Book Review: The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2014

Book Review: The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2014 edited by Paula Guran

Even the fastest, most dedicated readers can’t read everything that’s published each year.  Not even in relatively limited genres like fantasy or horror.  That’s where “Year’s Best” collections come in handy.  Someone or several someones has gone through the enormous pile of short literature produced in the previous year, and winnowed it down to a manageable size of good stories for you.

The Year's Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2014

Admittedly, these collections also come down to a matter of personal taste.  In this case, Ms. Guran has chosen not to pick just straight up horror stories (which do not necessarily include fantastic elements) but fantasy stories with “dark” elements.   She mentions in the introduction that at least some good stories were excluded because they weren’t brought to her attention–small internet publishers might not even know such a collection exists to submit to.

This thick volume contains thirty-two stories, beginning with “Wheatfield with Crows” by Steve Rasnic Tem.  Years ago, a man’s sister vanished in a wheatfield.  Now, he and his mother have returned to the site as darkness falls.  Will history repeat?

The final story is “Iseul’s Lexicon” by Yoon Ha Lee.   A spy discovers that the army occupying half her country is being aided by not-quite-human wizards everyone thought were wiped out centuries before.   They are compiling a lexicon of every human language for nefarious purposes, and it is up to Iseul to find a way to stop them.  In the end, she learns that there are innocent casualties in war no matter how  targeted the weapon.

Some stories I particularly liked:

“The Legend of Troop 13” by Kit Reed, about Girl Scouts gone feral, and the foolish men who think to possess them.  This one has a logical stinger in its tail, and very dark humor.

“Phosphorous” by Veronica  Schanoes is about the women who made phosphorous matches, and their fight for better working conditions.  The viewpoint character is a woman dying of “phossy jaw” caused by the poison she’s been exposed to.   She is determined to see the strike through, and her grandmother knows a way–but the cost is high indeed.

“Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell” by Brandon Sanderson concerns a bounty hunter who must track her prey in the forest that has Three Simple Rules.  Don’t start fires, don’t shed blood…and don’t run at night.   So simple.  But there are other bounty hunters in the forest tonight, and treachery.  Some rules will be broken, and the shades will descend.

One story I didn’t care much for was “The Prayer of Ninety Cats” by Caitlin R. Kiernan, which is a description of a horror movie based on the legend of Elizabeth Bathory, the Blood Countess.  There are some good scenes, but the presentation muffles the effect, taking me out of the story.  There’s also use of “Gypsy” stereotypes within the film.

Most of the other stories are good to decent, and there are big names like Tanith Lee and Neil Gaiman represented.  If this is the sort of genre fiction you like, it would be worthwhile to check the book out at your library–and then buy it if enough of the stories please you.

Book Review: The Witch of Lime Street

Book Review: The Witch of Lime Street by David Jaher

In the wake of World War One, Spiritualism, a religious movement centering around contact with the dead, was on the rise.  With this came a fad for mediums who claimed to be able to channel those unquiet spirits, both for the knowledge they had and to create uncanny physical effects.  Understandably, there were many who were skeptical, but felt that these mediums should be scientifically investigated.  Just in case there was any quantifiable evidence that wasn’t fake.

The Witch of Lime StreetScientific American, the leading popular science magazine of that time, offered a cash prize to the first medium to pass rigorous scientific examination and be proved genuine.  And on that five-man jury was one man who had a reputation for spotting fakes and chicanery–the magician and master escape artist Harry Houdini.  Most candidates for the prize were easily disproven.  But then there was Mina “Margery” Crandon, wife of a respectable Boston surgeon.

Her gifts, brought to her through the spirit of her dead brother Walter, were impressive indeed.  But was she the Queen of Mediums, or simply a master of parlor magic to rival the great Houdini himself?  This is the story of their meeting and what came of it.

Told in bite-size chapters and a handful of photographs, this book starts with Arthur Conan Doyle learning of the end of WWI, and his involvement with the Spiritualists.  His tours in support of the movement helped create interest in the United States, and indirectly led to the prize competition.  He tried to recruit Houdini, but the showman was less than convinced.  As became something of a pattern, Sir Arthur took Houdini’s politeness in not calling out a fake at the time as impressed belief.

We also learn of how Mrs. Crandon became a medium, but certain aspects of her and her husband’s earlier life are kept from the reader until much later in the story.  (And some mysteries are never solved.)  It should be noted that some conversations are reconstructed from later recollections, which may be fallible.

There’s a lot of interesting material in here for those interested in the mystic lore of the period, including a cameo by Theodore Roosevelt.  But once the investigation of Margery begins, the chapters start to drag, and it feels like the author stretched this part to fill out the page count.  Those of you who are history buffs will already have figured out that Mrs. Crandon didn’t win the magazine’s prize.

