Book Review: The Book of Cthulhu

Book Review: The Book of Cthulhu edited by Ross E Lockhart

Fantasy and horror author H.P. Lovecraft wasn’t a big seller during his lifetime, but the loose setting he created of the Cthulhu Mythos, where humans are only the most recent inhabitants of a cold and chaotic universe, and many of the previous inhabitants are effectively gods, has become one of the most popular sub-genres of horror literature.  The twenty-seven stories in this volume are by second- and third-generation Lovecraftian writers.

The Book of Cthulhu

There’s an encouraging variety of protagonists; professors and prostitutes, hitmen and clergymen.  Some of them are from ethnic groups HPL would never have made the heroes of his stories.  There’s a variety of tones as well.  Of course there’s a number that are straight up creepy horror, but there’s also noir-ish crime fiction and deadpan penny dreadful humor.

The volume opens with “Andromeda Among the Stones” by Caitlín R. Kiernan.  A family guards a gate off the Northern California coast; but only one of them was truly born for the job.  I found the story rather slight, and one of the weaker ones in the collection.

The closing story is “The Men from Porlock” by Laird Barron.  Seven lumberjacks go hunting in the Pacific Northwest.  Not all of them are going to be returning.  This one makes good use of escalating creepiness, culminating in a scene where a monster makes its menace particularly personal.

Oldest story honors go to Ramsey Campbell’s “The Tugging” from 1976.  An art critic in a small British city is having disturbing dreams about Atlantis, which may tie into a comet with unusual gravitation behavior.  I’ve read this one before, and it’s interesting as an unintentional period piece.  I remember in my youth paging through great bound volumes of yellowing newsprint as the protagonist does here, instead of scrolling through microfilm, or today’s scanned files.

“Black Man with a Horn” by T.E.D. Klein is one of the editor’s favorites, according to the introduction (which is perhaps a little too generous to Lovecraft’s writing skills.)  An elderly writer who was a friend of HPL in his youth meets a missionary returning from Malaysia.  Over the course of time, the writer learns that at least one thing written by Lovecraft may be uncomfortably close to reality.  It is a good story, told well.

I also particularly enjoyed “Lord of the Land” by Gene Wolfe.  A Nebraskan teacher is collecting oral history in the Appalachian region.  An old man tells him about seeing the “soul sucker”, which seems like a tall tale at first…but it’s actually a warning.  This one held my attention fast.

Overall, this is a strong collection with many creepy stories and some marquee writers like Elizabeth Bear, Joe R. Lansdale and David Drake.  I should mention that one story features incest and marital rape.  Recommended to fans of the Lovecraftian type of horror.

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: Jefferson’s America

Book Review: Jefferson’s America by Julie M. Fenster

In 1803, many people in the fledgling United States expected a Louisiana War, as the Spanish had forbidden American shipping from passing down the Mississippi and through the port of New Orleans.  That didn’t happen, as the Spanish were induced to yield the Louisiana Territory to their allies the French.  France’s then-leader, Emperor Napoleon, said he would “never relinquish” the territory.  But when European troubles drew his attention, the French offered to sell Louisiana to the Americans for a cool fifteen million dollars.

Jefferson's America

President Thomas Jefferson got the U.S. to pay the money, but other than the important ports of New Orleans and St. Louis, it wasn’t clear what all was included in  the Louisiana Purchase.  Someone had to be sent out posthaste to learn river routes through the territory, and apply some scientific curiosity to what might be found there.  And so he chose the men of Jefferson.

This book is primarily about six men who led expeditions into the West, and the outcomes of those adventures.  Meriwether Lewis, Jefferson’s personal secretary and a man who suffered bouts of depression. William Clark, younger brother of a Revolutionary War hero who had been cast aside by his country.  William Dunbar, slaveholder and scientist.  George Hunter, a chemist bent on making his fortune.  Thomas Freeman, one of the surveyors that laid out Washington, D,C,  And Zebulon Pike, an United States Army lieutenant who was intrepid beyond all reason.

It’s emphasized that other than Lewis, most of these men were not Jefferson’s first choices.  Many better trained people simply didn’t want to risk their lives on perilous journeys, or couldn’t get away from previous commitments.

Of course, they are not the only people covered in this history text.  We also meet the legendary Sacajawea, without whom Lewis & Clark might well not have made it past the Shoshone.  Aaron Burr, who you may remember from that recent musical.  Blackbird of the Omaha, whose dinner invitations you should find a way to politely refuse.  And many others.

The story is primarily chronological, and skips back and forth between expeditions happening at the same time.  But it’s not all “this happened, then that happened.”  There is room for a certain amount of editorial opinion, and oddball moments.  The book begins with a visit to New Orleans in 1820 by John James Audubon, who was later to gain fame painting birds.  At the time, he was seeking wealthy patrons who needed their portraits done, to fund his passion.  He met one of the famous Jeffersonian explorers, who alas had not aged well.

