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.

Comic Book Review: Saints: The Book of Blaise

Comic Book Review: Saints: The Book of Blaise written by Sean Lewis, art by Benjamin Mackey

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

Saints: The Book of Blaise

“Monster” Blaise is a heavy metal musician with “one weird trick”–his glowing hands can cure throat ailments.  It’s never occurred to him to look further into this, so it’s a bit of a surprise when a mysterious archer interrupts one of Blaise’s assignations.  The bowman claims to be the reincarnation of Saint Sebastian, yes that  Saint Sebastian, and our protagonist is the reincarnation of Saint Blaise.

Blaise wasn’t raised Catholic, or even Christian, and is none too clear on what’s going on.  But bad things are going down, and they must find the last few reincarnated saints before the end of the world.  The next on the list is Lucy Sweetapple, a grocery store clerk with the gift of Sight, and whose parents own a painting of Jesus that talks to Blaise.  It’s only getting weirder from here.

The author of this Image Comics-published story was raised Irish Catholic, he tells us in the foreword, and he’s combined his childhood love of the Saints with metal and comics for this series.  He’s best known for his plays, and it takes a while for his comics writing to click.  The art is strongly inked to give it a bit of a stained-glass feel, and works well with the story themes.

This is not a book for those who like their religion orthodox; the writer plays fast and loose with the abilities of the saints, the motivations of angels and the nature of God.  The ministers who have joined up with the antagonists are from non-standard churches, and there’s a children’s crusade filled with child soldiers.  Meanwhile, the protagonists’ forces include morally dubious metal bands and a demon.

While this isn’t specifically labeled “mature readers”, there’s nudity, gory violence, sexual situations and some unnecessary vulgarity.  Urine drinking in the first scene for shock value, for example.  Lucy attacking Blaise in the mistaken belief that he was about to sexually assault her is played for laughs, but it’s pretty obvious men have tried it enough before to make her violence an ingrained reaction.

There are some clever bits with the saints’ abilities being based on their folklore but not confined to that; and very effective artistic renderings of revelatory messages.  But in places I was uncomfortably reminded of some of the excesses of early Vertigo Comics.

I think this will go over best with lapsed Catholics and comparative theology majors.

Book Review: Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Book Review:  Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

Tom is a good man, a Christian man.  Tom is kind, hard-working, trustworthy, intelligent (though barely educated) and honest.  He’s respected by his colleagues, a faithful husband to Chloe and a loving father.  But Uncle Tom is also a slave, and all his positive qualities mean nothing to the law which makes him a piece of property to be bought and sold.

Uncle Tom's Cabin

Tom’s owner, Mr. Shelby, lives in northeastern Kentucky, not far from the Ohio  border.  While a kindhearted fellow, whose wife is practically a saint, Mr. Shelby is unlucky in his stock speculations and has become heavily in debt.  His notes have fallen into the hands of Mr. Haley, a slave trader.  Mr. Shelby can clear his debts by selling Mr. Haley his best hand, Uncle Tom, and the handsome, witty child Harry…or all the other slaves on the farm.  Mr. Shelby’s choice is clear; it grieves him, but after all, they’re just property.

Eliza, Harry’s mother, refuses to give him up.  Her other children died in infancy, and she knows her husband George Harris is soon to be sold by his own crueler master.  Forewarned of the sale, she runs off with Harry in the middle of the night.  But even if she can cross the broken ice in the river separating Kentucky from Ohio (for it is early spring), the free state holds no safety, for this is the time of the Fugitive Slave Act, and the law requires her and the child to be returned to bondage.

This 1852 novel was originally published as a newspaper serial (which is most obvious in the final chapter “Concluding Remarks”.)  Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896) was an abolitionist, but some of the heartfelt sorrow in the writing came from her own experience of losing a small child.  The 1850s were a time of high infant mortality, and nearly every woman in the United States would have known the heartbreak of losing a child or be personally acquainted with someone who had.  So one of the main target audiences of the book was the nation’s mothers.

At first, Uncle Tom’s fate does not seem too hard; though separated from his wife and children, and everything he’s known, Mr. Haley prides himself on his humane treatment of his goods.  Why, he even makes sure not to sell children directly in front of their mothers!  As it happens, Tom saves the life of a little white girl, Evangeline St. Clare, who begs her father Auguste to buy Tom.

