Book Review: Respectable Horror

Book Review: Respectable Horror by K.A. Laity

Horror is a wide-ranging genre, which can be tailored to a variety of tastes.  Some folks prefer their scary fiction with a maximum of gushing blood and sharp objects being plunged into soft flesh; others like a more genteel approach that emphasizes the subtle wrongnesses and growing atmospheric dread that comes before the end.  This collection is geared towards the latter audience, with one of the inspirations being the work of M.R. James.

Respectable Horror

There are seventeen stories in all, starting with “The Estate of Edward Moorehouse” by Ian Burdon.  The title character went missing in a remote section of British coastline seven years ago.  He’s been declared dead, and a relative is looking through his estate and discovers that Mr. Moorehouse was searching for traces of a buried village on a beach mentioned in an old text.  He decides to honor the man by visiting the same beaches.

This is a thoroughly modern story with Facebook ™ and SIM cards, but ancient evil has adapted to the new technology.

The final story, “The Astartic Arcanum” by Carol Borden, is more of a period piece.  A Cthulhu Mythos tale, it pits poet Nita Sloan against a cabal of wealthy old men in Detroit who want to change the world.  It would appear that her latest work might be the only thing that can stop them–provided they don’t manage to sacrifice her to their dark god first!

Some other standouts include: “The Feet on the Roof” by Anjana Basu.  Set in 1960s India, there is culture clash between a wealthy widow and her daughter.  The daughter just up and vanishes one day, but then mysterious footprints begin to appear where no footprints should be.  It’s nice to see a horror story set in India that is by someone who actually comes from there.

“Miss Metcalfe” by Ivan Kershner is a Bradburyesque story about a substitute teacher.  It is the day before Halloween, and there’s a new substitute teacher, with a radically different lesson plan.  It involves bats.  Nicely spooky, and dances right up to but not past the line.  Read it to your kids.

“The Well Wisher” by Matthew Pegg concerns a series of poison pen letters.  One target of the letters has already been driven to suicide.  A governess may be able to unravel the mystery of the “Well Wisher”, but can she do so without revealing her own dark secrets?  Innovative, but also comfortably period.

My least favorite story was “Recovery” by H.V. Chao.  An author with writer’s block has moved to a small French village in the hopes it will help.  It hasn’t, but he’s enjoying listening to the guest next door speak to a lover who never answers.  The story never reaches spooky, just barely making it to odd.

Most of the other stories are decent to quite good; this would make a fine Halloween present for a sweetheart or other book  lover.

Magazine Review: Famous Fantastic Mysteries March 1944

Magazine Review: Famous Fantastic Mysteries March 1944 edited by Mary Gnaedinger

Famous Fantastic Mysteries ran from 1939 to 1953 as primarily a reprint magazine.  It was originally published by the Munsey Company to feature the many speculative fiction stories they’d published over the years in their non-specialist magazines like Argosy, to cash in on the now thriving SF magazine market.  They’d had many fine stories over the years, such as A. Merritt’s The Moon Pool, and had new art commissioned for the stories from excellent artists, especially Virgil Finlay.

Famous Fantastic Mysteries March 1944

At the end of 1942, Munsey sold the magazine to Popular Publications, which changed the reprint policy to only stories that had not appeared in magazines before.  They also switched the magazine to a quarterly schedule for the duration of the war.  So the March 1944 issue was still early in their new policy, and the letters column reflects this, with several readers still arguing “no magazine stories” was a bad idea.

Back before internet archives, interlibrary loan, or even “Best of the Year” collections, tracking down a particular half-remembered story was an exercise in frustration, so this reprint magazine was a godsend and sold well.

This issue has only two long stories (short novels), but they’re both indeed famous.  Cover honors go to G.K. Chesterton’s “The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare.”

Syme is a philosophical policeman, part of a secret unit of Scotland Yard.  As ordinary police officers deal with ordinary crime, a philosophical policeman deals with philosophical crimes that threaten to corrupt or destroy society.  After a debate on what constitutes true poetry with a man named Gregory, Syme finds himself in a position to infiltrate the controlling council of Europe’s anarchist conspiracy.  But has he bitten off more than he can chew, and who or what exactly is the remarkable Mr. Sunday?

