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Spellbent

Chimeric Machines

Sparks and Shadows

Installing Linux on a Dead Badger

Coffin County

Mr Hands

Home Before Dark

In Silent Graves

Fear in a Handful of Dust

Current Reader Favorites:

Tools for Wandering Writers – how to stay productive on the road
Is the publisher just a middleman? – things to consider before you try self-publishing
Finding or creating a writer's workshop group – the title says it all
Using Profanity in Fiction – when cursing works, and when it doesn't
How To Make A Living Writing Short Fiction – can it be done? Yes.
Book Review: Lord of the Flies – all about Ralph and Piggy and Roger
Who Moved My Cheese? – a short review of this short book
How to comfort someone whose mother or father has died – advice for handling this difficult situation
Coping with unemployment – more practical advice for a difficult situation


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Saturday, November 22, 2008

Book Review: Magic Bites by Ilona Andrews

I just finished Magic Bites, the first novel from Gordon and Ilona Andrews. I bought it after I met Ilona at WisCon in 2007, whereupon it got a bit buried in my pile of books to be read. Which was a shame, because this was a very entertaining book, and I like a whole lot about it.

Magic Bites manages to fit both the popular definition of urban fantasy and my personal definition. The plot, in a nutshell, is that magical mercenary Kate Daniels investigates the murder of her guardian in a near-future Atlanta that has been drastically changed by a magical cataclysm.

If you enjoy lycanthrope fiction, this should be your cup of tea: there are werewolves, were-rats, were-hyenas, were-lions, werebears, and even a lynx-were (a lynx that can turn into an approximation of a man.)

If you adore Big Sexy Vampire novels, this probably won't be your cup of tea. The vampires in Magic Bites are asexual, inhuman predators with the mentality of praying mantises. Cold, clammy, horrible - they're about as far from Twilight as you can get. I was most pleased.

There's a lot of good action in the novel, and I appreciated that it goes to some fairly dark places. The back-story for Derek, a young werewolf, is particularly grim, and the main antagonist in the story (and what he does) is genuinely disturbing. Again, as a reader I really enjoyed the darkness and elements of horror in the story - I felt as though the Andrews went where the story needed to go and didn't pull any punches. But if your idea of a fun urban fantasy runs more toward Charlaine Harris, this might be too dark for you.

Protagonist Kate is a good, solid, witty, interesting character; she occasionally did things that annoyed me as a reader (would she really mouth off quite that much, and yet have the self-control to remain so stubbornly celibate?) but the character was consistent and I felt that she was driving the plot rather than the other way around. Magical Atlanta was pretty interesting, but I wanted a bit more explanation for what had happened to it. The secondary characters were all decent, although some of the Alpha Male types all seemed to be popped out of the same mold. And Derek seemed a little too well-adjusted considering everything that had happened to him.

But those are quibbles that didn't really diminish my enjoyment of the book. In short, Magic Bites is a very good urban fantasy adventure, excellent if you consider that it's a first novel. I'm very much looking forward to the sequels, Magic Burns and Magic Strikes.

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Book Review: The Somnambulist by Jonathan Barnes
book cover
I picked up a copy of The Somnambulist by Jonathan Barnes at the World Fantasy convention in Calgary. This is a dark urban fantasy about a magician/private investigator named Edward Moon who uncovers an apocalyptic cult in Victorian-era London. It's an extremely ambitious, clever first novel, and while I did not find it as rollickingly funny as some of the blurb-providers did, it's overall a fascinating read.

The novel parodies the tropes and conventions of old penny dreadfuls and Victorian detective novels; exactly how funny you'll find this book probably depends on your familiarity with these genres, and on how dark you like your amusement. If, like me, you've read relatively little Victorian-era pop fiction, you're not likely to fully appreciate the humor here. If you don't know what a penny dreadful even is, a lot of this book is going to seem pretty obscure.

Time to back up a bit. I called this an urban fantasy, didn't I? Okay. I've run into people who narrowly define urban fantasy as a type of contemporary fantasy, usually containing a strong romantic sub-plot, usually written from the first-person perspective of a girl or woman with magic powers who hangs out with vampires and werewolves and owns a strappy black dress and likely a lower back tattoo. In short, they define urban fantasy as a "harder" type of paranormal romance.

That ain't my definition, folks. To me, urban fantasies are fantasies set in the present (or near-past or near-future) in which the city is such an important part of the setting and plot that it's almost another character. Take the city out, and the story is diminished. I'm thinking books like Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere.

So: do not open The Somnambulist expecting to find romance; this book is pretty much the opposite of romance. Most of the characters aren't even remotely likeable, although some manage to be sympathetic and (for a while, at least) they're all interesting. If you enjoy Edward Gorey's cartoons and Sherlock Holmes, you'll probably find this book worthwhile. But if you read novels because you want to feel emotionally invested in the characters, you should probably stay far away from this book.

I'm in full admiration of Barnes for the ambition in this book, but when I finished it I couldn't decide if I actually liked it or not. Actually, I'm still not sure if I liked the book.

The first problem is the narrator. As I said, he's a cold, snarky Victorian intellectual who declares from the outset that he's unreliable and likely to lie (this struck me as an advanced form of "You can't fire me, I quit!"). The narratorial style puts the whole book at a bit of a distance. After a while, I found it hard to care about any of the characters, although I was still intrigued by the central mystery. However, when the big reveal came and I found out who the narrator actually was, I was strongly tempted to just close the book and set it aside and start on something new. (I'm glad I forged ahead, because there's a bit at the end that's pure genius.)

Another problem is the sheer number of characters. I don't usually have trouble keeping track of large casts, but two-thirds in I found myself paging back and forth a whole lot trying to figure out who was who. It did a lot to kick me out of the book.

The other problem is the plot. It started briskly, but seemed to sag a bit in the middle. And when I got to the end, I felt as though the plot's math was wrong -- things just didn't seem to add up. And in this type of book, which relies almost solely on engaging the reader's intellect, that's a big problem.

So, how to know if you might enjoy this book? Take a look at a copy of the book in a bookstore (or use the "Surprise Me!" feature on Amazon). Read the first couple of pages. A considerable amount of the book's appeal lies in the micro-writing and prose style, so if the sample pages don't grab you, this is not the book for you. If you like them, though, give the book a try; even though this book won't make my list of all-time favorites, I certainly don't feel as though I wasted my time reading it.

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Book Review: Storm Front by Jim Butcher
storm front
I watched The Dresden Files while it aired on SciFi, and while I thought the show had some problems, I found it entertaining enough to seek out each week. Also, it seemed to me that each episode got stronger as the season went along. So I was a bit disappointed that it got cancelled. Anyhow. Nearly a year later I get around to reading Storm Front by Jim Butcher.

Overall, it's an entertaining, quick read, and I can see why the novels got tapped for a TV series. On the downside, the novel has some character motivation problems. Namely, Harry's reasons for not going to the authorities didn't hold water for me, and it's never explained why, with all the magical power Morgan and company apparently have, they don't have the ability to check out Harry's alibi. It's like they're police who don't know how to dust for fingerprints. At times I felt there were moments where characters did things at the dictate of the plot, rather than the plot emerging from what the characters would believably do. It also struck me that some of the problems I had with the TV series -- mainly Harry's not-totally-believable interactions with Morgan and Murphy -- are apparently reflections of the novels, or at least reflections of the first one.

After reading Storm Front, I logged onto Hulu and started to watch the episode of the same name, and found I couldn't enjoy the series any more because so many things in the show struck me as misadaptations. For instance, Harry does magic right there in front of the cops at the crime scene, which he would never ever do in the first novel.

So, for me, the TV series diminished the experience of reading the original novel, simply because many of the most interesting elements felt familiar to me, and reading the novel has now ruined the experience of re-watching the series.

You might have an entirely different reaction, though. So, the upshot is, if you're one of the few urban fantasy fans who hasn't checked out Butcher's work, I encourage you to do so.

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Sunday, October 12, 2008

Book Review: Memorial Day by Harry Shannon
reviewed by Gary A. Braunbeck

Memorial Day by Harry Shannon
Five Star Press, 2004

For those of you who have read Shannon’s previous novels, Night of the Beast and Night of the Werewolf, it will come as no surprise that his latest novel crackles with the same brittle dialogue and muscular prose he’s been honing over the past few years. What might surprise you is that Memorial Day isn’t a horror novel — at least, not in the commercial/marketing sense.

