April 3, 2014

FIFTY SHEDS OF GREY:

A Parody
by CT Grey
144 pages, Boxtree

Review by Pat Black

I promised I wouldn’t ever be the type of person who throws a tantrum when they get a bad Christmas present. Last year, I broke that promise. #FirstWorldProblems.

I might not have minded so much had my mate not given it a good trailer. “Aw man, you’ll howl… It’s a book, but it’s a bit of a piss-take… Right up your alley… When I saw it, the tears were rolling down my face… It’s priceless!”

It wasn’t priceless. It says it costs £9.99 on the back cover. Hopefully my friend paid a bit less than that for Fifty Sheds of Grey, a parody of… What’s the point of summarising? You’ve probably got it in one.

It’s a nice hardback book, looking every penny of that £9.99. Fifty Sheds of Grey began life as @50ShedsofGrey, a Twitter parody account. It came into being not long after the literary world bent over for EL James’ smacked bums and crippled nipples trilogy, Fifty Shades of Grey – which in itself, just a couple of years later, has the feeling of an off-colour joke you made when you were drunk which no-one has let you forget.

The parody is to be applauded. It’s several Tweet-sized puns mixing horticulture, garden sheds and some sort of S&M odyssey - one to a page - juxtaposed with artful photographs of said outhouses and gardening equipment. It’s very British, very Carry-On, very “we’re dead cheeky but we’re not too good at this sex business”.

An example? Ah, okay then:

“’I think it’s time for us to take things to the next level’, she said eagerly.

“’What?’ I replied. ‘…The shed roof?’”

There is a loose narrative stitching the one-liners together as Colin, the narrator, goes on an erotic journey involving sheds and his new partner, but mainly sheds. This is basically a coffee-table book, or perhaps its low-rent cousin, the toilet companion; a one-note joke taken way too far. At a very loose estimate, there are probably about as many words in it as there are in this review. At least you don’t pay for this review.

According to the author in an interview with the Daily Mail, Pan MacMillan got in touch with him after he gathered 90,000-plus followers on Twitter. The book has sold incredibly well; I’m relying on the Mail here, but it seems some weekly sales total even surpassed its source material once the craze for all things Grey subsided. Again, you have to applaud this, with a warm grin glued to your face - like Leonardo di Caprio has to applaud the Best Actor Oscar winner every single year.

Parody – the less talented but more lovable kid brother of satire – has been around for as long as literature. Henry Fielding wrote Shamela in response to his rival Samuel Richardson’s Pamela more than 270 years ago; arguably it is now more famous than the novel it originally satirised. Nowadays, parody is an industry, helping to sell key rings, ceramic mugs and T-shirts, giving piss-takers artistic licence to poke fun at successful books or films. We’ve all enjoyed literary roasts such as the Harvard Lampoon’s Bored of the Rings, or the Barry Trotter books. I love Jeffrey Brown’s Darth Vader and Son, where the Dark Lord of the Sith is depicted taking Luke and Leia to the park and buying them ice creams. Certainly Viz magazine, Britain’s greatest periodical, would be a lot poorer if parody did not exist.

And yet, I threw the toys out when I got this for Christmas. It’s not that it’s unfunny; it’s not that I didn’t enjoy it; and of course, it’s not that I grudge an honest chancer an even break. It just seems like something you might have put together during a stolen work-time email conversation with your mates.

I can’t help but feel this wee twinge of envy. Yes. I admit it.

A couple of years ago I wrote a review on this site covering the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon. The “punchline” to it was that I hadn’t even read Fifty Shades of Grey, and… Look, save your applause for the end. No, really folks, don’t laugh so hard. You’ll drown me out.

I sought to review a cultural phenomenon that, like the X Factor or Big Brother, seemed to infiltrate popular consciousness by media osmosis, whether you’d experienced the actual product or not. I apologise for this. At some point I must have thought it was clever. I was probably out of my mind on red wine. I wondered what the f*ck I was doing even before I got to the end.

I also attempted to investigate why EL James’ work had done so well, looking at it from the point of view of publishing trends, marketing campaigns and what it is about such literary phenomena that tickle vast numbers of readers. We’re not all sheep, so it can’t all be marketing. Can it?

I now realise that trying to examine a cultural juggernaut like Fifty Shades of Grey, The Da Vinci Code, Harry Potter or similar is a waste of time. The authors probably never imagined, in their most egotistical fantasies, that their work would become so big, so all-encompassing. Neither did the editors, the marketers or the executives. Certainly the critics didn’t. This sort of literary epidemic is probably best described as a Thing, and left at that.

Like the beastie in John Carpenter’s The Thing, this book is an imitation of its source, though not quite so malevolent. It illustrates some modern phenomena. Firstly, it shows how going “viral”, even on something as ephemeral as Twitter, can boost your chances of selling a book and making it a success. And secondly, it reiterates that a little bit of banter goes a long way.

More than once, I’ve been ready to drop Fifty Sheds of Grey off at the charity shop. Something has stopped me each time; perhaps it was an acceptance that I shouldn’t be so much of a grouch and just enjoy a prime piece of silliness. Or perhaps it was an acknowledgement that it can serve as inspiration; an unlikely success, born out of an even more unlikely success. And you’d take that tomorrow. You’d sit in your luxury garden shed and laugh your bollocks off.

