crapper, you’d still want news and a little light music to help you through the day. “Radio Station St. Jack” (2008) would fill the need and it will stay that way if only it can produce a miracle. “Tourists” (2004) is a kind of companion piece to “Stairs” as trippy visitors come back as passive observers and remind themselves not to remember so they can continue the trip. “Getting Dark” (2006) continues a more general preoccupation with memory and reflects on how we make life palatable for ourselves by remembering times in which we felt safe and happier. “The Heart” (2006) is one of the best pieces of straight humour I can remember reading this year. It’s not laugh-out-loud but it has such a view of human nature, of that inherent willingness to suspend disbelief otherwise known as gullibility, you just have to smile as the layers of onion are pealed away to the essential truth within. And finally “Limo” (2009) finishes us off in a magnificently macabre style.
No matter how you view this collection, it’s mavellously entertaining and eclectically satisfying as you turn from one genre to another, never quite knowing what’s coming next but sure it will be worth reading. Other Seasons: The Best of Neal Barrett, Jr. is terrific value for money! Thank you Subterranean Press!
Suitably evocative artwork from Vincent Chong.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
It’s impossible to begin this review of Westward Weird edited by Martin H Greenberg and Kerrie Hughes (DAW Books, 2012) without mentioning the sad death of Martin Greenberg. Over the decades, he’s contrived to stay at the top of the editing pile by consistently producing anthologies of quality. Although he often shared the editorial credits, this is as good a memorial for his talents as you could hope to find. Now a word of reassurance. Yes, this carries the word “weird” on the jacket, but it’s wonderfully eclectic, combining science fiction with fantasy in a complete disregard for genre boundaries as anything and everything spectacularly odd comes to the Wild West and beyond. There literally isn’t a weak story in this anthology and, as befits anything with claims to supernatural overtones, you’re lucky to find thirteen such excellent stories.
“The Temptation of Eustace Prudence McAllen” by Jay Lake is a pleasing relocation of the long spoon trope to the cowboy on the range. This sees the Devil happily engaging in a little cattle rustling for BBQ purposes until he’s tracked down by an upright loner. Although we lack some of the sophistication of the storytellers who want to construct a powerful Faustian offer with a clever way of avoiding the soul-loss trap, this more than makes up for it with a nice sense of humour. “The Last Master of Aeronautical Winters” by Larry D Sweazy is a steampunkish city in the sky, partly built using Wild Bill’s savings. When the enterprise is overrun by demons, it comes down to two brave souls to see what they can pull out of the fire (so to speak). Again, this is delightfully knowing as our heroes prepare to ride the elevator of doom up into the sky. “Lowstone” by Anton Strout also has elegant biomechanical additions in this steampunk mining community threatened by zombies. It’s slightly more serious, but no less effective in bending the gender roles to fight the good fight.
“The Flower of Arizona” by Seanan McGuire brings a pleasing touch of whimsy to a hunt for a man-eating chimaera. This is a nice take on the problems faced by the old travelling circus companies when audiences were poor. “Surveyor of Mars” by Christopher McKitterick has us embark on a sequel to H G Wells War of the Worlds. It assumes Earth would have used the Martian technology to colonise Mars. Except, of course, the carpetbaggers would have followed the settlers. In situations where freedom is under threat, what you need is a man embodying the qualities of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. The politics are a bit clunky to European eyes, but the spirit of the story shines through despite the fact that only Americans seem to have had the can-do mechanical skills to get to Mars. It would have been more interesting had the Brits also been able to compete for territorial rights. “Coyote, Spider, Bat” by Steven Saus is a powerful and dark story that sees cultural imperialism come grinding to a halt in the face of even older power. European vampires may think they’re at the top of the food chain but, if they come to America, even in disguise, they might be in for a surprise as they end up on the menu of the local Teddy Bear’s Picnic.