Memorial Day is very much a noir mystery novel, and with only a few minor bumps along the way, Shannon makes the kind of smooth transition between genres that most writers can only dream about. Reading like a cross between Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show and Raymond Chandler’s The Little Sister, the novel tells the story of psychologist/television celebrity Mick Callahan, who, as the novel opens, has hit rock bottom thanks to booze, drugs, women, and his own out of control ego. With nothing left and nowhere to go, he accepts a job hosting a radio talk show in his home town of Dry Wells, Nevada. One of the callers to whom he speaks one night is murdered, and Mick–who made his reputation on television partly by investigative reporting–takes it upon himself to track down the murderer.

Fairly straightforward, traditional mystery elements, yes, but what makes Memorial Day stand apart from the majority of first mystery novels is Shannon’s unflinching, lean, and unsentimental portrayal not only of Callahan, but of all the characters who populate Dry Wells. Not only is Callahan trying to get his life back on track, not only is he dealing with a truckload of guilt carried over from his previous life, not only does he make enemies out of seemingly most of Dry Wells’ population, but he’s also dealing with memories of his own abusive childhood that are being brought to the surface as his investigation uncovers tawdry secret after tawdry secret.

These are a lot of character elements to deal with in a novel; that Shannon not only grapples with these elements but resolves them — and does so in a tight 266 pages — but he also draws fully three-dimensional characterizations for everyone in Dry Wells that Callahan comes into contact with. No easy feat, and one cannot help but applaud Shannon’s craftsmanship.

Which is not to say that everything is on solid ground; there are times when a line of dialogue comes off as self-consciously noir-ish ("You might as well paint a target on your forehead", "This town’s got a lot of dirty little secrets", "You move, you die" etc.), one very important clue is delivered in too-obvious manner, and in the final third of novel, Callahan suffers one brutal beating after another, only to quickly recover and come back for more.

But these are, in the end, minor quibbles that do not adversely affect the overall strength and readability of Memorial Day; at best, they reduce a **** novel to ***1/2.

With Memorial Day, Shannon has made a strong and memorable mystery debut. Mick Callahan has the makings of a fascinating series character in the traditional of Ed Gorman’s Sam McCain or Andrew Vachss’ Burke. Personally, I think it’s high time we had a new series character like Callahan, and a new mystery writer as skillful as Shannon. Even if mystery is not your usual cup of tea, I still highly recommend Memorial Day.

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Book Review: 100 Jolts: Shockingly Short Stories by Michael A. Arnzen
reviewed by Gary A. Braunbeck

100 Jolts: Shockingly Short Stories by Michael A. Arnzen
Raw Dog Screaming Press

Those of you who have visited Arnzen's web site, or the Raw Dog Screaming Press site, or have already purchased this book, know that I provided a blurb for the cover, so you can safely assume that this is going to be a positive review. I stand by what I said in my blurb, but decided I wanted all of you to know why I said it.

Of all story forms, the short-short (defined as a story clocking in at 1000 words or less) is by far the most difficult, and the one that can often defeat even the most seasoned writer. The short-short requires a poet's skill at encapsulation of imagery and ideas, as wells as the fiction writer's ability to employ these same elements in the telling of a cohesive and coherent story — and I emphasize those two words because (more often than not) the short-shorts that appear in the horror field are written by folks who mistakenly assume that those terms are mutually exclusive, which they are most decidedly not.

Even the most surreal of short-shorts must adhere to the structure and internal logic of the short story, regardless of how dreamlike and bizarre the prose might be. The late Donald Barthelme was arguably the master of this particular form of story, but with 100 Jolts, Arnzen, without laying claim to it, emerges as the inheritor of Barthelme's crown.

Consider the following story, used here in its entirety:
A Worse Mousetrap

As I type, the mouse climbs my shoulder and leaps into my breast pocket. I laugh when his furry gray head pops out. He twitters his whiskers, watching as I finish my apology. I hug him against my heart. Later, I will sign my note as the rat poison makes it way through my system.
Looks easy, doesn't it?

Trust me, it's not.

In five sentences–count 'em, five–Arnzen not only employs the poet's skill at encapsulation and the storyteller's ability to form a cohesive and coherent narrative, but also manages to leave a great deal of the horror unspoken. This is a complete story in every sense of the word; it has a beginning, a middle, and an end; it has a central conflict; and it adheres to the single most important rule of fiction: its central character undergoes a change between the start and the finish. That Arnzen chooses to convey this through subtleties rather than graphic depictions makes it even more effective and affecting, adding a great deal of power to that final line.

Every story in 100 Jolts does this, seemingly effortlessly, time and time again.

One of this collection's most jaw-dropping achievement comes at the very beginning with the section entitled "Skull Fragments"; it contains 12 separate short-shorts, all of which can stand on their own as disturbing horror stories, but when taken as a whole, tell a 13th and even more deeply nightmarish tale.

I think 100 Jolts is a remarkable achievement, and a book that all serious readers of horror fiction should have in their hands and on their shelves.

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Sunday, September 07, 2008

Book Review: Ghosts of Yesterday by Jack Cady
reviewed by Gary A. Braunbeck

Ghosts of Yesterday by Jack Cady
Night Shade Books, 2003
ISBN: 1892389487
hardcover


Ghosts of Yesterday coverEarly in 2003, Night Shade Books released a stellar collection of 12 short stories and essays from the superb (and now deceased, sadly) Jack Cady that any serious readers of fantasy or horror should have on their shelves.

Ghosts of Yesterday is the best single-author collection I've read in five years. It's composed of 30,000 words of entirely new fiction, plus pieces that hadn't been in collections before.

Ghosts contains one of the best short stories I've ever read in any genre, "The Lady With The Blind Dog." The story -- like the collection itself -- is by turns thoughtful, sad, frightening, tragic, and, in the end, majestically chilling. You'd also do well to pay close attention to the essay "On Writing The Ghost Story" and the novella "The Time That Time Forgot."

Cady knows how to do it right, and makes the work produced by most of us look like high-school level attempts at Lit-rah-chure. Get it and read it. Do it now. The man's memory deserves nothing less from us.

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Friday, August 29, 2008

Book Review: Speaks the Nightbird by Robert McCammon
reviewed by Gary A. Braunbeck

nightbird coverI immersed myself in Robert McCammon's Speaks the Nightbird for days. I first read it in 2002 when it was released in hardback by River City Publishing (Pocket Books put out the paperback version in 2003). It had been over a decade since McCammon last produced a novel; Nightbird reads astonishingly quickly for its near 700-page length, and McCammon's prose is as smooth, poetic, and unselfconscious as it has ever been.

Writing a period piece like this is never an easy task, but McCammon manages to make the dialogue spoken by the characters ring true in modern-day readers' ears, and his narrative passages easily rank alongside anything written by the Bronte Sisters or Jane Austen; yes, there's a certain--and necessary--austere quality to the language, but McCammon never once gets bogged down by the challenges of this particular brand of prose.

His characterization is crystalline; from the major players to even the smallest supporting roles, not one person who populates this book rings a false note--and considering the size of Nightbird 's cast (were David Lean still alive, he might well be planning this novel for his next gargantuan production), that is no small feat.

The overriding triumph of this genuinely magnificent novel is the utter believability of its core love story (and it should be noted here that, despite the death, hopelessness, and violence that surrounds the cast, there are several different types of love stories that run through this novel, one that easily takes it place in the classical Romantic tradition of Jane Eyre or Silas Marner).

It would have been easy--and arguably justified--to present the love story between Matthew and Rachel in an overly-passionate, smoldering, Sturm-und-Drang manner, playing its inherently tragic aspects to the hilt in the tradition of Victorian drama or grand opera, but McCammon has a much more subtle and affecting way of playing out the romance between his two central characters. They come together because of a mutual alienation with their fellow human beings, and because each is, at their core, a painfully lonely person who each have come to believe they will exit this life without ever having truly loved or been loved, without touching another person, without moving another human being, and in each the other finds a a hard, gem-like flame of hope amidst the madness and squalor of the times in which they are trapped.

