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: The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds

Book Review: The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds by Selina Siak Chin Yoke

This is the life story of Chye Hoon, a Nyonya (Malaysian woman of Chinese heritage) who lives between 1878 and 1941, a time of great change in her homeland.  Initially a willful child who wants to break out of her culture’s tradition (why shouldn’t a girl get the chance to go to school like her brother?), Chye Hoon grows into a young woman whose reputation for temper and independent spirit seem to doom her prospects for marriage.

The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds

But an enterprising matchmaker brings her together with a Chinese immigrant named Wong Peng Choon.  Despite this being an arranged marriage and the pair never actually meeting until the wedding, things work out well.  Peng Choon appreciates Chye Hoon’s cleverness and unwillingness to be cheated, and in return is a good husband.  The young couple moves to Ipoh, a rapidly growing tin mining town.

The next decade or so is good to the couple; Peng Choon is much in demand as an accountant, and Chye Hoon has ten children!  But then Peng Choon must return to China to take care of some family business.  He perishes in that far-off land; while he was careful to make sure that Chye Hoon had enough capital for a couple of years, she knows that raising ten children will soon drain that, and jobs for widows with no formal education are few and low-paying.

Chye Hoon applies her cleverness and cooking skills to the problem, becoming an entrepreneur in the field of tasty kueh (Nyonya cakes of both sweet and savory varieties.)  There are many difficulties involved in making the business a success, but she and her servants make a go of it.

Meanwhile, Chye Hoon must also raise her children, facing times of joy, times of heartbreak and times of great frustration.  In this last category is the increasing  influence of the British over the Malay States as they take firmer control of the government, and increasingly the young people adopt Western ways.   Chye Hoon has become a traditionalist who fears that her people’s heritage will be forgotten in the rush to modernize.

Chye Hoon is based loosely on the author’s own great-grandmother, and apparently many family stories were woven into the narrative.  The parts of the book that give a sense of the time and place are fascinating.  Less helpful is that quite a few of the large cast are underdeveloped or vanish from the story–a couple of the sons get brief mentions at times just to remind us they’re still alive but not doing anything relevant.

The author has made some interesting stylistic choices; uneducated characters use traditional Malayan syntax, while those with formal schooling speak British English.   (Even when they’re clearly not using that language.)  There’s also frequent usage of traditional Malayan filler words and interjections, and the author has chosen to use the older transliteration of some words, as well as some language that is now considered pejorative.  In places, this works well, and in other places it becomes intrusive.  (It also kind of raises the question of just who Chye Hoon is telling this story to at the end.)

The story ends just before the Japanese invasion during World War Two, which gives a pretty obvious cue for a sequel with the surviving family members.

Worth checking out if you are into family saga stories, and especially if you are curious about Malaysian history and culture.

Magazine Review: Pirate Stories November 1934

Magazine Review: Pirate Stories November 1934 

Some of the pulp magazines went for very specialized subjects, so it’s not a surprise to find one dedicated entirely to stories about pirates.  As this was the first issue, there’s an publisher’s note indicating that there will be stories about pirate of the past, present and future (it is after all a Gernsback publication.)  The cover is by Sidney Riesenberg, and is not related to any of the features inside.

Pirate Stories November 1934

“Pirate Guns” by F.V.W. Mason is the lead feature.  Nathan Andrews,  born in the colony of South Carolina, was a faithful member of the British Navy until he was falsely accused and convicted of aiding deserters.   Clapped in irons and being shipped off to Australia, Nathan reinvents himself as “Captain Terror,” and convinces his fellow convicts to join him in piracy if he can get them free.   Their escape attempt is treacherously exposed, but this proves a stroke of luck when they’re isolated in maximum security while everyone else on the ship dies of smallpox.  (This saves Nathan having to kill Naval officers.)

The plague ship wrecked, the remaining escapees are able to take over a slave ship (coincidentally freeing the slaves) which they refit for privateering as the Santee.  Captain Terror disdains the democracy usually practiced by pirates of the period, emulating the rank structure and discipline of the British Navy he was trained by.  This makes the Santee an unusually well-run ship, that only attacks other pirates, but they become blamed for other pirates’ bloody massacres.

Eventually, circumstances change–the American Revolution has started, and Captain Terror is hired as part of the new American Navy as Captain Andrews of the Charleston.  He’s able to get revenge on the faithless “friend” who perjured himself to get Andrews out of the way, and learns his beloved never gave in to the traitor’s advances.  Happy ending for everyone but the Irish doctor, who dies in the final battle.

It’s a rip-roaring story, but goes out of its way to make Captain Terror a “good” pirate.   It skirts around the issue of slavery, not mentioning where the slaves were headed, and the freed people have no lines or personality.  Much is made of corruption in the British Navy poisoning their fine traditions.

“Scourge of the Main” by James Perley Hughes involves another American colonial serving on a British ship, but in an earlier period when England is at war with Spain.  Daniel Tucker is from New England, and serves on a privateer that is hunting Spanish treasure ships.   However, Jolly Roger Hawkins is also after those ships,   And he’s a full-on pirate who doesn’t want to share, especially when “his” woman decides she’d rather sail with Tucker.

The author really stacks the deck, making Tucker tall, blond, blue-eyed and blessed with “Atlantean shoulders” while Hawkins is “ponderous” and has “distorted features.”   I suspect a certain amount of prejudice at play.

“High-Admirals of Piracy” is an illustrated spread about famous historical pirates from Pierre le Grand to Blackbeard.  Sadly uncredited.