“Maybe Another Time” by Dean Wesley Smith plays with one of my favourite time travel themes perhaps best captured in The Man Who Folded Himself by David Gerrold. In every respect, this is an unexpected delight to find in an anthology supposedly about weird stuff in the Wild West — whichever version of it you care to pick. “Renn and the Little Men” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch is magnificently whimsical, rerunning the Rumpelstiltskin trope in a High Noon showdown to avoid rule by the trolls. Believe me, it makes perfect sense when you read it. This has just the right amount of nuttiness to qualify it as one of the best fantasy stories of the year. Continuing in the same vein, “Showdown At High Noon” by Jennifer Brozek has an earlier version of Bonnie and Clyde caught up in an interplanetary conflict involving Ancient Egyptian scarabs and a Norse shapeshifter. As you might expect, this is delightfully weird.
“The Clockwork Cowboy” by J Steven York is a very clever story Isaac Asimov would have enjoyed. The literal Biblical injunction against killing can be enshrined in the software. This will reflect the thinking of all sections of the community, no matter what its racial background or source of mechanical power. Except, as is always the way when one of the minority breaks the programming, the majority humans don’t take kindly to a killer. “Black Train” by Jeff Mariotte takes aim at the zombie theme through the potential use of technology for military purposes. As with every good invention, you always need an antidote or countermeasure. If you release gas, you need a mask. If you release a virus, you need a vaccine. This speculates on what you might need for a mould. Finally, “Lone Wolf” by Jody Lynn Nye manages to conflate werewolves, an Indian Shaman’s insights into soul mates, and a backwoodsman Edison who would would make even a sober Gallegher proud.
I confess Westward Weird is an anthology I resisted picking up, fearing the genre mixture would be indigestible. In fact, it’s proved to be tasty Wild West victuals for them as likes a hot spicy sauce with their eatings. I find myself recommending this as great fun from start to finish.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
For once, I’m going to start off with a headline. Enormity by W G Marshall (a pseudonym of Walter Greatshell) (Night Shade Books, 2012) is wonderful! No matter what your prejudices against science fiction or fantasy, you can’t beat a book that takes a theme and then explores all the implications with a detailed eye. That this happens to start off with a 1950’s film trope is just one of those accidents of nature no-one can predict nor control once they occur. Think of this as a tsunami of weird with a wave height that just seems to get bigger as the book goes on. For this book, I think we probably need a new label. Thanks to China Miéville we got New Weird. Perhaps this should start off überweird. Actually, I’m cheating a bit on the weird front. The problem is the alternatives that immediately spring to mind like wacky and goofy lack the necessary gravitas. If you’re going to spawn a new subgenre label, you want it to sound impressive. Somehow a genre named after a Disney character (ignoring the copyright issues for now) fails to inspire. Screwball seems to have been appropriated by the film industry. Absurdism is too academic. This is definitely not whimsical. All suggestions will be gratefully received.
To prove how old I am, I confirm actually paying to go and see The Amazing Colossal Man, Attack of the 50 Foot Woman and, at the other end of the scale, The Incredible Shrinking Man when they first came out. For those of us used to seeing giantism in insects and animals as a result of exposure to atomic radiation, it came as a welcome relief to have it affect humans as well. The shrinking was the most effective with the spookily metaphysical ending as our hero grew so small, he slipped between the atoms and disappeared into a kind of negative infinity. So with Enormity we’re jazzing up old themes with new variations. Move over Jonathan Swift, this book has Earth suddenly confronted by two giants. Now you should understand, these are not your common or garden 50 foot efforts or even Brobdingnagian. The man stands at 6,600 feet, give or take a few inches. The woman is only slightly shorter. Fortunately, their clothing expanded to match their physical size. None of the Hulk’s green body showing through his artfully torn clothing. This is a quantum supersizing to make even a McDonald’s look small. How come, you ask.
Well, it’s all down to one of those archetypal mad scientists. This genius decides the best way of bringing forward the end of days is to give North Korea a super weapon. So he carefully wraps his quantum dark matter in some packaging held together with some string theory tied into a artistic bow, the whole left to marinate in a jar of kimchi as the fermentation process works its wonders. Unfortunately, the North Koreans smell a rat. They think this is a subtle American plot to make them look stupid. The man is too obviously insane to be credible, so they send him down to the beach for assassination by one of their top agents. Realising what’s about to happen to him, our nutcase triggers one of the weapons which rather neatly proves who is the least sane in all this adventure.