As the subtitle suggests, the story runs on dream logic, and has many nightmarish qualities.  The pursuer who moves slowly but cannot be escaped, the eyeless face, and the story’s biggest twist, which is famous but I won’t actually spoil in this review just in case.

Chesterton was a fervent Catholic, and his depiction of Anarchism as a philosophy may not be entirely accurate or fair.  But it still leads to some hilarious moments in the person of Gregory, who tries to disguise himself as authority figures only to fail because he can only act out the negative stereotypes he has of them.  And this moment, which commentators on the internet will surely identify with…

“I am afraid my fury and your insult are too shocking to be wiped out even with an apology,” said Gregory very calmly.  “No duel could wipe it out.  If I struck you dead I could not wipe it out.  There is only one way by which that insult can be erased, and that way I choose.  I am going, at the possible sacrifice of my life and honor, to prove to you that you were wrong in what you said.”

While the story starts out mostly plausible, the events become more and more unlikely, until the final scenes are almost hallucinatory.  We finally learn most of the truth about Mr. Sunday, or at least what he wants us to know about him.

Some of the story’s digs at society may take knowledge of pre-World War One English culture to fully appreciate, but as an extended philosophical jest, it’s amazing.

“The Ghost Pirates” by William Hope Hodgson is about a sailor named Jessop, and the strange events aboard the ship Mortzestus.  He hears even before shipping out on her whispers that the boat is ill-starred, but it’s going the direction he wants, and paying well.

At first, the rumors seem unfounded, but soon odd things are happening.  There are too many shadows, some not cast by any living thing.  Secured items become unsecured when no one is looking, and the sails behave as though there is wind, even when the air is calm.

When the ship is past the point of no return, the weird happenings turn dangerous, and then deadly.  The ship has lost sight of its course, and there are shadows following it in the water….

Mr. Hodgson was a sailor himself for several years, and the story is soaked in authentic detail and nautical terminology.  Having a dictionary handy for some of the obscure terms is recommended.  For those who love sea tales and ghost tales, this is a well-told treat.

Both of these stories are in the public domain, and can be found free on the internet, or in your library.

The magazine also has a tribute to Abraham Merritt, who had long been a mainstay of its pages, and had recently passed away.

Book Review: The Collected Stories of Robert Silverberg, Volume 9: The Millennium Express (1995-2009)

Book Review: The Collected Stories of Robert Silverberg, Volume Nine: The Millennium Express (1995-2009) by Robert Silverberg

Robert Silverberg (1935-still alive as of this writing) is one of the longest-running science fiction authors, having made his first sale in 1953.  Especially in his early years, Mr. Silverberg has been prolific, with his non-series short fiction alone filling nine sizable volumes.  This is the last in that series, but not necessarily the last collection of his short stories.

The Collected Stories of Robert Silverberg, Volume Nine: The Millennium Express, (1995-2009)

As the author explains in his foreword and the story introductions, he’s slowed down some as he’s aged, for various reasons.  There’s “only” sixteen stories from fourteen years presented here, but most are longer, a few up to novella length.

The opening story is “Diana of the Hundred Breasts” originally written for sale to Playboy, but turned down by them.  A wealthy layabout goes to visit his brilliant archaeologist brother at his dig in Ephesus, Turkey.  They meet a retired minister who’s touring the area, and the brother takes the other two to see the famous Diana statue of the title.  A little later, the archaeologist uncovers what may be the true meaning of the statue, but the brothers are left with more questions than answers.

I found the story so-so.  Mr. Silverberg uses tourists as main characters in many of his late period stories, something the Playboy fiction editor chided him for.  Even when the characters aren’t tourists as such, the stories often include long sightseeing sections.

He also favors the setting of the very far future and having characters realize just how very old the universe is.  Of these tales, I liked “The True Vintage of Eruzine Thale” the best.  It’s set in Jack Vance’s “Dying Earth” cycle.  Poet and wine connoisseur Puillayne is pulled out of his ennui by three suspicious looking men who claim to be fans of his work.  They turn out to be far more interested in Puillayne’s collection of rare treasures, especially the title liquid.