“Marauders of the South Seas” by William B. DeNoyer moves into the then-present day, with a diver realizing that his employers were the ones who sunk a ship he’s been hired to salvage–and they have no intention of paying him in money.  “Lucky” Lewis is aided by the fact that one of the criminals has a wife on board who deeply regrets the marriage.  Less suspenseful than it might have been with a couple more twists.

“Jolly Roger’s Log” by Ned Carline, which would become the letter column, has a couple of suspiciously apropos letters with questions Mr. Carline answers.   Again, this is the first issue, so where the letters came from is unclear.

This Adventure House reprint includes the original ads, including advertisements for “the forbidden secrets of sex”, a collected volume of H.G. Wells’ science fiction and the German Iron Horseshoe muscle builder.

Recommended for pirate story fans who don’t mind clear-cut tales of good vs. evil.

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.

Movie Review: Four Frightened People (1934)

Movie Review: Four Frightened People (1934)

The last of the Cecil B. DeMille movies in the set I have, it’s very different from the others, being set in the present day, and having a relatively small cast.

Four Frightened People

The story opens on a passenger ship that has become infested with bubonic plague.   The crew is trying to keep this from the passengers, but ace reporter Stewart Corder recognizes the symptoms.  He convinces the people he’s with at the time, a British government official’s wife, Mrs. Mardick (Mary Boland) and a chemist with a specialty in rubber, Arnold Ainger (Herbert Marshall), to secretly abandon the ship on a native’s boat.  They are spotted by prim Chicago geography teacher Judy Jones (Claudette Colbert) who screams at the sight, and are forced to kidnap her to keep her quiet.

I should note that the version I watched is a trimmed-down one (maybe the only version still in existence) so there may have been some more characters aboard the ship (described as a cultural melting pot) that were cut from this movie.

When they land in Malaysia (actually shot on location in Hawaii), Mrs. Mardick uses her tenuous grasp of Malayan languages and learns that the local village is suffering from a cholera outbreak.  Fortunately for the castaways, one of the locals is a man named Montague (Leo Carillo.)  He’s quite a character, with a decent grasp of English.  The story kind of lampshades the fact that Carillo doesn’t look at all like a Malayan by having Montague believe that he is, in fact, a white man.  He even wears a tie, “Best English make!”

Montague agrees to guide the four to the nearest seaport…and promptly gets them all lost.   We also start to see more of the characters’ personalities.  Corder is a boastful, self-important man who clearly believes he’s the male lead of any situation he finds himself in, and sometimes acts recklessly.  Ainger is a bitter, sarcastic fellow.  Both of them feel no interest in the repressed, timid Jones, and are a bit intimidated by the heavyset and upbeat Mrs. Mardick.

Eventually, the group is captured by a hostile tribe, and are forced to leave one of them behind as a hostage.  This turns out to be Mrs. Mardick, since her layer of fat proves she is the highest-ranking one.  Montague fails to ask directions from the tribe, as that would be admitting he’s not superior to them!

Things get worse as another encounter with a local tribe goes disastrously and Montague is slain.   On the other hand, Jones has lost her glasses, hairpins and dowdy clothes, revealing that she is in fact Claudette Colbert, and the men have become interested in her.  She’s also discovered her inner spitfire.

Corder, in keeping with his male lead personality, thinks Jones will go for him, but she actually turns out to have a thing for Ainger, whose bitterness came from an unhappy marriage.  Problem is, he’s still married, despite returning Jones’ feelings.

By the end, they have learned to live in the jungle, and for Ainger and Jones it’s something of a shame that they must return to their repressed normal lives.  But that’s not quite the end of the story.

This movie was made just as the Hays Code was coming in,  so there’s quite a bit of spicy material.  Jones winds up wearing some pretty skimpy outfits, and there’s a scene where she’s apparently naked in a waterfall.  (Some shots make it look like Claudette Colbert was actually wearing a very thin slip, it’s deliberately blurry.)  Lots of innuendo in the dialogue, and the topics of family planning and divorce are brought up.

The racism is likely to be problematic for modern viewers; other than Montague, the Malayans are depicted as primitive savages, and Montague considers himself superior because he’s “white.”

The roles for the women are interesting; Mrs. Mardick is the most level-headed of the group, and never really loses her dignity, despite looking faintly ridiculous in her formal wear and carrying around a lapdog.  She even turns her captivity into an opportunity to bring family planning to the tribe, much to the delight of the women there, and the consternation of the chief.

Jones, on the other hand, goes from a timid mouse of a woman to someone who expresses her feelings, is unafraid to have opinions and dresses as she pleases.   We learn that she was emotionally abused by her relatives, who never let her forget that she owed them for taking her in.  A defining moment is when she realizes she actually sees better without her glasses–apparently she’d never had her prescription updated after her relatives complained about the expense of getting her spectacles in the first place.

Ainger also grows in the jungle, his sarcasm mellowing into philosophy.   When he gets home, his (much older looking) wife belittles him, along with his live-in mother in law.  He finds the backbone to divorce them.  Corder, on the other hand, shrinks a bit in the jungle.  He’s used to being the center of attention, headline grabber and radio personality.  Without an appreciative audience and constant praise, he’s lost.  At the end, we hear him giving a speech about his adventures, boastfully rearranging events to make himself sound better.

This is not a particularly good movie,  especially by DeMille standards.  But it has fun bits, and Claudette Colbert in skimpy outfits.  It’ll be well worth popping some corn and enjoying with your friends.

 

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