You also cannot help but shake your head in wonder at the staggering amount of research that McCammon put into this novel, and in the way he makes this research necessary to the story's unfolding--not just as some expositional dump that screams, "Hey, lookit me! I done did all this here research and I'm gonna cram every last bit of it down your throat!" McCammon doesn't do that here--doesn't even come close. The historical accuracy present in these pages is not only impressive but vital to the deeper levels of the narrative. Plus it's all damned interesting, if at times blackly depressing.

Finishing this novel left me saddened--not because of the final outcome of the story, which is both inevitable and moving and therefore as satisfying as you could hope for, given the subject matter; no, it saddened me because, as McCammon has said, this does not signal his return to writing. In an interview I recently read, McCammon stated that one of the reasons he left the horror field was because it had become a literature that (his exact words following) "...celebrates death," and he no longer wishes to be a part of that.

Speaks the Nightbird is filled with death, but ultimately celebrates life and the possibilities offered to even the most despondent soul by love and faith. Finishing this novel made me wish McCammon would consider the contradiction at the center of his reasoning: yes, maybe horror/dark fantasy/whatever in the hell they're calling it this month...maybe it had been reduced to a literature that celebrated death, but the tide is turning, and now, more than ever, the field needs McCammon's skill and humanity to become what he himself once referred to as "...the supreme mythic literature of our time."

But let's face it; as much as we as readers (and myself as a writer for whom McCammon's craft and skill served as a strong influence) might bemoan the absence of further McCammon books, we are lucky to have this one. And the happiness of no readership--regardless how large or feverishly dedicated that readership may be--is worth any writer's peace of mind and happiness. Maybe McCammon will return to the field one day, and maybe not: I, for one, thank him regardless, for he has given me so many wonderful tales to remember and to which I can return anytime I choose. Like this one.

Speaks the Nightbird, aside from being probably the best novel you'll read this year, proves that, in hands like McCammon's, horror (in all its facets and forms, not just the traditional, boring, pale tropes), could very well fulfill that promise that he himself so eloquently foresaw. It's just a pity that the field let him down and we lost a man who was easily the most passionate and humane dark fantasist of his time. Speaks the Nightbird will leave you hoping, as it did me, that the much-missed Mr. McCammon will someday come back to us--or, rather, allow us to join back with him.

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Saturday, August 02, 2008

Book Review: The Girl in the Basement and Other Stories
reviewed by Gary A. Braunbeck


book coverThe Girl in the Basement and Other Stories by Ray Garton
184 pages; Subterranean Press, 2004
ISBN: 1-59606-012-3

Oddly enough, reading Ray Garton's collection of stories kept reminding me of the original Get Carter starring Michael Caine.

Let me explain: throughout Carter, you see how Caine's hardened criminal is complex, strictly moral within the boundaries of his own code, and very, very dangerous and scary. Yet at the end of the film, you walk away with the feeling that, as dangerous as he's shown to be, the character never really even touched upon the depths of the violence of which is capable…and that makes him all the more formidable and frightening when you view the film a second time.

The same can be said of The Girl in the Basement and Other Stories, which now takes its place alongside Raymond Carver's Where I'm Calling From and Harlan Ellison's Slippage as one of the few collections that I immediately re-read upon finishing it. And, like the original Get Carter, as good as it is initially, it's even better the second time, and a lot of that is due to the remarkable restraint that Garton exercises throughout the title novella and four accompanying stories.

If you've read any of Garton's novels, then you know that he can turn on the gory fireworks with the best of them; in fact, his last 2 novels, Sex and Violence in Hollywood and Scissors, are so gloriously over-the-top that Garton has arguably invented a new sub-genre: that of the Grand Guignol Black Comedy. He remains a master of the horrific set-piece, and some writers (like myself) might consider selling our souls to have half his ability at pacing. But what a lot of readers love about Garton's work are those amazing fireworks.

Potential readers should be warned that The Girl in the Basement contains no such fireworks, yet the collection suffers not a whit from its lack of violence and gore; in fact, it emerges as all the more intense and affecting for its restraint.

All of the stories in The Girl in the Basement are concerned, at their core, with the same thing: corruption; be it moral, physical, spiritual, psychological, or societal, Garton touches upon corruption in all its attendant forms, even those we don't often recognize on the surface as being such.

Take the opening title novella. Ostensibly a story about a possessed child, one begins to prepare oneself for all of the usual trapping associated with this type of story, secure in the knowledge that Garton-an expert hand at injecting new life and energy into the more traditional horror tropes-will not fall victim to cliché.

The story focuses on 15-year old Ryan, a young man who, at the beginning of the story, is living in a foster home with several other teens, having endured a series of abusive foster parents before arriving at the home of Hank and Marie Preston. Ryan has a job bagging groceries at a local market. He has a budding romance with Lyssa, another teen in the Preston's care. He has a troubled (at best) relationship with his mother, a drug addict who is trying to get her life back together. He harbors dreams of becoming a writer, dreams that are encouraged by the Preston's neighbor, Elliot Granger, himself a published horror writer who is currently recovering from painful hip surgery and must rely on Marie Preston and Ryan for help with many of his physical chores.

Already die-hard fans can see several Garton-esque elements in place; the abused kid, the isolated writer, characters struggling with addiction, the internal scars carried by those survivors who've seen the uglier side of life but haven't yet given up. If you hear echoes of other Garton novellas like "Monsters" and "Dr. Krusadian's Method" early on in "The Girl In The Basement", I suspect it's because Garton wants you to; after all, the best way to surprise readers' expectations is to pull a sleight-of-hand by setting them up to expect more of the same and then pulling the rabbit out of your hat.

Which is not to say that "The Girl In The Basement" is an exercise in narrative and structural trickery (even though there is some sly trickery involved on Garton's part, and it's both justified and enviable); this novella is very much its own story, but it's most definitely not the story you're expecting.

There's a 9-year-old, mildly retarded girl named Maddy who's kept in the basement of the Preston house, you see, and sometimes she talks in the deep, gravelly voice of an adult, one who seems able to predict things, one who knows things about you that no one else knows or has ever known…

Think you know what's going to happen and how it's going to happen? Forget it. About the time government agents showed up to "talk" with Maddy in private (something they've been doing for quite a while, as it turns out), I had to shake my head in admiration because I had no idea where he was going with this.

What makes this title novella one of the most accomplished pieces of Garton's career is not just the remarkable restraint he exercises when dealing with the more overtly horrific elements (which at times become almost secondary, and at one point superfluous), but the depth of emotional realism he displays when dealing with the characters. This is hands-down the single most compassionate piece he's ever written; every character is fully fleshed out, both their strengths and weaknesses, their pettiness and kindness, their courage and cowardice, are on display here, and as horrific as this "possession" of the little girl is, it pales in comparison to the portraits Garton paints of how this horror affects the characters. There is a scene near the end of the story where Ryan has a meal of cookies and juice with his drug-addict mother that is one of the most heartbreaking things you're likely to read this year, simmering as it is with a palpable sense of desperation, loneliness, terror, and tragic inevitability.

The horrific elements of the story are for the most part kept on the periphery, and while I think this is going to be a turn-off for readers who look to Garton only for fireworks and fury, those readers like myself who look to Garton to always challenge himself as a storyteller and us as readers are going to come away feeling like we've just left a feast.

And while "The Girl In The Basement" raises many points and answers many questions about the nature of corruption, it leaves just as many unanswered, and rightly so: if one is powerless to fight against corruption, then is it better to simply turn away and ignore it or use it to your own personal advantage? And does that corrupt you, as well?

I don't mean to make this sound philosophically heavy or (God forbid) heavy-handed, because it's a damned entertaining and suspenseful novella, but the depth of emotional maturity and thoughtfulness-as well as the previously-mentioned restraint-elevate this (in my eyes, at least) to the highest form of storytelling that can be found in the horror field; it's suspenseful, horrifying, emotionally rich, perceptive and wise, and-here's the kicker-surprisingly intimate. The "possession" of this little girl (once you read it, you'll understand why I keep putting that term in quotation marks) might be affecting the world and universe at large, but Garton keeps the focus on Ryan and those around him, creating a claustrophobic microcosm that, like all good fiction, mirrors our own everyday lives just enough to make us genuinely uncomfortable enough to question the solidity of the so-called real world surrounding us.

With the exception of the next story, "Cat Lover", all of the stories end with an image of something mudane-a woman crying, a man getting out of his car, someone watching television-that is made darker and more tragic by the context in which it appears; it's Garton taking snapshots of the everyday and like all good writers making us wonder what's going on behind these seemingly inconsequential pictures.

