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Reaping the Dark by Gary McMahon

April 8, 2014 5 comments

reaping the dark by gary mcmahon

Reaping the Dark by Gary McMahon (Dark Fuse, 2014), 2014) is a masterclass in taut, economical writing. The prose is cut-down and efficient. The plot clicks together like clockwork. And the subject matter is pleasingly dark. We’re in the world of noir crime where organised gangs rob and steal. Let’s start with the methodology of the driver. Perhaps this is not the most glamorous member of the criminal team but, when the robbery has gone down, and you run for the car, you remember the need for someone who can get you away. This does not, of course, mean drive like a stuntman holidaying from Fast and Furious. Not only do you want to arrive at your destination in one piece, you also want to do it without police cars hot on your trail. That means the driver must be able to get away without attracting too much attention. The mark of the true professional is never to be noticed. At least that’s the way Driver Z has built his career. He’s considered one of the best.

Gary McMahon

Gary McMahon

Of course, he should not have been tempted. When he ended up with the money in the car and no passengers, he should have gone quietly home and just waited for any survivors to contact him. The decision to disappear with the money was a mistake. But perhaps he can recover the situation. Now he has a gun, he may be able to return the money and get away with the woman he loves. Yes, it’s unfortunate the others have her. If they had stayed together. If he had not gone for the gun. . . There are always ifs.

The art of the good novella is to conceive of a plot that’s inherently limited. That way, you can set up the plot and run like Hell with it until you reach the end without having to draw breath. In this case, our driver gets into a situation not of his choosing. But when he makes the wrong decision, he gets to run, hide from enemies and, when it’s unavoidable, fight. Of course, he’s spent his life developing the power to stay calm under pressure. He’s a head over heart person. Except where his lady’s involved, of course. If he had not a care for her in the world, he would have taken the money and disappeared. But she’s pregnant and he’s committed. In a way, this relationship has come as something of a revelation to him. He didn’t have the best of childhoods. But as parenthood beckons, he begins to look on the idea of being a father as something desirable. So now he has to make a stand. No more the quick getaway. Now he needs his steady nerves in defence then attack.

The dangers he faces and whether he succeeds are waiting for you to find out. Reaping the Dark is one of the best supernatural horror novellas of the year so far. You should read it.

For reviews of other books by Gary McMahon, see:
Beyond Here Lies Nothing
The Concrete Grove
Dead Bad Things
Silent Voices

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Sergeant Chip by Bradley Denton

March 18, 2014 1 comment

Sergeant Chip by Bradely Denton

One of the most interesting aspects of reviewing at such volume is the sudden opportunity to notice coincidences — all the more ironic because one of the features in fiction that I find most aggravating is the coincidence, e.g. that instead of a plot developing along organic and natural lines, everything is structured in a way that events just happen to occur in the order necessary to achieve the desired effect. When this is woefully contrived, I happily leap on the improbability of the coincidence and deride the author for being a force of destiny. Well, a month or so ago, I reviewed a book with a dog as the protagonist and ruminated on the scarcity of first-person narratives featuring animals. In retrospect, this is a good thing because authors routinely fall into the trap of overly sentimentalising the way in which the animals are portrayed.

Sergeant Chip by Bradley Denton (Subterranean Press, 2014) is a set of three novellas, the titular story being about a poodle/labrador cross (the story was nominated for the 2005 Hugo Award and won the 2005 Sturgeon Award). We’re in the field of animal uplift for military purposes. Cognitive enhancement is a topic not uncommon in science fiction and medical thrillers (and animation blockbusters like Muntz’ dogs in Up). In this instance, we humans have been manipulating dogs for land use, and sealions and dolphins for use at sea. The most effective teams arise when the humans have real empathy for the animals. We ride with Chip and his human handler, Lieutenant Dial, who prove very good in the field, both for pubic demonstration purposes and when confronting the “enemy”. Thematically, this is a story about loyalty and the ethics of leadership. Because the dog is the point of view, we get to see multiple levels of duty in action. It starts with the relationship between the dog and his handler, moves up to the relationship between Dial, now promoted to Captain, and those under his command. And then spreads to look at the relationship between invading troops and unarmed civilians. Needless to say, the story doesn’t show the human side in a very good light apart from Dial, but each individual has his or her own rights and interests to protect with everything told in an unaffected prose with a clear eye for more objective values. This is an outstanding story.

