Book Review: Indexing

Book Review: Indexing by Seanan McGuire

Have you ever wished you could have a fairy tale life?  Be the hero of the story, vanquish evil, gain true love and live happily ever after?  Well, the Narrative is here to help!  It loves shoehorning people’s lives into the shape of fairy tales.  Of course, there’s no guarantee it will slot you into one of the good roles.  And have you ever noticed how much death and misery is in your average fairy tale?  Plus, trying to make real life mimic magic has its limitations, often lethal ones.

Indexing

And that’s where the ATI Management Bureau comes in.  Using their knowledge of the Aarne-Thompson Index to Motifs in Folk Literature to spot the Narrative trying to break into reality as we know it, the ATI agents try to thwart the worst effects of the stories on innocent bystanders.  The focus is on the field team led by Henrietta “Henry” Marchen, who is trying to avoid going full Snow White.  She’s assisted by Sloane Winters, an obnoxious woman who has averted the Evil Stepsister role only by not having any family; Jeffrey, the team archivist (who has an affinity for shoes) and Andy, the team normal who handles social interaction.

There’s been a sudden spike in Narrative incursions lately, in particular ones that look like one fairy tale only to morph into more deadly ones.  The team is forced to take on a new member with Pied Piper abilities to solve a case, but then the hits just keep on coming.  Pretty soon it becomes obvious that the Narrative has a mole inside the Bureau itself!

Seanan Mcguire is the author of the October Daye and Incryptids urban fantasy series, as well as writing horror as “Mira Grant.”  This book was her first try at writing a Kindle serial, with chunks published online every two weeks.  (There’s also a sequel.) “Fairy tales are real” is a hot concept in recent years, with the long-running Fables comic book series, the television shows Grimm and Once Upon a Time and a fantasy series I forget the name of set in “The Realms” and having a very similar premise to Indexing.

There are some cool twists to the concept–every time a new adaptation of a fairy tale comes out, it adds variations that the Narrative can use.  Thanks, Disney!  Literary fairy tales with known authors like Peter Pan count too.  Also, the Narrative has figured out how to change up the casting, for example putting a male character in the “Little Mermaid” role.  And then there’s what Henry realizes about the roots of the Snow White story….

This is not, however, the author’s best work.  She was not used to working in serial form, and it shows.  In particular, the chapters repeat basic information over and over on the assumption that the reader might not have read the previous part, or at least not remember the details.  This is most notable in the first half of the book.  On the other hand, it’s interesting watching Ms. McGuire improve as the story goes on.  (I personally would have re-edited the book to eliminate redundancy as was the custom with fix-up novels of the past, but that’s just me.)

Most of the characterization goes to Henry and Sloane, with Demi (the Pied  Piper) woefully neglected for much of the book.  Sloane’s battle to be wicked but not outright evil is the most enjoyable character arc.

If you’re familiar with fairy tales, you are aware that they often have dark content–there’s suicide, and rape is mentioned, in addition to the usual murder and maiming.  I’m just glad “Manyfurs” and “How the Children Played Butcher” weren’t referenced.

Again, not the author’s best work, but entertaining and worth reading if you’re a fan of dark fairy tales.

 

Open Thread: Minicon 51 Report

Open Thread: Minicon 51 Report

For those of you new to this blog, Minicon is the Easter weekend science fiction convention put on by MN-StF every year.  I’ve been going to it for somewhere around three decades now, and this year was no exception.  Once again it was at the RadiShTree (Bloomington Doubletree) hotel, and I was able to secure a room in the hotel, which was ready when I checked in!

Art copyright 2016 by Sara Burrier.
Art copyright 2016 by Sara Burrier.

I wandered around the Art Show/Dealers’ Room/Science Exhibit for a while, then visited the Consuite for a late lunch.  One of the nicest things about long-running conventions is meeting and talking to your friends you only see there–I did quite a lot of that this last weekend, as some of these folks I’ve had at least a nodding acquaintance with since the mid-Eighties.

I went to the Cinema Obscura to watch a short film titled Yesterday Was a Lie which is black and white, and involves time becoming unstuck for a detective.  Problems with the sound system made the first ten minutes seem even more “noir” than was intended, but being able to hear the words thereafter didn’t help much in unraveling what was actually going on.

Then I attended the panel “It’s Tough to Be an Introvert These Days” which had all three Guests of Honor: Seanan McGuire (writer), Lojo Russo (musician) and Sara Burrier (artist) and a couple of other people talking about how they balance their social media presence with their creative and personal lives.

After that was Opening Ceremonies, which were very short this year as the new MC was no-nonsense.  Dave Romm retired from the job after thirty years!

I went up to my room for a couple of hours to rest, then came down for the first panel I was on, “How to Survive a Horror Movie.”  As Seanan McGuire writes horror (among other things) she was also on this panel.  She got a corn-based trophy from some fans, referencing something I’m not familiar with.  We had a lot of fun, and I got to use my “don’t be a security guard” line.