"Cat Lover" is an impressive story, made all the more so when, at the end, you realize that you've just read a story wherein all that physically happens is that a man has a stroke and spends the rest of the story lying paralyzed on the floor of his home worrying that no one is going to feed his cats. While the shock ending can be seen coming from the second page, "Cat Lover" isn't about the nightmarish image that closes the story; it's about loneliness and isolation, and what happens when an individual must suddenly rely on those he/she views as corrupt as their only source of salvation. It's also one of the most sharply-rendered character studies I've read in a long time.

"Reception" is a hard one to talk about without giving away its devastating one-two punch at the end; suffice to say this portrait of a family recovering from the death of one its children manages to achieve in 7 deft pages what I myself strive toward as a writer: to simultaneously chill you to the marrow and hit you square in the heart.

"The Night Clerk" may be my favorite of the shorter pieces contained here-and it's also the one story in the collection that I think most readers are going to finish and go, "Huh?", if not outright dislike. For starters, it's not a horror story in the traditional sense-is, in fact, Garton going mainstream. This seeming vignette about a guy who goes to a an all-night convenience store only to meet up with a laid-back yet oddly pompous night clerk reads like a cross between John Cheever and Raymond Carver. Yeah, there's some violence and tension involved when a masked gunman storms in to rob the place, but this isn't a story about violence; it's a tense meditation on the difference between genuine courage and like cowardice…and bear in mind that the courageous character in this piece is not who you initially think it is. Of all the stories in this collection, "The Night Clerk" is the one that might require you to read it a second time in order to pick up on the myriad subtleties of character and foreshadowing that are sprinkled throughout.

The closing story, "Housesitting", brings the overall theme of corruption full circle, as its central character, housesitting for her best friend while she's on vacation with her husband-uncovers some hidden secrets about her best friend (via some disturbing photographs) that not only forever taint her relationship with her best friend, but corrupt her view of the world around her, as well. The closing scene between the two friends-taking place in a brightly-lighted kitchen on an almost too-ideal suburban afternoon-is Garton writing at the height of his power; as heartbreaking and affecting as this scene is, there is so much more going on beneath the surface, culminating in a single, powerful, beautifully understated final image that will haunt you long after the book is finished-might even, in fact, make you go back to the beginning and start the collection all over again.

The Girl in the Basement and Other Stories is a superb collection, filled with countless surprises, genuine scares, and more than enough emotional depth to satisfy even the most jaded reader.

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Sunday, June 01, 2008

Horror and Thriller Novella Reviews
by Gary A. Braunbeck


Here are some short reviews of novellas I've enjoyed lately.

World of Hurt by Brian Hodge: this nerve-shattering and heartbreaking novella from Earthling showcases Hodge at the top of his form, taking a tired old storyline (a character who is revived from the dead, only to discover that something has followed him or her back into the corporeal world) and infusing it with a heavy doses of intelligence, emotional realism, and existential (in the dictionary sense of the word) terror. The most emotionally challenging and richly-rewarding a novella of the year, Hodge's prose has never been more eloquent, his storytelling never more powerful and affecting.

Mama's Boy by Fran Friel: It's almost impossible to discuss this nasty little story without giving away or hinting at its many twists and turns, so you're just going to have to settle for this: This blackest of black comedies, ingeniously structured, will leave you thinking that Norman Bates maybe wasn't all that bad a fellow. An impressive and memorable debut, and deliciously wicked to the core.

Bloodstained Oz by Christopher Golden and James A. Moore: When I first saw that Golden and Moore had collaborated on a novella, I thought it was a mis-print. How could these 2 writers -- who, in my eyes, anyway -- are polar opposites in so many ways, possibly write something together that wasn't going to read like 2 clashing styles meeting in the literary equivalent of a car crash? The answer? Bloodstained Oz, easily the nastiest work on this list (sorry, Fran), and one guaranteed to forever ruin the Judy Garland film you've come to know and love. The voice employed here in a singular one, smooth and assured; the pacing is a wonder to behold; and the story itself is, well ... oddly inspiring, in a twisted sort of way. A bloody winner, this, and Earthling's 3rd book to make this list.

The Colour Out of Darkness (Novella Series) by John Pelan: I have a confession to make: most Lovecraft-inspired stories make me cringe, and Lovecraft pastiches make me despair, because more often than not, they bring out the worst in writers. Luckily, John Pelan's Cemetery Dance novella is an exception. Eschewing a lot of the usual trappings of the Cthulhu Mythos, Pelan adds more than a few original spins to the Lovecraft canon while never resorting to tired imitation of Lovecraft's style. Another winner.

The Bad Season by Dennis Latham: This lean and mean entry would make a great double feature with Jonathan Maberry's Ghost Road Blues, as both rely heavily on folklore and how it manifests itself -- with terrifying consequences -- in the modern world. Latham's prose makes Hemingway's look wordy and purple. A fast, hard, unnerving ride from first page to last.

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Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Horror and Thriller Collection Short Reviews
by Gary A. Braunbeck


Here are some short reviews of collections I've enjoyed lately.

Four Octobers by Rick Hautala: The flap copy for this quartet of novellas from Hautala (who some of you may know as A.J. Matthews) would have you believe that the four tales are "...loosely connected..." Well, sure, if all you look at are the physical locales and the element of some characters making peripheral appearances from tale to tale, but look closer and you'll see that more connects them than just people and places: there is a palpable sense of overwhelming loss that permeates every story, so that "loosely" thing? Not so much. This beautiful edition from CD Publications boasts a gorgeous cover and interior artwork from the redoubtable Glenn Chadbourne, and collects 2 of Hautala's most accomplished novellas -- "Miss Henry's Bottles" (a personal favorite of mine) and "Cold River" -- as well as 2 brand-new works, "Tin Can Telephone" (reminiscent -- and deserving to be mentioned in the same breath as many works -- of Ray Bradbury) and "Blood Ledge". The result is one of the year's finest single-author collections, and further proof that Hautala is much, much more than just "...that other author from Maine."

Thundershowers at Dusk: Gothic Stories by Christopher Conlon: As with Eyes Everwhere, I have to confess to a certain bias; Chris asked me to read this collection in manuscript form with an eye toward providing a cover blurb. After I finished reading it, I told him, "No, I won't do a blurb -- I want to write the Introduction!" So I did. Conlon is best known as an award-winning poet and anthology editor (the most recent anthology being the excellent Poe's Lighthouse from CD Publications), but he's also a stellar writer of fiction -- he just doesn't write it all that often, which is a real loss for readers. Thundershowers at Dusk is a hands-down brilliant collection from first page to last, every story is a winner, and it contains one of the finest novellas I have ever read in any genre, period, "The Unfinished Music". As rich and rewarding a collection as you'll ever read. (And I will add here, for any publishers who happed to read this, that Conlon is now shopping around a stunning first novel entitled Midnight on Mourn Street that is going to bring a lot of sales and accolades to whichever publisher is smart enough to snatch it up.) I maintain that Conlon is a better writer now than I could ever hope to be, and Thundershowers at Dusk more than proves it. Hence my deep-rooted resentment of him.

American Morons by Glenn Hirshberg: Paul Miller's Earthling Publications gets the Hat-Trick Award this year for having published 3 exceptional books in 2006, the first being this collection, Hirshberg's follow-up to The Two Sams. While I greatly admired the first collection, American Morons surpasses it on several levels, mostly because Hirshberg's writing has become even more focused and polished; he's going to be a major force in the field in the next few years, and while his writing has more in common with that of Steven Millhauser than Stephen King, it is nonetheless some of the most nerve-wracking and unapologetically literary work being produced in the field. All of the stories are winners, but the book is worth its price for "Safety Clowns" and "Devil's Smile".

The Tenant by Roland Topor: A million thanks to Millipede Press for putting this short novel back into print, along with 4 rarely-seen short stories and Topor's own artwork (which reminded me of the surreal work of Heinrich Kley). It's an utterly gorgeous book, boasting an intelligent and articulate Introduction from Thomas Ligotti ... but mostly, there is The Tenant, which remains today just as terrifying, eloquent, and compelling as it was when originally released in 1965. The 4 shorts accompanying it are equally impressive, resulting in a genuine must-have collection.

