Book Review: Penny Dreadfuls: Sensational Tales of Terror

Book Review: Penny Dreadfuls: Sensational Tales of Terror edited by Stefan Dziemianowicz

While the term “penny dreadfuls” proper belongs to a particular type of inexpensive newsprint periodical, as explained in the introduction to this volume, the twenty stories chosen here can all be described as lowbrow sensationalist literature written for those seeking thrills in their fiction.

Penny Dreadfuls: Sensational Tales of Terror

Of these, Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley (1818 edition), The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson, and “The Pit and the Pendulum” by Edgar Allen Poe are so famous that it hardly seems worth discussing them.  Suffice it to say that they are classics, and well worth reading at least once, especially if you’ve only seen the movies.

“The Adventure of the German Student” by Washington Irving is a ghost story set against the backdrop of the French Revolution.  It stops where a lot of current horror tales would end the first chapter.

“The Wehr-Wolf: A Legend of the Limousin” by Richard Thomson does in fact feature a werewolf.  Most of the story space, however, is taken up by comic relief character Antoine Du Pilon, a quack doctor who is full of knowledge…most of which is wrong.  This kind of dulls the tragic twist ending.

“Sawney Beane: The Man-Eater” by Charles Whitehead was based on a folk story that might have been loosely based on a real incident.  It concerns a cannibal clan near Edinburgh during the reign of James VI.  The story is written in the “true crime” style, regardless of its actual veracity.

“Aurelia; or, the Tale of a Ghoul” by E.T.A. Hoffman has a doctor tell his patient that it’s perfectly normal for a pregnant woman to have strange food cravings, and she shouldn’t feel ashamed of that.  In fairness, she hadn’t told him what her cravings were for.

“Wake Not the Dead!; or, The Bride of the Grave” by Johann Ludwig Tieck is about a man whose first beloved wife dies and he gets remarried.  But it turns out he still isn’t over his first love.  A passing sorcerer finds this obsession unhealthy, but mentions that he could in fact bring the first wife back to life.

The husband insists on having this done, despite being repeatedly warned that this is a bad idea which will have catastrophic consequences.  (Honestly, I think the sorcerer only went along with this for the chance to say “I told you so” later.)  Predictably, catastrophic consequences follow.  The ending comes out of left field and is jaw-dropping in its non-sequiturness.

“The Dream-Woman” by Wilkie Collins is about an apparently prophetic dream, and the effect it has on the dreamer.  Is it a warning of the future, or did he shape his life to fulfill the dream?

“A Night in the Grave; or, the Devil’s Receipt” by Anonymous is a comedic tale told in Scots dialect.  Highland piper Steenie tries to pay his rent, only to have his landlord die before giving Steenie the receipt.  The new landlord claims there’s no record of the payment and no sack of silver to be found, so Steenie must pay the rent again.  The piper must find that receipt, even if it means braving the gates of Hell.  I found this one hilarious, but I like Scots dialect stories.

“The Case of Lady Sannox” by Arthur Conan Doyle was a strange read for me as there’s no Sherlock Holmes in it.  A surgeon is called for a life-saving operation, only to learn the true nature of the veiled patient.  This one has some period ethnic and religious prejudice, which is not mitigated by the fact that one of the characters is deliberately playing into it.

“The Diary of a Madman” by Guy de Maupassant is the journal of a respected judge who starts to wonder what it would be like to commit murder.  Chilling.

“George Dobson’s Expedition to Hell” by James Hogg concerns a coachman’s dream (or was it a dream?) of driving his coach into the netherworld.  This story didn’t work for me, a bit too thick in dialogue that is “yes I will” “Oh no, you won’t.”

“The Apparition of Lord Tyrone to Lady Beresford” by Anonymous is a tedious ghost story that turns out to be a propaganda piece for Anglicanism. “Deism is wrong!”

“Lost in a Pyramid; or The Mummy’s Curse” by Louisa May Alcott is one of the tales she penned anonymously  before hitting it big as a children’s author.  Arrogant white explorers get lost in a pyramid, burn a sorceress’ mummy for fuel, and suffer the consequences of looting the corpse.  The plot requires two separate people not to catch on to the symptoms of slow poisoning.

“In Kropfsberg Keep” by Ralph Adams Kram, two ghost-hunters spend the night in a ruined castle, reputed to be haunted.  One of them doesn’t survive.  A real ghost may or may not be involved.

“The Buried Alive” by John Galt is a premature burial story.  The protagonist suffers an attack that leaves him awake but paralyzed and apparently dead.  His friends and family fail to have an autopsy done, and he is buried alive.  There was apparently a time when this narrow subgenre was hugely popular, to the point that Poe wrote a parody version.

“The Dualitists; or, the Death-Doom of the Doubleborn” by Bram Stoker is about a game of Hack that goes too far.  (In Hack, two similar objects are smashed against each other to see which is superior in strength.)  This story is dead baby comedy, and also includes animal abuse.  You’ll either love this story or be completely repulsed by it.