“The Millennium Express” is set in the relatively near future of 2999.  Four clones of great men have suddenly begun destroying the remaining treasures of the past.  A witness of one of their crimes becomes their pursuer, trying to discover their motivations and prevent them from wiping out the Louvre.  It’s a story about letting go of the past.

My choice for the strongest story in this collection is “Defenders of the Frontier” which first appeared in the Warriors collection, which I read previously.  A squad of soldiers man a forgotten outpost between their Empire and “the enemy.”  No orders or supplies have come to them in years as their numbers dwindled.  The enemy, too, has dwindled–they seem to have killed the last one in a thousand mile radius some weeks ago.  The soldiers can’t leave their post without orders, but if the enemy is truly gone, then there is no point in remaining.

I was reminded of the anime series Sora wo Oto, also about a small group of soldiers at a seemingly pointless outpost, though its mood is very different.

The final story is “Smithers and the Ghosts of the Thar”, set in India as the British Empire is building railroads there.  Young Smithers learns of a legendary sound in the desert, as though there were invisible people there, or perhaps ghosts.  He drags his friend Brewster off on an adventure to investigate.  They learn the truth behind this mystery, but at a terrible cost.

Several of the stories have scenes of extramarital sex.  (Apparently, at one point Mr. Silverberg concentrated on soft porn when the science fiction market was in a slump.)  “Beauty in the Night” has rape, child abuse and general physical abuse.

Overall, a high quality collection.  Robert Silverberg is a fine writer who has honed his craft over decades, and took his time with these stories.  However, I think this volume might do best for older readers who have some life experience to fully appreciate the nuances.  Beginners might want to start with one of the earlier volumes.

Disclaimer:  The version I read was an Advance Uncorrected Proof, and the final contents might be slightly different–at the very least, the typos fixed.

Book Review: The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Book Review: The Hunchback of Notre Dame by  Victor Hugo

The Year of Grace 1482 is going to be the big one for Pierre Gringoire; he just knows it!  The poet, philosopher and would-be playwright is debuting his new mystery play for the Cardinal of Bourbon and the Flemish ambassadors on January 6th, the Day of Kings and Feast of Fools.  A good reception will net him rich rewards and fame.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Poor Gringoire!  First, the important guests are delayed coming to the Hall of Justice, and the audience nearly riots to get the play started on time.  Then a cheeky beggar heckles the audience for spare change.  Then the Cardinal and crew finally arrive, drawing all attention from the stage.  The Flemish ambassador pans the performance, and starts the election of the Pope of Fools.  And the few audience members left are drawn away by the mysterious La Esmeralda!

Gringoire is in for even more suffering tonight, but he is not the fellow the book is named for, but just one of the many characters who live near the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris.

Victor Hugo wrote two great novels that still inspire adaptations today; Les Misérables and Notre-Dame de Paris.  The latter got a title change in English to focus on the most memorable character.  Quasimodo isn’t the protagonist either; the closest to a central character is La Esmeralda (“the Emerald”, named after her necklace), the beautiful dancer and goat trainer.  All the important male characters are defined by their relationship to her.

The 15th-Century date seems significant, a decade before the discovery of the New World would change everything, and so the characters behave as though the Old World will always be.

It’s interesting to me how the changing fashions in literature affect some of Victor Hugo’s story beats.  In the Nineteenth Century, the tall, brave and handsome warrior on a horse was almost invariably the hero of books, while a deformed or disabled or ethnic minority character (Quasimodo is apparently Roma by birth) is cast in a villainous role.  The partial reversal of roles between Phoebus (who is only interested in La Esmeralda for sex) and Quasimodo (who defends La Esmeralda even though it’s clear she is revolted by him) was shocking at the time.  Nowadays, there’s more variation in who gets to be the hero of stories.

And then there’s Frollo, the Archdeacon of Notre Dame and very much the villain of the story.  A teen genius and rising star in the religious hierarchy, he loved his little brother Jehan and had good intentions when he adopted Quasimodo.  Claude Frollo was a loving (if excessively stern) adoptive father to Quasimodo, and the local expert on alchemy.  Until he saw La Esmeralda dance, and for the first time had sexual feelings he could not pray away.