The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel: Hempel, in case you've not read her work, is one of the finest short story writers of the last 25 years, and this omnibus assembles all 4 of her collections, including the hard-to-find At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom. With the exception of the jaw-dropping novella "Tumble Home", most of her stories run less than 10 pages in length, and stand as a testament to what a skilled writer can do in a very limited amount of time. This collection contains one of my all-time favorite short stories, "In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried". If all so-called "literary" fiction were as exquisite as Hempel's, the world would be a better place.

The Ocean and All Its Devices by William Browning Spencer: It's been 10 years since Spencer's last collection, The Return of Count Electric and Other Stories left readers screaming for more, and Spencer delivers in a big way with this follow-up. For my money, Spencer;s work -- be it in short stories or novel form -- has always read like a head-on collision between John Cheever and Donald Barthelme; which is to say, it's rooted both in the humane and the surreal. The title story is both tragic and nightmarish, containing some of the most chilling imagery you'll encounter. Spencer doesn't write nearly enough, so grab this superb collection and keep it near to bide your time until he releases his next book.

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Friday, February 29, 2008

Dark Fantasy, Thriller, and Horror Novel Reviews
by Gary A. Braunbeck


People send books to me all the time, be it for review, as a gift, or to read for award consideration, and while I am always happy to receive the gift of the written word, my schedule (both writing and work-related) is such that I end every year in the red, reading-wise; I rarely have the chance to read every book that comes my way throughout the previous 11 months. But that's okay; I feel a little bit like that character from Chet Willimason's wonderful novella "The House of Fear" who believes that, as long as he goes to bed every night without having finished the book he's currently reading, he won't die in his sleep, because the unread pages of the book will protect him.

So, without further ado, here are some short reviews of novels I've enjoyed lately.

The Pressure of Darkness by Harry Shannon: Not only is this a first-rate thriller, a first-rate mystery, and a first-rate action-adventure, it is, hands-down, the best horror novel Shannon has yet written. One of the things I've come to admire about Harry Shannon's work is that it's among the most muscular and unpretentious being written in any field, and Shannon heartily embraces Gary's Golden Rule of Writing Good Fiction: Forget Genre. Shannon will use any element necessary in order to tell his story the way the story demands to be told, so it's no surprise that The Pressure of Darkness blurs nearly every genre line you can name. At a hefty 440 pages, it reads like a book half that length.

Ghost Road Blues by Jonathan Maberry: Everything you've heard about this impressive first novel is true; it's haunting, lyrical (God, is it lyrical), suspenseful and scary (the two are not the same thing), and, most of all, deeply humane in the depiction of its characters. This is the first book in a trilogy from Maberry, and I for one can't see the release of the second book soon enough. The atmosphere throughout this wonderful novel (which can hold its own alongside the Silver John tales of Manly Wade Wellman) is so rich and textured you can almost feel it with your fingertips.

The Nightmare Frontier by Stephen Mark Rainey: Hurt my widdle bwain trying to figure out something better to say about this novel than I said in my blurb for it and failed miserably, so I'll just repeat myself: "Remember what it was like to read a horror novel that actually made you sweat with dread and your hand shake ever-so-slightly as you turned the page? Remember what it was like to feel your heart thud against your chest as the plight of the characters became your own? Remember what it was like to have a story cast a spell over you rather than ram everything down your throat? If so, you've reason to rejoice; if not, then you need to discover what that's like. In either case, Mark Rainey's The Nightmare Frontier delivers the goods. This is the Good, Real Stuff. From its powerful opening in the jungles of Vietnam to its nerve-wracking finale, this novel never releases its grip on the reader's nerves, brains, and heart." Rainey is Old-School (Like Huigh Cave and Robert Bloch, thank God) and nowhere is his craft more refined than this novel. Get it, get it now.

Bloodstone by Nate Kenyon: Kenyon's debut novel has been compared (not without justification) to the early works of Stephen King, in that it deals with a malevolent force that all but consumes a small town populated with the usual array of small-town characters; think It but on a smaller and more intensely-focused scale. The one quibble I have with this novel is that -- unlike many debut horror novels -- it actually needed to be a bit longer. There are times when Kenyon seems to packing a little too much into his 354-page narrative, but his writing style is so clean, his confidence in his story so strong, and his overall narrative arc so compelling, that in the end, my quibble is actually a compliment: it's better to leave the reader wanting more than to leave the reader feeling his or her time has been wasted. Your time will most definitely not be wasted with Kenyon's excellent debut.

The Keeper by Sarah Langan: Horror as social commentary the way it ought to be done, with the agenda hidden in the background and illustrated by the actions of the characters rather than in long-winded didactic speeches. While I felt that the overall story arc wasn't as strong as it could have been, Langan's exquisite prose more than makes up for any perceived shortcomings in its plotting. Along with Mayberry's Ghost Road Blues, this novel overflows with prose so effortlessly lyrical there are passages where the words threaten to shimmer right off the page. Langan also understands that, in the end, it's the cumulative effect of building terror that remains with the reader, rather than the quick shock; she also knows the difference between genuine human tragedy and the merely tragic, and her fine debut packs quite an emotional punch because of it.

Forever Will You Suffer by Gary Frank: Even if I hadn't found Frank's central character immensely likable, even if I hadn't found the story gripping, and even if I hadn't found his writing style strong and assured throughout, I would still put this book on the list because Frank pulls off a remarkable balancing act with this novel; he combines dread, tragedy, pathos, and fall-on-the-floor-laughing humor so well that you not only don't know where this story is going to go from one chapter to the next, you often can't predict where it's going to go within a single scene. The book switches gears so fast you sometimes feel like you're in the last 3 laps of the Indy 500, but never once does it hit any bumps. I admired the hell out of that; that the rest of the book had me laughing, holding my breath, and even fighting a lump in the throat once or twice (something that's not easy to do to me), was just the trophy at the end of the race (to play out the less-than-subtle racing metaphor).

Again by Sharon Cullars: If you're one of these folks who have avoided reading so-called "Paranormal Romance" novels because you think all they are is bodice-rippers with ghosts, no single book could more prove you wrong than Cullars's luminous, eloquent debut novel. Reading like a collaboration between Toni Morrison and Jack Finney, Again announces the arrival of a fresh, distinct voice, telling a story that is romantic, sensual (in the dictionary sense of the word), frightening, genuinely erotic, heartbreaking and, ultimately, life-affirming, with a final line that is pitch-perfect -- as is the rest of this lovely, heartfelt, deeply affecting novel.

Eyes Everywhere by Matthew Warner: Yes, I have a certain bias when it comes to this novel, I'll admit it -- but consider: if I had not thought so highly of this dazzling psychological horror story and its unflinching depiction of an Everyman's rapid and tragic descent into paranoid schizophrenia, I wouldn't have agreed to write the Aftwerword for it, would I? Light-years beyond Warner's debut novel, The Organ Donor in both plotting and execution (i.e. the quality of both the macro- and microwriting) -- and I say this as one who thoroughly enjoyed The Organ Donor.

Headstone City and The Dead Letters by Tom Piccirilli: Yeah, two superb novels in the same year. I considered not including either one because I have now decided that I hate Piccirilli -- no one should be this consistently excellent. I then realized that he's much bigger than I am, knows where I live, and could tie knots in my spine without breaking a sweat; so, here they are. Not only is each novel a fine reading experience in its own right, but if you read them in the order they were published (which is the same order in which they are listed here), you'll note the further evolution of Piccirilli as a story-teller; while both novels contain supernatural elements, those elements become increasingly downplayed as you move from one novel to the next; to the point where, in The Dead Letters, they're peripheral in the story yet essential to it. Piccirilli has been reaching the height of his power for the last few years; with these two stunning novels, he's even closer to the summit. The world will shake when he gets there, so hang on.

Lisey's Story by Stephen King: Like Bag of Bones (to which this novel serves as the companion piece), Hearts in Atlantis, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon and From A Buick 8, King's Constant Readers are divided about this one; I have no such quibbles. When King puts his heart and soul into something, he can be devastating, and Lisey's Story is one of the most unflinching explorations of grief, love, and unachieved potential you'll ever read. The "secret language" of marriage that is grappled with throughout this book has made more than a few readers grit their teeth, if not abandon the book altogether. Their loss. This is, in my opinion, King's finest achievemnt as a novelist, genre be damned.

