Book Review: Classic American Short Stories

Book Review: Classic American Short Stories compiled by Michael Kelahan

This book is more or less exactly what it says in the title, a compilation of short(ish) stories written by American authors, most of which are acknowledged as classics by American Lit professors.  The stories are arranged by author in roughly chronological order from the early Nineteenth Century to the 1920s to stay safely in the public domain.

Classic American Short Stories

The fifty-one stories included begin with Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle”, a tall tale about a henpecked husband who drinks ghostly beer and sleeps for twenty years, right through the American Revolution.  The book ends with “Winter Dreams” by F. Scott Fitzgerald.  A young man from Minnesota finds great success in the laundry business, but heartache when the woman he loves cannot settle for just him.  In between are ones that are very familiar to me, like “The Telltale Heart” by Edgar Allen Poe (a murderer confesses his crime in an effort to prove his sanity) and stories that were new to me, like “The Revolt of ‘Mother'” by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman (a New England woman, tired of an unkept promise, takes matters into her own hands.)

There’s a wide variety of genres represented, from “realistic” slice of life stories through mystery and fantasy to outright horror.  The chronological order highlights the changing social attitudes depicted in the stories, particularly the two Edith Wharton stories about divorce.  Women are reasonably well-represented, and there are a couple of writers of color as well.

Of course, just because a story is “classic” does not mean it will appeal to everyone.  I found Henry James’ novella “The Aspern Papers” (literary buff infiltrates the household of a famous poet’s ex-lover in an effort to gain any memorabilia she might have of him) tedious and predictable.  I am not alone in this, but many other readers have found it fascinating.

Content issues:  Many of these stories have elements of period racism, sexism and classism; sometimes it’s dealt with within the story itself, but other times it pops up as a nasty surprise.  “Paul’s Case” by Willa Cather, about a boy who wants the finer things in life without the tedium of putting in decades of hard labor to get them, deals with suicide.

This is a Barnes & Noble collector’s edition, and is quite handsome and sturdy, with a leather binding, gilt-edged pages and a silk bookmark for a reasonable price.  However, the fact that it has a “compiler” rather than an editor is telling.  There are scattered typos; I do not know if they were caused by errors in transcription, or if the sources were not scrutinized carefully enough.  The author bios at the end are not quite in alphabetical order, and miss out Washington Irving altogether.

Overall, most of these stories are worth reading at least once, and many are worth rereading over the years.  Highly recommended to people who don’t already have their favorites from this collection in a physical book, or are curious about the stories they haven’t read yet.  It’d also make a nice gift for your bookworm friend or relative.

Comic Book Review: Essential Captain Marvel Vol. 2

Comic Book Review: Essential Captain Marvel Vol. 2 by various creators.

Back in 1967, Marvel Comics became aware that the name “Captain Marvel” for a superhero had fallen out of trademark status.  It was too good a name for Marvel to pass up, so Stan Lee quickly came up with a character to appear in Marvel Super-Heroes #12, who then appeared in his own series.  Captain Mar-Vell was a representative of the alien Kree Empire, sent to spy on the Earth for potential conquest.  He was chosen for the job because of being of the oppressed minority “Pink Kree” who happened to look like Caucasian humans, as opposed to the majority “Blue Kree.”   (This allowed Marvel Comics to play him as an underdog who faced prejudice, while still having a “white” character as the hero.)

Essential Captain Marvel Vol. 2

Mar-Vell assumed the identity of recently deceased scientist Walter Lawson and began working at Cape Canaveral in Florida, the better to spy on the space program.  When danger threatened his co-workers, Mar-Vell put on his Kree uniform (with its face-hiding helmet), and due to accidentally revealing his name became known as the superhero Captain Marvel.  Unfortunately, Mar-Vell’s commanding officer Colonel Yon-Rogg wanted to steal his subordinate’s girlfriend, Nurse Una, and proceeded to try to get Captain Marvel killed.