The result is the creation of our two giants: one poor American sap who happens to be on the beach with his wife, and our female assassin. Fortunately for America, Major Harley Queen is on hand to begin the process of trying to deal with this unusual situation. Surprisingly, this was left out of the gaming scenarios when he went through training at West Point so, when it all comes down to one man and his initiative, he just has to catch the ear of someone higher up and, suddenly, he’s standing on the shoulders of a giant, trying to make himself heard. If only he had a woman to hand, he could join the one-mile-high club in a novel way.
All this is a wonderful exercise in proving how disgusting the human body is when viewed from the perspective of an ant. Believe it or not, we are home to an array of different forms of life from bacteria upwards. If the body grows big then so do all the lifeforms we host, a distinctly disconcerting thought for any human who comes within range. Now scale up urination and other bodily functions. This gives a whole new meaning to “gross”. And all the while, these giants can cause massive devastation. Whether it’s wading through the sea close to shore or trampling through a city, there’s only one thing that might be in humanity’s favour. Sooner or later, these giants will run out of food and starve to death.
At one level, this is an entirely serious science fiction novel about what could happen if someone was to develop and detonate a quantum weapon. It’s also “enormous” fun as W G Marshall explores the enormity of the problems caused by the giants and, more importantly, what military response might be possible. As a point of comparison, weapons have little effect on Godzilla and he’s only the size of a small office block. Now scale that up to a being more than a mile in height. However you want to view this book, it should win a prize. Not that a Hugo or Nebula would be on the cards. Enormity is too far off the radar for any conventional award. But the quality of inventiveness should be recognised and given some kind of prize. This is a book you should go out of your way to read. It will reward you in so many unexpected ways, you will be thinking about it for days after finishing.
Have a look at the work of Cody Tilson.
For a review of a book under the name Walter Greatshell, see Terminal Island.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
So there’s me, sitting with a copy of Black Wings: Tales of Lovecraftian Horror and I come across this story by Jonathan Thomas called “Tempting Providence” and it’s so good, I immediately get hold of a copy of the collection, appropriately titled Tempting Providence (published by Hippocampus Press, 2010). So now I have the chance to take the measure of Jonathan Thomas at greater length.
Let’s start with a few thoughts about what it means to write weird fiction. The use of the word “weird” to describe strange or unusual events has been around for centuries but, as a description of a style of writing or the content, it spins off the concept of Gothic by dropping the romantic element, refining the terror element, and occupying a niche between the rock of horror and the hard place of fantasy. As the Enlightenment took hold and we came to value rationality over faith, there was still a need to discuss the inexplicable — those situations in which the primitive flight or fight instincts were roused. No matter how tough we like to think ourselves, there’s a limit to what materialism can provide and cynicism may help us believe. Hence, fiction that described events going beyond what we can easily understand grew in popularity as a kind of safety valve to release our more primitive fears. Characters on a page could engage with the unknown and offer us vicarious thrills as they survived encounters with the eldritch. Except, of course, many turned out to have no defence against these dark forces. This proves the old adage. Without deaths, there can be no terror.
“Dead Man’s Shoes” shows this in action. A casual walker gets off the beaten track and finds himself caught up in a funeral. For reasons he cannot explain, he goes to the wake in a small village. People talk to him as if he’s the dead man reincarnated. He plans to leave. He wants to leave. But something, perhaps it’s fear of the village headman, or something they put into the wine, or something unknowable, keeps him there. He feels his old identity slipping away. Jed is dead, long live Jed. Except our hero never acknowledges himself as Jed. He refuses to be sucked into what he considers a group delusion. Yet he stays. Time passes in tending the land to provide food. Although this is displaced into a weird context, we all know what it’s like to be trapped by circumstances in a role we never looked for. Think of all those who wake to find they are suddenly carers for family members. All it takes is an accident or illness. In this story, all it takes to change the role from civilised man to country bumpkin is an accidental meeting with a funeral cortège. Now that’s weird!
“Into Your Tenement I’ll Creep” is more overtly supernatural in that a man who worms his way into the affections of an accommodating young lady learns something new about his vocabulary. Most people use “tenement” as referring to a building or piece of land which has multiple tenants. Yet there’s no reason in principle why the word should not apply to any vessel that may hold many different occupants. This may seem, at first sight, to be unremarkable until you remember how destructive some tenants can be. Some have no respect for the buildings they occupy and allow everything to fall into a great state of disrepair.