After that, I dropped in on a couple of parties.  Dave Romm also retired from his day job, it seems, and has been spending time traveling with his mother, who was also there–the party was mostly so she could meet people.  Also got a review copy of a book you’ll be hearing more about once I’ve finished with it.

Next morning, I enjoyed the consuite breakfast–big thank you to the dedicated people that make that possible every year!  Then it was off to the spendy room again–unfortunately the one thing in the Art Show I’d wanted had been outbid.  My niece will be getting a different birthday present.  I noticed a headache coming on, but ignored it at that point so I could go to the Seanan McGuire interview.

She mentioned some things about the October Daye series that increased my desire to read it considerably.  Also a fun story about her visit to Tam Lin’s Well.  Afterwards, Ms. McGuire did a signing, and I got my copy of Indexing signed.  (More on that book in its review.)

By that time, my headache had spiked, and my need to obtain aspirin distracted me, so I was just barely in time for my first panel of the day, “Being a Fan of Problematic Things.”  I was the moderator, so I really had to be there.  Much thanks to my panelists Aimee Kuzinski and Katie Clapham for being willing to do most of the talking!  We covered a lot of ground, from “what does ‘problematic’ actually mean?” through “how to react when you find out something you like is problematic to other people” to “how do we teach our children about problematic elements in their fiction?”

My headache was mostly gone by the next panel, “Psy Phi” (psionic powers in comics) which I again shared with Seanan McGuire, who brought badge ribbons to vote for Jean Gray or Emma Frost as “best X-psychic.”  We talked about psi powers in science fiction and how the use of them evolved, a bit about developing the ethics of telepathy, and how comics tended to give psychic powers to women, the disabled and the “othered.”

A lot of the audience was the same for the next panel I was on, “Being an X-Men Means Never Having to Attend a Serious Funeral”, which was about revolving-door deaths in comics.  Mind, that’s mostly a thing with Marvel and DC–smaller companies and single-creator comics can permanently kill characters and not really hurt their bottom line.  The death of a character (and subsequent return) can be done well, but too often it’s subject to lazy writing.

Did other things for a while, then the headache came back, so I took more aspirin and laid down (I love having a room at the hotel!) for a while before my last panel, “50th Anniversary of Star Trek”  (The pilot was filmed in 1964, but the show didn’t hit the air until 1966.)  Unfortunately, the scheduled panelist who had worked with Gene Roddenberry back in the day took ill, but we managed to find a knowledgeable substitute.  Indeed, all the other panelists were way more informed about Star Trek than I am, so I fell back on the moderator’s privilege of asking questions and letting everyone else talk.

Apparently the JJ Abrams reboot is attracting new fans who can still get into the better old stuff.  (I was happy to see a few people in the audience who were actually younger than Star Trek itself.)

I quickly visited a few more parties, had more conversations, got a root beer float at the Consuite, then went up to my room to watch some dubbed anime on Cartoon Network before turning in.

Woke up late, breakfast in the Consuite again, then packed for the journey home.  (Checkout time is noon, and I am not made of money.)  Made a last sweep through the booksellers, then it was off to “The Year in SF”.  Lots of good stuff last year, the one noticeable trend was more “climate disaster” novels.

Then it was time for the “Mega Moneyduck Reveal.”  “Moneyduck” is kind of like a pen and paper version of “Telephone”–you start with a word or phrase, the next person draws a picture of it, the next next person writes a description of the picture, etc.  This particular game had been played on a long roll of paper all weekend.  The starting phrase was “Shall we play this again next year?” and the mutations took us through sentient alcohol, suicidal teddy bears, and alien preachers to “Batman and Robin caught the Hot Dog Bandit.”  Very silly.

Closing ceremonies were fun, and the assassination of the outgoing MN-StF President was accomplished by informing him that he’d been chosen as Trump’s running mate, bringing on a heart attack.

The bus ride back to Minneapolis was not so much fun–the sky had clouded over and the wind picked up, the local bus took forever to arrive, and the connecting bus drove away just as the local pulled up, requiring another half hour wait in the cold.

Back to work tomorrow!

 

Book Review: Twin Cities Speculations: An Anthology of Sci-Fi and Fantasy

Book Review: Twin Cities Speculations: An Anthology of Sci-Fi and Fantasy edited by Eric Binfet

As I may have mentioned before, I have a soft spot for local writers, of which Minnesota has many.  One Twin Cities writers’ group got together and self-published an anthology, and here we are.  Eight stories of SF and fantasy, all first officially published in this book.

Twin Cities Speculations

The opener is “Space Aliens on Maple Lake” by Bill Cutler.  It is ice-fishing season, and a downed alien spacecraft lands on Maple Lake.  The aliens need to avoid detection by pretending to be an ordinary ice fishing shack, but will they be able to fool the Earthlings?  Light comedy with Minnesota stereotypes.