Several issues in, Mar-Vell’s powers were reworked, and he was bonded with perennial sidekick Rick Jones–only one of them could be in the positive universe at a time, which the other floated around in the Negative Zone, swapping places with power-enhancing bracelets called Nega-Bands.  (And yes, this was a riff on the original Captain Marvel’s relationship with Billy Batson.)  Sales were never particularly good, and the series went on hiatus for several years while the character guest-starred in other heroes’ books.

Which  brings us to the volume at hand.  Issue #22 starts with Captain Marvel apparently dead, having given up his lifeforce to save Rick Jones at the end of the Kree-Skrull war.  But no, he was just “hiding” and a mad science treatment allows Mar-Vell to return to trading places with Rick.  The first few issues are standard superhero stuff, but then comes the Starlin run.  Jim Starlin was new to Marvel Comics at the time, but had big ideas for a cosmic plotline involving several characters he’d designed, and he convinced Marvel to let him anchor it with Captain Marvel.

This involved Thanos, one of a race of godlike beings that inhabited Titan, a moon of Saturn.  In love with Death (literally), he rejected the peaceful ways of his people to become a conqueror, gathering an army of outcasts and criminals from across the galaxy.  Along the way, he inspired the creation of Drax the Destroyer, a golem-like creature whose sole purpose was killing Thanos.  (This version was very different from the one most of you will have seen in the Guardians of the Galaxy movie, among other things being a formidable telepath.)

Thanos’ plans to conquer Earth accelerate when he learns that Rick Jones (unknown to himself) knows the location of the Cosmic Cube, a device that can reshape reality to the holder’s whim.  The mad titan plans to use it to elevate himself to true godhood, making him omnipotent.  While Captain Marvel and his allies manage to defeat some of Thanos’ minions and slow down his plans a bit, it is not until Mar-Vell is granted “cosmic awareness” by a being called Eon that he is finally able to save the day, resulting in Thanos’ first death.

The high-stakes action and some trippy visuals impressed the heck out of 12-year-old me, and a lot of other kids, and Jim Starlin became a favorite creator.  After the end of the Thanos Saga, Starlin stayed on only long enough for a transitional issue to Steve Englehart’s run.  #34 had Mar-Vell go up against a C-list villain named Nitro, whose power was exploding himself.  At the end of the issue, Mar-Vell was exposed to experimental nerve gas,  (Much later it would turn out he had developed inoperable cancer from this exposure, resulting in the classic story The Death of Captain Marvel.)

Nitro turned out to be a minion of the Lunatic Legion, Blue Kree purists headquartered on Earth’s Moon.  They in turn turned out to be pawns of the Kree Supreme Intelligence, who had been orchestrating events for years to turn Rick Jones into a jump-start for Kree evolution (this is not how evolution works; just roll with it.)  This volume ends with Mar-Vell and Rick defeating the Supreme Intelligence’s plan, but not without cost.

There are a couple of appearances by Carol Danvers (who’d been chief of security for Cape Canaveral during the early issues of the series) who has been demoted due to the events surrounding Lawson.  She doesn’t get to show off her competence, alas.  Things would look up for her a couple years later when she became the superhero Ms. Marvel, and Carol is now the Marvel Universe’s Captain Marvel.

Englehart’s run was also pretty good, but not up to the level of Starlin’s; some good art by Al Milgrom helps.

Trivia note:  A black singer says that she wants to be “Tina Turner–without Ike” two years before Ike’s abuse of Tina became public knowledge.

In addition to general superheroic violence, there’s the “fantastic racism” previously mentioned.  In addition to the skin color issues of the Kree, the Kree and their long-time enemies the shape-shifting Skrulls regularly hurl slurs at each other.  (Even Mar-Vell himself indulges in this before gaining cosmic awareness.)  There’s also an issue where Rick takes a hallucinogenic drug a friend gave him without consideration of what that might do to his mental link with Mar-Vell.