Now, Fifty Sheds sits there on the Big Shelf, a daily reminder that you can hit the jackpot with the most unpromising projects. William Goldman was absolutely right: nobody knows anything.

March 27, 2014

AUTHOR INTERVIEW:

Brian Aldiss speaks to Booksquawk about the writing of the Supertoys trilogy, and his dealings with Mr Kubrick and Mr Spielberg…

Interview by Pat Black.

Booksquawk: “Supertoys Last All Summer Long” drew the attention of Stanley Kubrick, before the project was passed onto Steven Spielberg. I understand that your relationship with Kubrick was strained during the writing process for the movie – were you happy with the finished version? How did your experiences with Spielberg compare with those involving Kubrick?

Brian Aldiss: Here's an attempt at a response.  A limousine with a Spanish chauffeur would arrive early every morning at my house on Boars Hill, to take me to Kubrick's rambling palace north of St Alban's.

We would work all day, smoking heavily [eughhh], and Stanley would cook us a snack of mainly string beans.

Progress was difficult. Stanley rejected the psychological aspect I suggested.

In an evening, the car would take me home. I would then write up the day's notes and send them to Stanley via - what was that primitive instrument called?  I have forgotten.

Stanley seemed to be unwell. He remained witty. But one morning he said, 'We're getting nowhere.  I'm letting you go'. He turned his back on me. But Stanley had a pleasant family, his wife being an artist; only his manners were not first class.

Steven Spielberg was already a friend of Stanley's. It was natural for him - the ingenious producer of so many movies - to take over and finish 'A.I.' after Stanley's death. Somehow, New York had become flooded.

Stanley had consulted Arthur C Clarke, living in what was then Ceylon, for a script writer: this resulted in contradictions in the little boy's behaviour and the alarming dampness of the American city.

I wrote a letter to Steven, suggesting a way in which the tangled tale might end.

Steve wrote back by return, offering me a generous sum of money for just one sentence of the letter.

He also suggested we should meet when he was next in London, staying at the Ritz. 

Steven was always pleasant to deal with.

Eventually 'A.I,' appeared on our screens.  I returned to my habitual amusement of novel and short story writing.

Readers can ask themselves which they consider the more seductive a title, 'A.I.' or 'Supertoys Last All Summer Long'.

Probably my title would not have fitted on the billboards...

Read the review of Supertoys Last all Summer Long here.

Read the excerpt here.

THE SUPERTOYS TRILOGY

by Brian Aldiss
36 pages, The Friday Project

Review by Pat Black

Brian Aldiss’ Supertoys trilogy is probably better known by its filmed incarnation, Steven Spielberg’s AI. The three tales, collected in one volume for Kindle, tell the story of David, a very unusual boy stuck at home with his mother, Monica, and his best friend and favourite toy, the animatronic Teddy.

“Supertoys Last All Summer Long” splits its narrative in two. In the first strand, David and Teddy discuss why mummy seems so distant. David just wants a hug and some attention from Monica, but she is distracted, even dismissive. There’s an alien chill to her very features. David picks up on this restraint and lack of warmth, but he’s too young to understand the reasons behind it.

The mother spends her time in what we now know as a simulator, bent into fake wind and snow in the comfort of her own home. Not much Monica experiences is real - not even the view outside her window, nor the tone of light that makes it through the drapes. Can she muster some real love for her affection-starved boy?

Meanwhile, Monica’s husband, Henry, is involved in high-powered boardroom manoeuvrings, trying to sell his latest super-product to the rich elite – the next generation of synthetic human being. Negotiations are tough, and temptation is placed in Henry’s way, but there’s some very good news on the way for himself and his wife.

In “Supertoys When Winter Comes”, David’s curiosity grows. He tries to find out more about his life in the house and how it came about, and also conducts experiments into what makes Teddy tick. There are tragic consequences in store; all the while, Henry, the absentee father, loses his grip on his business empire.

“Supertoys in Other Seasons”, the third story, brings the arc to a conclusion, and is probably the best in the trilogy. Viewers of AI will be familiar with the town David finds himself wandering, a place where outmoded technology goes to die – or to exist in desuetude. David wants to find the love of his parents, and his abandonment is difficult to stomach. Finally he is reconciled with Henry, who has traded in his sleazy business dealings for more honest work. The happy ending strikes a defiant note. Who could deny David his humanity?

Despite this trilogy’s limited length, it yields a rich thematic crop. David and Teddy were first written in the 1960s, but the alienating quality of new technology and its ability to tear us away from flesh and blood reality surely needs no illustration these days. In the automatons’ limbo, Throwaway, I was put in mind of that discomfiting discovery which confronts us any time we head into the loft, or clear out cupboards; this slow accrual of obsolete tech, nestled among wires that creep and tangle across floorspace like ivy. Some of it is no use to anyone, but old computers, ingrained as they are with our past activities, music, photos and memories, are difficult things to simply put in the trash.

When synthetic humans finally appear, they’ll be put to many uses, a great deal of which will no doubt be immoral. But ultimately, we might appreciate mankind’s fascination with making a machine which perfectly mimics a human being for what it is – the apotheosis of all art. Who’s to say they won’t need love in return, much like our own biological creations?

