Book Review: The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2014

Book Review: The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2014 edited by Paula Guran

Even the fastest, most dedicated readers can’t read everything that’s published each year.  Not even in relatively limited genres like fantasy or horror.  That’s where “Year’s Best” collections come in handy.  Someone or several someones has gone through the enormous pile of short literature produced in the previous year, and winnowed it down to a manageable size of good stories for you.

The Year's Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2014

Admittedly, these collections also come down to a matter of personal taste.  In this case, Ms. Guran has chosen not to pick just straight up horror stories (which do not necessarily include fantastic elements) but fantasy stories with “dark” elements.   She mentions in the introduction that at least some good stories were excluded because they weren’t brought to her attention–small internet publishers might not even know such a collection exists to submit to.

This thick volume contains thirty-two stories, beginning with “Wheatfield with Crows” by Steve Rasnic Tem.  Years ago, a man’s sister vanished in a wheatfield.  Now, he and his mother have returned to the site as darkness falls.  Will history repeat?

The final story is “Iseul’s Lexicon” by Yoon Ha Lee.   A spy discovers that the army occupying half her country is being aided by not-quite-human wizards everyone thought were wiped out centuries before.   They are compiling a lexicon of every human language for nefarious purposes, and it is up to Iseul to find a way to stop them.  In the end, she learns that there are innocent casualties in war no matter how  targeted the weapon.

Some stories I particularly liked:

“The Legend of Troop 13” by Kit Reed, about Girl Scouts gone feral, and the foolish men who think to possess them.  This one has a logical stinger in its tail, and very dark humor.

“Phosphorous” by Veronica  Schanoes is about the women who made phosphorous matches, and their fight for better working conditions.  The viewpoint character is a woman dying of “phossy jaw” caused by the poison she’s been exposed to.   She is determined to see the strike through, and her grandmother knows a way–but the cost is high indeed.

“Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell” by Brandon Sanderson concerns a bounty hunter who must track her prey in the forest that has Three Simple Rules.  Don’t start fires, don’t shed blood…and don’t run at night.   So simple.  But there are other bounty hunters in the forest tonight, and treachery.  Some rules will be broken, and the shades will descend.

One story I didn’t care much for was “The Prayer of Ninety Cats” by Caitlin R. Kiernan, which is a description of a horror movie based on the legend of Elizabeth Bathory, the Blood Countess.  There are some good scenes, but the presentation muffles the effect, taking me out of the story.  There’s also use of “Gypsy” stereotypes within the film.

Most of the other stories are good to decent, and there are big names like Tanith Lee and Neil Gaiman represented.  If this is the sort of genre fiction you like, it would be worthwhile to check the book out at your library–and then buy it if enough of the stories please you.

Book Review: All Quiet on the Western Front

Book Review: All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

We open on a good day for Paul Bäumer and the men of the Second Company.  The sun is shining, there’s a light breeze to cool them, and they’re getting double rations.  The reason the men are getting double rations is that half their company was killed in the last action at the front lines, and the supplies were ordered before that was known.  But hey, at least their bellies are full for a change.

All Quiet on the Western Front

A few months ago, Paul and his classmates were idealistic young patriots, who signed up for the army en masse at the urging of their schoolmaster.  War seemed a glorious adventure then, and they wanted to serve their country.  Too late, Paul has realized that old men start the wars that young men die in.

This novel was published in 1928 as Im Westen  Nicht Neues (“Nothing New in the West”).  It’s based in large part on the actual experiences Mr. Remarque had during his service for Germany in World War One.  (Compare Shigeru Mizuki’s Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths, which I have previously reviewed.)  It quickly became a bestseller, not only in Germany but around the world for its gut-wrenching picture of the lives of ordinary soldiers.  About the only people who didn’t appreciate it were the Nazis, who banned the book when they came to power.

Although there are small moments of individual heroism (and cowardice) in battle, this is not a book where the main characters contribute to a major victory or have the influence to come up with brilliant tactics.  At best, they gain a few feet to another set of trenches, and more often, they die to no purpose.

Gritty realism is the main focus here, detailing how the soldiers become desensitized to body modesty, sexual mores and lice.  The extreme violence of war can still get to them, though.  One of the most memorable scenes is when Paul is trapped in a shellhole with a French soldier who’s taken a mortal wound, but doesn’t die for hours, and how Paul’s emotions change over those hours.