There’s a list of helpful sources for further reading, and an index.  There’s quite a bit of discussion of female private parts, from whence mediums were supposed to issue ectoplasm (and, it was alleged, where fake mediums often hid props.)  That might make the book unsuitable for readers below senior high level, depending on their parents’ discretion.

Overall, this is a helpful book for the reader who wants a quick look at Harry Houdini’s investigation of mediums from the aspect of his most famous case, and how it fit into events of the time.  There are several fine biographies of Houdini that will be more helpful if his career is the reader’s primary interest.

Disclaimer:  I received this volume from Blogging for Books for the purpose of writing this review.  No other compensation was requested or offered.

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.

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: Trafficking in Magic, Magicking in Traffic

Book Review: Trafficking in Magic, Magicking in Traffic edited by David Sklar & Sarah Avery

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

Trafficking in Magic, Magicking in Traffic

This fantasy anthology has a dual theme, as indicated by its title; magic as transaction, and magic while traveling.  The former theme brings to mind the classic Faustian bargain story, and the preface mentions that the editors got a bushel full of them, only a few making the cut.

There are eighteen stories, nine for each theme, divided into groups of three by subtheme, such as “Bad Roads.”  Most of the stories are new, but some have been previously printed.  Some standouts include:

  • “Ghost Diamonds” by Scott Hungerford.  A woman and her niece discover that compressing  crematorium ashes into a diamond allows calling the ghost of the deceased.  But they aren’t the only ones who have made this discovery, and someone’s been switching the ghost diamonds with fakes.  But why?
  • “Across the Darien Gap” by Daniel Braum.   A guide attempts to take a hunted woman through the rain forest between Central and South America.  His two-dimensional thinking may doom them.  This one has been made into an episode of Psuedopod, a horror podcast, and is now being lengthened into a book.
  • “Only a Week” by Joyce Chng.  This one might actually be science fiction, set in a futuristic Chinatown.  A courtesan seeks to regain her youthful beauty, but the medicine has side effects and can be taken only for one week….
  • “And the Deep Blue Sea” by Elizabeth Bear.  A courier must cross the postapocalyptic Southwest to deliver vital supplies.  But a deal she made years ago is coming due.  Can Harrie finish her delivery with the devil himself in the way?

There’s a good diversity of protagonists, and both happy and sad endings.  A couple of stories are perhaps a little too cliche, but the quality is generally good.

Unlike many small press books I’ve read lately, the proofreading is excellent.

I would recommend this book to fantasy fans in general, and modern fantasy fans in particular.

Book Review: Sherlock Holmes: The Crossovers Casebook

Book Review: Sherlock Holmes: The Crossovers Casebook edited by Howard Hopkins

One of the fun things about fan fiction is the “crossover.”  That’s where two separate fictional worlds are combined in the same story, which is generally impossible in the source material.  Having the Enterprise crew battle the Daleks, Sailor Moon teaming up with the Brady Bunch, Bella Swan falling in love with Dracula, or any other bizarre combination the fan writer can think of.

Crossovers Casebook

Combine this with a public domain (mostly) character like Sherlock Holmes, and you can even do professionally published crossover fan fiction.  And thus this book.  Each story teams Holmes with other fictional characters or real people from the time period of the stories.  Some of the tales just barely qualify as crossovers with a quick reference at the end, while others pile on the characters and cameos.

There are fourteen stories, most of which are only available in this volume.   “Sherlock Holmes and the Lost World” by Martin Powell, which guest stars Professor Challenger, has appeared in another anthology.  Other notable tales are “The Adventure of the Fallen Stone” by Win Scott Eckert, which goes full-on Wold-Newton (a fan theory that ties together many fictional heroes with a mysterious meteorite), and “The Adventure of the Imaginary Nihilist” by Will Murray, which guest stars Richard Henry Savage, a real life person who inspired parts of both Doc Savage and the Avenger.

I particularly liked Barbara Hambly’s “The Adventure of the Sinister Chinaman”, which guest stars the Wizard of Oz…or a delusional man with a similar name.  “The Adventure of the Lost Specialist” by Christopher Sequeira lays on the crossovers thick with an outright science fiction premise, but as Watson himself admits in the introduction, it’s not much of a traditional Holmes tale.

There’s also “The Folly of Flight” by Matthew P. Mayo, guest starring French thief Arsené Lupin.  Lupin’s author, Maurice LeBlanc, was one of the first Sherlock Holmes crossover fan fiction authors;   Sir Arthur Conan Doyle did not appreciate the compliment, so Lupin’s clashes with Holmes were rewritten with a slightly different name, and a bit more mocking of a tone.

This is a fun book, but not for Holmes purists.

Book Review: The Avenger: Roaring Heart of the Crucible

Book Review: The Avenger: Roaring Heart of the Crucible edited by Nancy Holder & Joe Gentile

Moonstone Books is a publisher that specializes in new material about pulp magazine characters.  This is their third anthology of stories about Richard Henry Benson, the Avenger, and his organization, Justice, Inc.