There’s a distinctively anti-capitalist tone to the three stories which was absent from the movie adaptation. Henry’s soul is slowly being consumed by his career. The trappings of sleaze are all around even as he peddles artifice; fit young women on tap, a glut of food and drink, and ersatz exoticism, thousands of miles away from his family. But the humans here make a poor contrast with the synthetics in their greedy, grasping nature and lack of utility. This is a society where obesity is a great problem, not hunger – and the rich can maintain their figures by introducing genetically-modified tapeworms into their digestive systems. Looking at the adverts for Lovecraftian bodybuilding supplements and weightloss aids mushrooming across any given webpage, you can easily see a product of this kind being put on the market and selling well.

Chillier still is the humans’ seeming disregard of the degradation of the natural world, while they distract themselves with artifice. The plastic-clogged beaches lurking behind the Caribbean hologram that illustrates Henry’s boardroom meeting won’t seem that far-fetched to anyone. Meanwhile, Monica fools herself into thinking that she lives in a paradisal pleasuredome. In reality, she’s alone, and once the 3D trickery fades, it turns out she’s living in an ugly functional pile of concrete hung with wires and pipes. Death seems like an entirely rational consequence of this house of cards collapsing.

The trilogy’s initial thrust - population control - doesn’t seem much like science fiction any more. Only the other month I read Arthur C Clarke’s The Deep Range, and its crisis projection of a world population of some five billion by around 2100 is already a laughable understatement. But even more striking is the very human tragedy lurking at the centre of Supertoys – the breakdown of a family, and the desperate efforts of a parent to be reunited with a son, no matter what form he may take.

One thing AI got absolutely spot-on: there, as in its source material, you’re terrified for the welfare of Teddy. “They can’t take Teddy away, can they?” There’s something in these stories that gets to the heart of childhood anxieties, creepy and resonant as distant cries heard in a playground. Technological issues are fascinating, but not nearly so engaging as the questions posed by the human heart. The Supertoys trilogy is up there with Arthur C Clarke’s “The Nine Billion Names of God” and Ray Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder” as among the finest sci-fi short stories ever written.

Read the author interview here.

Read the excerpt here.

EXCERPT:

Supertoys Last All Summer Long

by Brian Aldiss

In Mrs Swinton’s garden, it was always summer. The lovely almond trees stood about it in perpetual leaf. Monica Swinton plucked a saffron-coloured rose and showed it to David.

‘Isn’t it lovely?’ she said.

David looked up at her and grinned without replying. Seizing the flower, he ran with it across the lawn and disappeared behind the kennel where the mowervator crouched, ready to cut or sweep or roll when the moment dictated. She stood alone on her impeccable plastic gravel path.

She had tried to love him.

When she made up her mind to follow the boy, she found him in the courtyard floating the rose in his paddling pool. He stood in the pool engrossed, still wearing his sandals.

‘David, darling, do you have to be so awful? Come in at once and change your shoes and socks.’

He went with her without protest, his dark head bobbing at the level of her waist. At the age of five, he showed no fear of the ultra-sonic dryer in the kitchen. But before his mother could reach for a pair of slippers, he wriggled away and was gone into the silence of the house.

He would probably be looking for Teddy.

Monica Swinton, twenty-nine, of graceful shape and lambent eye, went and sat in her living-room arranging her limbs with taste. She began by sitting and thinking; soon she was just sitting. Time waited on her shoulder with the manic sloth it reserves for children, the insane and wives whose husbands are away improving the world. Almost by reflex, she reached out and changed the wavelength of her windows. The garden faded; in its place, the citycentre rose by her left hand, full of crowding people, blow-boats, and buildings – but she kept the sound down. She remained alone.

An overcrowded world is the ideal place in which to be lonely. The directors of Synthank were eating an enormous luncheon to celebrate the launching of their new product. Some of them wore plastic face-masks popular at the time. All were elegantly slender, despite the rich food and drink they were putting away. Their wives were elegantly slender, despite the food and drink they too were putting away. An earlier and less sophisticated generation would have regarded them as beautiful people, apart from their eyes. Their eyes were hard and calculating.

Read the review of Supertoys Last all Summer Long here.

Read the author interview here.

March 23, 2014

THE PLOVER

by Brian Doyle
320 Pages, Thomas Dunne Books

Review by J. S. Colley

I received an ebook galley for review purposes.

Declan O’Donnell, a minor character in Doyle’s first novel, Mink River, becomes the protagonist in The Plover. Tired of dealing with life on land, Declan sets out from Oregon on his fishing trawler to sail “west and west.” He brings all manner of provisions but especially little bags of almonds that he stashes throughout the boat, and copies of the works of Edmund Burke. Declan ruminates that “No man is an island, my ass. This is an island and I am that very man.” The story is anchored by his increasing unease that Burke could be right; Declan might be better off with people than without.

The Plover alternately reminded me of The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith by Peter Carey, with its crippled main character and fictional country; The Life of Pi by Yann Martel, for strange adventures at sea; Florence and Giles by John Harding, for made-up words; and the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez for the elements of magical realism. This book might not be for everyone. It’s a novelist’s novel; a reader’s read. For those of us who read copiously, anything different, anything unique and done well, is invigorating.

