Book Review: The Pavilion

Book Review: The Pavilion by Hilda Lawrence (also published as “The Pavilion of Death”)

When Regan Carr’s mother passes away from illness, the young woman is hard-pressed.  Her part-time job as a small town librarian for $25 a week (roughly equivalent to an $8/hr job in 2017) is not sufficient to cover the doctor’s bills and other expenses of her mother’s final days, let alone allow her to live in any sort of comfort.  So when a letter arrives from her distant (and wealthy) cousin Hurst Herald, asking her to live with him, Regan decides to give it a try.

The Pavilion

But when Regan arrives with her meager possessions, Hurst Herald is dead.  And he evidently hadn’t told the rest of the family she was coming, so the relatives view Regan with suspicion.  There are those who seem glad to see her; Miss Etta, a kleptomaniac pensioner who was an old friend of Hurst’s, and the Crain sisters, elderly maids who appreciate Regan’s kindness.  The relatives warm up a bit when she proves her arrival was expected, and Regan is given an out-of-the-way room for the moment.

This novel is in the Southern Gothic tradition, featuring a dysfunctional family with dark secrets living in a fine mansion that is beginning to decay.  It’s a slow burn in many, many ways–it’s halfway through before Regan realizes that the family’s history of tragic accidents doesn’t include any actual accidents.   Much depends on her suppressed memories of what happened in the pavilion out back of the house during her childhood visit.

Regan is a petite woman, who looks even more childlike than her age of twenty-two.  A running gag is her bunny slippers, a rare splurge purchase for the poverty-stricken lady.  In a more action-packed story, she would be the damsel in distress type, but the menace here is more subtle, hidden between the lines of seemingly innocuous conversations.

The slow burn serves the story well most of the way through.  There’s a particularly chilling scene where one character’s previously comical behavior is revealed to be the result of psychological abuse as a child.  This does, however, mean that the last chapter needs to wrap everything up in a bit of a rush, with the murderer’s identity confirmed by elimination in the final paragraphs.

The viewpoint is mostly Regan’s, but we do have moments seeing the thoughts of other characters.  For example, one of the maids daydreaming about working for a less strict employer so she wouldn’t have to set her alarm clock an hour ahead to keep her job, and worrying every day that they will notice the difficulty she has getting up the stairs.  (Towards the end she talks about her and her sister’s fear of ending their days in a charity ward.)

There’s a touch of period racism; the family has no black servants because (the housekeeper thinks) they’re superstitious and don’t react well to summons from empty rooms.  African-Americans appear in scene descriptions, but none are relevant to the plot.

This is an atmospheric book that will reward the patient reader.  My 1960s copy is in rough shape; you might be able to find the 1980s reprint in better condition.

Book Review: The Rebellion’s Last Traitor

Book Review: The Rebellion’s Last Traitor by Nik Korpon

Once upon a time, the Morrigan brothers formed a group called Tathadann to make Eitan City a refuge from the Resource Wars that were killing the planet.  But then one of them betrayed the other, and the Tathadann became dictators.  Now it was their turn to be the establishment that young Henraek and Walleus rebelled against.  The Struggle had some victories, but eventually Walleus defected.  In his rage, Henraek started a riot in which his wife and child died.

The Rebellion's Last Traitor

Now Henraek is a shell of his former self, drafted into stealing memories from political targets for the Tathadann (and selling the ones they don’t need on the black market.  His new lover’s an artist, and may still be actively working with the Struggle.  Walleus is an intelligence operative for the city’s bosses, though not as well treated as once he was.  His ambitious underling Grieg is incompetent at the actual job, but might be better at backstabbing.

Then Henraek comes across a memory of his wife that suggests she wasn’t killed in a riot at all.  He starts investigating, despite Walleus warning him off.  Walleus does, after all, care about his old friend…and has secrets he must keep at any cost.

This is a book about people who have been betrayed and are betraying; almost everyone has secrets they’d rather other people didn’t know.  The setting seems to be a future Ireland, but is vague enough that it might not be.  The landscape and environment have been permanently altered by the Resource Wars, and there’s been mass memory tampering.

If we presume that it’s Ireland, then the Struggle seems to evoke the Troubles and the terrorism and oppression of those dark times.  I am not expert on the subject, so cannot say how respectful this story is to that inspiration.  The social divide is more political than religious (people who support the ruling party live in a nicer part of town and have  some luxuries; people the ruling party don’t like can’t even get clean water.)