Bradley Denton

Bradley Denton

“Blackburn and the Blade” was nominated for the International Horror Guild Award and shows us a series character coming into a small town to regroup, re-equip and prepare to move on again. Except coming into a new environment often means meeting new people. At times, they can prove a dangerous distraction, introducing unexpected enemies. This is most elegantly put together, giving us a clear sight of all the relevant characters and mentioning the murder just before our “hero” came to town. Once we know everyone’s strengths and weaknesses, it’s time for the murderer to reappear. Fortunately, there’s a celestial conjunction — now that’s what a proper coincidence looks like when you’re writing a noir supernatural thriller.

“The Adakian Eagle” was a nominee for the Edgar and, as that would suggest, it’s a superb story featuring an ageing Dashiell Hammett on manoeuvres in WWII. American troops found themselves in some interesting places when fighting the Japanese and this takes us to the Aleutian Islands in the northern part of the Pacific Ocean. Not only are they remote, but also volcanic and prone to rain. Once the Japanese had been defeated on Attu, the islands became a vital supply depot for the Russian campaign. This assistance to the Commies was somewhat ironic at the time and became even more so when the permafrost of the Cold War set in and the McCarthy backlash came to fruition. During the war, the cultural hostility is nicely captured here in the relationship between the Lieutenant Colonel and Dashiell Hammett, with the customary racial prejudice and contempt for those considered less intelligent also on display.

The story explores two convergent forces. The first we may call a belief in the potential of the supernatural to affect events in the real world. The second is the determination of an older and more experienced man to cut through the bullshit and do whatever is required to protect himself and anyone else who has fallen under his protection. The result is strictly speaking an investigation of a suspicious death on the side of one of the volcanos, but the influence of belief in the supernatural is immanent, providing a key element in both the short and longer term motivation for events. It should be said the other element in the motive is elegantly revealed as one of the more traditional and all too human desires. In the short term, the forces balance each other out — to that extent, everyone gets what they deserve. In the long term, history stays on track which is as it should be.

Bradley Denton is new to me but these three novellas convince me I really should take the time to track down more of his work. That means this collection has served its purpose and introduced an author whose range and diversity is worth exploring. Thank you Subterranean Press.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Typical Day by Gary K Wolf

Typical Day

Let joy be unconfined! I waited years and then two satirical books came along together (thinks happily of the same joke applied to buses on the circle route around Birmingham fifty years ago). Having just enjoyed some wonderful short stories in a collection from a Catalan author, I’m back in a future America with Typical Day by Gary K Wolf (Musa Publishing, 2012) an ebook @ $3.99. This future world has seen a remarkable “scientific” advance. Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, welcome to the world of the LifeMaster. Everyone’s signed up for this remarkable service on birth although they have to wait until thirteen to pick up their cube. When they’re old enough, the cube is slotted into a machine and the day’s game begins.

I have a little piece of software on my Mac that, if I was so inclined, I could use to map out my day, noting appointments and things to do. Well, think of that upgraded by several thousand percent by the ultimate in interactive design. When the game starts off, you’re playing your future day for points with almost all the rest of the population linked together. At every key moment, there are decisions to be made, e.g. on how much time to spend on daily ablutions, what to eat for breakfast, and so on. This affects whether you catch the usual bus to work. Take too long shaving or eat too heavy a breakfast, and your desperate run for the departing transport is in vain. You get the idea. Once the day’s game is over, you check the points. Hopefully, you’re adding to your life savings. Then you go through the day you planned out for yourself in real time. Because all the individual game experiences are slaved together, everyone gets to see his or her day as part of the greater whole. So everyone due to be on the bus sees your feeble run in advance, and they all know what to expect when they look out of the window. It’s a perfect existence for those who enjoy risk taking and play to get ahead. For the more timid, it’s drudgery with low expectations fulfilled. Now suppose an accident destroys the link between man and machine — in this case a lightning strike while he’s at work takes out his pathetic living accommodation and cube. Cast adrift in an unplanned world, how is he to survive when he has no idea what’s supposed to happen next?

Gary Wolf and Jessica but no rabbit in view

Gary Wolf and Jessica but no rabbit in view

Except, of course, the manufacturer has a lifetime guarantee in operation and, within a day, he’s back in an apartment almost identical to the one he’s lost, equipped with a new cube and a machine to put it in. He relaxes. Everything’s going to be alright.

Except, of course, it isn’t.

Or perhaps, it is.

It all depends on your perspective when you play the game of life in default mode, i.e. you make it up as you go along.

I could say all kinds of clever things about free will vs determinism and why cookies taste best when someone makes them for you with tender loving care, but you should already have got my drift. As novellas go, this is a wonderful confection of sly humour and gentle wit all harnessed in service to a nice piece of satire on the way we live our lives. Typical Day is all too short, flashing by with all the speed of a video game in full flow. When you’ve finished it, all you have to do is put what you’ve learned into practice and start racking up those Life points. Satire in action!