The art suffers some from the lack of color (Starlin did his own colors, which made his issues really pop.)

Recommended to Captain Marvel fans on a budget and Starlin fans in particular; check your lending library.

Comic Book Review: Essential Tomb of Dracula, Volume 2

Comic Book Review: Essential Tomb of Dracula, Volume 2 mostly written by Marv Wolfman and art by Gene Colan.

When the Comics Code restrictions on horror were loosened in the 1970s, DC primarily went in for horror anthology comics, while Marvel Comics based entire series around horrific heroes and villains.  One of these was the classic (and public domain) character of Vlad Tepes, aka Count Dracula.

Essential Tomb of Dracula Volume 2

This series revealed that Bram Stoker’s book (highly recommended if you haven’t read it, by the way) was highly fictionalized, and Dracula had not in fact finally died at the end of it, only being very inconvenienced.  He had been various places, doing various things, temporarily being put of commission now and then…and this storyline opened with him once again being awakened to start his reign of terror anew.

Opposing the Lord of Vampires was a crew of vampire hunters including Quincy Harker (the son of Jonathan and Mina), now an elderly man confined to a wheelchair by injuries received in past battles with Dracula; Rachel van Helsing (great-granddaughter of Professor van Helsing) a crossbow-wielder who wasn’t always as effective as she’d like; Frank Drake, a descendant of Dracula (before becoming a vampire) who had wasted his wealth and had to man up over the course of the series; and Taj Nital, an Indian man who had been rendered mute when Dracula injured his throat.  Independent of them were Blade, who only hunted Dracula because he hated all vampires due to the murder of his mother by Deacon Frost, and Hannibal King, a detective that Deacon Frost had turned into a vampire, who avoided taking blood from living humans.

Of course, Dracula didn’t just have vampire hunters after him, but people who either wanted to become lord of all vampires themselves or otherwise exploit him.  The most persistent of these was Doctor Sun, a Chinese scientist who’d been turned into a disembodied brain hooked up to a computer, who wanted to take over the world.

At the start of this volume, Dracula learns of the current whereabouts of an artifact called the Chimera, which re-sparks his desire to conquer the world himself.  (He’d had to put that on hold as a vampire army large enough to take over would promptly drink the rest of humanity to extinction, and then where would they be?)  Fortunately for the world, Dracula is not the only one after the artifact, and it ends up smashed.

Dracula has noticed his powers waning, and this leads him to a near-final confrontation with Quincy Harker, before learning that it is in fact Doctor Sun behind it, and the action moves to Boston.  There the cast adds nebbish “true vampire story” writer Harold H. Harold and lovely but ditsy secretary Aurora Rabinowitz, who act as comic relief.

After the Doctor Sun situation is resolved, Dracula takes control of a local Satanist cult and marries a woman named Domini, who he believes will give him a proper heir.  (The leader of the Satanists, of course, has other plans.)

Mixed throughout this volume are soap-opera subplots involving the various supporting cast, and interludes of Dracula’s adventures in other times and places.  Marv Wolfman’s writing is often excellent, but he sometimes doesn’t consult previous issues, resulting in some minor continuity glitches.  Gene Colan’s art is more consistently outstanding, and fits the mood well, especially in this black and white reprint.  (Some stories from the Giant-Size side series are included, with art by the less impressive but very competent Don Heck.)

Make no mistake, Dracula is the main villain here, and rare is the issue where he does not murder at least one innocent person just to remind us of that.  Much of his time is taken up with petty revenge against people who have crossed him and when he acts against other villains, it’s usually out of pride or personal vendetta.  Every once in a while, he does show a moment of kindness, but the door soon slams shut when his darker nature prevails.  Because he’s the title character, Dracula has what TV Tropes calls “Joker Immunity”; he can never be permanently killed off, only temporarily thwarted, so the heroes seem ineffectual.  (Quincy Harker broods about this frequently.)