Neither of the main characters is likable; Henraek is resentment and revenge-driven almost 24/7, while Walleus is more calculated but just as self-centered.  Some of the other characters come off a bit better, but we are talking terrorists and the secret police (who are pretty similar.)

As might be expected, there’s a lot of violence and some rough language.

The writing is okay, but not gripping and I have no interest in following the further story of the surviving characters.

Book Review: Twice Told Tales

Book Review: Twice Told Tales by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864) is one of the great American writers; his The Scarlet Letter is studied in many schools across this land.  But it took him quite a while to reach that status.  After crushingly disappointing sales for his first novel, Fanshawe, Hawthorne spent a dozen years in poverty, scraping by selling short pieces.  In 1837, his friend Horatio Bridge put up the money to have a collection of those short pieces (titled “Twice Told Tales” because they’d all been printed before) printed in a book, first anonymously, then with his name attached once good reviews came in.  A second edition with more stories (39 in all) was published in December 1841, and is the one usually reprinted.

Twice Told Tales

As the introduction by Professor Gemme explains, Edgar Allan Poe’s review of the later edition became famous in its own right–Poe objected to several of the pieces not actually being “tales” (what we’d call “short stories”) but essays  or sketches.  And in the process of explaining that, he set down his own theory of what a proper short story was.  This was influential in American literary circles.  Poe did praise those “tales” that met his criteria, hailing Hawthorne as one of the few worthwhile authors America had produced to that date.  After that, another review seems superfluous but I will proceed.

The book opens with “The Gray Champion”, a tale of a mysterious old man who appears in 1689 to halt the massacre of malcontents in Massachusetts by the tyrannical Governor Andros.   An unnamed ancient in Puritan garb, the old man is said to return whenever New England faces an existential crisis.   This is only the first of many ghost-like figures in these tales, a haunted New England that influenced many American writers including H.P. Lovecraft.  The first piece in the 1841 addition, “Legends of the Province House” is a collection of ghost stories involving the former colonial governor’s residence in Boston.  There’s a character named Bela Tiffany, which Hawthorne admits is highly unlikely.

There are some classics in this collection, including “The Minister’s Black Veil” about a small-town minister who abruptly and for no reason he will explain conceals his face behind a cloth mask he never removes, and how that affects people’s perceptions of him.  “The Great Carbuncle” concerns the search for a giant gemstone; the motives of the people looking for the jewel affect their fates, and how they react to the carbuncle’s true nature.

“David Swan” is a lesser-known piece about a young man who falls asleep by the road and is visited by Wealth, True Love and Death, awakening unaware of his brushes with fate.  “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment”, the last story in the 1837 section, involves the title character inviting some senior citizens to imbibe water from the Fountain of Youth.  The story looks at the follies of both youth and age.

“Peter Goldthwaite’s Treasure” is about a man that has failed at every attempt at getting ahead in life staking everything on finding a fabled treasure of his similarly-named ancestor, even to the point of destroying the family house that is his last possession.  The story makes a point of contrasting Peter, whose get rich quick schemes all rely on luck he doesn’t have, with his ex-partner John Brown who never goes for a risky prospect,  but has excellent luck.

The last story in the book is “The Threefold Destiny”, which is deliberately evocative of fairy tales.  A young man becomes convinced that three astounding events will occur to him, with special prophetic signs.  He goes out in search of these, but his worldwide quest has none of these results.  The man returns to his home village to rest before starting anew, and of course discovers his true destiny.

Mr. Hawthorne was big on allegory and symbolism, and sometimes this gets heavy-handed.  Sometimes he also goes out of the way to make sure you get the point he’s trying to make, as in “The Ambitious Guest” where the moral is “you don’t know when you’re going to die, and trying to avoid fate can doom you worse than accepting it, so all human ambition is folly.”

The essays, while certainly not as compelling as the tales, are mostly good, and of interest for what they tell us about life in Hawthorne’s time.  “A Rill from the Town Pump” for example examines life without central plumbing from the perspective of the main water source of the village.  “The Sister Years” on the other hand is clearly a piece written for a local newspaper for New Year’s of a particular year, and has a number of in-jokes that are lost to all but scholars of that time period.  (On the gripping hand, it’s not often that we see the new and old years depicted as women.)