In many ways, Auguste St. Clare is the nicest slaveowner in New Orleans.  He despises the institution of slavery, and the abuses the law allows, so tries to be kind to his servants.  But his own heartbreak has left Auguste feckless, and prone to “I’m only one man, what can I do about the system?”   Worse, he married his wife Marie as a rebound relationship without taking time to see if they were compatible–they aren’t, and she is a cause of misery to all around her.

Evangeline, on the other hand, is too good for this sinful Earth, and is a joy to everyone with her simple and kindly faith.  She forms a special bond with the trustworthy Tom, and even manages to reach the heart of Topsy, an abused girl who frequently acts out with destructive pranks.  Too soon, Eva’s health fails, and she passes away to the sorrow of the household.

Between Eva and Tom, Auguste’s heart is moved, and he resolves to reform, beginning with doing the involved paperwork required for freeing Uncle Tom.  Before he does more than start, however, St. Clare is mortally wounded in a tavern brawl.  While it appears he finally comes to Jesus before he dies, Auguste fails to tell Marie his intention to free Tom, and she refuses to hear anyone else informing her of this.

Thus it is that Tom is sold at auction to Simon Legree, a planter who hates everyone, but especially his own slaves.  Legree is a cruel man who cares only for profit, driving his slaves until they die from overwork.  Tom is deeply unhappy at this twist of fate, but is willing to work hard and help his fellow slaves.  Legree can’t abide kindness, so tries to drive it out of Tom.  But this is where Tom draws the line.  He will not be cruel, even if it costs him his life.  Nor will he inform on runaways, which leads to the final crisis.

This is a very religious book, heavy-handed on the Christian message.  Which is not to say that it’s comfortable reading for Christians.  Many white Christians of the time believed that the Bible fully sanctioned the system of chattel slavery  practiced in the United States, and this is on full view.  At one point, we even have pastors quoting dueling proof-texts.  We also have the character of Miss Ophelia, Auguste’s cousin from Vermont.  She’s firmly against slavery as a matter of principle, but deeply prejudiced against black people, and must overcome her own narrow-mindedness to help Topsy.

And though the people of best character in the book are fervent believers in God, He is silent throughout.  Perhaps He has a hand in fortunate things that happen, and lends strength to His children to endure; He also seems to allow vast suffering and withhold punishment from the wicked.  It’s up to Christians themselves to do the right things as best they know how.

The book is melodramatic, full of coincidences and unlikely twists.  Like Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, while individual incidents and types of people are drawn from real life and things that actually happened, all of this happening to a small group of people is clearly fiction.  The last few chapters heap on happy coincidences as if to make up for what happens to Uncle Tom, and point towards what people of conscience should be doing.

As one might expect, the book is full of period racism (much use of the “N” word included) and period sexism also plays a part (in later years, Mrs. Stowe was what we now call a first-wave feminist.)  There is suicide, infanticide, animal abuse, torture and what is obviously rape takes place offstage.  The old-fashioned writing style can also be a bit difficult to get through; I would not recommend this book for teenagers, as it works better if you have some experience with adult life.

This is an important book, and Mrs. Stowe really knows how to hit a reader in the “feels”, while also knowing when to use heavy sarcasm.  If you haven’t already read it, consider doing so; it’s in the public domain, so easily available in affordable editions, or free at the library or online.

Book Review: Women of the Night

Book Review: Women of the Night edited by Martin H. Greenberg

With all the anthologies I’ve been reviewing, I’m surprised it took me this long to cover one edited by Martin H. Greenberg (1941-2011), who curated more than a thousand SF/F/Horror anthologies during his career.  He was an excellent packager:  If you wanted a book about alternate universe Elvises, he could find you a dozen decent to outstanding stories, even if he had to call a few authors to write them to order.

Women of the Night

In this particular case, the theme is “female vampires” of various sorts.  The introduction by John Helfers talks about how they have been relatively underrepresented as opposed to male vampires, but their literary pedigree is nearly as long.

The sixteen tales open with “One for the Road” by Stephen King, a sequel to Salem’s Lot.  A tourist managed to strand his family in what used to be Jerusalem’s Lot during the middle of a Maine blizzard.   He’s finally managed to find help, but it may be too late for his wife and child.  Spooky, but really requires you to have read the previous book for full effect.