These stories do take place in the Marvel Universe, though this series avoids most of the implications of that.  Brother Voodoo helps Frank Drake through a bad patch in his life, and Doctor Strange actually temporarily kills Dracula (but is hypnotized not to notice it’s not permanent until later.)

In addition to the expected violence (but relatively little gore–the Comics Code was still in effect), Dracula’s attacks on women are often treated in a sexualized manner.  There are some instances of suicide, both voluntary and forced.  Dracula is also depicted as being racist (mostly against Blade) and sexist (he is not at all kind to the memory of Lucy Westerna.)

And speaking of sexism, one story includes a woman who’s a bit of a “straw feminist”; the owner of a fashion house who only hires women even if a man would be more competent at the job (except one dress designer who might be gay given the coding) and who has an enormous grudge against the various men who tried to keep her down.  Dracula agrees to kill her enemies in exchange for information she can get more efficiently than he, but leaves her in a sticky situation at the end of the story.

Despite often high melodrama, there are some very well-written moments as well.

Recommended for vampire comics fans, Blade fans who want to see his early adventures, and those who enjoy Gene Colan’s art.

Manga Review: Ooku 10 & 11

Manga Review: Ooku 10 & 11 by Fumi Yoshinaga

Quick recap:  In an alternate Shogunate Japan, a plague wipes out 80% of the men, requiring women to take over most of the jobs previously held by males.  This includes being shogun (military leader, the day to day ruler of Japan, as opposed to the Emperor, who reigned but did not rule.)  As part of the flip, the female shogun had a male harem named the Ooku (“Inner Chambers.”)

Ooku 10

In Volume 10, Aonuma and the other students of Western medicine in the Ooku make great strides in devising a way to immunize boys against the redface pox.  Unfortunately, their method will still kill three in one hundred from the pox itself, and one of those three is the son of a powerful lord who in grief turns into an anti-vaxxer.  Meanwhile, the modernizing shogun and her reasonable chamberlain who have made the research possible find themselves blamed for a series of disasters, including famine and a volcanic eruption.  When the shogun’s health takes a turn for the worse, Aonuma is finally allowed to diagnose her, but he discovers that her “disease” is not what the court physicians have said, and he has no cure for arsenic.  Disaster ensues.

As is often the case in this series, hope is followed by tragedy and injustice.  There is a brutal rape in this volume, though the actual act is off-page during a flashback sequence.

Ooku 11

Volume 11 opens with the first male shogun in a century and a half, Ienari.  But his mother Harusada makes it clear that he’s a puppet, and all power is to remain with her.  Study of Western science is now forbidden, as are many other fun and useful things under “frugality” laws.  Which would be less hated, perhaps, if the shogun’s court were not still spending money like water.  After decades of succession crises because of low-fertility shogun women and a high mortality rate among their few children, Ienari is a problem because of his unusual potency, siring children left and right.

Interestingly, the changed circumstances make Ienari far more sympathetic than he is generally portrayed in Japanese historical dramas.  Danger stalks the halls of the Shogun’s palace as more people become fully aware of just what kind of person Harusada is and what she’s been up to.

However, the few remaining men who had access to the Inner Chamber’s records and Western medical training at last learn of a safer vaccination method–the redface pox could be eradicated, if they were allowed to do so!

It looks like Volume 12 will be the conclusion of this series (and I am hoping it will not take the “and all the changes in history were whitewashed away by a government conspiracy so as far as you know this actually happened” line.)

As before, excellent art and effective writing.  Some scenes do go for more melodrama than is necessary.  Be aware that the “Explicit Content” label is there for good reason–this is not a series for children.

Recommended to alternate history fans and those looking for more mature stories in their manga.