“The Cursed Years” by  Cecelia Isaac is the only story with no mention of Minnesota, being set in a fantasy world.  The protagonist, Py, is cursed to wander far from his kingdom for seven years.  He starts his journey  voluntarily in an effort to make the curse less onerous, but soon discovers even thinking about returning home is dangerous.  He acquires a talking sword, and an actual goal when he learns there may be a way to break the curse.  This is one of the better stories in the volume, and has an obvious sequel hook–it could also be turned into a doorstopper trilogy with enough padding.

“The Harry Hawkins Experience” by Jonathan Rogers has a would-be biographer tagging along with the title character, a wealthy adventurer.  They investigate a tomb with restless inhabitants.  The writer is a filmmaker, and it shows with a very “this could be a movie” feel.  Sadly, Mr. Hawkins is an annoying character who is supposed to become more endearing as the story wears on, but doesn’t.

“Heaven Help Me” by Lindsey Loree is a monologue by a fallen guardian angel.  Turns out that Heaven is very judgmental and not at all big on redemption.  The protagonist unwittingly helps set an alternative plan in motion.

“Robbing the Grave” by Eric Binfet concerns a guilt-ridden man having dreams that seem to predict the future…and the future is murder.  Is this his dead brother giving him another chance to prevent innocent life from being taken, or just his guilt finally causing a permanent breakdown?  There’s an in-joke for Marvel Comics fans, and an interesting police character.  The protagonist’s relationships with his best friend and girlfriend come off a bit tedious.

“Kreet” by Tina S. Murphy is about a grif, an insectoid creature, named Sooe Han-Cen who is going into the desert to find the stronghold of the titular Kreet.  The Kreet are an invasive species with an explosive population curve, and a penchant for eating grif.  Sooe’s mission is complicated by all her fellow Agents having already been eaten, and the presence of a foolish treasure hunter who thinks she’s trying to steal his goodies.  This is the longest story in the volume, and comes with an extended coda that reveals the consequences of Sooe’s mission from a different perspective.

“Volunteers” by Susan L. Hansen is told in reverse order, starting with the heroes having had successes against the alien slavers called Jakooma, and flashing ever back to how they got there.  The most imaginative bit is the psychic whose powers are normally kind of useless due to the future changing every time someone makes a decision, but in dire circumstances that narrow the possibilities, becomes Earth’s one hope for freedom.

And the book closes with “LOST” by Lizzie Scott.  Lilith, grieving the loss of her husband and children, has isolated herself in a remote farmhouse.  During a blizzard, a very lost little girl  named Pyry shows up on her doorstep, and Lilith must put aside her own problems to help the child.  But what she does may be more dangerous to Pyry than the thing that got the girl lost in the first place!  This too was a good story, that followed through on its fantasy concept well.

I regret to say that spellchecker typos, the bane of self-publishing editors, are frequent, especially in “Kreet.”

Overall, a decent enough collection of stories, but mostly of local interest to Minnesotans.  Others might want to invest in case one of the writers eventually becomes famous.

Book Review: Chameleon 2: In Garde We Trust

Book Review: Chameleon 2: In Garde We Trust by Jerry LaPlante

One of my reading addictions as a teen was trashy series hero paperbacks.  The Executioner, the Destroyer, Nick Carter Killmaster…much like the old pulp heroes but grittier and with more sleaze.  The more successful series are still published to this day in one form or another, but there were many imitators that have sunk into the memory hole.  The Chameleon series is one of them.

Chameleon 2: In Garde We Trust

Vance Garde is a genius scientist (his primary specialty is engineering physics) who has a prosperous think tank producing inventions and innovations to improve things for humanity.  But every so often he encounters injustice, and in his rage works to destroy those evil people who are responsible.  In the first book, it had been the death of his half-sister from tainted drugs that caused him to create a new subdivision of his company, VIBES, that produces weapons for his missions of vindication.  Ably assisted by his Vice President of Operations Ballou Annis (the first book was heavy on the punny names), he wiped out the entire drug ring.

This volume opens with Vance being chased across a Montana glacier by a grizzly bear while doing metric conversions in his head.  Which is a pretty good use of in medias res.  We then flashback to him as Ms. Annis (who has a pretty vindictive streak herself) and he are interrupted during a meal by a girl in green robes who hasn’t eaten regularly in a while and is seriously glassy-eyed.  She collapses, and when taken to the hospital, swallows cyanide rather than be treated.  Her male conterpart is prevented from suicide and goes catatonic.

Vance Garde is already beginning to get angry at the cult that sponsors these green-robed fanatics, The Symbiotic Synagogue, when it becomes personal as Ballou learns her brother Adrian has joined the cult and wants his trust fund released to that organization.  The two hatch a plan to rescue Adrian by kidnapping him, but that plan goes seriously awry, leading to the situation at the beginning of the book.

Having survived that, Mr. Garde is ready to come up with a plan to crush the Symbiotic Synagogue, if he can just figure out what they’re really up to.