The oldest story is from 1953, Philip K. Dick’s “The Cookie Lady.”  A young boy visits a nice old lady who offers him cookies and likes to listen to him read.  She’s a different kind of vampire.  Notably, the boy’s parents are right to be concerned, but for the wrong reasons–in a non-horror story, they’d be the bad guys.

As one might expect from the usual treatment of female vampires in fiction, there’s quite a bit of sexual references in the anthology, unfortunately including rape and pedophilia.  There’s also a fair amount of violence (what, you thought all blood donors were voluntary?)

Neil Gaiman’s “Snow, Glass, Apples” is an interesting twist on the Snow White tale, but I found it less transgressive than just kind of icky.  Still very well written.

“Sister Death” by Jane Yolen is better, I think, twisting together the myth of Lilith and the Holocaust.  Some very evocative imagery.

There’s a wide assortment of female vampires; sometimes villains, sometimes victims, and one or two are the heroes of their stories.  I think a couple of these have their endings muted because we know that there is a female vampire to begin with, even if within the story it’s a surprise.

The final story is “Do Not Hasten to Bid Me Adieu” bu Norman Partridge.  It’s a take on the Dracula novel, some parts of which are true in the story, and others made up by Bram Stoker.  Quincey Morris returns to Texas to fulfill a promise he made to Lucy, no matter how much blood it’s going to take.  There’s a bit of suspense at the end–is Quincey too late?

It’s a good line-up of authors with some nice stories, it would make a pleasant Halloween present for a vampire fan.

Book Review: The Good, the Bad, and the Mad

Book Review: The Good, the Bad, and the Mad by E. Randall Floyd

American history is full of offbeat people, some downright weird.  The author was (like many a lad) fascinated by their stories when he was young.  Then he got to interview Erich von Daeniken (Chariots of the Gods) and decided to make writing about unusual people a full-time hobby.  This book is one of the results.

The Good, the Bad, and the Mad

It contains 37 mini-biographies of interesting people in American history, arranged alphabetically from Jane Addams (social worker and pacifist) to Wovoka (Native American mystic and the leader of the “Ghost Dance” movement.)  There are the really obvious candidates, like “Emperor” Joshua Norton of San Francisco and Nikola Tesla (eccentric inventor.)  But there are also more obscure figures, like Giacomo Beltrami, who didn’t quite discover the source of the Mississippi, and Bernarr MacFadden (health nut.)

The writing is okay, but these are very short biographies, and some of the subjects have had entire (and much better) books written about them.  There are no illustrations, no citations or bibliography, and no index.  Your college professor isn’t going to accept this as a source!

While written for adults, I think this book would best serve as a gift to a bright teenager who can then look further for more information about any person that catches their fancy.  It’s a good book for a quick read, and some interesting historical moments.

Book Review: Death of a King: The Real Story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Final Year

Book Review: Death of a King: The Real Story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Final Year by Tavis Smiley with David Ritz

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.  My copy was an advanced reading copy, and the final product (due out September 2014) will have some changes, including a full index.

Death of a King

This book covers the last year of Dr. Martin Luther King’s life, from April 4, 1967 to April 4, 1968.  It focuses strongly on Dr. King’s state of mind and thoughts as the year progresses (based on his own words and the memories of his friends and family), with a few digressions to important past events.  As a way to make it feel more personal, the writers refer to him as “Doc,” the nickname his friends called him.

It was a tumultuous year, and not a high point in Dr. King’s life.  It opens with his speech coming out publicly against the Vietnam War, still a deeply unpopular position at the time.  He also worked to widen his civil rights focus to concentrate on the problem of systemic poverty, which cost him support among his followers who felt he should stick to racial issues.  In addition, he was being challenged by younger black leaders who favored the threat (and actual use if necessary) of violence to get their way.

According to this book, during this time Dr. King struggled with issues of depression, his marital infidelity, ill health and private moments when alcohol caused him to lose control of his temper.  But the dark night of the soul was not his only concern, and it talks of his preaching, of his willingness to reach out to his critics and enemies to learn their viewpoints, and of his desire to serve.

Towards the end of the book, it creates a refrain with the end of each chapter leading towards Memphis.  That city’s callous attitude towards its sanitation workers, which had led to the entirely preventable death of two of them, had become intolerable, and led to a strike.   Dr. King was there to elevate the strike into the national spotlight, and to help bring the city to the negotiating table.  But instead, he was assassinated.