“The Executioner” by William Godwin is the confession of a hangman who’s become involved in a years-long and highly elaborate revenge scheme.  But is he the revenger or the revengee?

Finishing out the book is The String of Pearls; or, Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street by James Malcolm Rymer (probably.)  This is a true penny dreadful serial, full of twists, murder and unlikely coincidences.  (You may have seen the musical.)

In the 18th Century, a man named Thornhill comes to London to deliver a pearl necklace to pretty maiden Johanna Oakley from her lost love Mark Ingestrie.  But being a gentleman, he doesn’t want to look scruffy for the visit, so decides to get a shave at the shop of Sweeney Todd.  Mr. Todd says Mr. Thornhill left his shop hours ago, but Mr. Thornhill’s dog is sitting right outside, and the man never arrived at his next destination.  Although they can prove nothing, Mr. Thornhill’s friends become suspicious.

Across the square, Mrs. Lovett’s pieshop is doing land office business, selling the most delicious meat pies in town.  How does she manage to sell them so inexpensively and still make a profit?  And why does she run through so many cooks in the underground bakery?

And on another side of the square, parishioners at St. Duncan’s are beginning to notice a peculiar smell in the old church, a smell that is decidedly…unholy.

This is a fun, if not always coherent story told with a lot of verve.  (And, alas, some excess verbiage.)  The narrator has fun with the reader, reminding them that while all the clues seem to lead up to Sweeney Todd murdering his customers, we’ve never seen him murder anyone on-page.  And while the secret of Mrs. Lovett’s pie-shop (not just a hole in the wall eating establishment, but a distribution center delivering all over London) seems obvious enough, the narrator points out he hasn’t actually said it yet.

While the story stops every so often to give the history of this minor character or that (warning: one character’s backstory involves child neglect and abuse), we never do find out how Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett formed their eight year partnership, or why.  One of the peculiarities of the story is that while Mr. Todd knows a woman who will bake his victims into pie, and a crooked mad-house operator who will imprison any of Mr. Todd’s young apprentices who get too nosy, he doesn’t know any fences, and is completely unfamiliar with the normal criminal life of London.

So Sweeney Todd has a houseful of loot he’s taken from victims and not found a way to sell, and has a dickens of a time trying to dispose of the string of pearls at anywhere near their real value.

Johanna comes close to the damsel in distress stereotype, but never quite crosses over into that territory, even while dressing as a boy to infiltrate Mr. Todd’s barbershop.

A couple of characters just get dropped between chapters, and domestic abuse is played for laughs in one scene.

This is not great literature, true, but if you’re in the mood for this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing you will enjoy.

Overall, a good collection of a certain type of story, with a handful of mediocre entries.  The Barnes & Noble edition has a handsome red leather cover and would look good on a bookshelf, or in your hands as you read it late at night by the light of a guttering candlestick.

Now, here’s a look at the “Penny Dreadful” TV series, based on the same source material.

 

Book Review: Stories from Sleep No More

Book Review: Stories from Sleep No More edited by August Derleth

Sleep No More was a 1940s anthology of horror fiction put together by noted Wisconsin historical fiction (and horror) author August Derleth.  It featured primarily creepy stories from the pulp magazines of the 1930s.  In the 1960s, a paperback reprint came out.  To make it a manageable size with the binding limitations of the time, only the first nine stories were included; and presumably there would have been a sequel with the rest had sales justified it.

Stories from Sleep No More

“Count Magnus” by M.R. James leads off with the tale of a would-be travel book writer who visits Sweden and wakes up something that should have been kept sleeping.  Like many tales from the era, it’s told at a remove, reported by someone who found the protagonist’s papers and pieced together the story from them.  That aside, it’s an excellent example of horror by implication–none of the presumably gory bits happen on page, and the results are not directly described.  The moment of most terror is a lock that should not be open being open.

“Cassius” by Henry S. Whitehead is set in the West Indies.  A man who’s had an ugly growth removed is hunted by a small but deadly enemy.  It starts well, but the explanation for the terror is heavily racist, involving some dubious genetics and “race memory.”  Also, the ending is an anticlimax.

“The Occupant of the Room” by Algernon Blackwood is the oldest story in the collection.  A schoolteacher who altered his holiday plans on a whim finds himself at a Swiss inn with no vacancies.  Wait, there is one room, but the catch is that the occupant just vanished a couple of days ago–they may or may not be returning.  The room’s atmosphere is oppressive, leading to thoughts of suicide.  Unnatural thoughts!

“The Return of the Sorcerer” by Clark Ashton Smith has a desperately unemployed man (who happens to know Arabic) get a job as secretary to reclusive scholar John Carnby.  Carnby turns out to be an occultist with eccentric habits, and a fear of leaving his room at night.  Supposedly, the noises in the halls are rats, but the glimpses the secretary gets don’t look like any rats he’s ever seen.  Mr. Carnby needs some passages from the Necronomicon translated at the highest priority, passages about sorcerers being able to come back from the dead.  The job does not end well.

