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The Sky That Wraps by Jay Lake

January 9, 2011 4 comments

Jacket art by Aurélien Police

Here we are back with Subterranean Press and The Sky That Wraps, a handsome limited edition by Jay Lake with impressively evocative jacket art by Aurélien Police whose work is rather beautiful and haunting.

 

Leading off this collection, “The Sky That Wraps the World Round” (1) is beautifully understated, dealing with matters of planetary significance allusively, leaving it to the reader to make the necessary inferences. It is also pleasing to see a US author prepared to set a story somewhere foreign. Too often, American parochialism limits locales either to unreality through world-building or to some version of Poughkeepsie. “Journal of an Inmate” is a delightful story of innocence. Academic psychologists have grown increasingly fascinated with people too stupid to realise how stupid they are.(2) These are the terminally incompetent who will never understand why everything they touch always fails. So it is that a man who has given loyal service to a government upsets someone in power and is sent off to die in a distant prison. Soldiers are often victimised in this way. Civilian life is such a challenge to those who lack political skills. When hope dies, our hero surrenders himself to death only to find some acceptance of his lot in being denied even this simple request.

 

“Achilles Sulking In His Buick” is a good joke, all the better because the experienced Jay Lake knows when to cut and run. “Crossing the Seven” is also a kind of joke in that our hapless jobbing builder has the misfortune to be struck by lightning and caught in a compromising situation with a priestess. Yet, instead of executing him, expedience demands his transformation into a living symbol of hope, a messenger sent from a threatening star to take away the people’s fear. This sets his feet on a dangerous peregrination to the seven cities, allowing the seven Queens to use his progress as a kind of magic trick. His tenacious hold on life inadvertently saves the world from panic. It also leaves him with survival skills that may suit him to a career rather better than roof repairs. “The Leopard’s Paw” sees Flash Gordon becoming Conan becoming a leopard, although perhaps only in spirit. If that’s too much becoming for you, it shows how little you like Howardly barbarian fun. “Coming For Green” takes a harder edge to a barbarian world which in a young Amazon comes of age as she searches for a fellow acolyte forced from their Order after an assassination. The entry into adulthood comes when she realises she has become fearless. Meanwhile, back in the city, “A Water Matter” sees the consequences of that assassination begin to play out in a hunt leading to the death of knowledge.

 

Thematically, this continues in “Promises: A Tale of the City Imperishable” in which a young girl is schooled in survival and leadership, growing into a woman who can trust herself and the decisions she makes. Counterintuitively, this begins with depersonalisation, then each facet of what it means to be a woman must be experienced and shed like a snake. The question, of course, is simple. Why does this programming actually produce a better leader? I suppose the answer is that if no-one ever pushes you beyond what you believe are your limits, you will never find out how far you can go. “Witness to the Fall” is an elegant tale of magic and its ability to see through appearance to the petty jealousies of everyday life. Small communities live in each other pockets. Those who claim the key offices build themselves up and have the farthest to fall when the past and present collide. “Number of the Bus” continues with numerology as the magical skill. In another coming-of-age story, a young magician must sever the ties of the past and embrace his talent. “A Different Way Into The Life” continues the same magical methodology with a different wizard demonstrating state-of-the-art skills in understanding the magical landscape. I like the logical extension of the magic into accountancy and the cut-throat word of Mergers and Acquisitions. This is an author prepared to explore the implications of his own creativity. The third of the wizard stories, “Green Grass Blues”, changes the methodology to more conventional earth magic, but continues the trend of a young apprentice wizard slowly coming to recognise danger and then having to cope.

 

“Fat Man” takes us back out into the free-flow of the supernatural with a wonderfully atmospheric Bigfoot accidentally caught in the crosshairs of a hunter’s rifle. This is one of these hiding-in-plain-sight stories where you always have enough information to know what’s going on, but prefer not to think about it. The process to make our Sasquatch so big is pleasingly original. I can’t remember anything similar in more years of reading than I care to admit. “Dogs in the Moonlight” has fun at the expense of rural Texans who love their guns and dogs more than their wives, until someone else loves their wives. Then they get all-fired jealous and find good use for the guns. Shame that sometimes what you shoot don’t stay quite as dead as it should. “Little Pig, Berry Brown and the Hard Moon” is set in prehistory as a mother’s death teaches the child about life, love and memory. If you’re “On the Human Plan” (3) then all you have to look forward to is death. If this is something that bothers you, perhaps you’d better change plans. “Lehr, Rex” is a recasting of that most excellent film, Forbidden Planet, as King Lear with a little P. K. Dick and Doc Smith thrown in for good measure. It is a nicely paranoid rumination on what it might feel like to be human, assuming you should ever have cause to ask yourself the question, of course.

