Book Review: Stories from Sleep No More

Book Review: Stories from Sleep No More edited by August Derleth

Sleep No More was a 1940s anthology of horror fiction put together by noted Wisconsin historical fiction (and horror) author August Derleth.  It featured primarily creepy stories from the pulp magazines of the 1930s.  In the 1960s, a paperback reprint came out.  To make it a manageable size with the binding limitations of the time, only the first nine stories were included; and presumably there would have been a sequel with the rest had sales justified it.

Stories from Sleep No More

“Count Magnus” by M.R. James leads off with the tale of a would-be travel book writer who visits Sweden and wakes up something that should have been kept sleeping.  Like many tales from the era, it’s told at a remove, reported by someone who found the protagonist’s papers and pieced together the story from them.  That aside, it’s an excellent example of horror by implication–none of the presumably gory bits happen on page, and the results are not directly described.  The moment of most terror is a lock that should not be open being open.

“Cassius” by Henry S. Whitehead is set in the West Indies.  A man who’s had an ugly growth removed is hunted by a small but deadly enemy.  It starts well, but the explanation for the terror is heavily racist, involving some dubious genetics and “race memory.”  Also, the ending is an anticlimax.

“The Occupant of the Room” by Algernon Blackwood is the oldest story in the collection.  A schoolteacher who altered his holiday plans on a whim finds himself at a Swiss inn with no vacancies.  Wait, there is one room, but the catch is that the occupant just vanished a couple of days ago–they may or may not be returning.  The room’s atmosphere is oppressive, leading to thoughts of suicide.  Unnatural thoughts!

“The Return of the Sorcerer” by Clark Ashton Smith has a desperately unemployed man (who happens to know Arabic) get a job as secretary to reclusive scholar John Carnby.  Carnby turns out to be an occultist with eccentric habits, and a fear of leaving his room at night.  Supposedly, the noises in the halls are rats, but the glimpses the secretary gets don’t look like any rats he’s ever seen.  Mr. Carnby needs some passages from the Necronomicon translated at the highest priority, passages about sorcerers being able to come back from the dead.  The job does not end well.

“Johnson Looked Back” by Thomas Burke is a rare second-person story.  The reader is addressed as though they were Johnson, who is pursued by a mysterious blind, handless man.  The narrator urges Johnson not to look behind him, but of course he does and dooms himself.  The ending is kind of kludgy, suggesting the whole story is a metaphor.

“The Hand of the O’Mecca” by Howard Wandrei is set in Minnesota, not far from Mankato.  Finnish-American farmer Elof Bocak is crossing the fields at night to woo his neighbor, Kate O’Mecca.  Perhaps he should have paid more attention to the superstition about bats on the ground.  Some nice local color, but the twist is telegraphed.

“‘He Cometh and He Passeth By!'” by H.R. Wakefield concerns a barrister named Edward Bellamy.  He’s contacted by an old school friend, Philip Franton.  They’d fallen out of touch after the War, but now Franton is in a spot of trouble.  It seems he was for some months host to Oscar Clinton, a fascinating fellow who Philip was quite entranced with initially.

Eventually, Clinton’s less appealing habits (impregnating chambermaids, stealing and forgery) became unbearable, and Franton broke ties with the man.  Some time later, Clinton tried to use his “friendship” with Philip as a recommendation to a club, and the wealthy man blackballed him.  Clinton was not well pleased, and sent Franton a supposedly cursed image.  Now Philip is jumping at oddly shaped shadows.

Bellamy is unable to prevent his friend’s horrible death, but perhaps he can get a little extrajudicial revenge?

Oscar Clinton is cartoonishly decadent.  To quote:

“I fancy,” said Clinton, “that you are perplexed by the obstinate humidity of my left eye.  It is caused by the rather heavy injection of heroin I took this afternoon.”

It’s probably meant to evoke the image of the notorious “Wickedest Man in the World” Aleister Crowley.  While Clinton only mentions sex with women, there are homoerotic undertones in his relationships with Franton and Bellamy.  His comeuppance is satisfying.

“Thus I Refute Beezly” by John Collier is titled after Samuel Johnson’s famous rejoinder to Bishop Berkeley.  “Small Simon” Carter is a friendless child who spends most of his time in the garden, playing alone.  He claims to be playing with a “Mr. Beezly” who is hard to describe, and no adult has ever seen.

Small Simon’s father, who insists on being called “Big Simon”, is a dentist with some odd ideas about parenting.  Big Simon is big on science and fact, and when Small Simon won’t admit that Beezly is imaginary, decides to punish the lad.  That’s a mistake.