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

What Makes You Die by Tom Piccirilli

What Makes You Die

What Makes You Die by Tom Piccirilli (Apex Publications Book) is a novella and an impressive riff on an old idea. Being a guy from the last century who’s read an incredible number of words over the decades, I’m reminded of the Galloway Gallegher stories by Henry Kuttner writing as Lewis Padget. This hero (using the word somewhat ironically) was an alcoholic. While insensible, he became a phenomenal inventor except, with his subconscious in command, he would surface from the latest bender with no clear recollection of the last few days. This produces much hilarity in an old-fashioned kind of way as our hungover hero is forced to try and work out exactly what he’d invented while drunk. To say this is challenging is to indicate the level of potential amusement as he faces some entirely incomprehensible solutions to the unknown problems he solved while drunk. Well that was life during the 1940s when, by modern standards, mere alcohol was the boring norm. Coming up to date, our technology has given us a remarkable array of liquids, gases and solids with which we can adjust our moods and blot out conscious thought.

So here comes our protagonist Tommy Pic (not in any way an autobiographical version of our author, of course). He’s one of the Hollywood screenwriters who’s had his moment of lucid success but is now back in the bipolar, alcohol-fueled manic depression which is his more usual state of mind. The fact he’s not self-disciplined means he frequently neglects to take his meds, so he’s not unused to waking up in a psych ward wearing restraints. On this occasion, he awakes to a Gallegher moment. It seems while he was enjoying one of his psychotic moments, he dashed off [part of] a screenplay — appropriately bearing the title What Makes You Die. He has no recollection of sending the opening portion to his agent, Monty Stobbs, but according to this reliable specimen of humanity, it’s one of the best things he’s seen in at least the last thirty minutes. He wants the rest of the script on his desk yesterday and is promising big bucks if the quality continues at the same level. There’s just the one problem. Tommy has absolutely no idea where the rest of the script now resides and no recollection of writing what was sent, so he cannot attempt to complete it. Worse when Monty Stobbs gives him a copy and he tries to read it, he gets an attack of hysterical blindness. After his tortured peepers finally manage to absorb one of Monty’s marginal notes, a fierce migraine descends like a wolf on the fold, and he has to resort to the nearest bar. With alcohol fueling his eyes, he reads one more note which, like the first, is totally bizarre.

Tom Piccirilli — probably the one on the right

Tom Piccirilli — probably the one on the right

Since this is a first-person narrative, we’re firmly inside the head of an unreliable narrator, a fact that’s immediately obvious because he calmly admits to seeing and talking with dead people, starting off with his dead father who’s by his bed when he wakes. So here’s the question of the day. Through films like Being John Malkovich (1999), we’re used to the idea of literally spending a little time inside someone’s head (for these purposes, I’m ignoring the more excessive Inception (2010)). What would it be like to spend a little time looking through the eyes of a crazy screenwriter? Since he’s prone to major episodes of depression and has attempted surgery on his stomach to remove the Komodo dragon called Gideon (not a suicide attempt, you understand), this whole trip could be a real downer. Yet, surprisingly, it turns out sporadically humorous and, in reaffirming family values of love and loyalty, quite affecting. Some of the set-piece descriptions of life in the world of film, television and theatre are genuinely amusing. There’s some fierce irony in Trudy’s relationship with Monty Stobbs, and in any live show, Bango the Clown would most likely be strung up and/or shot by an audience provoked to anger. Gideon the dragon is interesting because he leaves Post-it notes around for our hero to find, and then there’s Eva when she’s not dancing naked around a ritual sacrifice in the back room of the Weird Sisters store.

In this situation, the man’s solution to the problem is to try to get back into the same frame of mind when he wrote the first section of the script. That means some heavy drinking except his subconscious prefers not to co-operate. When it comes to the weekend and he only has a few hours left to produce a complete script, he goes to a party at Eva’s home. She tries psychoanalysis in a witchy style. And then there’s the missing Kathy Lark. And I did notice the character’s full name is Trudy Galloway. That’s just a coincidence, of course. Putting all this together, What Makes You Die is rather pleasing. Although the ending is perhaps a little like many Hollywood scripts which insist of a positive outcome, I enjoyed it.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Salvage and Demolition by Tim Powers

December 11, 2012 Leave a comment

Salvage_and_Demlolition_by_Tim_Powers-200x321

Time travel is one of the more commonly used science fiction tropes. For some reason, writers of all hues seem to believe such stories are easy to write whereas the reality is rather different. This year has seen a high point in The Coldest War and a low point in Looper. No doubt future years will contain similar extremes but, for once, it seems 2013 is going to start off with a high in the shape of Salvage and Demolition by Tim Powers (Subterranean Press, 2013). In terms of tone, I’m reminded of Bid Time Return by Richard Matheson which is a wonderfully melancholic story of a man dying because of a brain tumour. He becomes fascinated by an old photograph of a woman and finds romance with her in the past. The evocation of the Hotel del Coronado is delightfully detailed with the woman readily accepting this stranger as a lover because two psychics have foretold his arrival. If you have not read this book, you should. It deservedly won the 1976 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel.