 

“The Man With One Bright Eye” is a son plucked out of time who finds possible true love, but is unable to make progress down the road of life until he can step out of his mother’s shadow. “To Raise a Mutiny Betwixt Yourselves” is also about who we are as people as we age. How much does the passage of time change us? In theory, the slow accumulation of experience should make us more wise but life is not always fair. Sometimes, the shadows from our own past haunt our present life. Incidentally, this might also apply to a machine intelligence as well. “To This Their Late Escape” adds the question of how best to occupy time while waiting for rescue. Perhaps a small-scale conflict might wile away the hours. “Skinhorse Goes To Mars” is a different take on life and death. Starting with the assumption we had made the Earth, Mars and Venus uninhabitable, would we just give up and die, or would we fight? Er. . . Who’s left to fight? “A Very Old Man With No Wings At All” wonders what happened after the Fall of Satan. “People of Leaf and Branch” plays with the idea of interacting life cycles. Through time, the culture of people changes. Just as a seed grows into a sapling and then a tree that drops more seeds, it’s plus ça change but not quite as la même chose as evolution plays its part. Similarly, “Chain of Fools” sees a newly promoted Captain take her first ship out only to discover that her sheltered training had not quite prepared her for the reality of leadership. Finally, “The American Dead” (4) tell us that while sex usually improves the mood, it’s not the panacea some priests would have the rich believe.

 

Looking back, we can now see general themes in Jay Lake’s work. He is interested in innate potential and how people get the best out of themselves. Sometimes, they are given the chance to do the heavy lifting on their own but, more often, they are prodded or provoked by circumstances or meddlers, and must shine to survive. Overall, this is one of the best collections of 2010 and worth every cent.

 

(1) Selected in The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Sixth Annual Collection edited by Gardner Dozois

 

(2) Justin Kruger and David Dunning, “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties of Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-assessments,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1999, vol. 77, no. 6, pp. 1121-1134.

 

(3) Selected in The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Seventh Annual Collection edited by Gardner Dozois

 

(4) Selected in The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year Volume One, ed Jonathan Strahan, Night Shade Books, 2007; The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror, Vol. 18, ed. Steve Jones, Robinson (UK), October, 2007.

 

For a review of other books by Jay Lake, see
Endurance
Green
Kalimpura
Love in the Time of Metal and Flesh.

 

The Bird of the River by Kage Baker

Jacket art by Tom Kidd

So here we are with The Bird of the River by Kage Baker. It is set in the same universe as The Anvil of the World and The House of the Stag but is one of these happy authorial accidents rather than someone sitting down to write a sequel, i.e. you can read it without any knowledge of the other two books. Thinking about the circumstances, I suppose we should approach this as a potential swan song. As an aside, the idiom often has a quietly perverse interpretation. In theory, it should follow the reality which is that the best a Mute Swan can manage during its life is a venomous hissing and the odd honk but, in old folk tales, the sentimentalists often give it one beautiful note just before, or upon, death. Such is the power of a romantic imagination. The modern usage tends to celebrate a successful performer who manages to pull out one final act of magnificence, usually knowing it will be the last possible before death. When the audience is in on the secret, it makes the event all the more poignant, becoming a highly emotional way for everyone to say goodbye. We lose this impact in the written form because readers may come to a book many years later without knowing the background. In this instance, it is hard to predict how many full-length posthumous works we will see in print so, for now, let’s treat this as Ms Baker’s last.

This is a mystery masquerading as a fantasy novel. The headless body of a wealthy family’s son is found in the river, so the undercover PI works his passage on a river barge as it makes its way upstream clearing hazardous underwater obstructions. He hopes to track down the killer and recover the victim’s head — perhaps, like Moslems, the families of this world’s powerful elite prefer to have all the body parts collected together for a respectful burial. You also have to remember this is a fantasy and people are often beheaded for the best of reasons. When barbarian or demon hitmen of limited brainpower are involved, they take heads to prove they killed the right person. Anyway, the set-up has the young PI meet the young lady with keen eyes and surprising intelligence on the barge and they pair up to work out who done what to whom and why.