“Johnson Looked Back” by Thomas Burke is a rare second-person story.  The reader is addressed as though they were Johnson, who is pursued by a mysterious blind, handless man.  The narrator urges Johnson not to look behind him, but of course he does and dooms himself.  The ending is kind of kludgy, suggesting the whole story is a metaphor.

“The Hand of the O’Mecca” by Howard Wandrei is set in Minnesota, not far from Mankato.  Finnish-American farmer Elof Bocak is crossing the fields at night to woo his neighbor, Kate O’Mecca.  Perhaps he should have paid more attention to the superstition about bats on the ground.  Some nice local color, but the twist is telegraphed.

“‘He Cometh and He Passeth By!'” by H.R. Wakefield concerns a barrister named Edward Bellamy.  He’s contacted by an old school friend, Philip Franton.  They’d fallen out of touch after the War, but now Franton is in a spot of trouble.  It seems he was for some months host to Oscar Clinton, a fascinating fellow who Philip was quite entranced with initially.

Eventually, Clinton’s less appealing habits (impregnating chambermaids, stealing and forgery) became unbearable, and Franton broke ties with the man.  Some time later, Clinton tried to use his “friendship” with Philip as a recommendation to a club, and the wealthy man blackballed him.  Clinton was not well pleased, and sent Franton a supposedly cursed image.  Now Philip is jumping at oddly shaped shadows.

Bellamy is unable to prevent his friend’s horrible death, but perhaps he can get a little extrajudicial revenge?

Oscar Clinton is cartoonishly decadent.  To quote:

“I fancy,” said Clinton, “that you are perplexed by the obstinate humidity of my left eye.  It is caused by the rather heavy injection of heroin I took this afternoon.”

It’s probably meant to evoke the image of the notorious “Wickedest Man in the World” Aleister Crowley.  While Clinton only mentions sex with women, there are homoerotic undertones in his relationships with Franton and Bellamy.  His comeuppance is satisfying.

“Thus I Refute Beezly” by John Collier is titled after Samuel Johnson’s famous rejoinder to Bishop Berkeley.  “Small Simon” Carter is a friendless child who spends most of his time in the garden, playing alone.  He claims to be playing with a “Mr. Beezly” who is hard to describe, and no adult has ever seen.

Small Simon’s father, who insists on being called “Big Simon”, is a dentist with some odd ideas about parenting.  Big Simon is big on science and fact, and when Small Simon won’t admit that Beezly is imaginary, decides to punish the lad.  That’s a mistake.

This story is more often reprinted than most in this collection, and there’s analysis of it at various websites.  What struck me was that the author is being snotty about “modern” parenting methods of the sort where parents insist on children calling them by first name.  “See?  This fellow is all ‘progressive’ and such, but when logic fails, it’s back to corporal punishment just like normal folks!”

Rounding out the collection is “The Mannikin” by Robert Bloch.  A schoolteacher picks a random isolated town for vacation, only to discover that this is the hometown of his old school friend Simon Maglore.  In the time they’ve been parted, the deformity of Simon’s back has gotten a lot worse, and the superstitious locals shun him.  The basic twist is the same as “Cassius”, minus the racism.  Some Lovecraftian references in this story, too.

Most of these are good if dated stories; “Cassius” is the only one that has become outright uncomfortable to read due to its attitudes.  While it’s long out of print, the paperback edition should be relatively easy to find in finer used bookstores.

Book Review: The Invisible Library

Book Review: The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman

One good way to introduce a new fictional character or world is to start off with a short adventure where the character gets to show off their competency and special abilities.  Usually this is at most loosely connected to the main plot which will show up after the mission is complete, being there to establish a baseline for the character’s normal behavior.  Thus when we first meet Irene, she’s infiltrating a Harry Potterish school of magic as the cleaning lady to steal a book.

The Invisible Library

Irene (a codename) is an acquisitions agent for the Invisible Library, a mysterious organization that collects rare and unique books from parallel Earths.  Her title of “Junior Librarian” is somewhat misleading; she was born to two Librarians and made frequent visits there in her youth (and you do not age while in the Library) so she has years more of experience than she looks like.  Also, she suffered a career setback about a decade ago that made her look incompetent and gets her underestimated.

Irene’s primary advantage besides her vast knowledge base (particularly in the field of books) is the Language.  Only those bound to the Library can use this paranatural ability; if Irene knows the right words to use, she can cause objects to do her bidding.  There are some severe limitations on what she can do with the Language, and using it tends to blow her cover, so Irene hesitates to solve her problems this way.

Upon returning to the Library from the first chapter mission, Irene has no chance to rest before being sent out on another case, this time with trainee Kai in tow.  Kai is impossibly handsome and has several secrets, some more obvious than others.

They’re sent off to a world that has vampires, zeppelins, the Fair Folk and Great Detectives.  It’s normally off-limits due to high Chaos contamination, so the Grimm variant they’re after must be important.  The local Library agent explains that the book went missing after the previous owner’s murder, presumably at the hands of notorious cat burglar Belphegor.