Tim Powers participating in a real world not an alternate history event

Tim Powers participating in a real world not an alternate history event

Moving to this new novella by Tim Powers, we have a dealer in rare books who receives three boxes of books and manuscripts to sell on consignment. It’s the third box that proves the trigger for travel back from modern times to the San Francisco of 1957. When he touches a manuscript and begins to read the first pages, the first disorienting harbinger comes in the form of a sudden physical and auditory illusion that he’s out of doors in the rain. He can also hear some music playing. Seconds later, he realises the walls and ceiling of the room he uses as an office are still securely in place and everything is reassuringly dry. Without spoilers, we then have various shuttle movements between the two times. In a sense, it doesn’t matter what the mechanism is. Unlike both Time and Again by Jack Finney and Bid Time Return which rely on a form of self-hypnosis, the force for this movement has its roots in ancient magic. But how this works is irrelevant. There are neither marvellous machines with flashing lights to impress nor ancient spells to chant in suitably declamatory style. We’re intended to focus on the people involved. Suffice it to say, there are physical and personal relationships at both ends of the time loop that entwine in a carefully choreographed way. Indeed, the particular magic of this plot is how meticulously the detail is introduced and then dovetails together as we watch the key players in their respective times.

Then there are some enticing questions to ponder. For example, when in 1957, why should our traveller give his name as Vader (aka Darth) and explain his “profession” as dealing in salvage and demolition, when he’s actually Richard Blanzac, a rare book dealer? In a contemporary setting, there can be innumerable reasons for concealing identity, but when our hero goes into the past. . . And then we have the following lines in the opening verses of the manuscript he reads,

To Express
His own will, print himself on this world!
He chose — and bit — and dimmed each future dawn.

Does this suggest our hero can manipulate the world in some way but, if he does so, that the outcomes will be bad? Obviously dimming the future dawns leaves everything in darkness. If taken literally that would be a disconcerting outcome. It might make Matheson and Finney’s movement by self-hypnosis sound rather safer. Then there are the following lines,

Two Streams: one flowing South, the other North,
As if from mirror’d Springs they issu’d forth. . .

Perhaps these words are somehow a metaphorical reference to the publishing practices of Ace Books. The series termed Ace Doubles sold two novels in tête-bêche format, i.e. bound so that each novel is presented head-to-tail and vice versa. Or it suggests everything should be in pairs as in the original and its reflected image. This could, of course, mean there must be a return for every going through time, or it could mean there should always be an even, not an odd, number of journeys to preserve symmetry and balance. Such uncertainties are a source of real delight.

As we’ve come to expect from Subterranean Press, this is a beautifully produced book and it’s delivering what looks to be one of the novellas to beat in the 2013 race to the awards. More importantly, Tim Powers has written another of his genre-defying stories. Salvage and Demolition is for everyone who enjoys science fiction mixed into fantasy with real world historical figures dotted across the fictional landscape in a not quite alternate history. No matter how you try to classify it by genre, it’s tremendous fun!

The dust jacket and impressive interior illustrations are by J. K. Potter.

For the review of another book by Tim Powers, see Hide Me Among the Graves.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Rosedale the Vampyre by Lev Raphael

September 9, 2012 Leave a comment

When someone sits down to write fiction, there will be a number of conflicting impulses. There’s the natural desire to create a work of which the author can be proud. Yet that may be in conflict with the dictates of the market. Obviously the content that interests the author may not be in the slightest interesting to the mass of people. Compromises may therefore have to be made unless, of course, the author has the natural capacity to hit the market with what it wants to read. Then there comes the writing style. Something too literary may be off-putting to Joe the Plumber. Something written in English accessible to people with a reading age of twelve may not be capable of conveying the subtleties of meaning the author wishes to communicate. So where are we with Rosedale the Vampyre by Lev Raphael (Amazon: Kindle store)?