The Symbiotic Synagogue and its leader Father Sol Luna are obviously based on the Unification Church of Sun Myung Moon, right down to the cultists being named “Lunies”, but there are also elements of the Hare Krishnas and other cults of the time.  Their mind control is more literal than in real life, though more subtle than many uses of that idea, and Vance Garde isn’t thinking clearly for a substantial piece of the story.

That serves to smooth over the fact that Mr. Garde is one of those multi-competent protagonists who is both physically and mentally superior to just about everyone in his vicinity.  He’s rather smug about it, too–so it’s amusing when he screws up.

Ballou Aniss is less likable, due to her petty yet over-engineered pranks against those who offend her.  Seriously, you do not want to get on this woman’s bad side.  She also benefits in-story from not so much being brilliant as her targets being stupid, sometimes repeatedly.

It’s interesting to look at the technology in the story as well.  Aside from the mind-control gadget and an interesting method of detecting uranium deposits, we have the hero’s computer.  It’s got a very powerful database system, and he has three people dedicated to putting in information about science and industry.  So when Vance needs information on a company he’s investigating, that’s something he can find right away.  But he’s never bothered with religion, so someone has to go out to the library to look up the cult they’re fighting.  It’s also apparently not hooked up to ARPANET.

Also, no cellphones, so our heroes hide miniature CB radios in largish tourist cameras.

As mentioned above, this is a sleazy paperback.  Two running gags are that Vance and Ballou never actually get all the way through sex (including a waterbed disaster) and a dog that’s been conditioned to poop whenever it hears a telephone ring.  The former is more amusing than the latter.

On the more serious side, there’s chastity belts with some nasty surprises built in, attempted rape, and torture (this last one by Vance, who enjoys amateur dentistry too much for this reader’s comfort.)

The writing is adequate for the kind of book this is, and often rises to the level of amusing; it would be a good disposable read for fans of sleazy Seventies paperback series.

Comic Strip Review: The Far Side Gallery 2

Comic Strip Review: The Far Side Gallery 2 by Gary Larson

The Far Side was a daily single-panel newspaper comic that ran from 1980 to 1995, although reruns are common in newspapers.  Gary Larson’s offbeat comedy often features science fiction and horror concepts, as well as talking animals and cavemen.  Honestly, it’s hard to describe without giving specific examples.  This oversized volume contains the best cartoons from three smaller collections from the early Eighties.

The Far Side Gallery 2

As a “best of” collection, this does a good job, showcasing favorites from back in the day.  For example, “the modern lion” shows lions using walkie-talkies to stalk their prey.  Or the woman about to pet a cat, asking if it’s friendly, oblivious to the obvious injuries of the cat’s hosts.  There’s an introduction by horror writer Stephen King that’s mildly funny.

Gary Larson’s art, like many single-panel cartoonists’, is more “distinctive” than “good.”  You know right away that you’re looking at a The Far Side cartoon.  He was smart enough to recognize when his material was getting stale, and retired the feature to work on other projects.

Being written in the 1980s, there are some outdated ethnic references, so parents may want to explain why those words are hurtful to children reading this collection.

Recommended to comics fans and those who enjoy offbeat humor.

Book Review: The Sea-Wolf

Book Review: The Sea-Wolf by Jack London

Today is an ill-omened day.  It began with a heavy fog in San Francisco Harbor, and the ferry carrying literary critic Humphrey Van Weyden colliding with another ship.  He managed to get into a life jacket, but was swept away from the other survivors by a freak tide that took him out to sea.  You’d think that being picked up by a ship would be a good thing, but this is the seal-hunting ship Ghost, and she is commanded by the much feared Wolf Larsen.  Captain Larsen has no intentions of returning to harbor, and one of his sailors having just died, presses Van Weyden into service as a cabin boy.

The Sea-Wolf

This 1904 novel was partially based on Jack London’s own experience working on a sealing ship, and is considered one of the great sea adventure stories.  The primary conflict of the book is the clash of life philosophies between the idealistic gentleman Van Weyden, and the nihilistic and amoral Larsen.

Van Weyden is a nice enough fellow, but in large part that’s because he’s never needed to test that niceness.  Having inherited a substantial sum from his father, and cossetted by his female relatives, Humphrey has been able to dedicate himself to his books and writing career.   He’s never had to actually work for a living, and the harsh shipboard life comes as a series of shocks to him (even not counting Wolf Larsen’s particular cruelty.)  Van Weyden is rather classist, and as we see later in  the book, very sexist (in the “positive discrimination” sense.)  He grows up in many ways during the course of the story.

But it’s Larsen that the book is named for.  Born into abject poverty as a Dane in Norway, he went to sea at the earliest opportunity.  He taught himself to read and write and speak English, and all the skills needed of a sailor.  No man’s hand was lifted to help him along the way; Larsen clawed every bit of knowledge out for himself.  In a harsh world, Wolf Larsen learned to be harsh and rose in the ranks.  He took advantage of every opportunity that came his way, and has reached the pinnacle of his career path…captain of a small ship, commanding a score or so of men.