Complications soon heap upon each other.  Irene must work out which of the people involved is the real threat.  Is it Kai, who really does have too many secrets?  The deadly thief Belphegor?  Silver, the Fae ambassador of Liechtenstein?  The mad science-oriented Iron Brotherhood?  Rival Librarian Bradamant?  Earl Peregrine Vale, noted detective?  The renegade codenamed Alberich?  Or is it the Library itself?  And just where is that book?

This is a fast-paced adventure story with some neat worldbuilding and mostly likable characters.  The Language, chaos-spawned magic, draconic powers and technology all have their own strengths and weaknesses.  There’s some “meta” stuff as well; a chaos-contaminated world tends to have things happen as they would in fiction rather than in “real life” with plenty of coincidences and narrative tropes.

There is one clanger of a scene in which Kai pressures Irene to have sex with him and has difficulty taking “no” for an answer.  It’s meant to show that 1) Kai isn’t quite as familiar with modern customs as he lets on and 2) Irene has had plenty of sex, thank you, but not with the person her colleagues think she did.  There could have been other ways of showing these things.

There’s also the thing where everyone including Irene has a mysterious backstory, but we never get more than hints for most of them.

Primarily for folks who like the mashup of steampunk and fantasy.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of this book from Blogging for Books to facilitate this review.  No other compensation was offered or requested.

 

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.

Open Thread: Webcomics You Might Enjoy

Open Thread: Webcomics You Might Enjoy

Over the holiday weekend, I went to ConVergence 2016 in Bloomington, a yearly science fiction convention.  One of the panels I was on was “Web Comics”, during which we discussed many webcomics that panelists and audience members have enjoyed.  As promised, here’s a list combining the handout by Kathryn Sullivan http://kathrynsullivan.com/ with those mentioned by other people that I remembered to write down.  Descriptions I am copying from Ms. Sullivan will be marked by (KS).

O Human Star Volume One

Some of these strips may have Not Safe For Work (NSFW) content, and not every webcomic will appeal to every reader.  Nor is this anywhere near an exhaustive list of good webcomics.  If you don’t see your favorite, by all means comment and tell me about it.

Achewood http://www.achewood.com/index.php?date=10012001 by Chris Onstad is surrealist humor focusing on a small group of anthropomorphic animals, stuffed toys and robots living in the house of the never-seen Chris, in the community of Achewood.  The most celebrated storyline in the series is “The Great Outdoor Fight” which is to an extent exactly what it sounds like.  Sometimes has NSFW content.

Anna Galactic http://www.baldwinpage.com/annagalactic/2015/01/28/43/ by Christopher Baldwin.  Anna and her friends investigate why their ship seems to be settling a planet rather than just refueling.  Updates Monday, Wednesday, Friday.  (KS)

Batgirl Inc. http://batgirlincorporated.tumblr.com/tagged/read%20batgirl%20inc  by Max Eber & Yulyn Chen is a fan comic which teams up the various characters who have been Batgirl in the DC Comics as their own group.

Blindsprings http://www.blindsprings.com/comic/blindsprings-page-one by Kadi Fedoruk is about spirits and the politics of those attempting to control magic.  Updated Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.

Breaking Cat News http://www.breakingcatnews.com/comic/everything-is-broken/ by Georgia Dunn is a news show where all the reporters are cats, with their own special take on what seems newsworthy.

Cucumber Quest http://cucumber.gigidigi.com/cq/page-1/ by Gigi D.G. is a cute fantasy adventure comic starring bunny children.  (Note that I have not read all the way through–check carefully for surprises before letting your kids on.)

Demon http://www.shigabooks.com/index.php?page=001 by Jason Shiga begins with Jimmy Yee attempting to commit suicide and failing repeatedly.  Eventually he discovers that he didn’t fail–every time he dies, his spirit simply possesses the closest available living person.  Somehow the Feds know about his ability even before he does, and now Jimmy is on the run with an escalating body count.  NSFW.

Digger  http://diggercomic.com/blog/2007/02/01/wombat1-gnorf/ by Ursula Vernon is for an older audience than her Dragonbreath series.  The completed version won the Hugo Award and is the tale of a wandering wombat and the beings she encounters.  The collected issues are available in paper.  A wombat wandering a magical world.  (KS)

Dinosaur Comics http://www.qwantz.com/index.php?comic=1 by Ryan North has the exact same images for (almost) every strip as a Tyrannosaurus Rex discusses philosophical questions with other dinosaurs while running amok.  Often funny, sometimes makes you think.

The Firelight Isle https://www.paulduffield.co.uk/firelightisle/1  by Paul Duffield is a fantasy coming-of-age story about two childhood friends about to undergo the trials of adulthood on an island controlled by a mysterious religion.  Done in “ribbons” that require scrolling down to see all of.

Forming http://jessemoynihan.com/?p=11 by Jesse Moynihan (one of the Adventure Time people) involves ancient astronaut “gods” and their effects on the civilizations of Earth.  Some NSFW material.

A Girl and Her Fed  http://agirlandherfed.com/1.1.html by K.B. Spangler is about a young woman who’s haunted by the ghost of Benjamin Franklin and the federal agent who has been assigned to watch her and has his own annoying invisible companion.