This story is more often reprinted than most in this collection, and there’s analysis of it at various websites.  What struck me was that the author is being snotty about “modern” parenting methods of the sort where parents insist on children calling them by first name.  “See?  This fellow is all ‘progressive’ and such, but when logic fails, it’s back to corporal punishment just like normal folks!”

Rounding out the collection is “The Mannikin” by Robert Bloch.  A schoolteacher picks a random isolated town for vacation, only to discover that this is the hometown of his old school friend Simon Maglore.  In the time they’ve been parted, the deformity of Simon’s back has gotten a lot worse, and the superstitious locals shun him.  The basic twist is the same as “Cassius”, minus the racism.  Some Lovecraftian references in this story, too.

Most of these are good if dated stories; “Cassius” is the only one that has become outright uncomfortable to read due to its attitudes.  While it’s long out of print, the paperback edition should be relatively easy to find in finer used bookstores.

Book Review: Superheroes

Book Review: Superheroes edited by Rich Horton

Superheroes as we know them more or less started in the comic books of the late 1930s, with the most obvious first “true” superhero being Superman.  And comic books have largely shaped our perceptions of costumed superheroes ever since.  But sometimes prose is a perfectly acceptable way of writing about people with unusual powers and distinctive appearances who fight crime and injustice.  There have been quite a few anthologies of short stories in the field, and this is one of them.

Superheroes

The sixteen stories cover various aspects of the superhero genre, from the superheroes themselves, through supervillains, and to the civilians who have to try to survive in these larger than life worlds.  The lead story is “Sunlight Society” by Margaret Ronald.  A nethead (a cyborg able to interface with computers) is called in to deal with a virus in a superhero base’s computer.  But that’s not all he’s there for, and the information he seeks will cost him dearly.

“Wonjjiang and the Madman of Pyongyang” by Gord Sellar is the story of a South Korean superhero who’s been forced into the role of leader for a multi-national team operating in his homeland and sometimes in neighboring countries.  Unfortunately, politics has freed his North Korean nemesis, budget cuts have gotten Wonjjiang laid off, and our hero’s overbearing mother is pushing him to get married.  (Sadly, the one woman he’s interested in already has a boyfriend.)  One of the more “traditional” superhero stories in the book.

A couple of the stories are of special interest.  “Wild Card” by Leah Bobet is set in the Shadow Unit continuity, about a secret group of government agents that normally battle serial killers who’ve developed super-powers.  Except that this time, the “anomaly” has picked on someone whose personal mythology comes from comic books, and he’s decided to become a full-fledged super-villain.  Somewhat lighter than the usual Shadow Unit story.

Peter S. Beagle (The Last Unicorn) contributes “Dirae.”  Suddenly in the city there’s a woman who appears out of nowhere to save lives like a real-life superhero, then vanishes again until the next rescue.  It’s told from the perspective of that woman as she slowly comes to realize she literally does disappear between those incidents, with no clue where she’s spending the rest of her time, if any.  She tries to work out who she really is and what’s happening to her.  Mr. Beagle is an excellent fantasy writer, and this is one of the best stories in the book.

The weakest story for me was “Secret Identity” by Kelly Link.  A young woman comes to a hotel to meet a man she got to know on the internet; by coincidence (or is it?) there’s a superhero convention going on at the same time.  The secrets she’s been keeping from her prospective lover are compared to a hero’s secret identity.  I didn’t like the main character and found most of the people she interacted with boring.  Overall, a decent collection of 21st Century superhero themed writing.

There’s some vulgar language and sexual situations in the stories, and a couple of them deal with euthanasia.  I’d recommend this to senior high students and up.

Comic Book Review: Jacked

Comic Book Review: Jacked written by Eric Kripke, art by John Higgins.

Disclaimer:  I received this book through a Goodreads giveaway for the purposes of this review.  No other compensation was offered or requested.

Josh Jaffe is hitting a mid-life crisis.  His body is beginning to fall apart, he doesn’t really talk to his wife much any more, and his entire job field was rendered obsolete by new technology, so he’s been unemployed for the last six months.  Nothing has turned out like he’d imagined it would as a kid, or even as a teenager.  Josh’s dentist brother recommends nootropic supplements, “smart drugs” that supposedly improve cognitive function.  Sounds kind of shady, but while surfing the web, Josh finds an ad for “Jacked,” which seems to speak to him.

Jacked

Josh orders a supply of Jacked, and discovers that the ad was perhaps underselling the product.  He can think more clearly (other than the hallucinations), has energy to spare (especially in bed), his aches and pains vanish…and he can pull a car door right off the hinges.  Josh’s formerly unimpressed son starts looking up to him again!  This is the good stuff.