With no experience of how to deal with women, and bound by a rigid set of personal and religious codes, Frollo chose to interpret the girl’s effect on him as witchcraft, and began the rapid mental decline that ends with him seeing La Esmeralda hang rather than be with anyone else.

Between this book and Les Miz, I get the distinct feeling that Victor Hugo was not a fan of the French legal system.  Every time a character comes up against the courts and law enforcement, injustice is what ensues.  This is most symbolized by the auditor (assistant judge) who is deaf, and cannot hear that Quasimodo (who is also mostly deaf) isn’t responding to his questions.  He condemns the bellringer based on what he imagines Quasimodo might have said, and increases the punishment when someone tries to convey the truth to him.

The representation of Quasimodo as a person with disabilities is pretty good for the time when the novel was written.  I can’t say the same for the representation of the Roma people, called “Gypsies” or “Egyptians” here.  They’re depicted as a thieving, superstitious lot who hang out with the other worst elements of society.  Part of establishing La Esmeralda as a good person is the reveal that she’s adopted.  (As part of the “stolen by gypsies” myth.)

Mr. Hugo often takes the opportunity to spend a chapter talking about architecture, geography or how technology changes culture.  This can be fascinating, but may irritate people who just want to get on with the story.  He also uses some contrived coincidences to move the tale along.  (In particular, one moment towards the end of the book would in a normal melodrama have been the end of Frollo’s scheme and La Esmeralda’s triumph.  But it is ultimately useless.)

Definitely worth reading if you’ve liked any of the movies and are ready for more moral complexity.

Here’s a bit from the 1939 Charles Laughton film:

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.

Book Review: The Fall of the Towers

Book Review: The Fall of the Towers by Samuel R. Delany

Five hundred years after the old civilizations perished in the Great Fire, the Toromon Empire occupies all the known livable space on Earth.   But they are hemmed in by deadly radioactive belts and there’s nowhere for it to grow.  And yet–and yet, the Empire is not alone and there is something beyond the barrier…is it the enemy the Toromon government claims?

The Fall of the Towers

This science fiction trilogy is an early work by noted author Samuel R. Delany.  I have previously reviewed the first part, Out of the Dead City and it would be best if you read that review first.  To briefly recap, escaped prisoner Jon Koshar, the Duchess of Petra, and scarred giant Arkor are contacted by a disembodied intelligence called the Triple Being to battle another disembodied intelligence, The Lord of the Flames, which is interfering with humanity.  This is set against a backdrop of the Empire preparing for war with its unknown enemy.

The Towers of Toron:  It has been three years since the climax of the previous volume.  The war with the enemy beyond the barrier is in full swing, although it is impossible to tell how well it is doing, as none of the soldiers ever return.  The Lord of the Flames has returned to Earth, and must be rooted out again regardless of the cost.

The emphasis shifts somewhat in this volume, with two previously minor characters taking on new importance.  Clea Koshar, physicist and math genius (and Jon’s sister) is in hiding.  She is suffering what we would now call PTSD due to her war work, and is triggered by a common patriotic phrase, so has holed up in a boarding house under an assumed name and tries to avoid interacting with anyone.  Towards the end of the book, she begins to heal with the aid of circus acrobat Alter.

Runaway fisherman’s son Tel joins the army and is sent into the war.  Anyone who’s ever been through basic training (and quite a few who haven’t) will recognize that the training sequences don’t make any sense–which is only the first clue that something is very wrong here.  Once Tel is in the war itself, it turns out to be a murky affair, mists constantly concealing everything even a few feet away, constantly repairing machinery of unclear purpose, and random lethal attacks by an enemy that is never actually seen.

While banishing The Lord of the Flames is a necessary thing, it is not sufficient to stop the war.  That will take an unprecedented act of communication and understanding.

The City of a Thousand Suns:  A month after the events of the previous book, the war appears to be over, but one of the participants hasn’t put down their arms, and the consequences of the war are coming home to the island of Toron, where the Toromon Empire is centered.