Girl Genius http://www.girlgeniusonline.com/comic.php?date=20021104#.V3sALvkrLcs by Phil and Kaja Foglio is an alternate Earth story where mad scientists called “Sparks” have run amuck and made history unrecognizable.  Agatha Clay discovers that she is actually Agatha Heterodyne, a powerful Spark and the heir to a near-mythical dynasty.  Largely comedic, but with an epic story.  Has won several Hugos and has multiple print collections.

Girls Next Door http://pika-la-cynique.deviantart.com/art/GirlsNextDoor-Introductions-73082145 by Pika la Cynique has Christine Daae (of Phantom of the Opera and Sarah of Labyrinth as college roommates, dealing with their stalkers and trying to get through finals.  Irregular updates as it needs to be translated from French.

Gunnerkrigg Court http://www.gunnerkrigg.com/?p=1 by Tom Siddell concerns Antimony Carver, whose mother has recently died.  Her rather distant father ships her off to the school of the title, which is decidedly weird, especially if you add in the magical forest across the bridge.  Almost everyone has secrets, many of them dangerous.  Note that the art improves drastically over the course of the series.

Hark! A Vagrant http://www.harkavagrant.com/index.php?id=1 by Kate Beaton is a humorous strip, mostly doing historical & literature jokes.  Updates have become sporadic as Ms. Beaton has gotten paying gigs.

Homestuck http://www.mspaintadventures.com/?s=6 by Andrew Hussie is a recently concluded epic fantasy that operates like a cross between a webcomic and a Flash game, using the writing style of an old-style computer adventure game.   John Egbert and three of his friends are going to be playing a new virtual reality game, Sburb.  Naturally, the game hides secrets that affect real worlds and has many plot twists that are massive spoilers.

How to Be a Werewolf http://www.howtobeawerewolf.com/comic/coming-february-3rd/ by Shawn Lenore is yes, about werewolves.  It just started last year.  Updated Tuesday and Thursday.  (KS)

Hyperbole and a Half http://hyperboleandahalf.blogspot.com/2010/10/god-of-cake.html  by Allie is more of a heavily illustrated blog than anything else, often telling stories from Allie’s childhood.

JL8 http://limbero.org/jl8/1 by Yale Stewart is a fan comic depicting members of the Justice League as roughly eight-year-olds attending elementary school.  Very irregular schedule.

Kill Six Billion Demons http://killsixbilliondemons.com/comic/kill-six-billion-demons-chapter-1/ by Demonaic starts with Allison about to have sex with her boyfriend when the room is invaded by “demons” that drag off the boyfriend while Allison has a “key” forced upon her that transports her to the world of Throne which is inhabited by demons, “angels” and other weirdness and must make her way without knowing anything about her new setting.  NSFW.

A Lesson Is Learned but the Damage Is Irreversible http://www.alessonislearned.com/index.php?comic=1 by David Hellman and Dale Beran is a Dada-esque strip that takes advantage of “the infinite canvas” to have as much space as it needs to tell the day’s story, which is seldom directly linked to any other story.

Namesake http://namesakecomic.com/comic/the-journey-begins by Megan Lavey-Heaton & Isabelle Melançon follows Emma Crewe, who is a “Namesake”, a person who is expected to follow in the footsteps of a literary character, in her case Dorothy of Oz.  She has no interest in being locked in the story, and is prepared to fight fate with the help of new friends she’s made and her little sister who develops the powers of a Writer.

Necropolis http://necropoliscomic.tumblr.com/post/118905492171/prologue by Jake Wyatt is a high fantasy story with some fine illustration work; it’s still relatively new so the full plot isn’t know, but there’s a war between kinds and a young woman who battles the undead.

O Human Star http://ohumanstar.com/comic/chapter-1-title-page/ by Blue Delliquanti begins with a robotics engineer having a dream of dying, only to awaken to it being true.  He’s now in a robotic body that resembles his original appearance, and it’s fifteen years in the future when intelligent robots have won civil rights.  Alastair is originally told his former lover Brendan arranged his “resurrection”, but Brendan denies this.  Also how does Brendan have a teenage daughter that strongly resembles Alastair?  I reviewed the first print volume, and a second is in the Kickstarter process.

Phoebe and Her Unicorn http://www.gocomics.com/phoebe-and-her-unicorn/2012/04/22 by Dana Simpson was formerly known as “Heavenly Nostrils.”  A delightful story of a young girl who becomes friends with a unicorn.  It’s now available in newspapers and past issues were collected into three books, Phoebe and Her UnicornUnicorn on a Roll, and Unicorn vs. Goblins.  Updated daily.  (KS)

PS 238 http://ps238.nodwick.com/comic/12072006/ by Aaron Williams is an elementary school for metahumans hidden beneath a regular school.  Amazon has both the collected and the individual issues available in paper, so trying to find the collected issues can be difficult.  (I’ve found the term ‘paperback’ worked.)  This one I recommend starting from the very beginning, as the setup for the school is very interesting.  Updated weekly.  (KS)

Questionable Content http://questionablecontent.net/view.php?comic=1 by J. Jacques is slice of life in a world where weird things happen but usually don’t get life-threatening.  This is another one where the art drastically improves over time.