This is by no means a complete biography, nor is it meant to be.  Younger readers, or those reading about Dr. King for the first time, will want to read a more general biography first.  That said, the book strongly evokes a particular time in American history, and an important figure in that history.  Snippets of favorite songs and Dr. King’s famous speeches set the tone.

The writing style is intimate, but easy to follow, and moves along quickly.

Recommended to those who want to know more about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the late 1960s, and the Civil Rights movement.  Parents should be aware that due to its subject matter, some racist language is used in quotes.

Book Review: From the Cross to the Church

Book Review: From the Cross to the Church by A.C. Graziano

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.  The copy I received is the first edition, which has a number of typos I am told were fixed in the second edition.

From the Cross to the Church

This book is a basic introduction to the subject of the creation of the canonical New Testament and the formation of the Roman Catholic church from the early community of Christian believers.  It covers what scholars now believe (although there are great differences in opinion among Biblical scholars as to details) as to when the books were written, by whom as far as can be determined, and where they might have been altered to match then-current concerns.

This is a fascinating subject for those interested in learning more about where the Scriptures came from.  It is likely to be less pleasing to one whose framework for interpreting the Bible requires it to be immutable, and by the writers tradition has assigned, directly inspired by God.

I found this volume poorly organized, with bullet points not always recapping the previous material, and inserted in non-intuitive places.  A chapter on documentary sources of Genesis is just sort of plopped down at the end.

The author does not claim any original research, describing himself instead as a “journalist.”  To that end, the list of sources at the end of the volume, ranked by importance and accessibility (but not by credibility, let the reader beware!) may be of more use to the interested scholar.

If you need a quick introduction to the concepts covered here, this book will do.  For better choices, consult your pastor or a Biblical scholar of your acquaintance

Comic Book Review: The Sixth Gun Book 1: Cold Dead Fingers

Comic Book Review: The Sixth Gun Book 1: Cold Dead Fingers written by Cullen Bunn, illustrated by Brian Hurtt

Becky Montcrief’s stepfather is dying.  But the men who’ve come to their remote homestead aren’t willing to wait for him to finish.  It seems he’s been hiding a gun all these years, and they want it enough to kill for it.   In the heat of the moment after her Pa’s death, Becky grabs the gun and uses it.  This means the owlhoots now can’t take it until she’s dead, so they take her to their boss.

The Sixth Gun Book 1

Meanwhile, a man named Drake Sinclair is also looking for that gun, and he is no saint either.  He’s a step behind the owlhoots, and has to enter the enemy’s lair to retrieve the gun, and while he’s at it Becky.  It turns out her gun is one of a set of six, each with an eerie power,  which used to be owned by an insane Confederate general and his henchmen.  General Hume is dead, but he’s getting better, and he wants his gun back, no matter who stands in the way.

Soon Becky, Drake and Drake’s partner, gambler Billjohn O’Henry, are being chased down by Hume’s ghastly army.  But Becky’s gun is showing her things she’d rather not see, such as Drake’s dark past, and General Hume’s plans once he gets all six guns.

This series is a hybrid of Western action and horror, which meshes pretty well, all things considered.  The various powers of the guns, and the other supernatural occurrences, make for some great visuals.  The immediate threat is dealt with by the end of this volume, but enough plot threads are kept dangling to keep the story going strong.  (The artist told me the final volume should be out sometime next year.)

Becky is a bit naive at the beginning of the story, but soon becomes a survivor (it helps that her Pa taught her how to shoot.)  Drake’s character development is told mostly in flashback, he once willingly served Hume, but is a somewhat better man these days.  The bad guys are perhaps a little one-note, but part of the theme of the story is that they have been warped by their weapons, losing the parts of their original personalities that don’t involve killing people.

Given the genres, there’s a lot of gruesome violence and body horror.  At one point, there’s a technically naked woman, but she’s so drenched in blood that nothing shows.  Surprisingly little cussing, and some mild period sexism.  I’d say suitable for senior high students and up, maybe a bit younger for fans with morbid tastes.

Fans of the Jonah Hex series (especially the more outre storylines) and the works of Joe R. Lansdale should find this entertaining.

 

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