On another front, actions taken by the Triple Being earlier in the trilogy have left their agents susceptible to influence by The Lord of the Flames, which is starting its endgame, to learn how to make war against the universe.  The Earthlings must finish their final mission without the direct aid of their sponsors.  That mission: collect three books that represent the finest thinking of humankind.

One of the authors comes directly on stage for the first time in the trilogy:  poet Vol Nonik.   He’s finally gotten out of the street gang he was in, but former rival gang leader Jeof still holds a grudge.  He and his minions attack Vol and his artist wife Renna, crippling the poet and murdering the woman.  This tips Vol Nonik over the edge into despair..which is good for his poetry…maybe?  He’s not so sure.

This volume is heavy on the Big Ideas as it wraps up the themes of the trilogy.  Creating new perceptions by forcibly moving a person from one setting to another, the question of whether it’s better to fix sick social systems or just let them go smash, and of course, the meaning of life.  One of the recurring images is the gambling game Randomax, which appears  as random as the name suggests, but is actually easily manipulated by those with higher math skills.

There’s more sexism as the trilogy continues, less, I think, from the author himself than from the social assumptions he’s working with.  There’s also a fair amount of “fantastic racism” as prejudice against the Neo-Neanderthals and the gigantic forest guards comes up every so often, and within the forest guard culture, how they treat their telepathic minority.

The closing chapters become clumsy, with hallucinatory paragraphs meant to show a poet plunging into suicidal madness, and a huge infodump by the Triple Being to explain what The Lord of the Flames really is and how it was working behind the scenes of the final book.  The Lord never becomes a character in its own right, and we will just have to accept the Being’s word that it is no longer a threat.

But then there is the city of a thousand suns, and perhaps there is hope for the future after all.

Recommended for Delany fans and those interested in the roots of New Wave science fiction.

Book Review: The Infinite Arena

Book Review: The Infinite Arena edited by Terry Carr

Science fiction, in a way, is a very broad genre, that can easily contain stories of other genres within itself.  Thus space westerns, fantastic romance, star war novels and so forth.   In this case, we have a sample of sports stories set in science fiction terms.

The Infinite Arena

Lead batter in the lineup is “Joy in Mudville” by Poul Anderson & Gordon Dickson.  It’s a Hoka story as the imaginative aliens that look like sentient teddy bears have taken up the sport of baseball.  As is their wont, they have assumed the identities of fictional ballplayers of Earth, including the Mighty Casey, their best batter.  Unfortunately, their latest opponents, the Sarenn Snakes, are masters of psychological warfare.  Alexander Jones, the ambassador from Earth, must summon one of his rarely-appreciated talents to save the day.  It’s all very silly.

“Bullard Reflects” by Malcolm Jameson begins with the Space Patrol celebrating the Jovian armistice with athletic contests, including the sport of Dazzle Dart, played with flashlights and mirrors.  But it turns out not all the Jovians are honoring the armistice, and Captain Bullard’s Pollux is sent to track down diehards who’ve taken over an experimental weapons testing station.  Things look dark for the Patrol when they are ambushed and disarmed, but Bullard figures out a way to make the situation a Dazzle Dart game…to the death!  A fine bit of pulp writing, but Mr. Jameson piles the awesomeness of his heroes a shade high.  Not only are they the fleet champions in Dazzle Dart, but are best at all the other athletic contests too, and the Pollux is the only ship in condition to fly when the crisis arises as all the others slacked off when peace was declared.

“The Body Builders” by Keith Laumer posits a future in which most people who can afford it store their physical bodies away and use humaniform robots by telepresence.  Dueling has become a frequent occurrence thanks to the more or less disposable extra bodies, and the protagonist is a professional gladiator.  Which is all well and good until he’s tricked into a duel in his weak “pretty boy” body used for dates, as opposed to the monstrosity he uses for combat.   He sees no way out except to tarnish his honor temporarily in an effort to get to his backup bodies, but is eventually forced to resort to his original organic form–if this one dies, it’s curtains!  Some of the celebrities name-dropped as body models are now obscure, which may make reading the story a chore for the young.