Rice Boy http://www.rice-boy.com/see/index.php?c=001 by Evan Dahm is a surreal fantasy about a young fellow who may or may not be the one who can fulfill a prophecy, but is curious enough to at least investigate what the prophecy is.  Completed, and there are two other series set in the same world accessible from the website.

Spacetrawler http://spacetrawler.com/2010/01/01/spacetrawler-4/ by Christopher Baldwin is a comedic SF actioner about a group of Earth humans abducted by aliens who want to free an enslaved species.  It’s currently on hiatus, but a sequel is scheduled to start soon.  The original is collected in three print volumes, the first of which I reviewed on this blog.

Strong Female Protagonist http://strongfemaleprotagonist.com/issue-1/page-0/ by Brennan Lee Mulligan and Molly Ostertag follows a young superhero who has come to question if “fighting crime” is the best use of her powers, and discards her costumed identity to explore other paths to help people.

Subnormality http://www.viruscomix.com/page324.html  by Winston Rowntree is a “deconstruction” webcomic that looks at tropes and finds new ways to examine them.  It’s an “infinite canvas” strip that takes as much space as it needs.

Unshelved http://www.unshelved.com/2002-2-16 by Gene Ambaun & Bill Barnes is a gag-a-day comic about the workers at a city library and their eccentric customers.  Often has book recommendations.

Wapsi Square http://wapsisquare.com/comic/09092001/ by Paul Taylor is a “paranormal slice of life” comic originally about an archaeologist named Monica who discovers that she’s not crazy, the whole world is.  It starts out as gag-a-day before the plot kicks in, and what a plot it is!  The focus has shifted to another character and her adopted daughters as they try to blend into human society.

XKCD http://xkcd.com/1/ by Randall Munroe is full of math and science jokes.  After some experiments at the beginning, it settles down to stick figure art, but many of the ideas are nifty, and if you like math and science jokes…

Freakangels and City of Reality came up during the panel, but are no longer reliably available on the internet.

Book Review: Twin Cities Speculations: An Anthology of Sci-Fi and Fantasy

Book Review: Twin Cities Speculations: An Anthology of Sci-Fi and Fantasy edited by Eric Binfet

As I may have mentioned before, I have a soft spot for local writers, of which Minnesota has many.  One Twin Cities writers’ group got together and self-published an anthology, and here we are.  Eight stories of SF and fantasy, all first officially published in this book.

Twin Cities Speculations

The opener is “Space Aliens on Maple Lake” by Bill Cutler.  It is ice-fishing season, and a downed alien spacecraft lands on Maple Lake.  The aliens need to avoid detection by pretending to be an ordinary ice fishing shack, but will they be able to fool the Earthlings?  Light comedy with Minnesota stereotypes.

“The Cursed Years” by  Cecelia Isaac is the only story with no mention of Minnesota, being set in a fantasy world.  The protagonist, Py, is cursed to wander far from his kingdom for seven years.  He starts his journey  voluntarily in an effort to make the curse less onerous, but soon discovers even thinking about returning home is dangerous.  He acquires a talking sword, and an actual goal when he learns there may be a way to break the curse.  This is one of the better stories in the volume, and has an obvious sequel hook–it could also be turned into a doorstopper trilogy with enough padding.

“The Harry Hawkins Experience” by Jonathan Rogers has a would-be biographer tagging along with the title character, a wealthy adventurer.  They investigate a tomb with restless inhabitants.  The writer is a filmmaker, and it shows with a very “this could be a movie” feel.  Sadly, Mr. Hawkins is an annoying character who is supposed to become more endearing as the story wears on, but doesn’t.

“Heaven Help Me” by Lindsey Loree is a monologue by a fallen guardian angel.  Turns out that Heaven is very judgmental and not at all big on redemption.  The protagonist unwittingly helps set an alternative plan in motion.

“Robbing the Grave” by Eric Binfet concerns a guilt-ridden man having dreams that seem to predict the future…and the future is murder.  Is this his dead brother giving him another chance to prevent innocent life from being taken, or just his guilt finally causing a permanent breakdown?  There’s an in-joke for Marvel Comics fans, and an interesting police character.  The protagonist’s relationships with his best friend and girlfriend come off a bit tedious.

“Kreet” by Tina S. Murphy is about a grif, an insectoid creature, named Sooe Han-Cen who is going into the desert to find the stronghold of the titular Kreet.  The Kreet are an invasive species with an explosive population curve, and a penchant for eating grif.  Sooe’s mission is complicated by all her fellow Agents having already been eaten, and the presence of a foolish treasure hunter who thinks she’s trying to steal his goodies.  This is the longest story in the volume, and comes with an extended coda that reveals the consequences of Sooe’s mission from a different perspective.