On Paul’s rare leaves, he feels detached from the civilians he’s fighting for, who do not understand the horror of the front lines.  But the civilians are suffering too; the bread made from actual bread ingredients Paul brings home is much appreciated, and his mother is dying of cancer.  Paul and his fellow soldiers realize well ahead of the civilians that the war is being lost; the leaders are still talking about victory even as the Americans enter the fray.

Although there are deaths in the first part of the novel, the last third increases the pace of mortality as the Second Company falls one by one.  The breaking point for Paul is the death of old veteran Katczinsky, who mentored him and the other new recruits in the arts of survival and scrounging.  And then comes the end; the book has been told from Paul’s viewpoint until the final page, which is an anonymous postscript telling us Paul is dead.

There are bits of dark humor scattered throughout; one of the more amusing scenes from a schadenfreude perspective is when the schoolmaster who talked Paul and his classmates into enlisting is himself drafted into the Territorial Reserves.  His drill master is one of his old students, who delights in throwing the teacher’s motivational speeches back at him.

As one might expect, there’s a certain amount of crude speech from the soldiers, and the usual disturbing events that surround war.

This book is indeed one of the classics, particularly in the field of war literature, and is worth reading at least once, preferably before signing up to go off to war.

Here’s a scene from the 1930 movie version:

 

TV Review: Blackadder Goes Forth

TV Review: Blackadder Goes Forth

The year is 1917, the place, somewhere in France.  British troops are dug into trenches, not too far from the German troops in their trenches.  This particular part of the front line is the location of Captain Edmund Blackadder (Rowan Atkinson.)  Experience has taught him that the British strategy of sending men “over the top” in waves to assault the German lines just results in dead soldiers, and the captain has no interest in dying.  He hatches scheme after scheme to get himself away from the front lines, or at least delay the fatal charge.

Blackadder Goes Forth
“A war which would be a damn sight simpler if we just stayed in England and shot fifty thousand of our men a week.”

In this effort, Captain Blackadder is badly assisted by his second, Lieutenant George (Hugh Laurie), an upper-class twit who believes all the propaganda about honor and glory, and the company batman (military servant), Private S. Baldrick (Tony Robinson) who is profoundly stupid but does the best he can.  They try to outwit the mad General Melchett (Stephen Fry) who thinks that using the same tactic that has failed eighteen times in the past will surely trick the Germans this time, and Captain Kevin Darling (Tim McInnerny) a rear echelon bureaucrat who is determined to kiss up to the general in order to stay safely behind the lines.

This was the fourth and final series of Blackadder, each short (six episodes) season using mostly the same actors in similar roles in different times, as though they were reincarnations.  Blackadder himself seems to improve somewhat over the ages–his first incarnation is both very evil and stupid, and slightly lessens those qualities in each subsequent variant.  Captain  Blackadder is bright (but not quite bright enough) and his goal isn’t particularly wicked (not dying) but retains much of his ancestors’ contempt for everyone around him and skill at insults.

Many of those insults are quite funny, and there are many other laugh out loud moments as the characters react to the situations they find themselves in.  I did not care as much for the gross-out gags involving Baldrick’s cooking (he ran out of real coffee in 1914.)  And to be honest, since the show aired in 1989, rape jokes have lost much of their luster.

The treatment of World War One is satirical, focusing on the futility and loss of life it entailed, and the divide between the courage of the soldiers and the poor leadership of the commanding officers.  Some historians feel the series went too far with this, and warn that this is after all a work of fiction.

Especially striking is the final episode, “Goodbyeee”, in which the Big Push is ordered at last.  The mood turns more somber as Captain Blackadder’s plans to escape fail one by one.  Lieutenant George realizes that all his friends are dead and he doesn’t want to die himself.  Baldrick asks the obvious question, “why can’t we all just go home?” and no one can give him a good answer.  Even Captain Darling is ordered into the charge as General Melchett fails to understand that this “reward” for loyal service is the last thing Darling wants.

In the final moments, the soldiers leave the trench and go into battle–their fate is left unsaid, but the screen fades to a field of poppies, symbolic of the fallen of WW1.  It’s a bleak ending for a comedy.

The cast is excellent, and the writing good (despite some gags falling flat.)  I’d recommend watching all the Blackadder series in order, but if you have a special interest in World War One, this part stands on its own.

And now a video about poppies:

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