Pandora Drive by Tim Waggoner: Though much less serious in its intent and execution than Waggoner's previous Leisure novel, Like Death, Pandora Drive is nonetheless further proof that Waggoner, intentionally or not, has picked up at the torch where Clive Barker placed it before he took a left turn into fantasy. Often wildly over-the-top (especially in an exhilarating, funny, shocking, and endlessly creative 115-page set piece right smack in the middle of the book) but never succumbing to the outright ridiculous, Waggoner's second Leisure novel is marred only by a less-than-satisfying conclusion, but not so much that it taints the rest of the story that has come before. If you go into this expecting a serious and terrifying horror novel, you won't make to the halfway point; if you go in knowing that Waggoner has turned the surreal comedy dial all the way to 11, then you're in for one hell of a ride. Just don't be eating anything once you hit the midway point.

The Conqueror Worms by Brian Keene: Good old-fashioned, gross-out, breakneck-paced, gross-out, fun, gross-out, pulp horror, period, delivered by the writer who's arguably revitalized the extreme horror sub-genre. You'll think twice about what you use for bait when fishing season comes around. Did I mention gross-out?

Breeding Ground by Sarah Pinborough: Following on the heels of her wonderful debut The Hidden and its follow-up, The Reckoning, Sarah Pinborough has fast become my favorite new horror writer. Now, more than ever, I am convinced that Pinborough was not born, but rather created in a lab by some literary-minded scientist who decided to combine the DNA of Jane Austen, Shirley Jackson, and Angela Carter. Breeding Ground contains the same eloquent, richly dense prose as The Hidden while building upon the flair Pinborough displayed for the dreadful and shocking with The Reckoning. Imagine Rosemary's Baby as a 3-way collaboration between the hosts of Pinborough's DNA and you'll have some small idea of the scope and subject of this terrific, often electrifying novel.

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Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Book Review: Poet's Market

This thick reference book is published annually by F&W Publications. It contains a mix of market listings (recent editions contain 1,700 to 1,800 markets) and articles that purport to give poets an insider's view of the poetry market and give them the information they need to introduce their work to the right editor.

Specific listed markets include mass circulation and literary magazines, trade book publishers, small presses and university quarterlies, along with information about current editors and editorial policy. It also includes indexes such as a chapbook publishers index, a geographical index, a subject index, etc.

I personally find this book to be useful, but be forewarned that the information in their listings may be stale due to the volatile nature of the publishing industry. Magazines are launched and fail every month, publishers change addresses and policies.

The best use of this book is to identify likely publishers, then do a web search to corroborate the information. Also, because buying one of these books each year is pretty expensive for most poets, I suggest seeking out a copy at your local library instead of buying one new.

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Friday, February 10, 2006

Peter Straub's Lost Boy, Lost Girl

Lost Boy, Lost Girl by Peter Straub
Hardcover: 304 pages
Random House (October 7, 2003)
ISBN: 1400060923

Lost Boy, Lost Girl features characters those who have read Peter Straub's best-sellers Koko (1988), Mystery (1989), and The Throat (1993) will quickly recognize. In this book, horror novelist/Vietnam vet Timothy Underhill must travel home to Millhaven, IL and seek the aid of P.I. Tom Pasmore to solve the mystery of why Underhill's nephew disappeared after witnessing his mother's suicide.

While they track a pedophilic serial killer, they realize the lost boy had become obsessed with an abandoned house where he may have fallen under the spell of a ghostly girl.

This is without a doubt the best thing Straub's written in a decade. I for one thinks it takes a lot of guts and integrity for a writer of his stature to go off in a new direction under the guidance of a new editor and--gulp!--actually grow before our very eyes.

My respect for Straub has tripled since reading this book, and I use every chance I can to tell any dark fantasy fans I meet that they must read Lost Boy, Lost Girl -- I think it's every bit as important a novel in the field now as Ghost Story was when it was released.

One of the goals Straub and his new editor had in mind with this novel is for Straub to reach a wider audience--which is why it's so short. If you've had trouble with his stuff being far too dense in the past, then this is definitely the book for you. It's the most accessible novel he's ever written in the genre. It's beautifully crafted, surprisingly moving, and creepy as hell. I cannot recommend it highly enough.




Gary A. Braunbeck is the author of 14 books and over 150 short stories. If you enjoyed this review, check out his book Fear in a Handful of Dust: Horror as a Way of Life.

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Russell Banks' The Sweet Hereafter

The film The Sweet Hereafter is based on the novel of the same name written by Russell Banks. If you enjoyed the film, I encourage you to seek out the book, because it's wonderful. If you want to be a writer, or if you simply enjoy a good story, the novel has a great deal to offer you.

The book's central event is a school bus crash that kills many children in the small town of Sam Dent in upstate New York; the rest of the book explores the effect the tragedy has on the town and the novel's central characters.

The Sweet Hereafter provides the best example I've ever encountered of an author alternating between several first person narrators. It's told from four viewpoints: Dolores Driscoll, the bus driver; Billy Ansel, a grieving, alcoholic father of one of the dead children; Mitchell Stephens, a New York City lawyer who is trying to cope with grief over his own drug-addicted daughter; and Nichole Burnell, a teenager who was crippled in the accident.

Banks establishes such distinct cadences for each character that when all four of them are talking to one another, he goes sometimes for pages without a single "he said," "she said."

The book is 257 pages long and was first published in 1991, though parts of it appeared before that date in North American Review and Ontario Review.



Gary A. Braunbeck is the author of 14 books and over 150 short stories. If you enjoyed this review, check out his book Fear in a Handful of Dust: Horror as a Way of Life.

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Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Book Review: Storyteller by Kate Wilhelm
Storyteller: Writing Lessons and More from 27 Years of the Clarion Writers' Workshop
by Kate Wilhelm
Small Beer Press
ISBN: 1-931520-16-X
190 pages

I attended Clarion the year after Kate Wilhelm stopped teaching there. She (along with Robin Scott Wilson and her husband Damon Knight) was one of the original founders of the workshop. Wilhelm taught at Clarion for 27 years; this slim book is partly her workshop memoir and partly a writing guide that details advice and exercises she and other instructors gave to workshop students.

If you're new to writing, or have just had a class or two taught by largely unpublished literary professors, the writing manual aspects of this book may be a minor revelation. But if you've already been to Clarion and are familiar with the Turkey City Lexicon(which isn't mentioned by name here, but contains many of the same concepts), the writing advice in this book will be utterly familiar to you. In that case, you may find yourself skimming the writing advice bits and looking for the Clarion recollections and anecdotes. I had not remembered, for instance, that the Clarion workshop was hosted at Tulane in New Orleans before it moved to Michigan State. And reading about the trials and tribulations of finding an MSU dorm that would put up with the students' shenanigans was quite entertaining.

Wilhelm fans will want to seek out this book; that's a given. But I think that the reader who will be most helped by this book is someone who is thinking about or planning to attend Clarion. There are plenty of writing manuals and student Clarion journals out there, but Storyteller provides a historical perspective I don't think you can find anywhere else.

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Friday, November 04, 2005

Book Review: The Time Machine by H.G. Wells
Plot Summary (Spoilers Inevitably Follow)

H.G. Wells' novel opens with the Time Traveler explaining his plans to travel in time to a group of his Victorian peers (most only named by an occupational label.) The next scene is a dinner party a week later with the narrator and a few of the Time Traveler's previous guests. The Time Traveler enters the room in terrible shape. After he has cleaned up and has eaten, he begins to tell them of his trip in time.

The narratorial voice switches to that of the Traveler himself, and he tells them that he went to the year 802701 A.D. The England of the distant future is a beautiful place, almost a Utopia, but civilization is in majestic ruin. He first encounters the Eloi, a race of pretty, vacuous beings descended from humans. All other animals are apparently extinct, and the vegetarian Eloi have every need mysteriously provided for. Then, he discovers that someone has taken his time machine and he is frantic until he realizes that it has been locked in the bronze base of a nearby statue. He gives up on trying to free his machine, and later saves a drowning Eloi named Weena.

Weena tags along with the Traveler, and he soon discovers the existence of the Morlocks, a race of subterranean creatures descended from the human working class that maintain the underground machines that support the Eloi. He goes off exploring in the countryside with Weena in tow, and in the process of going through a ruined museum he lets the time get away from him and the Morlocks come out to attack after dark. He gets away from them, but inadvertently starts a forest fire and Weena is killed in the chaos.