But then Josh discovers that his next door neighbor Damon is a drug dealer that’s been beating his girlfriend Jessica.  The outcome of that encounter puts Josh and Jessica on the wrong(er) side of some very bad people.  Worse, the nastier side effects of Jacked start coming to the fore, and what if Josh runs out of the drug before the bad guys run out of bullets?  And how will this affect Josh’s wife and child?

Eric Kripke is probably best known as the creator of the popular television series Supernatural.  According to the introduction of the collected volume, he had his own mid-life crisis a couple of years ago, and his musings on that led to him proposing this comic book series to Vertigo Comics.  He mentions that writing for comic books is a whole different kind of hard than writing for television, and gives much credit to John Higgins for making the script actually work on page.

One of the themes of the story is that Josh doesn’t live in a superhero world, so even though he gets some low-level superpowers, things tend not to work out as they would in a traditional superhero story.  Even when he dons a costume, it only makes him look ridiculous.  In the end, it’s his human abilities and connections that give Josh the ability to resolve the situation.  (We do get cameos by a few classic DC heroes, and a reference to obscure series Electric Warrior.)

This is listed as for “mature readers” and has some nudity, non-graphic sex scenes, a lot of gory violence, body function humor and even more vulgar language than is called for by the plot and setting.  I suspect Mr. Kripke may have gone overboard on that last one because of having had to work to TV’s broadcast standards.

One of the features I really liked was that most issues’ last pages were flash-forwards to the next issue that weren’t quite the same as the depiction in that later story.  Also, all the points that were important at the climax were properly set up earlier in the series.

Josh does a fair bit of self-absorbed whining at the beginning of the series, and it takes a while for him to get his head out of his own funk.  I do like that while Josh and Jessica do team up against the drug gang, it’s all about survival (and revenge on Jessica’s part) with no attraction between them at all.  Josh loves his wife, and much of his motivation is being a better husband for her, even if he doesn’t understand the best way to do that.

The main villain is Damon’s brother Ray, who has a rather narrowly defined sense of morality.  He takes care of family, but everyone else is fair game.

Recommended for fans of the “ordinary schlub gets superpowers and screws up big time” type of plot.

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 Book Review: Uptown Girl Imitation of Life

Comic Book Review: Uptown Girl Imitation of Life by Bob Lipski

This is another collection of the Uptown Girl comic book stories, filled in with short newer pieces.  The main stories feature Rocketman’s never before mentioned career as a pinball champion (and the forgotten rival who wants revenge), and a zoo-related saga that combines an artistic monkey, a talking car, and a robotic dinosaur.  Smaller pieces talk about comics and gaming fandom, and Uptown Girl’s sometimes difficult relationship with modern technology.  And downer appearances by Sulky Girl.

Uptown Girl Imitation of Life

This is very much a local product of Minneapolis and the surrounding area–see if you can spot all the references!  The art is simple but effective, and most of the jokes hit.  Uptown Girl tries to do her job as a reporter, Ruby Tuesday tries to do her job as an artist, and Rocketman tries very hard not to do his job as an office drone.

The last story in the volume is “Learning How to Smile” , which is a more somber piece that also provides the book title.  Ruby’s uncle has had a stroke, and struggles with the smallest things.   This reminds him and her of his mortality, and it’s time for Ruby Tuesday to inherit part of her legacy….

Recommended to small press comics fans, especially in Minnesota.

Book Review: First Polish Reader (Volume 2)

Book Review: First Polish Reader (Volume 2) by Wiktor Kopernikas

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

This is a book of simple stories in both Polish and English, designed to help students learn to read Polish.  It’s printed by Language Practice Publishing, and uses something called the ALARM (Approved Learning Automatic Remembering Method) which relies on repeating words to build vocabulary.

First Polish Reader

There is no pronunciation guide, as this is not a basic textbook, but it lists the new words from each story, and at the back there are both Polish/English and English/Polish glossaries.  There will be audio tracks of the chapters available on lppbooks.com, but as of this writing only the first volume’s tracks are up.

The stories themselves are simple, and mildly amusing, starting with pet stories and building from there.  For the most part, they avoid slang and phrases that don’t translate literally.  However, there is one major exception.  In the story “Tort”, an eight year old tries to bake a cake.  One of the ingredients is kulinarnym klejem, “culinary glue.”  She mistakenly puts in wood glue instead.  However, the term we would use in English is “shortening” which would not lead to such a mistake.

The book does what it is written to do, but is not an exceptional volume of its kind.  Check with your Polish teacher to see if this is an acceptable supplement to your language learning.

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