Well, as the title suggests, we’re in the land of the vampyre (note the old-school spelling approved by John Polidori). And in the use of the “classical” spelling we come to the first of the authorial decisions for discussion. This is set in the New York of 1907 and written in a style that approximates fiction of that era. Frankly, I’m never sure what purpose is served by writing in anything other than a contemporary style. There seems to be a fashion for science fiction, fantasy and horror to be offered for sale as if written by Jane Austin and other period luminaries. I see no added value in this affectation. This does not deny the possibility of additional entertainment from a frame story in which our hero discovers a long-lost manuscript. The dissonant juxtaposition of modern and period writing styles is often part of the fun. But this novella comes straight out of the starting blocks as if a hundred yard dash written around 1907 by Edith Wharton. There’s no frame and nothing to justify or explain why the story is being presented in mannered English. This is not denying that the writer has been reasonably successful in the craft of recreating an old style, but it’s an odd decision.

Then we come to story itself. Those of you who have an interest in older works of fiction may well recall that Edith Wharton is probably best known for The House of Mirth. It catalogues the social decline of Lily Bart and also comments on the fate of Simon Rosedale, the “little Jew” who’s consigned to the social oubliette without a trial yet contrives to do rather well on Wall Street when the monied class loses out in the crash of conventional stocks. Read today, Wharton’s novel is a particularly overt example of the instinctive antisemitism that has informed the social reaction to Jews over the centuries. This novella produces a potentially ironic racism in which our hero, having been bitten but not consumed, transforms into a vampire that’s superior to the standard Caucasian model. Whereas the weak gentile version succumbs to daylight and can be blighted by crosses and the sprinkling of Holy Water, the Jewish version is unaffected by sunlight and untouched by the use of Christian paraphernalia.

The plot details the process of transformation as humanity is shrugged off in favour of the more powerful vampire model. This is not a moral decline. Rosedale has been frequenting the bordellos of New York in a vain attempt to overcome the grief occasioned by the death of his wife. During the transformation, he continues to service the same prostitute but becomes a better lover. The heightening of his senses enables him to give the woman greater pleasure. It’s rather curious a predator in the making should become more giving in the bedroom. Equally inexplicable is the decision of the other vampyre to preserve Rosedale’s existence when it would have been so easy to allow him to die. Indeed, given the pervasive animosity, you might have imagined Rosedale’s Jewish heritage might have hastened his permanent demise rather than elevated him to the top of the food chain predators.

Taken overall, Rosedale the Vampyre is a clever way of exploring the process of physical transformation alongside the social and commercial choices made as grief is transformed into a more proactive view of the world. Should he continue the story, I would be interested to see where Lev Raphael takes it but, at some point, I’m going to grow tired of the period writing style. I’m not convinced this use of past racism is contributing constructively to the modern discourse on attitudes between different racial groups. That said, this is a mildly erotic and potentially provocative novella describing the elevation of a downtrodden Jewish “millionaire” into a cautiously self-confident bloodsucker. I was intrigued.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

The Devil Delivered and other tales by Steven Erikson

One of the ways of getting perspective is to look back at how things were in the past. This is not nostalgia for its own sake, you understand. But distance helps more clearly to see how dishonest some of the mythologising has become. As a working adult during the 1960s, I’m now surprised to learn this was a decade of drug-fueled rebellion. Apparently, we were all hippies and invented free love. This version of history comes from the dual launch into the wider market of the oral contraceptive, which freed us all from the fear of siring the next generation, and LSD which enabled us to go on trips without leaving the chair in which we were sitting. When able to move, we could rut away like bunnies to psychedelic music and then run out into the streets, rip up paving stones, and pelt the nearest policeman. I seriously missed out here, having spent a quiet decade finishing my university degree, training and earning a living. Although there were moments of excitement as I was reading the New Wave science fiction which, for me, was best captured in the work of J G Ballard whose focus on people in completely different situations (often involving the end of the world) was pleasingly provocative.

 

I’m inspired to think back because of The Devil Delivered and other tales by Steven Erikson (Tor, 2012) which, in spirit and to some extent style, reminds me of Ballard with echoes of The Burning World and Vermilion Sands filtered through “The Terminal Beach”. This is a collection of three novellas originally published in separate editions by the excellent PS Publishing. The point of titular story may be captured in a single image. A child has been chained to a bed. It never knows what crime it committed to justify such punishment. It just dies. So as a species, we’ve damaged the world and generated such a catastrophe, our children have no choice but to be born into it and then die because of it. We were always a selfish species and only thought of our own convenience and never what price our children might have to pay. Earlier I mentioned the process of mythologising. Well, the idea of the noble savage is a classic modern invention. No savage has ever been noble. The only good thing about “him” was there were not enough of his ilk to damage the environment. We only managed to begin the real destruction of the world when we multiplied and got civilised.