Having not read Mink River, I had no preconceived notions regarding Declan, no backstory. So, when Declan reminisces about an old friend who had suffered a great personal tragedy, I momentarily thought this old friend was actually Declan looking back on himself. In novels that incorporate magical realism, it is often left to the reader to ascertain what is real and what isn’t. But, alas, it became clear that the tragedy was not Declan’s. His old friend really was just an old friend. I was left with no real sense of why Declan was running away, other than a general crankiness toward people in general and the hinted-at troublesome relationship with his father. This is, perhaps, the one minor weakness of the story. A stronger motivation might have made the book even more powerful. (Although, in real life, I’ve known people to go adventuring on little more than a whim.)

Along the way, Declan picks up a myriad of unexpected passengers (fecking fecking feck!), not the least being a gull, who camps out on the roof of the cabin. Then the others: Piko and his damaged, mute daughter, Pipa; a strange woman who, at first, everyone thinks is a man; a man with phlegmatic, yet confident, political philosophies who wants to organize the ocean into a country and name it Pacifica; a boy with a tragic past and a voice like an angel; and a man Declan thinks of as his enemy. Each passenger unwittingly teaches Declan something, even though he’s irritated they keep him from his original goal of sailing “west and west” in solitude.

This isn’t a plot-driven novel; it’s about humanity. It is written in a stream-of-consciousness, almost poetic, narrative. You might assume this makes for difficult reading, but I found it natural and easy. There are some real gems scattered throughout, some words that make you think and, perhaps, wipe a tear from your eye. I found myself reading over my highlights more than once. Although a few reviewers suggest Doyle repeats himself (and I will admit Declan’s inner dialogue does occasionally drift over already-covered territory in the middle portion of the book), I was completely enthralled.  

March 5, 2014

THE DEEP RANGE

by Arthur C Clarke
240 pages, Gollancz

Review by Pat Black

Arthur C Clarke’s mysterious worlds are mainly concerned with outer space. But in The Deep Range, he dives into his other abiding scientific interest: the oceans.

The novel was first published in 1957, and is an appropriation of an earlier short story of the same name. In the prototype, a man in a high-tech submarine acts as shepherd to a flock of whales, protecting them from giant sharks and killer whales. The story, and the novel that succeeded it, has a fairly radical central concept: that worldwide hunger could be eradicated by farming the great whales for food.

As Clarke wryly notes in his 1988 foreword to this novel, whales have had “excellent public relations” in the nearly 60 years hence, and so for many of us the idea of harming them, much less eating them, is repugnant. But even if Clarke’s ideas don’t quite work, they still intrigue us. If we can’t have whale meat, Clarke reasons, maybe we can have whale milk? And if men in submarines are shepherding whales, why can’t we have killer whales to act as sub-aqua sheepdogs?

As in many other Clarke stories, the human participants are a chore to be attended to before we get to the fun. As far as it goes, he gives a backstory to his main protagonist, the ex-astronaut Walter Franklin, but it’s couched in terms of scientific curiosity and new psychological frontiers. Franklin’s had an accident in space, and is effectively banished to earth to begin a new career as a submarine ranger. Franklin has an acute psychological problem linked to a sense of space: astrophobia, best described as agoraphobia times infinity.  

Franklin not only tackles his condition, but defeats it – indeed, he becomes a success through having done so. Clarke has used this theme of a damaged man returning to useful employment more than once. This reminds me of another Clarke short, where two men are stuck on a malfunctioning spacecraft with only enough oxygen to get one of them back home alive. One of them has had a total nervous breakdown earlier in the mission. We are meant to think he is toast, compared to his bullish co-pilot - but he triumphs, in spite of his nervous affliction. I wonder if there was some sort of psychological crisis in Clarke’s life, a trough he had to negotiate before hitting the peaks? As with many things in Clarke’s somewhat colourful private life, we may never know. A lifetime’s worth of his journals will stay sealed for another forty-odd years.

Franklin takes to his new job like a duck to water, and is soon fighting off great white sharks and whatnot to protect his flock. He makes a friend in Don Burley, a fellow submariner who starts off as a rival before mellowing out. He also meets Indra, who becomes his wife, and bears him a couple of kids. There’s no suggestion that this could have been a love triangle of any kind – unless we factor in Clarke’s closeted homosexuality, and the inescapable fact that Franklin and Burley have a more interesting relationship than Franklin and Indra.

As in The City and the Stars, the story’s primary concept is used for the principals to have whacko, episodic adventures which might have been dreamed up by a seven-year-old. They torpedo ferocious sharks; they capture a giant squid; and there are some tantalising glimpses of cryptozoology’s prize catch, the great sea serpent.

Clarke’s prescience also comes into play. When we first meet Indra, she is tagging a tiger shark with detection equipment – another bit of on-the-nose prophesying from Clarke? This must have been decades before scientists started doing it in the real world.  

Clarke also foreshadows instant global communications and the idea that news in one part of the world can have a global reach in a matter of seconds, whereas in the 1950s the same data might have taken days to get moving. He was a sharp cookie, old Arthur C.

He is a bit off-beam in some other prophecies. There’s one idea (which he returned to in Profiles of the Future) which sees mankind extracting all the mineral wealth that could ever be needed from seawater; surely that’s nothing more than a pipe dream, for any generation.