Roaring Heart of the Crucible

For those who have not heard of the character before, Richard Henry Benson had his wife and child taken from him in a bizarre midair disappearance.  The shock of this and the claims that they had never been on the plane in the first place drove Mr. Benson to a nervous breakdown.  When he recovered his sanity, he found that his skin and hair had lost their pigmentation, and his face was now frozen.

In the process of tracking the criminals responsible, Mr. Benson became the Avenger and began assembling his team.

The fourteen stories in this volume are mostly inserted into the “classic” period of the original series, before “Murder on Wheels”, which changed the premise somewhat.  Some of the stories are very precisely placed indeed.  This means that Cole Wilson, who only joined Justice, Inc. at the end of “Murder on Wheels”, is absent from most of the book.  Perhaps fittingly, then, “An Excellent Beauty” by C.J. Henderson is a solo outing for this agent, with a twisted focus on his distinguishing feature of being “handsome.”

The most famous author in this anthology is Will Murray, whose “The Moth Murders” leads off the book.   It’s an appropriately creepy story, with a horrific murder method, a bizarre antagonist and an almost plausible explanation to end the story.

Another standout story is “The Box of Flesh” by Barry Reese, in which two seemingly unrelated investigations converge at the crossroads of stage magic and folklore.  It’s almost as creepy as the title makes it sound.

Most of the stories stay within the customary adventure pulp limit of “almost plausible,” but a couple do go straight into the science fiction genre.  There are also a number of references to other pulp characters, with the Domino Lady making a full guest appearance in “According to Plan of a One-Eyed Trickster” by Win Scott Eckert, which follows on from his stories in the two previous anthologies in this series.

While the stories are generally good about explaining who the characters are (and thus can get a little repetitious in this area),  for best effect, a reader should already be familiar with the Avenger characters; I recommend looking up a reprint of the first two or three stories in the original series.  Also, the book could have used another proofreading pass, as there are a couple of obvious typos.

If you are already an Avenger fan, or know one, this is a fun book.  You might also consider looking at the previous two volumes.

TV Review: Alfred Hitchcock Presents

TV Review: Alfred Hitchcock Presents

This half-hour anthology program ran from 1955-1962, when it was replaced by The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.  The series concentrated on suspense stories, with rare supernatural elements (and even these usually explained by the end of the story.)  Mr. Hitchcock himself would appear as the host to introduce the episode, crack a dry joke or two, and provide an afterword.

The production values were high, and the show had some cracking good episodes, two of which I was able to watch on DVD.

“The Cheney Vase”:  Darren McGavin plays Lyle Endicott, a museum worker whose lack of work ethic gets him fired in the first minute of the story.  By chance, he learns that Miss Cheney (Patricia Collinge), a wheelchair-bound ceramic artist, is losing her personal assistant for several months, while the museum director that fired Lyle is also going on a long trip out of touch.    While Miss Cheney is not a particularly wealthy woman, she does own a rare vase her archaeologist father discovered.

Darren McGavin as Lyle Endicott in "The Cheney Vase"
Darren McGavin as Lyle Endicott in “The Cheney Vase”

Lyle has a letter of recommendation forged so that he can move in as Miss Cheney’s assistant.  His plan is to gradually isolate her from the outside world  until he can find out where the Cheney Vase is hidden, then steal it.  By the time Miss Cheney realizes what’s going on, it may already be too late….

Mr. McGavin does an excellent job as Lyle, a man who complains that things never go his way while sabotaging himself with negligent behavior.  He puts on the fake charm, avoiding revealing his true self even to his lover until he’s sure she can’t do anything to stop him.

“The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”:  Sadini the Great, a carnival magician, discovers a boy lying outside his trailer in Toledo, Ohio.   Soft-hearted as carnies go, Sadini brings the boy, Hugo, inside.  Sadini’s wife and lovely assistant Irene, is displeased, although she warms up to Hugo a bit when he calls her an angel.

Diana Dors and David J. Stewart as Irene and Vincent Saidini in "The Sorcerer's Apprentice"
Diana Dors and David J. Stewart as Irene and Vincent Saidini in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”

It seems that Hugo is developmentally disabled, and escaped from a “home” where he was possibly mistreated.  He has difficulty distinguishing reality from illusion, something that becomes especially obvious when he watches the devilish-appearing Sadini saw his wife in half as part of the magic act.

Irene, who is having an affair with high-wire artist George, comes up with a plan to have Hugo murder Sadini, supposedly to free Irene from his Satanic powers and allow Hugo to inherit the sorcerer’s wand.  This plan goes horribly right, with an ending that was considered “too gruesome” by Revlon, the sponsor of the series.

Thus, this Robert Bloch-penned episode was not seen in regular network broadcast, but only in syndication, and fell into the public domain.  You can find free versions of it on the internet.   If you like EC Comics, you should really enjoy this episode.

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