As I have commented before, Ms Baker may not have been one of the greatest prose stylists but, when on form, she could tell a good story. In part, she became a willing victim of the publishing industry. Obviously, when someone is throwing money at you, there’s a temptation to give the people what they want. In this and most other cases, the bean-counters want length, believing the buying public wants more words for their bucks. Hence, there has been a slow but steady inflation of the published lengths of “novels”. For them that can spin out a slight story and hold the readers’ interest, this is easy money. But for people like Ms Baker, this was a real challenge. She was excellent as a short story writer and turned in some top-class novelettes and novellas. But the novels could be very patchy when she struggled to find those extra words.

Hence, it is with great relief that I can applaud this book. It is short by modern standards. Perhaps the need to finish it before death overtook her forced a more direct approach. For whatever reason, we are left with a stronger novel, even though it could be considered YA in spirit. It is an adequate mystery with a relatively unobtrusive magic element, and it positively zips along, easily holding interest and driving through to the end. For once, I can give unreserved praise and, more importantly, if this should prove to be the last novel, it is a good swan song effort.

For my other reviews of Kage Baker, see: Sons of HeavenThe Women of Nell Gwynne’sEmpress of Mars, Not Less Than Gods, and Or Else My Lady Keeps the Key.

Black Wings: Tales of Lovecraftian Horror, edited by S T Joshi

January 5, 2011 6 comments

Artwork by Jason Van Hollander

So here’s a conundrum for you. If a quintessentially British publisher hires S T Joshi, an Indian American editor, to produce an anthology based on H. P. Lovecraft’s mythos — he’s a quintessentially American author — in which version of English should the book be typeset? Having been in the publishing game myself, I always set my books in British English. I am therefore intrigued to find Peter Crowther setting Black Wings (PS Publishing, 2010) using American English spellings and conventions. Thus, he favors settings like “this,” and past-participles like gotten. Of course, I recognise that the majority of these rather handsome hardbacks are likely to be sold into the US market. But, having just reviewed Clowns at Midnight by an Australian author with British English settings, I would be interested to know why this publisher does not appear to have a consistent policy. Anyway, as those of you who have read these reviews will know, I’m a Lovecraftian mythos person. ’Nuff said.

Staying with the opening issue of language brings me to “Pickman’s Other Model (1929)” by Caitlin R Kiernan. This is a rather elegant recreation of the literary style of the late 1920s with heavily convoluted sentence construction and context-specific vocabulary. It’s heartening to see an author prepared to subsume her own personality in this first-person, stubborn man’s narrative. She produces a rather pleasing story that investigates the links between the artist Pickman, his friend’s suicide and an actress. It’s a nicely ambiguous story in which we consider what happens when we deny our beliefs. Just imagine, we might believe the world normal, or we might know it was not and wish to renounce it. “Desert Dreams” by Donald R Burleson is a more routine story locating the source of the dream summons in the New Mexico desert. Our hero travels for his enlightenment. “Engravings” by Joseph S Pulver Sr. has a nicely cruel Nyarlathotep using his own seed to open the way. This is a more modern and muscular story that makes it point with appropriate economy.

Then we come back to the question of language. “Copping Squid” by Michael Shea is a wonderful exploration of what it takes to write cosmic, if not eldritch, contemporary fiction. Here is an author at his best, crafting a vehicle with such a curiosity bump, you would want to ride all the way in it to perdition. Everything is right: the vocabulary and the flair with which it’s used, turning the rational world upside down as our reformed alcoholic suddenly finds himself addicted to a different way of viewing the world.

“Passing Spirits” by Sam Gafford is one of the more original Lovecraftian stories in the anthology, featuring Lovecraft himself and many of his creations, bending the real world of uninsured horror as our hero’s brain cancer spreads. What we perceive and understand about the world is all mediated through our brains. So if anything were to disrupt the smooth working of this fine engine, we would find it increasingly difficult to distinguish fact from fiction. Probably, because of our creativity and imagination, the fiction would win out. “The Broadsword” by Laird Barron touches all the right bases in Mythos terms but is somewhat diffuse, failing to pick a focused conclusion and work towards it. This may be to unmask an alien in a human body, or show a kind of kidnapping in which an alien is implanted, or have aliens come out of the cracks of the walls and feast on local people, or two long-term friends are separated in wilderness trauma but later reunited. Anything along one of these lines would be sufficient. As it is, the detail of the Broadsword Hotel and its failing infrastructure adds little to the outcome. Our hero’s fairly routine life as a senior could have been anywhere. There is a good story here but the logic of events is not as clear as it should be, and it should have been edited down to its core essentials.