“The Great Kladnar Race” by Robert Silverberg and Randall Garrett has Earthlings stuck on a backwater planet try to create some excitement by organizing a race of the local beasts of burden.   The twist ending is one that could have been thwarted easily if any of the Earthlings had bothered to ask the natives relevant questions.

“Mr. Meek Plays Polo” by Clifford D. Simak involves space polo.  Don’t know how that’s played?  Neither does Mr. Meek, a retired bookkeeper now touring the Solar System in the spaceship it took him a lifetime to save up for.  But he did see a game once, which is more than anyone else in the rowdy frontier of Saturn’s rings has to their credit.  So when the radioactive moss harvesters are talked into a game by a social worker trying to civilize them, Mr. Meek is drafted as a coach for one team, and eventually a replacement player.

As you might guess from his name, Mr. Meek is a timid fellow who tries to explain the reality of the situation, but no one is listening until he is so riled up that he bets his ship on the contest.  (Apparently, he keeps getting into this sort of situation.)  Oh, and there’s an infestation of metal-eating bugs to deal with; that can’t be good.  Things sort themselves out in the end.

“Sunjammer” by Arthur C. Clarke is more “hard” SF than most of the other stories, as solar yachts use the pressure of sunlight to have a race from Earth orbit to the Moon.  One of the ships is manned by the inventor of solar sails, after decades of work finally able to compete; but this will be his last chance.  Soon, solar flares will make it too dangerous to yacht, and he’ll be too old for the sport by the time it’s safe again.  This one has a bittersweet ending.

“Run to Sunlight” by George R.R. Martin is comparatively light considering his reputation.  A spaceport’s amateur football league is thrown into chaos when a team of heavy-worlders apply to play.  The government doesn’t want the coordinator of the league to reject the application as they’re trying to keep a peace treaty going, and this is an obvious propaganda moment.  But the aliens prove to have major advantages in the sport, and the war may start again if they can prove how weak the Earthling really are.  Good use of strategizing and using strengths and weaknesses, but true victory goes to the person with their priorities straight.

I liked the Laumer and Clarke stories best.  The stories were written from the 1940s to the 1970s, so there are none that feature female athletes, and the few women that do appear are largely useless in plot terms.  (The Laumer story has the protagonist choosing between a young woman who hates artificial bodies but genuinely likes his personality and a flashier woman who wants to get married for a five-year trial period so she doesn’t have to work anymore.)

Recommended to fans of “strange sports” stories and fans of particular authors who haven’t seen these stories before.  Check interlibrary loan or the finer used book stores.

Book Review: The Sea-Wolf

Book Review: The Sea-Wolf by Jack London

Today is an ill-omened day.  It began with a heavy fog in San Francisco Harbor, and the ferry carrying literary critic Humphrey Van Weyden colliding with another ship.  He managed to get into a life jacket, but was swept away from the other survivors by a freak tide that took him out to sea.  You’d think that being picked up by a ship would be a good thing, but this is the seal-hunting ship Ghost, and she is commanded by the much feared Wolf Larsen.  Captain Larsen has no intentions of returning to harbor, and one of his sailors having just died, presses Van Weyden into service as a cabin boy.

The Sea-Wolf

This 1904 novel was partially based on Jack London’s own experience working on a sealing ship, and is considered one of the great sea adventure stories.  The primary conflict of the book is the clash of life philosophies between the idealistic gentleman Van Weyden, and the nihilistic and amoral Larsen.

Van Weyden is a nice enough fellow, but in large part that’s because he’s never needed to test that niceness.  Having inherited a substantial sum from his father, and cossetted by his female relatives, Humphrey has been able to dedicate himself to his books and writing career.   He’s never had to actually work for a living, and the harsh shipboard life comes as a series of shocks to him (even not counting Wolf Larsen’s particular cruelty.)  Van Weyden is rather classist, and as we see later in  the book, very sexist (in the “positive discrimination” sense.)  He grows up in many ways during the course of the story.