Clarke also foresees that the rising star of Judaism would have caused the extinction of the Muslim faith. After that, he predicts that science and the world of rational, quantifiable facts will ultimately push all religious faith to the margins of the civilised world…

I think you can whistle for that one, mate.  

His idea that the world’s dominant belief would become Buddhism is a charming one. This is because it’s more of a philosophy than a rigid doctrine, Clarke argues, and as such is less susceptible to being swamped by the rising tide of scientific progress. Again… nice idea, in theory. But one central idea of Buddhism - that we should not seek to harm our fellow creatures - comes into play by the novel’s end. It is this fascinating clash between the material necessity of feeding the earth’s population, and concern for the great whales - with all their strange grandeur and unknowable intelligence - that provides the book’s most fascinating conflict. The final chapter sees Franklin engaged in one last dive to rescue a stricken submarine crew, Thunderbirds-style, but it is his attempted conversion by a Scottish-born Dalai Lama that provides the true conclusion to the narrative.

There are the usual caveats when approaching a Clarke novel. No, there’s not much in the way of feminism; Indra rather drops out of the narrative by the time Franklin puts a ring on it (although to be fair to Clarke, he does talk about her studying hard and trying to get back into work). What are we to make of Franklin’s previous wife and family, abandoned on Mars, owing to some sort of gravitational/biological issues? And, yes, characterisation is weak, with only the Buddhist spiritual leader really sticking out.

But we don’t read Arthur C Clarke for any of those things. We read him for his terrific ideas, his star-bright perception of scientific possibilities - and because, no matter how much of a clever-clogs he was, he enjoyed a good monster moment as much as the next guy.

March 2, 2014

FURTHER CONFESSIONS OF A GP

by Dr. Benjamin Daniels
327 pages, The Friday Project/HarperCollins

Review by J.S. Colley

I received an ebook for review purposes.

Further Confessions of a GP is, as you might guess, the second in a series. I haven’t read the first book, Confessions of a GP, but it didn’t surprise me that there could be further tales. Several members of my family are in the medical professions, and I worked as a medical receptionist in my youth. Need I say more? But, since this was written by a UK physician, could I relate to the stories? It turns out dealing with the public in the UK isn’t vastly different from dealing with them in the USA.

This is the kind of book that can be read in snippets. Coincidentally, it’s the perfect reading material to take along to a doctor’s appointment so you’ll have something other than magazines with last year’s winner of the sexiest man alive on the cover. It’s also great to keep by your bedside to read a chapter or two before bedtime. Hopefully, you’ll drift off to sleep after reading one of the more poignant stories rather than one of the more disturbing.

What struck me most about the doctor was his compassion. Even while relaying less-than-flattering stories about his patients’ antics, his respect and concern were apparent. Also, he admits physicians aren’t all-powerful. He acknowledges that, most often, doctors are merely a sounding board for patients while time and nature cures them. I found the stories entertaining, enlightening, poignant and, at times, downright gross. Everything I’d expect in a GP’s tell-all. 

One can’t talk about health care in the UK without talking about the NHS and Daniels doesn’t shy away. Since the US is going through the sometimes-painful implementation of a new health system, I was both interested in learning more about the UK system and, frankly, sick to death of hearing about the politics of it all. There were only a few instances where politics bled through, so it was tolerable.  

However, I have to correct the doctor on two statements, one where he claims the US’s “private health-care system” has scared the public into thinking they need a yearly colonoscopy screening, and the other where he claims US doctors gave a woman suffering from false pregnancy a C-section.

Regarding the first claim: the American Cancer Society recommendations are for a colonoscopy every 3-5 years, if indicated, and every 10 years if the first colonoscopy is normal. They do advise a “yearly fecal occult blood test.” (Poo is talked about in the book, so I won’t avoid it here.) I also looked up the guidelines for a “private sector” health insurance company and found the same recommendations. I do have first-hand experience with this. After my initial colonoscopy, my “private sector” doctor told me that I didn’t need another for ten years. And believe me, if I’m told I don’t have to go through that nasty test for a decade I’m not going to argue. Daniels may be confusing American celebrities, who have scared people into believing they need this test once a year, with the recommendations of the (paraphrasing) “money-hungry private health care system,” but the official American Cancer Society and insurance guidelines are clear.

The second claim regarding the woman with false pregnancy appears to be true, but it was in Brazil, not the USA. Perhaps there was some confusion because Brazil is in South America. I give Daniels the benefit of the doubt, as perhaps he knows something I don’t. But, when I google it, all the news stories claim this happened in Sao Paulo.

The doctor takes a few jabs at America’s health care system to bolster the opinion of his own. Some of his criticism may be deserving, but he fails to mention that we (even before the Affordable Care Act) have Medicaid—a government sponsored health insurance for the poor. 

Also: “Every region has hospitals operated by state and local government (public hospitals) as well as some nonprofit hospitals that provide a safety net for anyone who needs care, regardless of ability to pay.”  And this: “…hospitals […] required to provide treatment under the Hill-Burton Hospital Program. Hospitals that receive construction funds from the federal government must provide some services to cancer patients who can't afford to pay for their care. Approximately 300 hospitals take part in this program.