Steven Erikson showing his rimless spectacles off to the best advantage

 

Out in the centre of a new completely ozone-free area of North America, William Potts thinks about the collision between what we were and what we might become. He communes with the ghosts of the past and wonders if it would really benefit humanity to move off the planet via a space elevator rather than suck the last of the oil out of the ground to eke out the last few minutes of energy before dying. Physical adaptability when faced by the threat of species extinction would be the answer. He sees it in the changes to invertebrates and small mammals under the radiation. But humans don’t have the capacity to change so rapidly. His cameras broadcast evolutionary “truth” as it happens and the internet soaks it all up. The human survivors are hooked on the notion at least some plants, insects and animals will survive when the higher species have gone. Except, of course, some humans may already have evolved — and did we do this before? Ah, such nice questions to contemplate as you die under the pitiless glare of the sun.

 

The second novella, “Revolvo” also has resonances in the 1960s because I was strongly into theatre and therefore watched productions of work by Eugène Ionesco, Fernando Arrabal, N F Simpson and other playwrights who produced absurdism with comic overtones before it went out of fashion. This story is a wonderful modern recreation of the nihilism that entertained me fifty years ago. As the negative side of existentialism, absurdism is a reflection of the general sense of powerlessness we all face in a world we cannot control and which often seems to have no purpose other than “to be”. By definition, I can’t really tell you what happens in this novella because it’s absurd. All I will say is that individuals may exhibit symptoms matching the state of the economy and the behaviour of the stock exchange, the poor may be taken into protective custody by an anarchist philanthropist until being left in the sympathetic glare of the press, while the one true artist may find a niche for himself where Neanderthals and others will never find him — in this, he echoes Berenger in Rhinoceros who proclaims at the end, “I’m the last man left, and I’m staying that way until the end. I’m not capitulating!” As strong an assertion for the right of individual liberty as you could hope to find. In other reviews I’ve reflected on how difficult it is to write this type of fiction well. Anyone who aspires to write in an absurdist style should read this as an example of how to do it really well.

 

We finish with “Fishin’ with Grandma Matchie” which is a surrealist fantasy pretending to be the story as told by a nine-year-old with a big imagination. This is the least successful of the three because it lacks discipline. The art of really great storytelling is knowing when to stop. This breaches the golden rule, and grows repetitious and rather boring.

 

Taken overall, The Devil Delivered and other tales is one of the more interesting books of the year simply because Steven Erikson is brave enough to attempt to push out into less well-travelled areas of literature. “The Devil Delivered” is not routine eco-catastrophe as science fiction collides with Armageddon. Rather it’s science fiction aspiring to capture some sophisticated ideas about the adaptability of the individual and what someone might have to sacrifice to reach the next level of existence. “Revolvo” reinvents a form of writing that was rooted in the post World War II experience of life and relocates to a modern world where we face a slightly different struggle to find any real meaning in our lives. Finally, even though not a complete success, “Fishin’ with Grandma Matchie” is seriously inventive in playing with the standard tropes featuring the relationship between Satan and ichthus, the power of love, and the need of comedians to see the big picture where two walls make a corner.

 

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

 

Lucretia and the Kroons by Victor LaValle

Lucretia and the Kroons by Victor LaValle (Spiegel & Grau, Random House, 2012) is a novella advertised as either being literary horror in its own right or feeding into a novel that’s considered literary horror. Genre labels are inherently dangerous because they predispose the mind to certain expectations. Although, in this instance, I’m not entirely sure what “literary horror” actually means. Is it supposed to be ordinary horror but better written, i.e. written in a more obviously literate style and full of greater pretension? So it’s with some curiosity that I open the file. Ah, yes, another interesting plus. This is only published as an ebook and retails, wait for it, at a stunning US$0.99. Yes, it costs less than snacks at an American movie theatre. Joshua Thompson of Michigan would approve since he’s currently running a class-action law suit alleging US cinemas are gouging patrons on the price of popcorn, soft drinks and lollies. No fear for Spiegel & Grau on that score, then.

Anyway, this is a story about what it’s like to be twelve years old and have your BBF move into the death-any-minute-now zone due to cancer or some other life-threatening disease. For Lucretia, who was already a loner, the prospect of losing her friend is a dark cloud hanging over her. It poisons the already tentative membership of a clique at school and leaves her vulnerable to a story told by her older brother. It seems that back in the bad old 1980s, when crack and other profoundly addictive drugs were doing the rounds, the apartment two floors above was occupied by the Kroons. The parents and their five children were crackheads and terrorised the block. Although the parents died, the children somehow remain in residence, haunting the apartment and deterring anyone else from occupying it. The super has locked it up but the children sneak in and out using the fire escape.