But it’s Larsen that the book is named for.  Born into abject poverty as a Dane in Norway, he went to sea at the earliest opportunity.  He taught himself to read and write and speak English, and all the skills needed of a sailor.  No man’s hand was lifted to help him along the way; Larsen clawed every bit of knowledge out for himself.  In a harsh world, Wolf Larsen learned to be harsh and rose in the ranks.  He took advantage of every opportunity that came his way, and has reached the pinnacle of his career path…captain of a small ship, commanding a score or so of men.

It’s said that Jack London modeled Wolf Larsen on the Nietzchean ubermensch, physically superior to everyone else on the ship, and intellectually superior to everyone except Humphrey (but with a more thought-out life philosophy.)  He’s also a perfect specimen of masculine beauty according to Van Weyden.  But he is constrained by his circumstances; his genius and drive could have made him a rich man or politically powerful, or a great artist, but life never fell out for him that way.  His cruelty and amoral behavior make him absolute master of his ship, but immensely lonely, and those under Wolf will turn against him at any chance they have.  In the end his own philosophy of “life eating life to live” is his downfall.

Most of the crew has minimal characterization, but we do get to know a few.  Johnson (not “Yonson”) of quiet dignity and great admiration for the shipbuilding craft.  George Leach (not his real name) who had to flee San Francisco for crimes unnamed, and with too much courage for his own good.  Louis, the consummate survivor.  And Thomas “Cooky” Mugridge, Cockney ship’s cook.  This last fellow is Van Weyden’s particular enemy early in the book.  Mugridge is sniveling to those above him, and tyrannical to those below him, filthy in his habits, greedy and isn’t very good at cooking.  He’s an odious person, but as Van Weyden learns, Mugridge is also constrained by his circumstances, plagued with ill luck as well as bad life choices.

Another presence, never directly seen, is Death Larsen, Wolf Larsen’s brother, and by all accounts an even worse person than him.  He’s in the same business, but with a bigger boat, and the brothers hate each other even more than they hate everyone else.

The story shifts about two-thirds of the way in with the appearance of more castaways, including Maud Brewster.  This moderately successful poet was on a voyage to Japan to improve her health when a storm wrecked her ship.  Fancy her landing on the same ship as the literary critic who boosted her early career!   She and Van Weyden quickly become friends, and in different circumstances, it could be more.  But Wolf Larsen also finds himself attracted to Maud’s beauty and wit, and he is bound by neither politeness nor custom of courtship.

It becomes necessary for Maud and Humphrey to flee the ship, and after some days in a small boat, manage to find a deserted island.  They set their minds and bodies to survive the coming winter…but the couple hasn’t seen the last of Wolf Larsen.  The romance is easily the weakest part of the book, and was considered cheesy even by contemporary critics, but does provide something of a happy ending.

There’s quite a bit of violence in the book, both human-on-human and human-on-seal.  The latter will be even more appalling to modern readers than early Twentieth Century ones, I think.  Van Weyden notes the wastefulness of killing these creatures for their skins, and then just dumping the remainder of the corpses.  There’s torture that goes a bit further than intended, and a near-sexual assault that’s only averted by coincidence.

On the other hand, no one in the book excretes waste, (really obvious during the small boat escape) and no one ever has sex.  (The crew of the ship is explicitly celibate.)  There’s a kiss at the end, but that’s it for physical contact.

Overall, an exciting tale of adventure and philosophy, but the romance takes the book down a notch.  Recommended for fans of sea tales and people who enjoy Jack London’s other books.

Book Review: Riot Most Uncouth

Book Review: Riot Most Uncouth by Daniel Friedman

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway for the purpose of this review.  No other compensation was offered or requested.

When George Gordon, Lord Byron, was a lad, his father Mad Jack often told him tales of the vrykolakas, immortal beings who fed on the blood of the living.  Now he’s nominally a student of the university at Cambridge, where a young woman has been found murdered and drained of blood.  As both the world’s greatest living poet and England’s greatest expert on vampires, Byron feels that he is the best person to undertake an investigation.  After all, he must also be the world’s greatest criminal investigator!