“Tempting Providence” appealed to me so strongly because it roused a memory of a story I read back in the 1950s in which a man awakes to find a really strange-looking new toaster on a work surface in his kitchen. Rerunning the same idea in an elegantly described Providence with recognisable academic characters produces an entirely more satisfying result. “A Different Kind of Heartworm” asks and answers an uncomfortable question for all of us who marry or enter what we hope will be stable relationships. Must there be a full disclosure of all our faults and weaknesses, or can we hold things back? More importantly, should a failure to disclose creep like a worm into our heart and kill the love that was there? “Gumball Man” also tackles a difficult subject. Parents who shout and scream at each other create the wrong environment for a small boy growing up in their home. With role models like that, could the boy develop real social skills as the years go by? Perhaps he would stay an alienated outsider or become an axe murderer. Who can say. . .
“The Silence in the Copse” is a beautifully atmospheric piece in which we speculate on genetic heritage. If we are predestined by our genes to particular likes and dislikes, it’s only a matter of time before they manifest themselves. For me, this is the stand-out story. “The Lord of the Animals” is less substantial although it’s an interesting example of minimalist weird, doing no more than is needed to introduce the uncanny and then move on. “The Salvage Saints” is a more or less straight piece of historical fiction where one of the corrupted looks for wealth in the incorruptible. It interprets and so fictionalises the past in a way allowing the sea to judge saintliness for the benefit of those who follow the faith of the day. It’s altogether more arbitrary than the modern system for assessing sainthood, but no less reliable. “Passenger Bastion” is a kind of future steampunk where the oil has peaked, but air travel is still desirable. It ponders on what makes a hero and what rewards are reaped for those who answer the call.
“Power of Midnight” takes us back into the distant past where we were young and obsessed by the obscure in music, always pawing through boxes of LPs in the hope of finding that one rarity. But suppose that ultimate grail was inherently evil, a gateway to doom. Would we be cursed if we found it or, worse, were given it? Would our world end immediately or would the destruction of our world come more slowly? “The Men At the Mound” catches the Anglo Saxons on the cusp between the old religion and the invading Christianity, between different times and different perspectives. Finally “Three Ounces over Advent” provides us with extremely unreliable narrators, one of whom may be in possession of more than a few ounces of street drugs.
This is an elegantly restrained book both in terms of the content, and as a physical production. Indeed, it’s pleasing that a small operation like Hippocampus Press can make a good job of design. Overall, this is a very interesting collection and signals an author to watch.
If in doubt, it’s always better to start off by mangling someone else’s words. It makes a statement about your own standards both as an editor and as someone not at all bothered by the notion of borrowing another’s ideas. So, in my best Churchillian tones, I offer the notion that, “Never in the field of human communication have so many words been offered to so many in service to so few credible narrative purposes.” Or if you prefer Shakespeare, “It is a tale, full of sound and fury, but signifying nothing.” or “It is a tale, full of a raging and discombobulated torrent of images and dreams, signifying nothing.” (page 251, US edition)
As another delaying tactic, let me offer an anecdote from my youth when I was a member of a modestly successful theatre group. On several occasions, one of its bigger egos was heard to boast that he could act through a blackout and still have the audience in the palm of his hand. On a slow night during one scene set around a dinner table with real candles (this was in the days before fire regulations made such recklessness illegal), the lighting crew slowly dimmed across the board until only the natural flickering light remained. As true professionals, the actors kept going and, remarkably, none of the lighting crew were fired. Ego enhanced, the targeted actor dined out on his performance for months thereafter.
Words are functional things, employed by authors to get their meaning across. In writing fiction, the aim may variously be to beguile, delight or, if all else fails, merely entertain. To that end, we writers gird whatever it is we gird when putting fingers to keyboards — does anyone still use pen and paper? — presumably as a protection against repetitive strain injury for those of us who hunt and peck using only the same two fingers.
What’s that? There’s a restless shuffling of feet out there. You’re waiting for the review of Kraken by China Miéville, thinking I should be getting on with it. But this is how I felt as I was reading Kraken. I kept waiting for the book to start and it never did.