Victor LaValle with some French in his background

The Unisphere of Flushing Meadow Park becomes central to a trip into another dimension. It may be a drug-induced hallucination as Lucretia takes a hit from a dodgy cigarette, or it may be a sign of a mental disorder, or it may just be real. Who’s to say where the borderline comes between what’s real and what’s imagined. Either way, if it feels real, you have to act as if you’re being pursued by monsters. Because of this, the novella is somewhat difficult to classify. In terms of the language used, it’s not genuinely literary. The vocabulary selection and syntax reflects the point of view which is that of a twelve-year-old girl. Yet, equally, it’s not a young adult book aimed at teen readers because the intention of the content is to address rather more adult concerns. Although it’s always appropriate for authors who expressly target the teen market to write honestly about the difficult issues like how we should relate to those who are dying or what we should feel if those we love should die, I have no sense that Victor LaValle is directly interested in offering comfort or advice to younger readers. Rather he’s exploiting the less sophisticated trappings of horror that might afflict the mind of a young girl and using those images as the basis of an exploration of what a mind is capable of doing when under pressure.

I suppose you would have to say that a story which has monsters chasing a protagonist is intended to be taken as horror. But the real intention is summed up in the final paragraphs when the omniscient author offers a different view of the protagonist’s experiences. At that moment, it all becomes rather more tragic than horrific. It’s about the sense of loss and desolation that cannot find expression in a young mind. There’s only raw emotion without the structure that comes from the accumulation of life experiences to draw on. Only when you have lived through different sets of circumstances do you develop perspective. The first time always comes as a shock because there are no convenient metaphors to draw on to capture the internal meaning of what you feel. The understanding only comes later when you can look back and see more clearly what you were trying to articulate. As a final thought, I was close to death on several occasions as I was growing up. Many of the children in my peer group did not survive into adulthood. I was also surrounded by people carrying horrific injuries from the war. Many of them also died. This has given me a rather different outlook on the world of injury, disease and death. Today’s children have no comparable exposure to pain and loss. They have no protections or defences. We should pity them because they are so unprepared for the hardships of life. The one sliver up hope held up in this novella is that, if you can look past your fears, sometimes help can come from surprising quarters. People are not always what they appear to be. Lucretia and the Kroons represents an interestingly provocative exploration of the issues and is well worth $0.99 of your money.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Damnation for Beginners by Alan Campbell

Admirable artwork for Damnation for Beginners by Ian McQue

 

It’s a part of being human that our bonnets can sometimes be invaded by bees. After all, these pesky insects fly around and, if you believe accredited sources like Killer Bees, can be directed to infiltrate the gardens, homes and articles of clothing worn by “enemies”. So the appearance of something with a loud buzz and a suicidal sting in close proximity to the more sensitive bits of your head is usually disconcerting and something you want to tell all your readers about the next time you have their undivided attention. In Damnation for Beginners (Subterranean Press, 2012), it’s obvious that Alan Campbell has had a minor disagreement with the bank holding his current account or possibly a credit card company. This has left him with an entirely natural desire to strike back at perceived injustices caused by the imposition of high interest rates and unexpected charges. Indeed, there’s even a hint of paranoia that, such is the power of the larger banks to buy the best legal brains to represent them in court, they have effectively bought the legal system with judges easily swayed by the arguments of those with the deepest pockets.

 

Like Alan Campbell, my own history has been coloured by events from the past. My mother was frightened by Franz Kafka’s view of the world and took every possible precaution to prevent my turning into a bee(tle), or any other insect for that matter. Being a proponent of the scientific method, she would read passages from Treasure Island. She naturally hoped I would develop a wooden leg. She followed this linguistic attack on my motive system by reading How Invertebrates Regenerate Lost Limbs. In this way my human leg would return and I was able to maintain physical (if not a credit) balance when walking. As a result, I have complete control over my body and its movement, maintaining it as fully human simply by the power of my will. Reading this novella confirms my mother’s use of books to train the mind was justified as Alan Campbell introduces us to a labyrinthine banking system designed to milk the world of every last penny and leave the survivors in penury unless, of course, their souls can be traded to Hell for the profit of the bank. Kafka, if not my mother, would have approved of such rampant capitalism as a means of destroying humanity.