Book Review: The Year’s Greatest Science-Fiction and Fantasy Second Annual Volume

Book Review: The Year’s Greatest Science-Fiction and Fantasy Second Annual Volume edited by Judith Merril

This 1957 volume contains speculative fiction stories from magazines published in roughly the previous year, hand-picked by the editor to represent the best the field had to offer at the time.  (I’ve previously reviewed the fifth annual, which switched the title from “Greatest” to “Best.”)  It contains eighteen stories and articles, beginning with “The Man Who Liked Lions” by John Bernard Daley (an unusual person spends the day at the zoo; he isn’t too impressed with the human visitors) and finishing with “The Anything Box” by Zenna Henderson (a teacher notices that one of her students has an imaginary box of wonders–or is it imaginary?)

The Year's Greatest Science-Fiction and Fantasy Second Annual Volume

“The Anything Box” is the best story in the collection–Ms. Henderson was a first-grade teacher herself, and it shows in her descriptions of the students and their personalities.  And also in the dialogue of Alpha, the teacher kids won’t remember fondly at all, even while she prides herself on the discipline she inflicts.   The use of imagination, and its perils, are well-represented here.

Also of interest: “All About ‘The Thing'” by Randall Garrett,  a summary in rhyme of the classic John W. Campbell story “Who Goes There?”  Ms. Merril mentions in her introduction to the next piece, “Put Them All Together, They Spell Monster” by Ray Russell, how disappointed she was that Hollywood in the Fifties decided to go with sci-fi creature features for their movies, instead of thoughtful SF like “Destination Moon.”  The piece itself is a parody of the plots of monster movies, with a bit of extra spice because it first appeared in Playboy.  (No actual sex or naughty words.)

“Grandma’s Lie Soap” by Robert Abernathy takes a fantastical premise–a soap that prevents the user from telling untruths, and follows it to a logical conclusion, only to present a new dilemma in the last paragraphs, one that perhaps makes the main character’s actions more dangerous than he’d thought.

Theodore Sturgeon’s “The Other Man” should be talked about a bit.  An abused woman asks her ex-boyfriend, now a renowned psychiatrist, to treat her awful husband.  The story has a unique take on the habit abusive people have of suddenly being the most loving, wonderful person you fell in love with before going back to being abusive.   The therapy works, but something of value might have been lost in the process.

Many of the stories have the theme of communication, with others or with oneself.  In the afterword, Judith Merril notes that the previous year’s stories had been marked by cynicism and pessimism, while this crop is somewhat more hopeful.  She also notes that the pressure for conformity in the greater society led to more use of science fiction and fantasy as metaphors for current events and social ills.

I have not even mentioned several famous writers who got their works in; Isaac Asimov, J.G. Ballard (his first published story!), Algis Budrys, Damon Knight, C.M. Kornbluth and Mack Reynolds.  Their stuff is pretty good too.

Be aware that there is period sexism in the stories, (all the authors but Zenna Reynolds were white men) and some ethnic stereotyping.

Overall, a fine collection, worth picking up if you see it–also check your library for this or later volumes.

Book Review: Demons of the Night and Other Early Tales

Book Review: Demons of the Night and Other Early Tales by Seabury Quinn

Seabury Grandin Quinn (1889-1969) was a prolific pulp author, producing more than five hundred short stories.  He’s best remembered for his Jules de Grandin stories appearing in Weird Tales, featuring a French-accented occult detective.  This particular collection, however, is focused around his other early work.

Demons of the Night and Other Early Tales

The title of the first story and the Greg Hildebrandt cover might fool you into thinking this is a “sexy horror” collection, but Mr. Quinn had a wider range than that.  “Demons of the Night” is really more a version of the “Phantom Hitchhiker” urban legend, with an amusing twist.  “Was She Mad?” concerns a homeless woman offered a job that’s too good to be true.  “The Stone Image” is about an apparently evil Oriental statue , and also about a married couple that has very different tastes in art.  The best of the “weird” stories is “The Cloth of Madness” about an interior decorator who decides to take vengeance on his cheating wife and best friend.  It would have made a good EC Comics story.

Then there are a couple of straight-up romance stories, “Painted Gold” and “Romance Unawares”, both of which feature thirty-something lawyers discovering love for the first time.  (By the way, Mr. Quinn’s day job was as an attorney.)  They’re light and humorous.