Now don’t get me wrong. There’s prose covering some 500 pages and some of it is quite witty and thought-provoking. But words on a page are not enough on their own. The words must be in service to believable characters in a viable plot. What we actually have is a change of style from our author of previously unblemished reputation. This is not the roccoco New Weird, nor the subversive YA Un Lun Dun, nor the noir genre-blurring The City & the City, all of which have been more than merely enjoyable. This is intended as a light froth, a knowing wink to those of us who like H. P. Lovecraft and others who either walk in the same cosmic footsteps or more generally write (old) weird or horror. We are expected to welcome the tropes uncritically (including some geeky Trek stuff), ticking them off as they parade through the pages, and not care that it’s as exciting as reading a laundry list (and not in the Charles Stross sense).
The core problem is that none of the primary characters are in the slightest interesting. We have the naive innocent who has the “power” or “access to hidden knowledge” but does not know what he got, the soldier or loyal sidekick, the not-so-competent witch in thrall to a “special” police unit, a scary couple of killers, a disembodied ancient Egyptian union organiser, the spunky girl who proves determined to get involved and, because it’s Miéville, we’ve got the city what knows more than it’s letting on. Sadly, none of this crew shows any real development as what passes for the plot staggers from one episode to the next. Instead, everyone reacts to circumstances and, as the pages turn, we are sequentially introduced to new cultish groups, none of whom have stolen the damned tentacled-thingy, but wish they had or are generally pissed off that someone else has. Well, there just comes a point when I just throw up my hands and pray fervently to Cthulhu that someone finds the bloody thing so we can all go on to read another book. Then comes the big irony. We do find out who took the pesky mollusk, and we get it back, except that still leaves us having to save the world or London at least.
When we finally get to the end, we make an exciting discovery. Forget your taxonomies, my son. This whole thing’s about the epistemology, init? You may think you know your Darwinism and your Creationism. There’s this whole accumulation of what we know about the history of the world and the species that have lived within it. But suppose we could edit not just our memories of what we know, but also change the knowledge itself. Now that would really be something, wouldn’t it? Almost horrifying, you might say. So let’s all sit down and talk it through, argue the toss or write ourselves a note. You never know who might be watching or listening in.
If this had been held to around 250 or so pages, it would be an excellent read. As it stands, it’s bloated in the real sense of the word, namely swollen with gas so that, like a dead fish, it floats up to the surface. If netted, our fish could then be preserved in a glass case and become the hero of a weird novel. Indeed, thinking back to my youth, it reminds me of an interminable story an actor used to tell of how he acted through a blackout. It reinforced his ego and bored the pants off all who heard it.
This is a finalist in the 2011 Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel.
Well, I suppose it had to happen. Being on a good run with an author can sometimes pay dividends as each new book in turn proves as good as (if not better than) the last. This is not to say, of course, that a favoured author cannot fail. I have happy memories of some of John Brunner’s books which, in the best tradition of the B-movie, were so dire as to become genuinely entertaining. But my latest read from the Jeffrey Thomas stable is a little less than the previous works — for those of you keeping count, I bought four from the Dark Regions Press backlist to catch up on this author of the admirable Punktown series and have one more to go after this.
So here we are with another collection, this time called Doomsdays. In theory, according to the blurb, each one is a little apocalypse. Wow, does that ever give someone a high bar to jump over! And not a little monotonous with Earth repeatedly smashed into smithereens or perhaps that should be Higgs bosons (better known as God particles) — assuming He is doing some of the atomic smashing.
To convince us the editor knew what he was doing when applying the blurb theme to the selection of the stories, we start with the appropriately named “Out of the Blue” with the Earth covered in a blue gunk that converts everyone exposed into the usual zombie/vampire creatures. This would have benefited from a little editing to lose the third person voiceover for the opening credits, and keep the whole story small. Told from the POV of a small group inside a manufacturing facility this could have been claustrophobic and tense as they decide whether to venture outside. Since we already know what’s outside, all tension is lost.
I will then pass rapidly over three short, short stories and get to “Oroborus” which, as titles go, somewhat telegraphs the ending. I suppose it manages to create a reasonably weird subterranean world where a survivor is constantly on the run from an unseen predator called a Foeti. But without any logic for, or explanation of, the starting point, I found the whole unsatisfying. “Post #153” traps a small number of vets in a bar as ghosts from past wars visit on Halloween.