While the book is matter-of-fact about the issue of slavery, including some of the worst consequences of the system, it very carefully does not mention Jefferson’s own slaves, even when talking about his time at Monticello.  I have to wonder if the author felt she’d have to put in another chapter just to explain President Jefferson’s complicated relationship with slavery and felt it best to avoid the issue.

The treatment of Native Americans is more directly dealt with, as they occupied parts of the lands the explorers were moving through.  There’s quite a bit of politics involved, both between tribes, and their relationships with the various nations who wanted their goods or land.  Zebulon Pike is mentioned as having noticed that the introduction of strong liquor as a trade good was distorting tribal life.

There are many direct quotes from letters and journals, and these are sourced in the extensive endnotes.  There’s also a bibliography and index, several maps, and a thin section of illustrations in the center.

The age of Jeffersonian exploration lasted only a few years, but established the workability of scientific expeditions into the wilderness, rather than just cash and land grabs.  It’s briefly mentioned that unlike the slapdash American expeditions, the Spanish science explorers under Carlos III were well-trained and equipped for their journeys–it’s just that they’d never gotten around to the Louisiana Territory.  (I would like to read more about those expeditions, please.)

I found this book a pleasure to read, and recommend it for senior high students on up (there’s some frank talk about sex) who are interested in this period of history.

Disclaimer:  I received this volume through Blogging for Books to facilitate this review.  No other compensation was offered or requested.

And now, more about Sacajawea:

 

Book Review: The Ferguson Rifle

Book Review: The Ferguson Rifle by Louis L’Amour

My name is Ronan Chantry, and I am alone upon this land.

He is a scholar and a gentleman, but Ronan Chantry was raised in the wilderness, hunting, trapping and tracking.  Now that his wife and son have died in a fire, and pursued by the reputation of killing a man in a duel, Chantry returns to the wilderness.  He does not remain alone for long, joining a small band of men also going into the West to try their hand at fur trapping.

The Ferguson Rifle

Their camp is nearly raided by allies of a treacherous Native American guide; but some time later the group makes friends with the Cheyenne, while trying to evade Spanish soldiers who have not yet gotten word that the Louisiana Purchase has gone through.  Then Ronan stumbles across Lucinda Falvey, whose father was murdered for the secret of a lost treasure.

The murderer and his minions have pursued Lucinda into the Dakota Territory, and turns out to have connections to both Lucinda and Ronan’s pasts.  Chantry and his allies must evade the killers, find the treasure and get the woman to safety–perhaps an eccentric mountain man has the key to survival?

This is the first novel written in the Chantry family saga by all-time great Western writer Louis L’Amour.  (But the last in internal chronology.)  The title comes from Chantry’s signature weapon, a firearm given to him by Major Ferguson himself.  It’s a customized prototype without the weakness in the lock mortise.  Since the story is set about the time of the Lewis & Clark Expedition, a rapid-firing breechloader is a formidable advantage.

This is a fast-moving story with clear but often evocative use of language; not a lot of time is spent on characterization, with bad man Rafen Falvey getting the bulk of what depth there is.  Chantry is not just smart and well-educated, but wilderness-savvy and skilled at all forms of combat he turns his hand to.  His one weakness is prideful anger, which led him into the fatal duel, and into the knock-down drag-out fistfight that is the climax of the book.  The use of coincidence to drive certain story elements does come close to breaking suspension of disbelief.

Recommended to Western fans, and those looking for a good manly adventure story.

Book Review: Inferior

Book Review: Inferior by Angela Saini

Disclaimer:  I received this Uncorrected Page Proof as a Goodreads giveaway for the purpose of writing this review.  No other compensation was requested or offered.  Some material may be changed in the final product, due out 5/23/17.

Inferior

Today there was a news story about a member of the European Parliament arguing against equal pay for women on the grounds that “they are weaker, they are smaller, they are less intelligent.”  Unsurprisingly, this MEP was male.  Equally unsurprising was the tongue-lashing he got from a fellow MEP who happened to be female.  But while it’s unusual for a theoretically respectable politician to say these things in public nowadays, it is a current of thought that stretches back to at least the ancient Greeks.  And often science has been misused to justify such attitudes.

This book is mostly about the science of sex differences (that is, “how are men and women different?”) and how that science has been interpreted over the years to justify sexism and resistance to social change on the subject, but also about contrary evidence and theories that paint a more egalitarian picture.  The author is an award-winning British science journalist who was assigned to write a piece on menopause but found enough material for this book.

The book begins with Charles Darwin claiming that women were less evolved than men for reasons.   Then it covers multiple subjects such as brain imaging and primatology on the way to the riddle of why women don’t just die when they become infertile.  (The last has two major competing hypotheses named “The Grandmother Hypothesis” and “The Patriarch Hypothesis”; all the scientists that have gone on record as supporting the latter are male.)

