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Attack of the Jazz Giants by Gregory Frost

September 7, 2009 Leave a comment

Pursuing my short retrospective on Gregory Frost, I steam through Fitcher’s Brides and find myself immersed in Attack of the Jazz Giants, a collection of short stories published by the specialist Golden Gryphon — a company we should all support. We start off with “The Girlfriends of Dorian Gray” which is Thinner meets “The Biter Bit” by Wilkie Collins. Although not in epistolary form, it reminds the reader that, as in sport, there are leagues and divisions. Players from lower divisions can often find themselves outmatched when confronted by a higher ranked player. Each story in this collection is prefaced by an illustration by Jason Van Hollander. In this instance, the metaphor of a pig is completely apposite, capturing both the eating style of our “hero” and the consequences that flow from it. We then come to the standout novelette, “Madonna of the Maquiladora”, which was nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, Sturgeon, Tiptree and Locus Awards in 2003. I confess that I was unaware of the maquiladoras and the role they play in the Mexican economy. It’s always good to learn. This story is an exercise in gritty realism, looking at the role of the photojournalist in recording the worst excesses of a capitalist society. It’s often said that a picture is more powerful than words. Images have an immediacy, communicating what they show in an instant. Words are slippery inventions, shaping or framing meaning as the reader slowly moves through the text. Frost takes an unflinching look at the exploitation of the workers in these factory complexes and the vulnerability of those who report on their working conditions. In the midst of it all is an interesting sfnal idea but, in reality, it’s somewhat redundant and only necessary to get the story into Asimov’s. The quality of the story should have seen it published in any publication of worth.

There is then a run of three slightly downbeat stories: “Collecting Dust” is a rather depressing fable in which the disintegration of family relationships is paralleled by the slow physical decomposition of the parents into dust collected by the alienated son, “The Bus” is a routine metaphor as the elite eat up the poor to drive their society forward, and “A Day in the Life of Justin Argento Morrel” which charts the slow dive a small crew of humans makes into a black hole. Then we are back in the groove. The art of editing a collection is to start and finish with the best stories. You always want to motivate the reader by a strong opening and leave the reader with the best possible impression. What goes on in the middle tends to be pot luck. “Divertimento” is a wonderful short piece describing the results when time bombs explode, ageing those immediately around them and ripping a scene from the past and enabling it to repeat itself like a looped short film. This idea of physical and social displacement as the collateral damage to an explosion is genuinely engaging. The “Attack of the Jazz Giants” inflicts real surrealism on the question of racial bigotry. There is a kind of metaphorical emancipation through music. No matter how bad life’s experiences, music can inspire and divert the mind. Nothing seems quite as awful if those around you on the plantation can pick up instruments and play New Orleans style jazz. If the people cannot be present in the flesh, there’s always the Victrola to bring the music into your homes. Like the Pied Piper, this can suggest to the oppressed that there might be a better life in the cities. The more traditional KKK members running their plantations, like the Mayor of Hamelin who thought he could take the benefit without paying the piper, might find there are uncontrollable losses.

One of the hallmarks of a great story is that it keeps to a simple and direct line, sucking you in and carrying you through to a pleasing conclusion. Why then, you might ask with some justification, is this so difficult? My answers draws on music. There are millions of songs out there that rely on simple 8 bar forms in 4/4 time but only a tiny percentage are memorable. It’s the same with writing. There’s an invisible line between great and everyday writing. In “Some Things Are Better” Frost manages to cross over the line into the great side. An investigative journalist goes to his High School Reunion and sees a chance to revenge himself on a bully. In the UK, there’s no cultural imperative to look back in anger or otherwise. To us, the world of Proms and the subsequent reunions seems a most curious affectation. Creating the expectation that people will revisit the scene of unhappy memories is pure masochism or sadism depending on your point of view.

“Lizaveta” is a satisfying evocation of life in the midst of the Russian revolution, while “In the Sunken Museum” we have Poe caught up in circumstances beyond his capacity to understand. “Touring Jesusworld” manages to avoid the temptation to go on too long. Sadly, many authors overindulge their sense of humour and the joke falls flat as in “Road to Recovery” where Frost gives a perfect example of an author straining too hard on a supposedly comic idea. “From Hell Again” set off all kinds of happy resonances including the marvellous “Cronos by Guillermo del Toro, a particularly effective horror film. Then, as the Pobble would know, we are off to discover “How Meersh the Bedeviler Lost His Toes” which, as those of you old enough to remember the old continuous showing style of cinema will recall, is where we came in. I began this retrospective because of Shadow Bridge and here we have an early excerpt.