Then we get to the stand-out section of the book, starting with “Apples and Oranges” by the Thomas brothers. This is a wonderfully dark tale of a man discovering his mother’s secret affair and dealing with the consequences. The whole idea of first whittling, then animating, is a delight. More importantly, it shows the benefit of small-scale narratives. While a world overrun by forests or the dead from past wars might have some interest, you cannot improve on the growing realisation that you may have fallen into a genetic trap. Equally impressive is “Praying That You Feel Better Soon”. Told with admirable economy, there’s a real feeling of menace and a pleasing confirmation of its source. Then we are back to an apocalypse and, this time, Thomas nails the structure of the narrative and builds to the best ending paragraph in the book. It’s Lovecraftian in approach and blends the desperation of the individuals against the unravelling big picture around them. “Twenty-Five Cents” continues this bull run with a young woman trapped in a tedious job at a bank and in the role of a carer for her mother. The awfulness of her life threatens a mental disintegration and a growing interest in how her father came to die may push her over the edge. “Gasp” also cleverly exploits the uncertainty of the girl. Is her life in danger? Is her boyfriend trying to kill her? Or is he the one in danger? The fear is nicely balanced until the evidence clarifies things (a little). “Working Stiffs” is just on the right side with zombies put to work alongside ordinary working stiffs. The slowness of the living to recognise the true nature of the others on their shift is amusingly likely. Who would want to think the unthinkable.
“A Naming of Puppets” had me scratching my head. Whereas some authors have been credited with inventing a genre called New Weird, this is just weird. It’s a story about animate rubbish that, in an all too human way, must fight wars to establish a pecking order. Authors struggle to create empathy for their characters. I didn’t care a fig about either the Left or the Right Baggers. I was also scratching my head when I read “The Call of the Worms” which, I suppose, is weird horror. It fails for me because I cannot understand how this commensualism could fit into any reasonable kind of evolutionary system. There seems no benefit to the human side. “The Tripod” is also an exercise in the weird where humans seem to be working alongside or for beetles (or perhaps some kind of crustacea). The way the story is told ticks all the right boxes but I was again baffled as to how and why this relationship should have come into being. Starting off “as is” a cop out. Even if it’s ultimately a foolish explanation, some explanation is better than none. “The Fork” continues this trend with what may be one person’s experience of Hell, assuming Hell is a landscape of forks rather than other people (with my apologies to Jean-Paul Satre). And just as the central image may be of a fork-making factory, so “The Green Spider” may be seeing an entirely different factory slowly coming back to life. This is more successful as individuals lose a sense of their own individuality and grow contented with a more orderly life.
“The Friend of the Children” is a short insight into the mind of a man who may be kidnapping babies and so need a woman to look after them. While “300,000 Moments of Pain” has us in a quite pleasingly uncertain factory environment. After all, when you are surrounded by the ordinariness of a manufacturing facility, what can go wrong? “Flesh Wound” is a perfect demonstration of how to write an Oroborus story — it’s also an example of really clever kung fu shit. “Elephants Weep” is a nicely judge atmosphere piece with a walk through a supposedly deserted zoo turning into a metaphor for a man uncertain of his place in human society. And we finish, appropriately enough, with a top-notch Apocalypse story with a variation on the Mirror World idea from Trek as two dimensions of opposites collide and then try to exterminate each other. When Thomas is on form, he manages to create highly believable characters who, even in the most unlikely of situations, always try to do the right thing. In this case, we might just see an real amor vincit omnia result.
Looking back through this collection, it’s good in parts. But, then your taste may be less discriminating than mine, or I may just have read some stories when my mood was a little off. Who can say. Taste is one of the great subjective unknowns. All I can say is that, when Thomas is good, he’s very good and some of the stories here are very good. Whether there are enough to justify buying the book is more difficult to say. On balance, I think it probably is.
Like any collection, there can be good stories and not so good. In this case, the good just about outweighs the not so good.