The Traveler makes it back to the statue and finds that the doors are open. He goes inside to get his machine, and the Morlocks try to trap him. The Traveler manages to escape and goes far into the future to a time where the place he once lived is a beach with monstrous crabs. He travels on to an era near the end of the world, a time of darkness and cold. Then, he returns to his own time.

The only one who seems to believe his story is the narrator. The narrator goes into the lab to talk to the Time Traveller, but he and his machine are gone.

Review

The Time Machine is a social doom prophecy. The future is presented as a place where the privileged have finally gotten a world where they can lead utterly carefree lives of leisure. Unfortunately, the centuries of soft living have turned the rich into weak and stupid creatures. Meanwhile, the working class has speciated into subterranean horrors that finally seek revenge on their former masters. This is to serve as an extrapolation of what Wells surely saw as a widening gulf between the rich and poor in Victorian England. Wells exaggerated the difference between the Morlocks and Eloi to warn the well-to-do and the British government that the social injustices of the day would prove ruinous if not corrected. Also, Wells warns everybody that the attainment of our ideal world, one with no pressure or work, would probably be fatal to the human race.

The Time Machine seems to compare favorably with mainstream literature of its day. When compared with more modern novels, science fiction or otherwise, parts of it seem a bit quaint and stuffy. Still, Wells was a good writer and the novel has a sense of wonder; it's a fine adventure tale.

On the surface, the circumstances and science sound good, but they don't hold up well if you know much about science. I accept the idea of the time machine, since that particular fantasy is central to the story, but there are a few other details that bothered me.

First, the Time Traveller describes the land as being devoid of fungi. The primary decomposers in an ecosystem are fungi; without them, you can't have a gorgeous landscape. I guess Wells just didn't want stinkhorns on his world.

Also, the Eloi are described as being disease-free. Perhaps science could get rid of parasites and viruses. But you can't kill off the bacteria; otherwise, the whole ecosystem goes down. No decomposition, no nitrogen fixation, no plants ... no Eloi. Since there must be bacteria, eventually you'll have disease, since bacteria mutate quickly and will occupy any ecological niche that they can get started in.

The behavior of the Morlocks rang a little false with me. They're intelligent enough to run the machines and lay a trap. Why didn't they use weapons while trying to hunt the Time Traveler down? Chimpanzees and even crows use primitive tools. I suppose Wells kept the Morlocks unarmed so that the hero could get away; a party of armed Morlocks could have easily brained him.

Also, I didn't completely believe the development of the Morlock society. I don't think a working class, no matter how subjugated, could be kept down for so long. It only takes one extremely able person to get a revolution going, and in the time frame the novel spans I'm sure that the workers would have already rebelled successfully.

I think Wells was accurate in showing the evolutionary changes that could occur in several hundred thousand years' time. The physical changes to the Eloi were pretty good; I have read other predictions that humans will get more androgynous and possibly smaller if automation progresses at its current pace.

However, I doubt the extent of their mental deterioration. I think that they would have had games and sports, and that would have almost guaranteed that at least some of the Eloi would not have been so small and weak. Humans love games; even in places where there is no literacy and no ambition, you have stickball and basketball and poker. The Eloi still had language, why not at least some balls to throw around?

My criticisms aside, I thought the novel has held up very well. Some of Wells' scientific reasoning was off, but the knowledge of the day was limited. The story is good and fast-paced, and the descriptions are engaging. The novel lacks the literary ammunition of other works of the same period, but it paved the way for a whole lot of really excellent science fiction stories and novels.

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Thursday, October 27, 2005

Book Review: Lord of the Flies by William Golding

Lord of the Flies by William Golding is one of my favorite novels, not necessarily from a "I'm going to read this every year!" standpoint but more from a "Damn, I wish I could write like that!" perspective. This allegorical book was originally published in 1954; it is one of the most carefully structured novels I've read; each chapter has a wonderful internal rise and fall, and the plotting and metaphoric shadings in the characterizations are amazing.

In the beginning of the novel, the reader is presented with a group of British boys who have been stranded on a tropical island. The boys are all young, the oldest ones not more than twelve, and the island is seemingly serene and gorgeous. The stage seems set for the boys to have a wonderful romp in paradise, but as disagreement breaks out amongst them, their life on the island becomes increasingly violent and hellish.

On a symbolic level, the novel deals with the effects of war on the human race and the ways in which it can turn Earth, our own used-to-be-Paradise, into a living hell.

Selected Characters (spoilers follow)

Ralph

Ralph is in many ways the personification of a good-intentioned world leader who must struggle with himself between upholding the law and giving in to his baser instincts.

Ralph realizes the necessity for a structured environment for the boys who look up to him, even if they don't think it's necessary, but at the same time he wants to give in to his own selfish desires. Ralph does not have the inborn charisma of a "natural" leader, but he is the most capable leader amongst the boys. He has the conch, which Golding uses as a symbol of leadership and just government. He is not perfect, but he has the sense to ask advice from boys (such as Piggy) who know more than he does.

Unfortunately, he is not able to maintain control when the boys start to fight. Once he is deposed, he symbolizes the spirit of resistance and the struggle for justice in oppressed people.

In the end, he is shown to be the true leader of the boys, but only after the adult world intervenes in the form of the naval officer arriving to end the chaos.

Piggy

Piggy represents weakend intelligentsia. His obesity and asthma prevent him from playing and working with the other boys. His isolation and alienation due to his physical problems and his sheltered life with his aunt mirror the separation and alienation of the scientific/academic community from mainstream world affairs.

Piggy's dependence on his glasses -- without which he is nearly helpless -- represents the intellectual elites' dependence on technology and knowledge for their power and survival.

In the end, Piggy is murdered by Roger, much as Pol Pot and other dictators destroyed intellectuals in their own countries to keep their people ignorant and obedient.

Roger

Roger represents the senselessly violent factions who are suppressed by the laws of a stable society but who rise to bloodthirsty heights in times of war.

When the boys first arrive on the island, Roger is shy and furtive. When war breaks out between the boys, he comes to the forefront as the main enforcer for Jack, the boy tyrant. Roger's methods of terror and uses of torture mirror the actions of groups such as the Nazis in wartime Germany and the Kmer Rouge in wartime Cambodia. Roger vents his sadism on his fellow classmates, representing genocide within a country.

The only thing that stops Roger is the arrival of the naval officer.

Jack Merridew

Jack represents both tyranny and the destructive, reckless side of human nature. He has a great deal of charisma but very little foresight; his view of the world is centered on satisfying his own desires for power and pleasure.

His insistence on being called by his last name in the beginning of the book shows that he has a military mindset and a distorted view of himself and his classmates. He doesn't really see anyone, including himself, as being a real person with a heart and soul and feelings.

However, most of the other boys can only see his charisma, and his military bravado makes him seem like the natural leader to follow. But in reality, Jack is a very poor leader, providing only quick, superficial answers to their problems.

When his answers fail, he maintains his hold on the boys with terror and a cult of bloodlust that refocuses the energy of their fears into wild dances and pig hunts.

Jack starts up the war against Ralph and his boys; this mirrors the use of war in dictatorships to distract the public from their real problems and to maintain power. Jack's setting the devastating fire on the island is like the act of a mad dictator starting a nuclear war.

Jack denies his own fears and humanity, hiding behind a mask of war paint. His facade is finally broken down when the naval officer arrives and imposes the order of the adult world.

The Naval Officer

The naval officer who arrives at the end of the novel to put a stop to the boys' madness and take them back to civilization could represent a higher power such as God. But perhaps he's just a wishful deus ex machina employed so that readers aren't completely depressed by having to read about Ralph and his friends being murdered after Piggy.

Regardless of one's interpretation of the officer's symbolism, the ultimate irony of the book is that he "rescues" the boys only to take them back to a world torn by war where none of them have any authority or power over their own lives. And, unlike the officer's stopping the boys' violence, there's not likely to be any higher power to save humanity from the disaster of its own creation.


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Thursday, September 08, 2005

Book Review: Wigger by William Goldman

Wigger is the title of a wonderful 1974 children's book written by William Goldman, who also penned The Princess Bride and The Silent Gondoliers. It was illustrated by Errol Le Cain. The book's target age range is kids 7 to 10 years old. It's rather amazing that Disney or some other film company hasn't made a movie of this, though of course if anyone filmed it today, they'd have to change the now-unfortunate title.