Daniels does, in a self-deprecating fashion, give a disclaimer after one of his accounts, where he admits he has no idea if the story is accurate or not, but he says he “read it on the internet, so it must be true?!” It is all meant to be fun and, in the end, I have no problem with the Daniels upholding a system he believes in but, if he is going to be specific, he should ascribe the correct horror story to the correct country, even if it is meant to be anecdotal. This type of thing is what helps perpetuate false impressions.

I give credit to anyone who enters the medical field, it is often a stressful and underappreciated profession, where nothing less than perfection is expected. If the reader takes away anything from these “confession” books, I hope they understand that physicians and nurses are only human, who want to do the best for their patients even when the patients are being unreasonable. And, despite the few brief forays into the political side of things, I thoroughly enjoyed the candid tales.

 

February 19, 2014

TERROR BY NIGHT:

Classic Ghost and Horror Stories
by Ambrose Bierce
292 pages, Wordsworth Tales of Mystery and the Supernatural

Review by Pat Black

Ambrose Bierce has to be one of my favourite literary wallopers. A great writer of uncanny fiction, the former Union soldier turned journalist seemed to have a life filled with oddness and macabre coincidences. This all culminated in a bizarre ending to his recorded life in keeping with his fictional contrivances – as well as his sense of humour, which was black as tar at two in the morning.

Bierce is probably best known for “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”, and that widely-anthologised chiller serves as a taster for much of what is to come in Terror by Night. This story follows a US civil war soldier who is about to be hanged for plotting to blow up a bridge. There then follows a miraculous escape from the noose, and the soldier goes on the run. A happy ending seems to unfold for the man on the scaffold, but all is not as it seems. Don’t expect too many happy endings in this book.

That story hinges on an uncanny twist, and also an odd time structure. These, too, would crop up throughout Bierce’s work. “The Moonlit Road” has a similarly disjointed feel, jumping between different narrators, and yet coming no closer to the facts of an apparent case of domestic murder. Bierce, who came from a family of 13 children, all of whom were given names starting with the letter “A”, has a somewhat bleak view of family life. His opening line in “An Imperfect Conflagration” sums his attitude up: “Early in 1872 I murdered my father – an act that made a deep impression on me at the time.”  

Fathers never come off particularly well in these stories – “The Thing at Nolan”, which sees an uncanny apparition following one man’s death, apparently at the hands of his vengeful son, is a perfect illustration of this. Wives rarely escape Bierce’s bitterness, either – “An Adventure at Brownville” sees a cuckolded husband taking a weird revenge on his spouse. It’s a good fit for Bierce, who divorced his own wife after finding “compromising letters” from another man in her possession.

Many of Bierce’s tales look at the inexplicable. People looking for easy explanations will be left frustrated by the likes of “The Difficulty of Crossing a Field”, which examines the facts surrounding a young man’s disappearance, without the merest hint of a plausible resolution in its two pages. It’s worth remembering that X Files/Twilight Zone-style twist stories were a good 60 and more years away. Ironically, my favourite story in the book is “The Damned Thing”, which actually does go on to explain its monstrous antagonist in a very scientific way, and is more in keeping with the style of HG Wells.

Bierce’s humour was of the blackest variety. The author of the sardonic lexicon, The Devil’s Dictionary, Bierce had a smirk in reserve for just about anything (His definition of Love: “A temporary insanity curable by marriage”). This is most evident even in otherwise grim stories, such as “A Holy Terror”, where he dares to squeeze a laugh out of a woman whose face has been scarred by a lover.

Bierce’s life was punctuated by tragedy and horror. He was a hostile participant in the civil war, sustaining serious head injuries during one engagement. He knew that in warfare, one’s fate was often a matter of atrocious luck. His experiences in uniform inform many of his grimmer stories, particularly “The Affair at Coulter’s Notch” and “The Mocking-Bird”. Again, ugly coincidences and uncanny apparitions play their part in soldiers’ experiences – the world of unknown terrors granting a lacquer finish to the more earthly horrors of cannonades and gunpowder.

The greatest mystery of all is reserved for Bierce’s passing, probably in 1913, probably somewhere in Mexico, after he decided to travel there for a bit of action and adventure. You suspect he found it – or it found him. His fate, and the location of his body, remains a mystery. The shade of Bierce would undoubtedly have a chuckle at that.  

This book is not easy reading, despite many of the stories being only a handful of pages long at most (and in some cases two pages or less). The view of humanity is almost impenetrably bleak and cynical; for this reason, Bierce is a unique voice, Mark Twain’s sardonic doppelganger when it comes to recording American life in the late 19th century. This makes it an essential purchase for lovers of dark fiction.

A wee word about the cover, though: minging. My edition bears a representation of a Mexican mummy, “disturbingly well preserved”, at a museum in Guanajuato. If it was meant to induce people to turn the book face-down on the bedside table, then… mission accomplished. Urgh.

February 14, 2014

SERVE IN HELL

by Georgia Gunn
231 pages, Kindle Edition

Review by Melissa Conway

I received an ARC of this manuscript, and have an online acquaintance with the author.

Sometimes when I sit down to write a review, the book in question inspires me to want to simply say, “Just go read it. Trust me, you’ll love it.” That’s definitely the case with Georgia Gunn’s unique, intelligent mystery novel with a twist – it takes place in Hell.