Nathaniel Hawthorne, while very much a Christian, was not a big fan of religious fanaticism; while his Puritan ancestors took the brunt of this in his stories, he also was critical of Shakers and even Quakers on that point.  The most humorous take of this is in “Endicott and the Red Cross” where the Puritan title character’s patriotic rant on the importance of “religious freedom” is interrupted by a “wanton gospeler” who reminds Endicott that he was not so keen on that freedom when he condemned the gospeler for heresy a few hours ago.

A more tragic treatment is in “The Gentle Boy” with prejudice against Quakers leading to murder and ostracism.  There’s even a preacher saying that Christian mercy does not apply to the despised sect, even to their children who are no doubt permanently corrupted.  (Remind you of anything?)

There’s some period sexism and racism in these stories and essays.  The latter really comes up in “Mr. Higginbotham’s Catastrophe”, about a gossipy traveling salesman who hears a report that Mr. Higginbotham has been murdered, with use of the N-word in conversation.  (And an equivalence of black people and the Irish as the lowest of the low.)

Overall, there’s more good material here than mediocre, and more excellence than clangers.  Some of the most famous stories have been reprinted in other anthologies, or if you want to read the entire thing, there are many inexpensive reprint editions, and it is also available from Project Gutenberg.

Here’s the trailer for the 1963 Twice Told Tales movie, which is not at all faithfully adapted, but does star Vincent Price in a triple role.

 

Book Review: Things That Are

Book Review: Things That Are by Amy Leach

“The secret to crypsis is placing yourself among things you look like, but in a scene where no one will expect you, like Willie Nelson with Lithuanian peasants.”

Essays are short pieces in which the author attempts to set down their thoughts.  They can be formal or informal, informative or fanciful.  This book is a set of prose essays by Amy Leach, collecting them from various previous publications.  The title is inspired by an epigraph from John Donne.  Inside, the essays are divided into “Things of Earth” (primarily plants and animals) and “Things of Heaven” (primarily space objects.)

Things That Are

Ms. Leach’s language is poetical and heavy on the similes.  I am happy to report that it works most of the time, and is pleasant to read.  The words flow smoothly as the ideas dance from one related topic to another.  My personal favorite of the essays is “Goats and Bygone Goats” as my family raised these creatures on our farm long enough ago that many of the memories are pleasant.  The essay “God” on the other hand came across as pretentious.  And “The Safari” just goes on and on with its extended animals as memories metaphor.

The edition I have is from Milkweed Editions, with rough-cut pages and illustrations by Nate Christopherson.  I like the illuminated beginning capitals.  There’s a short glossary at the end that sometimes makes certain words clearer in meaning.

These short, calm pieces make the book a good choice to read between heavier or more emotionally demanding material; this is a good book to read before bedtime, or sipping a cup of tea.  It also sounds good read aloud.

Recommended to…just about everyone, really.

Book Review: Sisters of the Revolution: A Feminist Speculative Fiction Anthology

Book Review: Sisters of the Revolution: A Feminist Speculative Fiction Anthology edited by Ann & Jeff VanderMeer

As the subtitle of this volume indicates, it’s a collection of 29 short stories written from a feminist perspective. There are selections from the 1960s through the 2000s–SF, fantasy, horror and a couple of stories that seem to be included out of courtesy because of “surrealism.”

Sisters of the Revolution

The anthology begins with “The Forbidden Words of Margaret A.” by L. Timmel Duchamp, an account of a journalist’s meeting with a woman whose use of language is considered so dangerous that a Constitutional amendment has been passed to specifically ban those words. The journalist has a photo-op with Margaret A. in the prison that woman is being held in, and the experience changes her. It’s an interesting use of literary techniques to suggest the power of Margaret A.’s words without ever directly quoting them.

The final story is “Home by the Sea” by Elisabeth Vonarburg, in which a gynoid in a post-apocalyptic world returns to her mother/creator to ask some questions. The answers to those questions both disturb and give new hope. Like several other stories in the volume, this one deals with the nature of motherhood, and the mother-daughter relationship.

There are some of the classic stories that are almost mandatory for the subject of feminist speculative fiction: “The Screwfly Solution” by James Tiptree, Jr. (men abruptly start murdering people they’re sexually attracted to, mostly women but the story tacitly acknowledges homosexuality); “When It Changed” by Joanna Russ (a planet with an all-female society is contacted by men from Earth after centuries of isolation–it originally ran in Again, Dangerous Visions, an anthology for stories with themes considered too controversial to be published elsewhere, times have changed); and Octavia K. Butler’s “The Evening the Morning and the Night” (a woman with a genetic disorder discovers that she has a gift that fits her exactly for a specific job, whether she wants that job or not.)