Riot Most Uncouth

This new mystery novel is loosely based on real life poet and romantic figure Lord Byron (1788-1824).  It blends some actual things that happened (Byron really did have a bear as a pet to thumb  his nose at Cambridge’s “no dogs in student housing” rules) with a fictional murderer on the loose.

Byron makes a fun narrator; he’s vain, self-centered and often drunk enough to miss important details.  On the other hand, he’s fully aware that he is not a good person and is reasonably honest about his character flaws.  We learn the circumstances that shaped him, including his abusive father and being born with a deformed leg–but it’s clear that Byron could have made much better life choices at any time.  Some people may find him too obnoxious as a protagonist.

The neatest twist in the plot is that there are two private investigators that claim they were hired by the murdered girl’s father, who are not working together…and in a mid-book flash forward we learn that the father doesn’t know which of them he actually hired.

Bits of Lord Byron’s poetry are scattered throughout, and are the best writing  in the book.  A word about the cover:  the Photoshopping is really obvious and a bit off-putting.

As mentioned above, Byron’s father is emotionally and physically abusive, there’s a lot of drinking and other drugs, gruesome murders (the corpses are lovingly described), on-screen but not explicit sex  scenes, and some profanity.  Period racism, sexism (Lord Byron himself is especially dismissive of women) and ableism show up in the story and narration.  The ending may be unsatisfying for some readers–Lord Byron has odd standards of justice.

Recommended for Lord Byron fans, and historical mystery readers who don’t mind a protagonist who is more flaws than good points.

Book Review: The Big Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories

Book Review: The Big Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories edited by Otto Penzler

I have a fondness for Sherlock Holmes, as I am sure the majority of my readers do.  Unsurprisingly, there has been a ton of Holmes fanfiction over the years.  Pastiches that try to capture the feel of Arthur Conan Doyle’s prose, parodies that make fun of the detective’s odd habits, and weirder works.  This is a collection of such, many done professionally by famous authors.  Thus it might be better described as a big book of Sherlock Holmes-related stories.

The Big Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories

There’s an editorial introduction, and the book proper begins with an essay by Arthur Conan Doyle regarding how and why he created Sherlock Holmes, and why he killed the character off.  (The essay being written before he brought the detective back.)  Interestingly, he mentions that the “arc” of a dozen individual stories designed to be collected into a book was an innovation at the time–most of the magazine authors aiming for book publication went with serialized stories.  Then there are two short pieces by Doyle being silly with his own creations.

There are over eighty stories all together, most quite short.  They range in time from the very first Holmes parody “An Evening with Sherlock Holmes” by J.M. Barrie (an obnoxious know-it-all engages in dueling observation with Mr. Holmes) to the very recent “The Case of Death and Honey” by Neil Gaiman (Holmes goes to China to solve one last mystery.)  Several stories crossover with other fictional characters (three times with jewel thief Raffles) or real life people.  Arthur Conan Doyle appears several times, but others range from U.S. President William McKinley to John Merrick, the “Elephant Man.”

There are stories as well, about Sherlockians (fans of the stories)solving mysteries, the most unusual of which is “The Martian Crown Jewels” by Poul Anderson  (a Martian detective investigates the theft of the title gems.)

The selection process heavily favored stories that are historically important or are by famous writers; this means that several of the tales are not of good quality.  “Sherlock Holmes and the Dasher” by the normally excellent A.B. Cox is particularly dreadful.  Most of the bad stories are extremely short.  Some of the stories are frequently reprinted (there’s a section of them towards the front), while others are rare.

There’s period sexism and ethnic prejudice in some of the stories.  “The Marriage of Sherlock Holmes” by Gregory Breitman is particularly bad on the sexism front for purposes of humor; it fell flat for me.  Suicide appears more than once, although some of them are actually murders.

The volume concludes with “The Adventure of the Marked Man”by Stuart Palmer (a Cornish man receives death threats, but he hasn’t an enemy in the world…right?)

Most of the stories are good, but due to the uneven nature of this anthology, I recommend it primarily for dedicated Sherlock Holmes fans who will appreciate the rare tales.  Others should use the library, and borrow the volume to read the stories by authors they like.  (I especially recommend the “Modern Victorians” section for casual fans.)

 

 

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