In death, as she was in life, Molly Wallace is a twenty-something waitress-slash-wannabe-actress. She works in a diner, ‘lives’ frugally, and does her best to avoid the attention of the many and varied demons who rule over Hell. That’s easier said than done, however, because demons are everywhere; from the small ones with little influence (but plenty of nastiness), to the older, powerful, and infinitely more frightening ones.

Demons need dead souls like Molly to help them run the place, and they keep them in line through swift and brutal punishment. The hierarchy among demons is simple: strength equals power. The powerful demons don’t much concern themselves with the little ones, except to use them, or eat them, however it may please. Usually, they wouldn’t notice or care if a little demon went missing, but in this case, the suspect is Josh, a fresh arrival in Hell. When he’s taken away, Molly feels responsible because she’d given him some advice that was overheard and interpreted as his possible motive.

As much as her instincts tell her to stay out of it; she can’t because she knows he’s not guilty. But how does one puny, uninfluential dead human suss out the truth in a place like Hell?

Very cleverly, as it happens.

Serve in Hell is well-written, with ingenious worldbuilding, a tight plot, and sympathetic characters. Highly recommended.

 

February 5, 2014

COMFORT ZONE

by Brian Aldiss
308 pages, The Friday Project

Review by Pat Black

…In which sci-fi stalwart Brian Aldiss takes us on a journey to a strange new world: the far horizons of old age.

Comfort Zone is not concerned with distant galaxies or alternate dimensions, though it is fair to say it examines some strange creatures and baffling technologies. We follow Justin Haydock, a retired film and TV producer in his eighties, as he potters around Headington in Oxford, the very heart of middle class English life, in the summer of 2006.

A regular visitor to hospital, he’s got a few health problems, including some difficulties with his bowels. Sometimes Justin’s knees don’t work, and his memory is as prone to falling on its backside as he is. Sometimes he finds security in the fantasy that his late wife is not dead, but has in fact run away to Carlisle. Justin realises that he finds a little too much comfort in the idea, and that sometimes the chimerical construct encroaches onto fact in his mind.

Justin’s fifty-something son, David, has Down’s syndrome, and he is being cared for at a home just out of town. Justin visits when he can, but he is not happy with David’s treatment, nor the governess’ unpleasant manner.

Justin lives with his late wife’s mother, Maude, a ninety-something lady who wishes to convert to Islam. Justin’s an atheist and has little truck with any religion, seeing it as a largely destructive force. Maude’s conversion is being overseen by a young Iraqi woman called Om Haldar, who lives in a shed in their neighbour’s garden.

Om Haldar vanishes after the opening chapters. There’s some suggestion that she is an illegal immigrant; speculation over what she initially fled her homeland for, and where she has gone, casts a long shadow over the narrative.

On top of that, England are playing in the World Cup in Germany. Justin has a sneaking fancy for the underdogs the English players face. The Iraq invasion is continuing, driven by George W. Bush and Tony Blair. The local pub is going to be closed down and taken over by a Kuwaiti company. There is a dark suspicion that a mosque will be built on the site, and the good Christians of Old Headington are not pleased.

Justin has a fancywoman: Kate, a spry seventy-year-old charity worker who often disappears to Egypt for long spells. Justin’s a game old bugger and still has a glad eye for the ladies, but needs Viagra to get his engines running. He fails to wonder exactly what Kate is doing out there in Egypt.

Meanwhile, there’s a lunatic going around town – a homeless man, knocking on people’s doors and making a nuisance of himself. Sometimes what he says and does is disturbing. Justin can’t seem to avoid this man on his journeys into the town centre to visit his friend Ken. 

Justin’s friends begin to die. At one funeral, he speaks to the widow and discovers that she’s quite glad to be quit of her husband.

Justin’s real name isn’t Haydock; it’s Haddock. The call centres who get in touch with Justin from distant former colonies know what his real name is. He is jolly pleased with their contact, though, and the new and improved policies they offer him.

Justin sees existence as largely a result of crude chance, with religions having sprung up in order to avoid or mitigate it. Thus, if you believe Sodom was levelled by an angry god, instead of a wandering chunk of space rubble which happened to land on the city thanks to a piece of incalculably bad luck, then you better believe people will want to placate him. The idea of removing religion from the human experience casts new light through old windows, and Justin begins work on a thesis which could form the basis of a new TV documentary. And yet, Justin wonders if he’s on the right track after all; if perhaps religion acts as a moral safeguard in the merry old England of village greens, red brick lanes and leafy pubs.

If you’ve stuck with me so far, then you may be wondering: what’s the score here? Is there a plot? Is there even a narrative? But in depicting an old man’s journey through life, Aldiss has done something unusual. This is a novel where you’ve no idea where the story is going to go. There is no frame of reference. In its examination of quotidian matters, Comfort Zone defies what we usually expect from novels. I’d say its closest tonal relative is soap opera, but there’s little of the histrionics. Things are grounded, all the same. In Justin’s bowel difficulties, Aldiss falls back on a few fart jokes, but it’s also a sobering account of the sort of thing we can all expect as the clock begins to wind down on our bodies.