“Volunteers” by Susan L. Hansen is told in reverse order, starting with the heroes having had successes against the alien slavers called Jakooma, and flashing ever back to how they got there.  The most imaginative bit is the psychic whose powers are normally kind of useless due to the future changing every time someone makes a decision, but in dire circumstances that narrow the possibilities, becomes Earth’s one hope for freedom.

And the book closes with “LOST” by Lizzie Scott.  Lilith, grieving the loss of her husband and children, has isolated herself in a remote farmhouse.  During a blizzard, a very lost little girl  named Pyry shows up on her doorstep, and Lilith must put aside her own problems to help the child.  But what she does may be more dangerous to Pyry than the thing that got the girl lost in the first place!  This too was a good story, that followed through on its fantasy concept well.

I regret to say that spellchecker typos, the bane of self-publishing editors, are frequent, especially in “Kreet.”

Overall, a decent enough collection of stories, but mostly of local interest to Minnesotans.  Others might want to invest in case one of the writers eventually becomes famous.

Book Review: Galaxy of Ghouls

Book Review: Galaxy of Ghouls edited by Judith Merril

October is scary stuff season, so let’s look at a book of creepy tales.  This collection of 16 “science-fantasy” stories is themed around various monsters, from the classic to the out-there.

Galaxy of Ghouls

We open with “Wolves Don’t Cry” by Bruce Elliott, turning the traditional werewolf story upside down when a wolf inexplicably turns into a human being.  It’s an emotionally muted tale, with the primary sensation being loneliness.  The ending story is “”Mop-Up” by Arthur Porges.  The last human on Earth after the War and Plague meets the last monsters.  But none of them imagined there were other threats…some nice imagery in this one.

Notable stories include Manley Wade Wellman’s “O! Ugly Bird”, the first of the John the Balladeer stories, in which John and his silver-stringed guitar go up against a hoodoo man and his flying familiar; “Fish Story” by Leslie Charteris, a non-Saint story about a man who is far more familiar with the sea than you’d think, and “Desertion” by Clifford D. Simak, which inquires into why no explorer returns from Jupiter

The general quality is high, although a couple of stories have become dated and creak a bit.  Judith Merril provides her usual helpful introductions to the tales and their authors.

This book seems never to have been reprinted, so you will need to haunt your local used  bookstore or E-bay.  Well worth a look for fans of science fantasy.

Book Review: Creatures from Beyond

Book Review: Creatures from Beyond edited by Terry Carr

This 1975 speculative fiction anthology has the theme of monsters from outside human experience.  The question of what lies in the outer darkness has haunted humanity since we developed imaginations.  These nine stories look at the possibilities, from implacable enemies, to beings a lot like us in the end.

Creatures from Beyond

“The Worm” by David H. Keller is set in a remote Vermont valley that has become depopulated, leaving only an old miller.  He no longer runs the millstone, but one night he notices a grinding vibration…A canny and stubborn man against a seemingly inevitable devourer, with a mounting feeling of dread.

“Mimic” by Donald A. Wollheim involves insects that have evolved protective camouflage to live among humans.  This story doesn’t have much actually happen in it (unlike the 1997 movie very loosely based on it) with the really chilling moment being when the narrator realizes that the insects aren’t the only creatures that have learned new mimicry tricks.

“It” by Theodore Sturgeon has the distinction of being the inspiration for no less than four independently created comic book characters (Solomon Grundy, the Heap, Man-Thing and Swamp Thing.)  It’s a horrific tale of a human corpse that somehow has been animated by hot molds and unknown factors; it stumbles around the woods trying to satisfy its curiosity in destructive ways.  And now it wants to learn about humans….very strong last sentence.

“Beauty and the Beast” by Henry Kuttner has a greedy, small-minded man discover the wreck of a spaceship that’s been to Mars.  Inside, he finds some seeds and a jeweled egg, and decides to try them out to make a profit.  This is of course not the best idea he’s ever had.  Genre-savvy readers will spot the twist coming a mile away.

“Some are Born Cats” by Terry and Carol Carr was chosen, as the editor admits, because it’s a sentimental favorite, the first he co-wrote with his wife.  Two teens realize that the girl’s cat is not actually a cat, but an alien.  Happy ending all around.

“Full Sun” by Brian W. Aldiss takes place in the far future, when humanity, served by its faithful robots, has retreated to shining cities, and the wilderness areas are infested with werewolves.  A hunter from the city is tracking down a particularly dangerous werewolf, but he may have more than one enemy in the forest.  Interesting last minute perspective twist.

“The Silent Colony” by Robert Silverberg is told entirely from the viewpoint of the creatures, aliens who’ve occupied the outer planets, and now notice that some of their kind are on Earth already.  But why won’t the colonists communicate?  Short.

“The Street That Wasn’t There” by Clifford D. Simak and Carl Jacobi is their only collaboration.  A retired professor suddenly notices that his daily walk took a few minutes less than usual, and discovers that an entire street has vanished from the town.  The “creature” in this case is an entire alternate universe that’s trying to superimpose itself over ours.