In the book, Wigger is a little girl's beloved security blanket. Wigger was given to her by her parents, who died in a car crash. The little girl keeps getting sick, and her aunt and uncle take her to doctors, who can't figure out what's wrong with her. One night, she falls very ill, and they take her to the hospital. The doctors there realize what's wrong with her: she's drowning.

The little girl is literally drowning in tears; she hasn't cried at all since her parents died.

And then she loses Wigger, her last comfort.

As she lies close to death in the hospital, a Vietnam veteran learns of the little girl's plight, and sets out to find Wigger. He does, and when he brings the blanket back to the little girl, she is finally able to cry for her parents, thus saving her life.

Hmm, the above synopsis makes the book sound overly grim. It's not; it's a very sweet little book. It seems to be out of print, so if you come upon a copy in a used bookshop, you might want to take a second look at it.

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Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Book Review: Devil's Tower by Mark Sumner

A Review of Mark Sumner's novel Devil's Tower (Del Rey, 1996)

Devil's Tower is a sprawling, entertaining novel that blurs the boundaries between fantasy, western and horror. Set in an alternate Wild West ruled by hexes and conjurations, it tells the tale of Jake Bird, a reluctant hero who begins as a lowly stable hand and ends up as the only man who can stand up to the magic of General Custer, a powerful madman who threatens the entire country.

This novel has a lot going for it, and it might be just what you're looking for on a lazy Sunday when you want to lose yourself in a rousing adventure for a few hours. The opening chapter grabs you and doesn't let go, and the rest of the novel is fast-paced and vividly written.

So, who probably won't like this book? Well, after all, this is a fantasy adventure novel, and a Western to boot. If you're looking for more than a variation of the standard boy-comes-of-age-and-defeats-Evil plot, this probably isn't your cup of tea. Ditto if you're looking for deep, complex characters, or if you don't like graphic violence (the carnage toward the end of the novel is worthy of any Clive Barker opus). But if you like the work of Joe R. Lansdale and other writers of weird westerns, you'll probably enjoy Devil's Tower as much as I did.

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Thursday, July 28, 2005

Book Review: Luz, the Art of Ciruelo by Ciruelo Cabral
Luz, the Art of Ciruelo (released by Diamond Comics in the U.S. and Bast Editorial in Europe) is a compilation of the artwork of Ciruelo Cabral, a young Argentinean-born artist who lives near Barcelona, Spain. You may have seen Cabral's work on Magic: The Gathering cards, in magazines like Playboy and Heavy Metal, and on the covers of fantasy novels.

If you enjoy lavish illustrations of square-jawed heroes battling monsters and wooing buxom lasses in various states of distress (and undress), then you're going to love Luz, the third compilation of Cabral's artwork. As one might expect, Luz contains mainly book cover illustrations for clients such as Tor, Ballantine and TSR. But it also features CD covers, tattoo art, previously-unpublished sketches, and a striking section on his petropictos, a sculpture/painting hybrid in which the artist airbrushes directly onto stones.

Most of Ciruelo's work is fantasy art, mainly images of derring-do and sorcery set against backgrounds of craggy cliffs and lush landscapes. His dragons are especially fetching; I was quite taken with one painting of a black wyrm glowering atop a rock. His SF images are far fewer in number but equally well-done.

In short, I enjoyed this collection, and if you have any appreciation for the aesthetics of high fantasy, you will, too. But as I leafed through the book, a little ditty penned by Mike Flynn (to the tune of "If You're Happy and You Know It, Clap Your Hands") kept running through my head:

There's a bimbo on the cover of my book.
There's a bimbo on the cover of my book.
She is blond and she is sexy,
She is nowhere in the text, she
Is the bimbo on the cover of my book!

Don't get me wrong; this collection is far less sexist than the work of many fantasy artists. And, obviously, fantasy art is expected to portray people who are beautiful and heroically proportioned. All good and well.

But it would be nice if his images didn't seem to always pander to the fantasies of teenage boys. We women like fantasy, too, and buy it in spite of the bimbo covers. But chances are, more of us would buy more of it if we saw our fantasies being portrayed.

For instance, one of Ciruelo's paintings portrays a blond, virtually naked nymph hiding from a hunting party. She's also ankle-deep in snow. Brr! Wondering if men really think about this sort of thing, I consulted an older friend, a professed Sensitive Guy who actually owns a copy of Sleepless in Seattle. He looked at the picture and nodded gravely, admitting that yes, while cross-country skiing he'd had similar fantasies of finding naked women in the snowy woods.

Conversely, I have never once daydreamed about freezing my tits off in a snowbank while waiting for a wandering barbarian to find me. Issues of temperature and clothing aside, most women have at one time or another dreamed of being seduced. But we also dream of seducing, and of kicking butt. There is a serious lack of feminine butt-kicking in Luz. Some of Ciruelo's ladies are armed, yes, but they're never actually doing any fighting. They're just decorative.

But that's a relatively minor quibble; if you collect fantasy art, Luz would be a worthy addition.

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Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Book Review: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
by J.K. Rowling, illustrated by Mary GrandPre
Arthur A. Levine Books (July 16, 2005)
ISBN: 0439784549
652 pages

I know a fair number of adult SF fans have been complaining about the Harry Potter series lacking depth etc., but seriously, these are children's books -- should any grown-up find it shocking Harry's adventures aren't meant for them and don't suit them?

It's not supposed to be Sartre, folks. I think if most of us go back and read beloved books from our childhood, we'll find them a bit lacking in one respect or another. For instance, I adored Madeline L'Engle's A Wrinkle In Time when I was a preteen and young teenager. It along with a couple of other books were what inspired me to want to become a writer. But when I read it again as a thirtysomething, the characters seemed flat and the villainous force seemed insufficiently frightening. Wrinkle is undeniably a classic work, and I still love it, but it was written for 12-year-old me, not jaded ol' modern-day me.

Some people have commented on Rowling's not portraying teenagers as the horny little monsters that pretty much all of us were in our mid-and-late teens. Seeing as this is nominally aimed at kids ages 9-12, Rowling couldn't very well turn in Harry Potter and The Last Picture Show, could she?

Still, in Half-Blood Prince, Rowling does at least hint at the wizard kids having budding sex lives and shows Ron and Hermione quarreling and running off to date other students in an effort to make each other jealous. Ron and Hermione aren't the only ones who find romance in the novel -- Harry suffers a great deal of teen angst over his attraction to Ron's little sister Ginny. Order of the Phoenix member Tonks is wandering around in a broken-hearted funk. And all the Weasley women are upset over Bill's engagement to stuck-up Fleur.

The first two-thirds of the book spend enough time on the kids' romantic entanglements and on Voldemort's adolescent history that the story lacks real tension. Furthermore, Harry is treated as a hero by his classmates, which removes a great deal of the drama found in the earlier novels. I found the prose as readable as always, but I just didn't have the sense of fear and impending doom I got from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

Some other reviewers and readers have claimed that this is the darkest book in the series; really, I don't think so. Order of the Phoenix seemed loads darker overall. What does happen in this book is that A Major Beloved Character dies in an entirely plotworthy manner. Some people will be aghast and turned off by that, but the character's death was utterly necessary for the events of the final book.

And we all know what's going to happen in the last book: Harry has his final showdown with Voldemort. A kid can't go into a killing battle with a wizard, but a young man can. This book is about Harry leaving the nest, once and for all.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince only starts getting truly interesting in the last third of the book; by the end, Rowling had me good and ready for the final book in the series.

There are of course The Usual Problems: Rowling borrows heavily from other writers; she even nabs some imagery from the Dead Marshes sequence in the film version of The Two Towers. The plot doesn't entirely hold water in places. If you've read the entire series so far, you're probably prepared to forgive Rowling for being a bit of a literary George Lucas.

It seemed to me that in many ways, this novel was an exercise in backstory and setting up events for the final novel. It's a shame she couldn't have made this book as gripping as some of the others have been, but I have faith that the final book will give us the payoff we've been looking for.

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I'm Lucy Snyder. I'm a Worthington, Ohio author and former magazine editor; on this site you'll find my writing as well as features from my husband, novelist Gary A. Braunbeck.

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