Overall, this is a wonderfully eclectic collection. Too often, collections have a certain sameness of tone and content. Here we run the gamut from the gritty reality of vicious exploitation to an eccentric crew for a doomed spaceship. There is no bad story here. We only range from the merely good to the excellent. This is a book I can unhesitating recommend to anyone who likes beautifully crafted short stories.

Click here for a review of Shadow Bridge & Lord Tophet by Gregory Frost.

Fitcher’s Brides by Gregory Frost

September 4, 2009 Leave a comment

I was very taken with Shadow Bridge and Lord Tophet by Gregory Frost so I tracked down two of his other books to see whether there was early promise. The first off the shelf was Fitcher’s Brides which is one of a series in which authors were invited to reinvent traditional fairy stories for the modern adult audience.

The world is rarely straightforward. We are forever caught up in social difficulties that require judgement if we are to avoid injury to ourselves or others. When we bring disaster on ourselves, it becomes a test of character to see whether we can emerge with any dignity or integrity. When we are victimised, the challenge is different. There is a natural tendency for others to sympathise. We have all been there at one time or another. We are all rooting for survival and, where appropriate, retribution for the victimiser. The underlying fairy story versions of Bluebeard’s Wives plot the lives of women caught up in the patriarchal system of marriage. It’s all very well for the vows to talk about the relationship being “for better, for worse” when the women were often not given a great deal of choice. The tendency was to marry them off to consolidate family property interests. This left many wives at risk of abusive husbands. Whether there ever was an explicit law based on the “rule of thumb” permitting husbands to beat their wives, there can be no doubt that many husbands have beaten and murdered their wives over the centuries. It’s therefore not surprising that such bloodthirsty men and their victims should have been captured in fairy stories for adults.

I admit to allowing myself to make a mistake. Terri Windling kicks off the proceedings with a nineteen page introduction. It summarises the concept behind the series and then indicates the history of the Bluebeard stories, cataloguing the different versions through the ages. It’s a very interesting read, but it gave me a number of very specific expectations about the novel and I found myself running a checklist as Frost either hit the mark of previous stories or was innovative. Upon reflection, it would have been better if I had read the book without any preconceptions.

The vehicle for the novel is a scaled down version of Millerism. In the period leading up to 1843/4, William Miller led an increasingly powerful national movement in the US (with some interest from the UK) predicting the end of the world in the Second Coming. When the world did not end as predicted on the 22nd October, 1844, there was great disappointment from the Millerites. The rest of the world went on believing they were all nuts. So, Frost has Elias Fitcher leading the faithful to Harbinger, a community buried in the wilds of New York State, where they will all be saved in the Ark of the Covenant. As a fictionalised version of the muted hysteria of the times, the book is highly effective, juxtaposing the faithful who are battening down the hatches for survival against the local townsfolk who are simply relieved that these strangers pass through without causing too much trouble. Had the novel remained a historically accurate depiction of the hysteria and deluded thinking of the Fitcherites, I feel it would have been rather better. In such a community, the charismatic leader could take any number of women as his brides and no-one would question him. That he might test his wives, invoking Eve’s failure to resist the temptation offered by the serpent, would give the whole narrative a ghastly inevitability as each wife fails the test and is slaughtered as unfit to be saved on Judgment Day.

Unfortunately, Frost introduces a dark form of magic into the situation and instead of Fitcher being a deluded Christian, he is either a deluded magician or an arch demon in human form — during a mesmerist demonstration held by the local townsfolk, he is called Mastema which would make him the latter. Thus, we find a potentially powerful book on religious mania subverted by unnecessarily ambiguous supernatural elements which are never really explained. If he is a magician, how does Fitcher reconcile his Christian beliefs with his powerful abilities to project “ghosts” and “dark angels” to different parts of the countryside? If he is a demon, why is there no triumphalism as he leads all his followers into Hell through a campaign of death and destruction on the appointed day for the world to end? Frankly, I do not think it matters which version Frost picks so long as there was consistency in its subsequent exploitation for terror. Making Fitcher a magician would have opened up a wonderful opportunity to explore how and why a Christian might use dark forces for what he perceives to be good in saving so many people. It would be a classic utilitarian justification to sacrifice the few for the benefit of the many. If Fitcher is really a demon, we could have been given a ringside seat as it gloats over the gullibility of all those who are led to slaughter at Harbinger. Feasting on the wives would be just an appetiser to the main course.

