The Last Mile by Tim Waggoner (Dark Fuse, 2014), 2014) is a novella-length story about the World After. Yes, aliens have invaded Earth and, despite Hollywood’s pious hopes for gung-ho marines to save the day, they have subdued the survivors. Those selected as Thralls do the will of the invaders or face punishment. This time, Dan is on his way to deliver a “package” to his Master. This involves him driving his ancient Oldsmobile along what’s left of Interstate 75, watching as the thorn-stalks part to allow him along the Way, helping to keep him safe from the predators living in the wilderness alongside the road. As always, his task is simple. He has found an unmarked survivor and has her trussed up on the back seat. Once he has delivered her to his Master, all will be well (until the next time the summons comes).
So in the space of a few sentences, I’ve described a science fiction/horror crossover novella in which the rump of humanity survives under the jackboots of the few Thralls (the story is less than forthcoming about exactly how many of the population have survived nor how they are being farmed for sacrifice — I suppose an explanation of this forward planning is not really required for the purposes of this story). The plot is a simple device. We have the set-up to describe the invasion (if that’s the right way to describe it — perhaps arrival might be more appropriate) and then the backstories of Dan the Thrall and Alice, the sacrificial victim on the back seat. As is always required in stories like this, our protagonist is making good progress until he gets close to his destination. Then, as authors will it, the wheel falls off and we’re down to the last mile before death and destruction befall them both.
There’s some interesting imagery on display and some of the ideas will be considered moderately extreme by some readers. This is not a story for people who faint at the sight of blood. The plot moves along quickly and, despite the lack of any clear explanation of how the aliens arrived, how they manipulated the flora and fauna so quickly to produce these rather weird new forms, and how they are managing the food in their larder so it will not run out any time soon, this is a take-no-prisoners race to the finish line. So long as you’re not looking for any deep thinking, The Last Mile is very good of its type.
For a review of a novel by Tim Waggoner, see Night Terrors.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
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.
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.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
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.
“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.
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?
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 (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.
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.
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.
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,
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.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
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.