It’s said that Jack London modeled Wolf Larsen on the Nietzchean ubermensch, physically superior to everyone else on the ship, and intellectually superior to everyone except Humphrey (but with a more thought-out life philosophy.)  He’s also a perfect specimen of masculine beauty according to Van Weyden.  But he is constrained by his circumstances; his genius and drive could have made him a rich man or politically powerful, or a great artist, but life never fell out for him that way.  His cruelty and amoral behavior make him absolute master of his ship, but immensely lonely, and those under Wolf will turn against him at any chance they have.  In the end his own philosophy of “life eating life to live” is his downfall.

Most of the crew has minimal characterization, but we do get to know a few.  Johnson (not “Yonson”) of quiet dignity and great admiration for the shipbuilding craft.  George Leach (not his real name) who had to flee San Francisco for crimes unnamed, and with too much courage for his own good.  Louis, the consummate survivor.  And Thomas “Cooky” Mugridge, Cockney ship’s cook.  This last fellow is Van Weyden’s particular enemy early in the book.  Mugridge is sniveling to those above him, and tyrannical to those below him, filthy in his habits, greedy and isn’t very good at cooking.  He’s an odious person, but as Van Weyden learns, Mugridge is also constrained by his circumstances, plagued with ill luck as well as bad life choices.

Another presence, never directly seen, is Death Larsen, Wolf Larsen’s brother, and by all accounts an even worse person than him.  He’s in the same business, but with a bigger boat, and the brothers hate each other even more than they hate everyone else.

The story shifts about two-thirds of the way in with the appearance of more castaways, including Maud Brewster.  This moderately successful poet was on a voyage to Japan to improve her health when a storm wrecked her ship.  Fancy her landing on the same ship as the literary critic who boosted her early career!   She and Van Weyden quickly become friends, and in different circumstances, it could be more.  But Wolf Larsen also finds himself attracted to Maud’s beauty and wit, and he is bound by neither politeness nor custom of courtship.

It becomes necessary for Maud and Humphrey to flee the ship, and after some days in a small boat, manage to find a deserted island.  They set their minds and bodies to survive the coming winter…but the couple hasn’t seen the last of Wolf Larsen.  The romance is easily the weakest part of the book, and was considered cheesy even by contemporary critics, but does provide something of a happy ending.

There’s quite a bit of violence in the book, both human-on-human and human-on-seal.  The latter will be even more appalling to modern readers than early Twentieth Century ones, I think.  Van Weyden notes the wastefulness of killing these creatures for their skins, and then just dumping the remainder of the corpses.  There’s torture that goes a bit further than intended, and a near-sexual assault that’s only averted by coincidence.

On the other hand, no one in the book excretes waste, (really obvious during the small boat escape) and no one ever has sex.  (The crew of the ship is explicitly celibate.)  There’s a kiss at the end, but that’s it for physical contact.

Overall, an exciting tale of adventure and philosophy, but the romance takes the book down a notch.  Recommended for fans of sea tales and people who enjoy Jack London’s other books.

Manga Review: Die Wergelder 1

Manga Review: Die Wergelder by Hiroaki Samura

There’s something weird going on with the isolated island of Ishikunagajima.  A decade ago, it was a  poverty-stricken backwater inhabited mostly by fishermen and their families.  Now it’s a thriving red-light district, despite being a five hour boat trip from Japan.  It seems that someone has plowed a lot of money into making sure there are plenty of brothels there.  More money than they could possibly be raking in from the tourists.

Die Wergelder 1

The mystery of Ishikunagajima is drawing in an assortment of criminals and shady people.  Two loosely-connected yakuza gangs, a German pharmaceutical concern, a blonde sniper named Träne, a Chinese assassin named Jie Mao and a homeless woman named Shinobu who hasn’t been to her home island in  years, and others, are converging on the remote rock in the sea.   What’s really going on in Ishikunagajima, and will anyone survive finding out?

This is the new series from Hiroaki Samura, creator of Blade of the Immortal.  According to the interview in the back of Volume 1 (which collects the first two volumes of the Japanese edition), this series is a homage to the violent and erotic “Pinky Violence” movies of the 1970s.  And make no mistake, we’re getting plenty of violence and sex.  In the first chapter alone, there’s nudity, some disturbing sex, a woman giving birth, and a man being killed in a particularly horrific way.  As you might expect, in later chapters there’s rape and torture.

This is not a story with heroes so far; there are only evil people, amoral people, and those seeking revenge.  “Wergelder”, we are told, is the price one must pay for murdering someone, and at least one character is determined to collect wergelder no matter what.  That said, many of the characters are interesting; they have varying motivations and lines they don’t want to cross.  Shinobu is as close to being an innocent as the story allows for.  She’s been content to survive on only the pettiest of crimes, until a yakuza thug steals from his bosses and offers to take her with him someplace nice.  They’re both caught within two days, and the boss offers her a deal–help him find out what goes on with Ishikunajima and she can live.

