Judging by recent science fiction and fantasy releases, there's more than a touch of millennial fever in the air these days. Apocalypse -- on a variety of scales -- has become an extremely popular topic.
Harlan Ellison's latest short story collection, "Slippage" (Houghton Mifflin; 304 pages;$22), contains a preponderance of stories that address death, immortality and old ways best left unearthed.
"The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus Ashore" features a mysterious, seemingly omnipotent figure who intervenes in various historical events. In "Chatting with Anubis," two archaeologists meet the jackal-headed Egyptian god of the dead and learn more than they want to know. "Crazy as a Soup Sandwich," a teleplay for the revived "Twilight Zones" series, finds a new wrinkle in the old "deal with the devil" story. The volume's centerpiece is the award-winning novella "Mephisto in Onyx," a clever and harrowing tale of an African-American telepath's confrontation with a white serial killer on death row.
Ellison's last major collection, "Angry Candy," was a rumination on the deaths of many of his closest friends and colleagues. With the 22 pieces assembled in "Slippage," mortality becomes an even more personal issue for the author. In his introduction, Ellison recounts two recent "slippages" in his own life, the 1994 Northridge earthquake that came close to destroying his home and the 1996 heart attack that nearly ended his life.
The theme of this collection book is "Pay attention!" As one of our finest short story writers, regardless of genre, Ellison is a writer who demands, and deserves, close attention. By turns funny, angry, rueful and horrific, "Slippage" finds him in fine form.
On the other hand, Ira Levin's "Son of Rosemary" (Dutton; 262 pages; $22.95) is a deeply annoying book.
It's always dangerous to mess with perfection, and Levin's "Rosemary's Baby" was very nearly that, a meticulously constructed horror thriller that earned its own special niche in pop culture. It's hard to understand why Levin, author of "The Boys from Brazil" and "The Stepford Wives," believed he could do it one better at this late date.
The sequel opens in 1999, 33 years after the events of the original novel, with Rosemary Reilly, the mother of Satan's spawn, awakening from a coma. Last time she saw her son Andy, he was a six-year-old imp happily playing on the living room floor. Now he's a handsome, charismatic leader who's managed to united the world's masses through his squishily New Age spiritualism.
The big question remains: Is he still evil-with-a-capital-E? Well, Andy has the disconcerting habit of jamming his tongue down his mother's throat whenever they kiss and his ex-girlfriend is ritualistically slaughtered in Tiffany's. But those events may simply be red herrings, right?
For all its chills, "Rosemary's Baby" was a darkly witty book, but with "Son of Rosemary," the joke is on the reader. Levin never succeeds in building any suspense and, what's worse, he doesn't play fair when he finally twists the plot. He doesn't even supply a solution to the infuriating word game Rosemary toys with throughout the book. Readers who make it to the end of this novel will be justified in being mad as hell.
Muriel Gray, author of "The Trickster," summons a demon of lesser stature in "Furnace" (Doubleday; 376 pages; $23.95) but she makes better use of it in the interests of suspense.
When trucker Josh Spiller pulls off the highway and into the small town of Furnace, Virginia, all he expects is a meal and a few minute's rest. But after a woman cold-bloodedly pushes a baby stroller under the wheels of his truck, he finds himself caught in a nightmare he can't begin to understand. Although relieved not to be accused of manslaughter, Spiller is frustrated that no one believes his story about the real murderer and puzzled that everyone wants to get him out of town as quickly as possible.
Back on the road and in the company of a mysterious hitchhiker, Spiller can't shake the feeling that he's being watched by something evil. He also discovers in his truck cab an odd strip of parchment-like material, inscribed with the words FIVE DAYS ALIVE PERMITTED. Something awful is definitely headed in his direction, and the only way Spiller knows how to stop it is to return to Furnace.
With her second horror thriller, Gray provides a fresh take on the "tiny town with an awful secret" gimmick. Josh Spiller starts as a likeable but rather dim protagonist, but once he's pushed to the farthest extreme, he musters the craftiness necessary for a satisfying showdown with the supernatural. "Furnace" isn't profound, but it's a fun, well-crafted ride.
Readers left cold by the faux-Tolkien trappings of his Shannara novels may find themselves pleasantly surprised by Terry Brooks's latest, "Running with the Demon" (Del Rey, 432 pages; $25.95 ). A dark-tinged contemporary fantasy, it is set during the first week of July in a small Midwestern town, where labor unrest is simmering at the steel mill and otherworldly chaos is brewing in the woods of the city park. Aside from her grandmother, young Nest Freemark believes she is the only person in Hopewell, Illinois, who can see the feeders, shadowy, nearly insubstantial creatures who hide in the underbrush and live off human hatred and suffering. But when a mysterious stranger named John Ross limps into town, Nest discovers that she is but the latest embodiment of a long legacy of magic and the focal point for a struggle between two cosmic factions, the Word and the Void.
As the Knight of the Word, Ross spends his sleeping hours trapped in a horrific future. To prevent his visions from coming true, he must find a way to protect Nest from a demon, a servant of the Void, who plans to use the strife generated by the steel mill strike to instigate a tragedy that will not only destroy Hopewell, but lead to the very downfall of civilization.
"Running with the Demon" marks an interesting departure for Brooks, author of "Witch's Brew" and "The Talismans of Shannara." Instead of building another ersatz fantasyland, he makes good use of the modern-day Midwestern setting and and its inhabitants. The conflict between the Word and the Void comes off as somewhat hokey, but Brooks offers enough quirky characters and tension-filled situations to hold the reader's attention. "Running with the Demon" is tame in comparison with the work of Stephen King or Dean Kootz, but Brooks proves that he has the ambition to take real chances with his work. The results are worthy of a measured round of applause.
(c) 1997 by Michael Berry