Alan Campbell affecting the casually hirsute look

 

I make no secret of the fact that I’m blessed with a vicious streak, so I enjoy extended and savage attacks on the major institutions of the world when they are conducted with real style and wit. Sadly, what we have here is mere ranting, and mere ranting becomes tedious after three or four pages. As you will gather from the title, we’re all doomed to burn in Hell simply because banks are allowed to exist and prey upon us. Indeed, our lives are so bad it’s almost as if we’re already in Hell or perhaps Hell itself is directing the operation of the financial industry. I suppose there’s some ingenuity in the story when our hero decides that, having lost everything important to him, the only thing to do is take his complaint to Hell — it’s the only place you can ever really get anything done even if your name does prove to be Sisyphus.

 

Perhaps, if my milk of kindness level was slightly closer to the runneth over point, I might offer the opinion that Alan Campbell is an author offering us an extended parable on the nature of greed. In these days of moral hazard, bankers have sacrificed their principles in pursuit of excessive wealth and power. This story captures the apotheosis of greed as a sin, elevating it to the truly diabolical. With a lighter touch, I would have been cheering him on. But the result is so humourless that I struggled to finish it. Having finished it, however, I discovered the joke is in the last line which makes it a candidate for the Guinness Book of Records for the longest text before a punchline. Damnation for Beginners actually fits into Alan Campbell’s Deepgate Codex series. If you enjoyed any of those books, this novella is more of the same. If you have not previously tried Alan Campbell, this is not a good place to start.

 

As we’ve come to expect from Subterranean Press, this is a beautiful production with pleasure jacket artwork from Ian McQue and the text overflowing with really nice interior illustrations by Bob Eggleton.

 

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

 

Angel of Europa by Allen Steele

In the stories we tell ourselves around camp fires, we always like to pretend that monsters are fictional. Whether it’s a massive kraken from 20,000 leagues under the sea, or an alien that’s just oozed out of a spaceship and is looking for something crunchy as a light snack before lunch, we describe the “thing” as a source of terror and horror. No matter what its shape, a monster disturbs our sense of what’s right or natural both in physical terms and as its behaviour reveals its inherently evil disposition. This is an entirely human reaction, assuming any being that looks unnatural is likely to be dangerous, if not lethal. Superstition is always a mirror of our own fears. In shadows, we see predatory beasts. Where the light shines brightly, we hope for angels who will keep us safe, not least by driving away the shadows so we can see nothing is actually lurking there. Our religions characterise demons as a mortal danger and a temptation to sin, but they have an unnerving capability. In Doctor Faustus, Christopher Marlowe shows us how Mephistophilis can change its form to appear human, all the while tempting Faustus to make a deal with Lucifer. This draws on our most primal fear. When the monster is obvious from its physical appearance, we can guard against it. But how do you guard against a monster that looks all too human?

So we come to a new novella, Angel of Europa (Subterranean Press, 2011) by Allen Steele, and ask the question, “if you were in a deep submersible, and a monster came and knocked on the outside of your craft, how would you react? Would you sell your soul for, or to, the monster.” The elegant answer comes in a story about an expedition to explore the moons of Jupiter. There’s an unexplored ocean underneath the ice on Europa and the crew have taken two bathyscaphes with them. When there’s a terrible accident and the explanation for the death of two scientists is an attack by a monster, the captain has a difficult choice to make. Is this creature real or has the pilot of the bathyscaphe invented it as an excuse to murder the two scientists?

Allen Steele demonstrating the new neck-mounted microphone for public speaking

The strength of this novella lies in the quality of the mystery. How and why the two scientists came to die is resolved in a satisfying way. Unfortunately, I found the storytelling rather wooden. Now don’t get me wrong. Allen Steele is a highly competent writer and, as you would expect, the prose is of high quality. But the way the narrative unfolds failed to capture my interest. The “detective” is resuscitated and we watch him slowly grow accustomed to being back in his body. As soon as he is strong enough, he’s pitched into the investigation which involves talking with all the remaining crew and travelling, first, down to Europa and, then, under the ice. But it’s all very functional. There’s very little colour or context. The majority of the crew are cyphers who are there just to make potentially illuminating comments. The story really does little more than start at the beginning and, in a very workmanlike way, arrive at the end. So I’m not convinced this slim volume is worth the money. $35 is a not-insignificant chunk of cash to shell out for a moderately routine detective story in outer space. So buy if you are either a red-hot fan of Allen Steele, or you are prepared to bet this 500 copy limited edition will show a profit. Personally, I would wait for this story to appear in a collection or an anthology.

Ron Miller has produced a rather fine piece of jacket artwork.

For a review of novels by Allen Steele, see Coyote Horizon, galaxy blues and Hex.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

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