Two stories involve Major Sturdevant of the Secret Service, “Ravished Shrines” in which he investigates a series of thefts of religious artifacts, and “Out of the Land of Egypt”, which involves the Major hijacking his reporter friend’s date to involve him in international intrigue.

Two more tales are told of Professor Harvey Forrester, head of the Anthropology department at Benjamin Franklin University.  “In the Fog” has him stumbling about in smog, spotting a woman who seems to be in distress and going to rescue her.  “The Black Widow” involves a seemingly cursed mummy.  A nice feature is that instead of the distressed damsel of the first story becoming his girlfriend, she becomes Professor Forrester’s ward, as she’s way too young for him.

Mr. Quinn has a good humorous touch, even in his weird tales, which he knows to turn off at appropriate moments in the story.  Most of these tales are still very readable.  However, there are some outdated ethnic stereotypes (and overuse of phonetic accents, one of the most annoying parts of the de Grandin stories) and period sexism.

Also included are his first published non-fiction article about the way Hollywood gets law wrong in movies, and a very comprehensive list of known Seabury Quinn stories.

Highly recommended to Seabury Quinn fans, recommended to pulp fans and lovers of short stories.

Book Review: The Year’s Best S-F: 5th Annual Edition

Book Review: The Year’s Best S-F: 5th Annual Edition edited by Judith Merrill

This 1960 book features a selection of speculative fiction short stories published during the 1958-60 time period.  Editor Judith Merrill provides an introduction about the concept of wonder, chatty introductions to each story (she doesn’t think much of Kingsley Amis as a literary critic) and an ending summary (as well as a listing of “honorable mention” stories.)

5th Annual World's Best SF

The 22 stories themselves begin with Damon Knight’s “The Handler”, which is a metaphor for Hollywood phoniness, and end with “Me” by Hilbert Schenk, Jr., a humorous poem about the difference between machines and humans (which is as of now, still true.)

The absolute standout in this volume is the original novella version of “Flowers for Algernon” by Daniel Keyes.  Charlie Taylor, a man with developmental disabilities, volunteers for an experimental surgery that increases his intelligence.  Told through Charlie’s own journal, the use of changing vocabulary, literary style and attitude is masterful.  The dawning of a new intellectual world, the disappointment when Charles learns that being smart doesn’t in itself make you happier, and the sinking horror when he discovers that it’s all going away make for a powerful gut punch.

The story is also commendable for the sharply drawn minor characters, like Fanny Girden, who fears what has happened to Charlie and considers it evil, but refuses to sign a petition to fire him because discrimination is against her principles.  The novel version is also excellent but contains more sexual content (sometimes published as Charly because of the Cliff Robertson movie.)

Also interesting is an editorial by John W. Campbell, Jr. titled “What Do You Mean…Human?”  It asks the perennial question of what precisely the definition of “human” is, and how to explain it to something that is not human, such as an intelligent robot.  The question remains open at the end, but it’s a good starting point for late night discussions.

“Mariana” by Fritz Leiber turns out to be about clinical depression, and a failed treatment program.

Mark Clifton’s “What Now, Little Man?” is a question about the nature of intelligence, and an uncomfortable look at colonialism.

“The Other Wife” by Jack Finney details how one man learned how to travel between alternate universes, and how he exploits this fact.  Kind of sexist, as he doesn’t let either wife in on what’s going on, but decides for them that this is the best use of his time.

Most of the other stories are readable, but also a bit forgettable.  As is common with books of this vintage, “World’s Best” means the English-speaking world at maximum, and there’s a heavy tilt towards white male protagonists.  The New Wave hasn’t quite hit in this volume, although there  is a hint of it in J.G. Ballard’s “The Sound Sweep” which focuses on the social effects of new acoustic technology.

Well worth looking up at your library or picking up if you see it at the used bookstore.

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