The anthologists have also made an effort to include stories that are “intersectional”, providing perspectives from other parts of the world. “The Palm Tree Bandit” by Nnedi Okorofor tells the story of a Nigerian woman who defies a sexist tradition and starts one of her own. Nalo Hopkinson’s “The Glass Bottle Trick” is a retelling of the Bluebeard story in modern Jamaica (this time the women avenge their own), and “Tales from the Breast” by Hiromi Goto, wherein a Japanese-Canadian woman discovers a solution to her breastfeeding problems.

Some other standouts include: “The Grammarian’s Five Daughters” by Eleanor Arnason (a fairy tale about language); “The Fall River Axe Murders” by Angela Carter (one of the stories that really doesn’t feel like speculative fiction, but is really well-written, set in the moments just before Lizzie Borden is about to get up and kill her parents) and “Stable Strategies for Middle Management” by Eileen Gunn (how far would you go to fit into the corporate culture? Would you let them shoot you up with insect genes?)

Tanith Lee’s “Northern Chess” is a fantasy tale of a warrior woman infiltrating a castle cursed to be a deathtrap by an evil alchemist. It’s exciting, but the ending relies on a now-hoary twist. Still worth reading if you haven’t had the chance before.

Most of the other stories are at least middling good. The weakest for me was “My Flannel Knickers” by Leonora Carrington, which falls into the surrealist category and seems to be about a woman who has rejected conventional beauty standards. Probably.

Rape, sexualized violence and domestic abuse are discussed; I’d put this book as suitable for bright senior high schoolers, though individual stories could be enjoyable by younger readers.

Recommended for feminists, those interested in feminist themes, and anthology fans.

Book Review: Infinity Two

Book Review: Infinity Two edited by Robert Hoskins

Infinity was a series of paperback science fiction anthologies from Lancer Books in the early 1970s.  Its primary draw was that all the stories were new, not having been previously printed in magazines.  By this point, science fiction writers were allowed to mention sex and other controversial topics (thank you, Dangerous Visions) but they did not always do so in a healthy manner.

Infinity Two

The introduction, “The Alien Among Us”, talks about ecology and pollution, and the possibility that some force is trying to kill off the human race.

“Murphy’s Hall” by Poul and Karen Anderson is one of the more experimental pieces, tying together several failed space missions and the miserable life of a boy left behind on Earth.  Depressing ending, but one that seems all too plausible now.

“The Monster in the Clearing” by Michael Fayette is an Adam and Eve story, with a computer giving instructions on how not to screw up humanity’s second chance.  The National Rifle Association is one of the things the new god plans to ban.  However, when did humans ever do what they were supposed to?

“The Scents of IT” by J.F. Bone stars Xar Qot, a member of the Mallian species, which are essentially sentient lobsters with a society based on cannibalism.  When a couple of pesky visitors come to the planet, Xar Qot sees a way to help his human ally George Banks, and advance his own ambitions.  I’m going to talk about this story and some possibly triggery subject matter in the Spoilers section below.

“The Road to Cinnabar” by Ed Bryant is another experimental piece, this one about a labor organizer in a far future city that seems to be dying.  The ending is kind of blah, with a bit of philosophy.

“The Technological Revolution” by James E. Gunn is a horror piece when a woman’s labor-saving devices all go on the fritz at once.  Is there a conspiracy of the machines to kill her, or is the ghost of her Luddite grandmother running a false flag operation?

“Elephants” by K.M. O’Donnell is a depressing piece about the last circus performance of the universe–very stylistic and fatalistic.

“The Other Way Around” by Howard L. Myers is set in the Dark Ages, as a teller of tales tracks down Merlin.  Merlin is not what you’d imagine, and he’s discovered a terrible truth about time travel.  Also kind of depressing.

“Legion” by Russell Bates continues the trend of depressing stories as a multiple transplant recipient is unable to cope with what has happened to him.

“Gorf! Gorf! Gorf!” by William F. Nolan is at the other end of the seriousness spectrum, as a frog eats a bunch of growth pellets and grows to kaiju size.  Now the government needs to try to solve the problem.  The story abruptly moves from New York to California and backin a nonsensical way, and the ending is an anticlimax.

“Timesprawl” by Anthon Warden is back to depressing.  A recently unemployed man gets the chance to relive the last year of his life, which he plans to use to take revenge–but there’s an icky twist.