Träne used to be an innocent, but very bad things happened in her backstory that have left her obsessed with revenge.  She will do just about anything to achieve that goal, including co-opting Shinobu and the yakuza into her plans to infiltrate the remote island of mystery.  But precisely who is using whom remains in question.

Ro, the minor yakuza thug Shinobu initially runs off with, becomes something of the comic relief as he swiftly accepts that he’s a supporting character in this story–as long as he’s not being tortured or killed, he’s up for whatever.

The first few chapters are a bit disjointed as they set up the various pieces; we don’t really get a lot of the main plot points until after the first scenes at Ishikunajima.

Again, this seinen manga earns a “Mature Readers” warning, so be advised.  Recommended for fans of “Pinky Violence” films and the creator’s previous series.

Book Review: Fright

Book Review: Fright edited by Charles M. Collins

The cover makes this book look like a generic product, but that’s a little deceiving.  It’s actually an anthology skewed towards the Gothic end of horror rather than the gory, emphasizing vocabulary-rich authors.  Most of the stories were rarely reprinted before this collection in 1963.

Fright

We open with “The Forest Warden” by E.T.A. Hoffman.  The story begins where romantic tales of the time usually ended–the handsome young man rescues a distressed damsel, they marry and the man is rewarded with a job to support his new family.  But the new forest warden, Andres, finds that his territory is infested with robbers and poachers, and his aim is off, so he is unable to produce the tithe of game he owes his employer.  Also, his wife Giorgina becomes deathly ill after the birth of their first son.  Their small savings are soon exhausted from futile attempts to cure her.

When things look their darkest, a mysterious stranger named Ignaz Denner appears.  As it just so happens, he has an elixir which is just the thing to fix Giorgina right up.  He doesn’t want anything in exchange for this life-restoring tonic, in fact, Ignaz gives them several more nice gifts!  He even proposes arranging for the son’s education, though Andres and Giorgina turn that down.  That said, they appreciate their new best friend.

It’s only after the happy couple’s second son is born and Andres is called away that Ignaz reveals his true nature in a horrific manner.  Things rapidly go downhill from there, except for a seeming resolution about two-thirds of the way through before the abyss opens again.

This book’s translation is based on the 1814 version of the story, with the original ending which was considered too shocking for readers of the time and edited out in later editions.  (On the other hand, this translation apparently cuts out paragraphs of detail about the German judicial system that are not directly relevant to the main plotline.)  The ending is still pretty shocking by today’s standards.

Andres is inconsistent in his characterization; sometimes he’s alert and spots trouble coming, other times he acts very foolishly.  (“I know from personal experience that Ignaz Denner is a murderer who is literally in league with Satan and lies like a rug, but he says he’s reformed, so I will let him live with me.”)  Christianity does not overcome the forces of evil in this story, it just makes them angry.

“Schalken the Painter” by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu takes us to Holland, where the famous artist was once an apprentice.  He fell in love with his master’s beautiful niece, and she returned his interest.  However, a mysterious but wealthy man appears after nightfall one night and convinces the master to arrange the niece’s marriage to him.  (The master pays lip service to the idea that maybe the niece should be allowed to have a say in who she marries, but the gold ingots prove a persuasive argument against that.)

After the groom is seen in full light, it’s evident that this marriage is not a good idea, but a contract is a contract, and it’s not as though the niece has any legal recourse.  Soon after the wedding, the couple vanishes.  Some time later, the niece reappears seeking shelter, but before a ministeer can arrive to protect her, she vanishes again.  Schalken is heartbroken, but there is nothing he can do.  While the bride’s fate remains unknown, Schalken has an experience years later that may give a hint, and he paints a picture of it which the narrator has been explaining.

“Podolo” by L.P. Hartley concerns an ill-fated picnic to an island near Venice.  A man takes his best friend’s wife to this small, mostly barren rock with the aid of a gondolier.  She sees a cat that’s been abandoned on Podolo, and decides to either take it home with her…or kill it so it won’t starve to death.  It is considered bad luck to kill a cat in Venice.  The story has no explanation of what’s actually going on, and the narrator never sees the presumed monster.  Perhaps the gondolier is hiding a worse truth?

In “Glamour” by Seabury Quinn, we are introduced to Lucinda Lafferty.  She doesn’t allow hunting on her land, but she also doesn’t post it, so that a hunter in hot pursuit of game can easily stumble across the border without noticing.  And she doesn’t bother with lawsuits, either.  She curses trespassers, curses them like poison.   The hag-like crone is widely believed to be a witch.

We are also introduced to Lucinda Lafferty, a beautiful, genteel woman of wealth and taste.  She’s a charming Southern belle of the old school, and young Harrigan is quite taken with her.  Why, he’d almost give his soul to be her lover!

Set in 1930s Virginia, this is very much Southern Gothic.  There’s some off-handed period racism.