There’s a reference list for each chapter, and will be an index in the final product.  There may be illustrations in the published version; there were none in the proof copy.

A repeated theme of the book is the suggestion that many sex difference researchers started from “essentialism”, the basic assumption that men and women are different in fundamental ways, and then did their research in such a way as to disproportionately focus on the ways the sexes are different, rather than similar, and sometimes even finding differences that don’t appear to actually exist.  It’s also notable that several male researchers come across as dismissive of research done by scientists (particularly women) whose results contradict their own theories.  One, for example, admits that he’s never studied bonobos himself, but clearly  the research results found by a woman must be wrong since it’s different from what he learned by studying chimpanzees.

The writing is clear and concise, and should be readable by bright high school students on up (although some parents may find parts of the subject matter, such as the existence of intersex people, uncomfortable.)  Recommended to those interested in science, feminism and the intersection of the two.

Book Review: The Third Chimpanzee for Young People

Book Review: The Third Chimpanzee for Young People by Jared Diamond, adapted by Rebecca Stefoff

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

The Third Chimpanzee for Young People

This is a young adult version of Jared Diamond’s The Third Chimpanzee, originally printed in 1992.  I have not read that book, so will not be making direct comparisons.  I have, however, read Guns, Germs & Steel, which has some overlap with this volume.

Mr. Diamond is a biogeographer and evolutionary biologist.  In this book, he discusses the information (current as of 1992) that scientists have about the evolution of humans, who share about 98% of their DNA with chimpanzees.  This segues into an examination of human behavior, how it is (and is not) unique among the world’s animals; and winds up with some thoughts about what this might mean for humanity’s future.

The language is clear and should be suitable for strong readers from 10-11 up; there’s also a helpful glossary at the back along with an index.  There is no bibliography, presumably because the sources would not be written for young adults.  There are several illustrations and sidebars to break up the text.

Parents of sensitive tweens should be aware that the book covers some “heavy” subjects, such as war and genocide.  There’s also some discussion of the probable evolution of human sexuality.

A couple of chapters recap the information from Guns, Germs & Steel about why some human societies developed technology more quickly than others.  Mr. Diamond frequently uses “narrative causality”; trying to find the most logical sequence of cause and effect without being able to fill in all the links in the chain.

The final chapters deal with the looming specter of environmental destruction and mass extinction of animal species.  (But not anthropogenic climate change.)  Mr. Diamond is pessimistic about the chances of alien contact.  He does believe, however that conservation and population control can mitigate the worst effects of human behavior.   After all, while evolutionary biology explains many things about human behavior, it is not the only explanation.  We have free will.

This would be a good general introduction to anthropology and biogeography for  middle schoolers and non-science majors.  Some of the information is out of date, due to it being more than two  decades since the original book was written–serious students should review the recent research as well.  As Mr. Diamond repeatedly reminds us, his opinions influence his interpretation of the available evidence.

Book Review: Splatterlands

Book Review: Splatterlands edited by Anthony Rivera and Sharon Lawson

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

Splatterlands

According to Wikipedia, “splatterpunk” was a movement in horror writing between roughly 1985 and 1995,  distinguished by its graphic and often gory descriptions of violence and attempts to create “hyperintensive” horror with no limits.  Supernatural elements are neither necessary or forbidden.  It seems to have been subsumed by newer trends in horror fiction, but never entirely died out.

Splatterlands is an anthology of thirteen short stories that try to recapture the feel of the splatterpunk movement.   As such, it is filled with sex, violence, sexual violence, crude language and a fascination with body fluids.  I’m going to come right out and issue a Trigger Warning for rape, torture, abuse and suicide.

For example, the first story, “Heirloom” by Michael Laimo, is about a woman who inherits a phallic symbol.  The main action of the story involves an explicitly described act of semi-consensual sexual violence.  If that immediately triggers your “do not want” instinct, then this volume is not for you.

Some stories that stood out include “Violence for Fun and Profit” by Gregory L. Norris, about the origin of a hired assassin/serial killer that’s frighteningly topical; “Housesitting” by Ray Garton (the only reprint), a relatively  understated tale of a housesitter who snoops and finds out things she’d rather not about her neighbors; “The Defiled” by Christine Morgan, about a band of Viking raiders who meet a karmic fate; and “The Devil Rides Shotgun” by Eric del Carlo, in which a police officer makes a demonic pact to track down a serial killer.

One story that really didn’t work for me was “Empty” by A.A. Garrison.  It’s about a woman in a post-apocalyptic world seeking medical assistance for her husband.  It turns out to be metafictional humor, (and I did like the protest sign that said “Too Many Adverbs”), but really came across as trying too hard.

Recommended for horror fans with strong stomachs, especially those who were fans of the original splatterpunk movement.  Probably not suitable for anyone else, despite the high quality of some of the stories.

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