“In Entropy’s Jaws” by Robert Silverberg has a telepath come unstuck in time with random fugues of flashback and flashforward.  Unlike some of the other stories here, Mr. Silverberg makes the experimental format work well for him.  Probably the best story in this volume.

“Reunion” by Arthur C. Clarke closes out the book with the return of the human race’s true progenitors.  It seems they have a cure for the plague that made them flee millenia ago…but will the Earthlings want it?  Edgy then, kind of silly now.

Overall, a mediocre collection, I’d recommend it to Silverberg completeists and garage sale pickups and not much else.

SPOILERS

So, “The Scents of IT“.   Mr. Bone was a professor of Veterinary Medicine, which may explain the focus on alien biology.   This is clearly meant to be a silly pun-based story, but it turns out to be really problematic by today’s standards.  We learn that the evil feminists have triumphed and turned humanity into a matriarchal society (more like a thin veneer of matriarchy over an egalitarian  society, really.)  George Banks laments that social conditioning prevents him from just raping the woman he wants.

The woman in question is Shirley Copenhaver, who despite being so pretty even sentient lobsters can tell, refuses to give George Banks (or any other man) the sex he deserves.   Banks is also upset with her because she’s an ethnologist who does her job, studying alien cultures and writing books about them.  Which indirectly resulted in the destruction of one such culture when a corporate entrepreneur read the book and realized how to commercially exploit them.  Why Banks doesn’t blame the entrepreneur  who actually did the deed is unclear.

Xar Qot realizes that the pheromone male Mallians exude that allows them to dominate and predate upon the more numerous females also works to some extent on human women.  So he sets up a situation where Banks can “seduce” (commit chemically-assisted rape) Copenhaver, as apparently Banks doesn’t consider this to be rape.

The next day,  when Copenhaver has recovered her senses and is understandably furious at Banks and Xar Qot, she walks into an ambush and is chemically-assisted raped again.  This makes her fall in love with Banks and give up her career to be his housewife.   Banks and Xar Qot  then mass-produce the pheromone which the men of humanity use to overthrow the matriarchy and install a patriarchy, as is the proper status of society.  Happy endings all around!

Well, except for gender-queer human Hector Marks, who is eaten alive just before he can finish his book on Mallian culture.

This story is…wow.  Just no.   I am aware it’s supposed to be comedy, but the passage of time has spoiled the joke.

Movie Review: Spider Forest (2004)

Movie Review: Spider Forest (2004)

Kang Min (Kam Woo-Sung), a line producer for a schlocky “true paranormal” television show, finds himself in a dark forest, headed for an isolated house.  Inside, he finds blood and destruction.  He sees the repeatedly stabbed body of his boss, and then finds his lover Hwang Su-yeong (Kang Kyeong-hyeon) dying and babbling about spiders.  At this point, he detects another presence in the house, presumably the killer.

A misleading scene from "Spider Forest"
A misleading scene from “Spider Forest”

Kang Min gives chase, only to be stunned with a blow to the head.  Dazed, Kang Min finds his way into a nearby highway tunnel, where he glimpses the presumed murderer again.  Before he can act on this, Kang Min is hit by an SUV.  He awakens fourteen days later in the hospital.

His acquaintance Choi, a police officer, is called in, and when Kang Min tells him about the murders, Choi is assigned to investigate.  Kang Min reveals the events that led up to that night in the woods in fragments of memory, dream and possibly hallucination.  Some of what he remembers may not be true.

This is a low-budget psychological thriller from Korea, meant to cash in on the wave of films such as Oldboy and Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance.  As such, it’s sporadically violent and frequently bloody.  There’s also several sex scenes, and the film got an “R” rating in the United States.  It’s also mostly shot in dark and dimly-lit locations, with characters whispering their lines (thank goodness for subtitles!)

The story of the film is deliberately confusing, according to director Song Il-gong.  He started by writing a linear script that fully explained what was going on in a way that made logical sense, then cut out as much of it as possible and still have a narrative.   (There are a few deleted scenes on the DVD that fill in some of the gaps, but don’t really explain more of what’s really going on.)

Due to the darkness, whispered dialogue and jigsaw puzzle plot, this is not a movie I recommend for late night viewing.  It’s best when you’re fully alert and able to give it some concentration.  I do not recommend the film for anyone who hates jigsaw puzzle plots or mind screws.

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