“Clay” by C. Hall Thompson is a Lovecraft-influenced tale of a New England insane asylum with a new patient.  He keeps claiming that someone named “Oliver” wants him to kill people, using the Mark of Clay.  It’s all explained by the papers in the small chest the patient has with him…except that the chest is empty.  One psychiatrist believes that there’s something more than simple delusion going on, but can he prove it before tragedy strikes?

And speaking of H.P. Lovecraft, his “The Horror of Red Hook” rounds out the book.  A New York cop has had a nervous breakdown and is taking a rest cure in Rhode Island, and the story tells us how he got that way.  Lovecraft’s xenophobia is on full display as the menace of illegal immigrants threatens life as we know it.  (The story is only slightly kinder to legal immigrants.)  While it’s an effective story, I can only boggle as various ethnic groups are slammed, particularly Kurds and specifically the much-maligned Yazidi.   Even the Dutch come into it as one of them is slumming in the afflicted area.  Very problematic.

A quaint volume, long out of print–you can probably find the earlier stories from public domain sources, and Lovecraft is much-anthologized.  But recommended for those who comb garage sales and used book stores.

Magazine Review: The American Scholar Spring 1977

Magazine Review: The American Scholar Spring 1977 Edited by Joseph Epstein

The American Scholar is a quarterly production of the Phi Beta Kappa Society, published since 1932.  Its primary focus is non-fiction essays, but it also features poetry, book reviews and since 2006 fiction.  I happened across an old issue, was intrigued by one of the essay titles, and decided to review it.  At the time it was published, I was in my sophomore year of high school, Jimmy Carter was president of the United States and James Dobson founded Focus on the Family.

The American Scholar Spring 1977

Leading off the issue is “The Despairing Optimist” by René Dubos.  It discusses the various international conferences held during the 1970s.  The essay describes their well-meant aims and somewhat less than impressive results.  Professor Dubos reckons that the best approach is to set world-wide goals but work out individual approaches to getting things done as different areas of the world need specific tactics to deal with their specific problems.  “Think globally, act locally.” (Professor Dubos is said to be one of the possible originators of the motto when he was advising the Stockholm United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in 1972.)

“Observing the Sabbath” by Aristides (probably a pen name) is about the custom of Sunday as a day of rest, and how that was changing in the modern age.  Less a span of enforced inactivity, and more a time of enjoying oneself as religion became less of a factor and just having some time off work became more of one.

“Freedom of Expression: Too Much of a Good Thing?” by John Sparrow talks about whether there should be laws against obscenity and pornography.  He discusses various objections to these laws, and attempts to address them.  On balance, Mr. Sparrow is in favor of having at least some laws on the subject, even if it’s difficult to precisely define obscenity without actually being subjected to it.  Generally, he seems to favor “community standards” laws.

“The Limits of Ethnicity” by Howard F. Stein and Robert F. Hill addresses the then recent upswing in “ethnic pride” groups in the United States, and they note that at least part of the impetus appears to have come from the civil rights advances of African-American people.  “Racism is a WASP problem, we Croatian-Americans or Italian-Americans have no culpability here–besides, we’re oppressed groups too.”  The authors feared attempts to re-segregate neighborhoods by moving all the people from one ethnic heritage together, making those of other heritages uncomfortable.

One of the weaker essays is “The Tyranny of Harmony” by John P. Sisk.  It starts out talking about the music of the spheres, which supposedly had perfect harmony, and eventually gets around to suggesting that an excessive love of harmony resulted in Nazi Germany.  The logic is forced.

“Rest in Prose: The Art of the Obituary” is by William Haley, who was editor of the London Times for many years.  He speaks of the obituary as a literary form, as history, and as an editorial comment on the worth of a person.  He’s especially enamored of the obituaries published by the Times.  Mr. Haley is a good writer and I enjoyed this essay.

“A Literature Against the Future” by James Stupple is the essay I bought the magazine for.  He notes that in the 1970s science fiction had become the subject of serious university study.  (Though he’s quick to point out that the colleges offering these courses tended to be second-rank.)  His main premise is that SF isn’t really serious, important literature.  Like many critics in the 1970s, he thought that real science showing that Mars is lifeless would kill the field, leaving only science fantasy.  Indeed, he suggests that science fiction would quickly become no more relevant than Kabuki or country western.  (Well, okay, maybe country western.)  From our perspective in the future, it’s easy to see where Mr. Stupple went wrong.  (The only other thing I could find by him in a Google search was half an essay on Ray Bradbury; he liked Bradbury’s stuff as fantasy.)

The final essay is “The Provincial Towns” by Barnett Singer, who wrote about his experiences the previous year touring the less-populated areas of France.  He chronicles the dying of an old way of life, but then old ways of life are always dying.  It’s rather sentimental, but he also notes that the young people seem okay with the changes.

The poetry is all that modern stuff I don’t care much for.  The best of the lot is “On the Language Which Writes the Lecturer” by Jeanne Murray Walker.  “English merely comments on the structure of another language concerning which nothing can be said.”