“Usurped” by William Browning Spenser is a simple bait-and-switch story as Azathoth waits in the desert for passing snacks. Unlike Barron’s wandering epic, this is economical and powerful. “Denker’s Book” by David J Schow follows in similar fashion with a wry take on the power of the Necronomicon to open the way into different dimensions. It manages to be steam punkish and contemporary. No mean feat when the Old Ones are around. “Inhabitants of Wraithwood” by W H Pugmire is a genuinely macabre, if not weird, notion that people themselves may be canvasses or perhaps become living works of art or maybe they’re just dying to be a part of the big picture. This is all very deft with nothing really explained but enough hinted at to be completely fascinating. “The Dome” by Mollie L Burleson is unconvincing. When you have to rely on day-time coincidences with no significant dates, you should know your plot is poor. “Rotterdam” by Nicholas Royle is an editorial choice I find strange. This is an excellent piece of crime fiction, nicely playing off Antony Gormley’s use of figures in landscapes to enhance the urban atmosphere of potential menace (as in Event Horizon, New York). But the only link to the theme is that the men are searching for locations to make a Lovecraft film. This strikes me as stepping outside the remit. Really good story, though.

“Tempting Providence” by Jonathan Thomas is the longest story in the anthology and replays the old trope of fishermen and their lures with a nicely Lovecraftian twist. I was beguiled not only by the memories of Providence, but also by the impeccable awareness of the hero, understanding the significance of the temptations and reacting with appropriate caution (for a review of a collection by Thomas, see Tempting Providence). It is always satisfying to meet an author who believes in establishing credible characters even though they may be stuck in incredible circumstances. “Howling in the Dark” by Darrell Schweitzer has our hero meet with a Black Man who walks through the darkness to gaze upon the immensity of Azathoth, all the while trying the reconcile his inherent humanity with the necessity of sloughing off all emotions if he is to be one with the night.

“The Truth About Pickman” by Brian Stableford is a wonderfully malevolent story in which we can watch a cunning man in action. How appropriate that the US and Britain should not only be separated by a common language but also from common infections. Lurking on the threshold of this story awaiting admission is a wicked sense of humour. “Tunnels” by Philip Haldeman is a slightly more conservative effort in which the denizens described in De Vermis Mysteriis emerge into our underground world of tunnels and cellars.”The Correspondence of Cameron Thaddeus Nash” by Ramsey Campbell is an elegant conceit but I found it grew rather boring, failing to build any real tension or anticipation.

“No Violence, Child of Trust” by Michael Cisco is rather an odd story in which the country family goes through its rituals. Sadly, I had a brain malfunction and didn’t really understand it. “Lesser Demons” by Norman Partridge gets me back into more familiar territory with a roller-coaster ride through a zombie plague with a twist. If you are going to bend Lovecraft, this is an excellent way to do it, pitting bookish curiosity against a pragmatic approach to problem-solving. “An Eldritch Matter” by Adam Niswander is a pleasing joke. Humour is the most difficult of tricks to pull off when everything around you is weird, so kudos to both the author in writing it and the editor for including it. “Substitution” by Michael Marshall Smith also represents a slightly sardonic take on the Mythos theme as our hero with a jaded palate talks himself out of the frying pan and then wonders why it’s getting hot. And, finally, “Susie” by Jason Van Hollander has a devoted servant leaving this mortal coil with things undone.

For those of you who read Mythos stories, there are some real gems to savour here but, as is always the case when personal taste confronts editorial choices, there are also stories I found rather indifferent. Overall, it’s good value for money for Lovecraft devotees.

This anthology has been shortlisted for the Best Anthology category in the 2011 World Fantasy Awards.

For reviews of the two sequel anthologies see:
Black Wings II: New Tales of Lovecraft
Black Wings III: New Tales of Lovecraftian Horror.

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