Thus, there is very good evidence of a powerful book lurking in there somewhere, but no kudos to Terri Windling as the editor in failing to direct Frost on how to make the best of the choices between a straight study in historical terror, a book of dark magic or a campaign to recruit souls for Hell. I also fault the editor for deciding to place her descriptions of the Bluebeard story before the novel. It would have been far better placed at the end. So I end with the thought that what actually appears on paper here is interesting but deeply flawed.

For reviews of other books by Gregory Frost, see: Shadow Bridge & Lord Tophet and Attack of the Jazz Giants.

Shadow Bridge & Lord Tophet by Gregory Frost

As I sit here, peering uncertainly out of my window at a night sky polluted by light, there is nothing but darkness. Not a single star twinkles back at me. The contrast with my childhood could not be more stark. Long before the development of the high-pressure sodium lamp and its characteristic yellow taint, I grew up in a house overlooking dark tides that sucked unwary swimmers to their doom, the milky way stretching my imagination across storm-tossed seas to other lands of mythic grandeur. I could stand on the headland at night, the looming mass of the gothic keep rearing up behind me and the immensity of outer space spread out in front of me as a smorgasbord of infinite possibility. This, if nothing else, explains my interest in SF and fantasy fiction.

Sometimes an author is overambitious and misjudges what is required to produce good metafiction. It is all very well to want to subvert conventions, but there are times when you can go too far and, rather than produce a literary masterpiece, produce a literary mess. The key problem is always to provide a consistent vehicle for the subversion. In some senses, it works best in the theatre when you watch actors perform a play, e.g. The Dresser by Ronald Harwood, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard or Sounds Off by Michael Frayn because it breaches the convention that the proscenium arch is a barrier through which no member of the audience may pass. Or on stage, cinema or television when a performer demonstrates awareness of role and steps through the fourth wall to directly address the audience. In literature, we have wonderful examples such as The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles, where the author appears as a character and offers alternative endings to the book.

I muse along these lines because of the entrancing duology by Gregory Frost, Shadow Bridge and Lord Tophet. Before coming to the books themselves, a minor gripe. Given the propensity of the publishing industry for profit maximisation, this could have appeared as a brick-sized book. At that length, there is a risk we might have left it on the shelf because of the risk of pulling a muscle lifting it down. Nevertheless, I would have preferred to read the work as a continuous whole rather than wait months for the publication of the second volume. Then we come to cost. A single work costs marginally less to buy and ship. Two volumes, even though in trade paperback size, cost more to ship separately and at a retail price of $28 for both, are at the edge of prices for a single hardback volume. Continuing the gripe, there is a slightly dead patch quite early in the second volume. If an editor had been working to produce a manageable length for a single printed book, that would have been tightened up. As it is, I suspect it was left in to make a better balance between the two volumes as a page count.

That said, this is an author at the top of his game. He has constructed a story about a young girl who makes her living as a puppeteer, moving from span to span on the ever-widening network of bridges that magically encircle this world. In each new place, she captures a local story to make her puppet dramas resonate with local cultures. Thus, the narrative is continually interrupted by the telling of other stories that illuminate the history of the world and the all too human condition of its peoples. This sets up a subtle interplay between the mythic universality of some of these stories and the current dilemmas of the protagonists. In turn, this braiding of narratives threads eases us through the novels. They intertwine and, significantly, assume direct parallels with the myths we know so well on Earth. Indeed, the structure of the narrative comes to have three strands: the narrative arc of the primary characters that ultimately becomes the stuff of myths in its own right, the increasingly complex stories of mythic characters who can affect the primary characters’ actions, and the potential for the first two strands to become a retelling of a familiar Earth myth. Or perhaps that should be the other way round. Perhaps the Earth myth as a character directs the actions of the people in the story so that what happens to them transcends their place and time, achieves universality and matches the original myth.

So at an intellectual level, this pair of novels is magical. It equally involves the reader’s emotions because the main characters remain so true to their own fallible natures. It is all too common in fantasy for there to be hero figures who, when in danger, pull out a sword and hack the opposition to pieces. Frost has created real people who have greatness thrust somewhat arbitrarily upon them. Their lives are made extraordinary by accident or design depending on your point of view. Having been forced into excellence, they must rise to the occasion as danger comes looking for them. They become players on a wider stage, seeking something more than survival as they care for and fight for each other. The outcome, in the literal sense, is the stuff of legend. For me, this was the best pair of fantasy books for 2008 and I cannot recommend them too highly.

For my other reviews of books by Gregory Frost, see: Attack of the Jazz Giants and Fitcher’s Brides.

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