There are several book reviews, all of books I have never heard of.  The most positive review is of The Autumn of the Patriarch by Gabriel Garcia Márquez.  Sadly, despite the enthusiasm of the reviewer, it sounds dreadful.  There are also a lot of book ads.  Most of these are the barest snippets that seem to have been written by someone who doesn’t know anything about selling books.

The other kind of advertisement is for colleges–apparently the main audience was expected to be bright high school students looking for a place to get further education.  Saint Olaf!

Last is Letters to the Editor, very erudite people criticizing essays and reviews (in one case, a book reviewer is allowed to respond.)

It’s an interesting assortment of subjects, most of which don’t feel dated.  If you happen to spot a copy of this magazine at a garage sale, it’s worth a look.  The American Scholar is still published, and you can read more recent essays at their website here: https://theamericanscholar.org/about-us/

 

Comic Book Review: The Best of Judge Dredd

Comic Book Review: The Best of Judge Dredd edited by Tharg

It is the dark future of the 22nd Century.  Nuclear war and environmental devastation have made large portions of Earth’s surface barely inhabitable, and the majority of the remaining population is crowded into sprawling urban areas called Mega-Cities.  Overpopulation, high unemployment, and a general social despair have caused crime to skyrocket.  To combat this, most law enforcement has been turned over to an elite force of Judges, who act as police, the judicial system and the prison system all in one.  It takes a special breed of human to become a Judge, and the most legendary of these is Judge Dredd.

The Best of Judge Dredd

Judge Dredd first appeared in the second issue of the British comic weekly 2000 AD in 1977, but quickly became the magazine’s flagship character.  The strip combined dystopian science fiction with dark humor and Dirty Harry style violence.  Over the course of the first few years, the Judges went from an adjunct to the regular police force to the only viable government of Mega-City One due to repeated disasters.  As a literal police state, the Judges tackled any problem by criminalizing it, the flaws in this becoming more obvious with time.

Dredd himself is an antihero, an incorruptible man who is trying his best to make the system work, but the system is so oppressive that it crushes the people beneath it, even when properly applied.  And one of the recurring themes is that the Judge system lends itself to corruption and abuse, and fails even at its most basic purpose of reducing crime.  Judge Dredd may be fair, but he’s harsh.

The first story in this volume is the first Judge Dredd story, and contains only the seeds of these themes.  “Meet Judge Dredd” by John Wagner (writer droid) and Carlos Ezquerra  (art droid) introduces Dredd as he avenges the death of a fellow Judge.  The criminals are holed up in the old Empire State Building, now a dwarf building compared to the mile-high construction around it.  The Judges’ advanced crimefighting motorcycles and firearms are introduced, but it is the prison the head criminal Whitey is put in that shows the most imagination.  “Devil’s Island” is a traffic island, surrounded by mega-freeways constantly flowing with high-speed traffic.  There’s no wall or fence, but just try crossing to safety!

There are several fine single stories, including the first appearance of Rico, Joe Dredd’s corrupt and vengeful clone-brother.  While he dies at the end of that chapter, Rico’s legacy affects Dredd for decades.  This volume also has bits of several of the epic stories that ran for months in the strip, including the Cursed Earth saga and the Judge Child storyline.  If there is one flaw in this volume, it’s that they only have those fragments.

However, all of “America”, which was the first storyline in the Judge Dredd Megazine monthly magazine, is included, in full color.  This hits the dystopian elements hard, as the child of immigrants is named after their dream of a better life, but the America they’re thinking of is long dead, and eventually so is the title character when she tries fighting for her ideals.  The story is told from the perspective of her childhood friend, with a bizarre science fiction twist at the end.  It’s a hard-hitting story, and perhaps the best in this book.

The weakest story for me is “Mrs. Gunderson’s Big Adventure.”  A profoundly deaf and legally blind senior citizen is embroiled in the escape of a crime boss who has unfortunately for him attracted the attention of Judge Dredd.  The “humor” stems from Mrs. Gunderson being almost completely unaware of what’s going on around her due to her sensory handicaps, and swiftly grows tedious.

Also of note are the first two appearances by serial killer P.J. Maybe who is only thirteen years old at that point.  It feels like the second story was created first, and the first story written to make sure the reader realizes that Maybe is not the good guy here.  In the first story, he kills two random people and their pet vulture, just to establish that he can.  In the second, Maybe wipes out the obnoxious relatives that stand between his family and a fortune in manufacturing.  (It took a long time for Judge Dredd to figure out that there was a serial killer, let alone that P.J. Maybe was him.  Years later, Maybe was the best mayor Mega-City One ever had, while remaining a remorseless serial killer.)

In addition to the expected ultra-violence, there’s some nudity and sexual situations.

This volume is a good choice for an introduction to Judge Dredd and his setting, with a variety of his writers and artists (including Brian Bolland) represented.  Recommended to fans of dystopian science fiction and dark humor.

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