When you set the bar for yourself, the main danger is that you set it too high. In Mr. Gaunt and other uneasy encounters, John Langan approaches the potential use of horror tropes with the dangerous assertion that he hopes to come up with something new. Characters in short stories, novels and films have been finding or digging up “things” for more than a hundred years. To inspire anticipatory terror in the reader (or watcher), there’s usually a curse and, at its heart, the only question is how many will die before the malevolent force is assuaged. Given that every reader (or watcher) almost always knows from the outset what’s going to happen, the author (or screenwriter) is left to wrestle with the technical challenges of building and maintaining suspense.
In “On Skua Island”, Langan adopts the traditional frame of a club or group of people exchanging stories of their “adventures”. When a timid voice pipes up from the back, we are launched into a calm recital of the “facts” and, overall, it’s a satisfying romp with a paranoid twist in the tale. However, I find the context for the story overcomplicated. All we need is cannon fodder for the “mummy” to slaughter. I know that films like Dog Soldiers have popularised the idea of soldiers being picked off by supernatural forces, but an approach by MI5 to our hero is faintly surprising unless the point of the exercise is to tear up the island to make an outpost for GCHQ. In such a case, I suppose some kind of archaeological survey might be authorised before the destruction takes place. As a matter of record, MI5’s role is primarily domestic. It’s MI6 that deals with external threats from Russia. Whoever the “soldiers” work for, they would take listening or surveillance equipment if they were really tracking and monitoring submarine activity. Then, why would the UK security services pick a non-national when there are plenty of loyal British scholars? Our hero would also have to sign the Official Secrets Act so all the dreams of public glory for supervising the excavation would turn to dust. All unauthorised disclosures describing the site and the circumstances surrounding the dig itself would almost certainly be a criminal offence.
Further, even the real-world Achill Island does not have a bog on top of Slievemore, so I doubt the presence of conditions on fictional Skua Island’s hilltop sufficient to produce a bog body. The pillar would have been seen frequently by passing boats if it was on top of the hill. To give credibility to bog conditions sufficient to produce the body and to explain why no-one had previously investigated the island’s mysterious grave marker, it should have been on flat boggy ground and only visible to a boat very close in to shore. This would have set up a better narrative device of a local trawler captain approaching our hero with photos taken from offshore. They could both be regular drinkers in the same pub. Despite the out-of-focus pictures, our hero would be tempted by the thought of a completely new neolithic or Viking site. So they organise a dig on a shoestring with men from the fishing fleet who are finding times hard. Our hero would promise them a share in the glory for helping to dig up something wonderful and unique (all archaeological finds in Scotland belong to the Crown and are treasure trove unless the contrary is proved). Then all the more guilt when only he and the original trawler captain survive. It’s all very well to invite the reader to suspend disbelief, but there are limits.
Nevertheless, Langan gets everything right in the titular story of “Mr. Gaunt”. It’s completely satisfying on every level and the explanation of how Mr. Gaunt came to be as he is demonstrates a genuinely pleasing, if somewhat mordant, sense of humour. There is also some academic humour attempted in “Tutorial” but, on balance, the story goes on too long and does not have a clearly enough defined rationale. It’s common ground that those with the right tools can manipulate their target readers. I’m not sure that these motives for attempting the suppression of more complex language are sufficiently worked out.
“Episode Seven” is a curious conflation of post-apocalyptic science fiction, fantasy and weird. I suspect that if I had read it in a magazine, I would have been more impressed. As it is, the story sits somewhat uncomfortably in a collection which, to this point, has been primarily supernatural in theme. It is an “action story” rather than an “uneasy encounter”. Although, perhaps, there is a supernatural transformation in progress as (Bruce) Wayne slowly assumes his alter ego. The final story is simply too long. I accept that some academic exploration of the mythology surrounding Laocoön and Doris Lessing’s analysis of the statue now sitting in the Vatican adds a powerful layer of irony to the story but, at this length, it slows down the development of the plot. This is a variation on the transmission system for passing on the characteristics of a vampire, werewolf, etc. and, although this particular plot is a clever step forward in the development of the trope, I find it overburdened with a catalogue of the author’s own interests and ideas. That said, there are some delightful touches such as the son’s nightmares about Darth Vader.
As a first collection, Mr. Gaunt displays some highly encouraging signs and, for all their faults, the stories gave me considerable enjoyment. The “Story Notes” are also illuminating. I shall definitely add this author’s name to my list of people to watch.
For a review of John Langan’s first novel, see House of Windows.