“Dear Devil” by Eric Frank Russell closes out the volume with a friendly Martian exiling himself to Earth.  Humanity has nearly wiped itself out with nuclear and germ warfare, and the few survivors have reverted to tiny tribes at best.   Fander, despite his fearsome appearance, is a poet, and moved by a thing of beauty, helps the humans bring themselves back from the brink of extinction.  The Fifties sexism is strong in this story.  Boys are naturally interested in mechanics, engineering and exploring; girls are delicate, and naturally interested in dolls.  This holds true across species lines here!  It weakens an otherwise decent story.

The Silverberg story is the weakest, and I suspect it was included to fill an exact number of pages.  The Wollheim and Sturgeon stories are the best here.  Check your library or used bookstore.

Comic Book Review: Oddly Normal Book 1

Comic Book Review: Oddly Normal Book 1 by Otis Frampton

Life is not good for Oddly Normal (who was named after her great-aunt.)  As the product of a human/witch marriage, her green hair and pointed ears make her stand out in her small town elementary school.  She’s constantly bullied and treated as a freak.  Worse, her parents seem oblivious to just how miserable she really is.

Oddly Normal Book 1

This comes to a head on Oddly’s tenth birthday, when none of the kids her parents made her invite bother to come, only using the moment to further bully her.   And then her parents refuse to understand the situation, coming up with excuses for how this isn’t actually happening.  It’s no wonder that Oddly makes a wish that they would both disappear.  It’s slightly more of a wonder that the wish seems to work, as she’s never shown any magical aptitude before.

While trying to work out what actually happened, Oddly’s aunt takes her to Fignation, the “imaginary” world Oddly’s mother came from.  She enrolls her niece in Menagerie Middle School, and Oddly thinks that maybe here she won’t be treated like a freak.  Small hope of that–though there do seem to be some kids who aren’t completely horrible.  Of course they’re the unpopular, uncool ones.  Worse, at least one of the teachers seems to be out to get Oddly for reasons that aren’t exactly clear.

This Image comic book series is by one of the people who creates the How It Should Have Ended webtoons.   The first volume collects the first five issues, out of six published as of this writing.

A lot of kids will identify with Oddly; feeling like they’re persecuted for their minor differences; and quite a few older readers will remember the same feelings.  It’s made Oddly a somewhat surly loner who’s only sympathetic because she’s the underdog.  Given some power, she could easily turn Carrie on her peers.  (The sixth issue shows that Oddly has more in common with her mother in that respect than she might have guessed.)

The other characters are fairly stock, with no one really stepping outside their stereotypical roles yet.  The series is also suffering from considerable decompression, and the first five issues feel less than a complete story, or even a full five chapters.

I’d say that it would be a good idea for Oddly to succeed at something soon, or show some useful skills or personality traits.  As is, she’s just a victim and pinball, bouncing from one miserable event to the next.

The art isn’t bad, but the writing needs to step up.  Keep an eye on this series, and if it improves come back and read this.

Book Review: Weird Golf: 18 Tales of Fantastic, Horrific, Scientifically Impossible, and Morally Reprehensible Golf

Book Review: Weird Golf: 18 Tales of Fantastic, Horrific, Scientifically Impossible, and Morally Reprehensible Golf by Dave Donelson

Disclosure: I received this book through a Firstreads giveaway in the expectation that I would review it.

Weird Golf

To make where I’m coming from clearer, I’m not a sports fan, and in specific not a golf fan. I’ve played just enough golf to know the game doesn’t appeal to me as a player, and I don’t believe I have ever watched an entire match on TV. However, I’m a big fan of “strange sports stories” which blend a real-life sport with fantastic elements.

As you might gather, this is a single-author anthology which is exclusively about golf. Thus, the changes are rung by introducing different unusual elements, not all impossible. It’s double-spaced for easy reading.

The best single story is “Grand Slam”, where a veteran golf writer (much like the author) realizes there’s something more unusual than most about an up and coming golfer. The ending’s very predictable, but the research is good.

Mr. Donelson appears to have been his own editor/proofreader, as there are a couple of “relies on spellchecker” errors.

And then there is the story “Superhero Grudge Match”, in which Superman and Batman compete to join a pro-am golf tournament. I was very surprised to not see a fanfic disclaimer, or an indication that Mr. Donelson got permission to use the characters for his book.

It really felt like the writer hadn’t done the research on the comic book characters nearly as well as he’d researched Pebble Beach. The story references some current events that might have made the business pages, but the Batman and Robin combo used were clearly the ones from the 1960s TV series. The characterizations are closest to the Silver Age “World’s Finest” comic books, in which Superman, Batman or both suddenly start acting dickishly for reasons given at the end of the story. Except that this time they’re dickish for the sole purpose of winning a golf game.

Notably, though both heroes end up cheating during the match, neither of them uses the skills/powers that would allow them to be freakishly good at golf. As a comic book fanfic reader, I have to say it’s not very good.

I would only recommend this book to people looking for a gift their golf-mad relative probably doesn’t have already. It’s a light read, suitable for rainy days and waiting for tee times.

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