Aldiss is a sleekit old bugger. Race, immigration and religion frequently pop up in Comfort Zone, and when these things clash with a fixed idea of middle England, I am on my guard. The only thing that keeps it out of unsavoury realms is the author’s sly sense of humour, and his firm control of Justin, the well-meaning liberal dodderer.  Justin has left-leaning principles; he is as likely to pour scorn on Christian precepts as much as Muslim or Jewish. The contempt we feel on his behalf when he meets a sniffy Church of England preacher straight out of Dorothy L Sayers is explosive.

But Justin can also be gloriously offensive. He jokes about his cleaning lady’s deity of choice, the ancient god Baal, and is stunned when she flies into a rage. He is also complicit in a rather condescending ribbing of the psychotic homeless man Jack Hughes (“J’accuse!” ) at the start of the book, which could have far-reaching consequences.

Comfort Zone is an oddity. But, as time goes on, and you stack up more and more books on your shelves, and you get used to plots, characters, heroes, villains and all the tired concepts and constructs, it’s a welcome one. (When was the last time you failed to guess who did it in Silent Witness?)

I was intrigued by Justin’s mental meanderings and gripped by his reactions to everyday life. Comfort Zone would seem to be the very antithesis of a page-turner, and yet for that very reason, it was a page-turner to me. I can’t remember ever reading a novel like it, and yet it’s a story where very little seems to be happening. Make of that what you will. 

January 28, 2014

THE COMPLETE WESTERN STORIES OF ELMORE LEONARD

by Elmore Leonard
528 pages, Phoenix

Review by Pat Black

Ofelio Oso died at the age of ninety-three on a ranch outside Tularosa. They said about him he sure told some tall ones – about devils, and about seeing a nagual hanged for murder in Mesilla … whatever that meant… but he was much man.

"The Nagual", November 1956

It’s a shame that Elmore Leonard’s most Google-able legacy in more recent times has been his "10 rules of writing". They’re a great favourite of authors seeking to impart wisdom on the internet, up there with Stephen King’s "this is a verb… this is a full stop" tract in On Writing.

There’s good sense in these tips, for the famous and the wannabe alike. But it’s unfortunate that some people might remember Elmore Leonard more for an internet top-ten list than his fantastic storytelling ability.

There’s lots of evidence of the latter in The Complete Western Stories, a snorting buffalo compendium of Leonard’s earliest forays into fiction – some of which follow his writing tips to the letter, some of which do not. The earliest publication is from 1951, when Leonard was 26, with the most recent dating from 1994.

Westerns might not be your thing. Perhaps there’s a case to be made that they’re less relevant nowadays than the type of cool crime capers which cemented Leonard’s reputation nearer the end of his life, such as Get Shorty, Out of Sight and Maximum Bob. These spawned successful film and TV adaptations at roughly the same time as Quentin Tarantino’s blood-bullets-and-bullshit epics. The two worlds collided in Jackie Brown, a faithful adaptation of Rum Punch which sober analysts will tell you is Tarantino’s finest picture.

Still, Leonard had a good commercial nose, and in the 1950s, the western was king. He was fascinated with the old west and the frontier of Arizona, with its roving Apaches, bandits, mescaleros and US cavalry officers, all pitting their rugged manly-manliness against one another in dismal outposts baked by the desert heat. Inspired by the movies, he sought to make money writing his own western stories. Gunplay and fistfights almost always ensued. Leonard knew these quasi-mythological clashes were more commercially viable than crime stories at the time, and so the Sharps rifle became his bread and butter.

There must have been a thriving market back in those days, with dime westerns filling the racks at newsagents across the world. You had to be good to make a name out of these, and Leonard’s prose in his early days is much the same as it was just before he died: lean, polished and getting to its point on the double without breaking sweat. There’s little profanity and naughtiness in the bulk of the stories, from the 1950s and 60s. This is owing to a firmer editorial hand in those times, but they certainly don’t seem quaint. The fine grain and social commentary of the later stories, "Tonto Woman" and "Hurrah For Captain Early!" are noticeable by contrast, but those ones aren’t built for speed and thrills like the dime westerns.

Almost all of the stories deal with violent retribution. "The Big Hunt", the best example, looks at a young cattle drover taking his sweet time to get back at some rustlers who rip him off and then give him a smack in the mouth for his trouble. The final come-uppance tickles a vindictive side of us – you’re desperate for this young guy to catch up with the bandits, take back what’s his and give them a dunt in the chops right back. This punishment and humiliation of the unjust is replicated throughout the book. If only real life was like that. "How’s the bad guy going to get it this time?" might seem hackneyed, but it’s never unwelcome. Leonard liked to give his audience what they wanted.

By extension, there’s a sense of morality at play in most of the stories. In "Three-ten To Yuma", easily the most famous tale, a hardened killer ultimately surrenders to a simple, honest man trying to transport him to jail out of a sense of honour. The older Leonard might not have painted such a story in simple black and white, but its themes of camaraderie, loyalty and fraternity would rest easy in Quentin Tarantino’s hands.

In a similar vein, "The Hard Way" looks at a Mexican deputy violating a family tie in order to hold true to the law. The most interesting moral predicament is explored in "Blood Money", which sees a bunch of bank robbers gambling with their loot even as a posse of sharpshooters lays siege to their mountain hideout. This one played with predestination in the same way as Sir Walter Scott’s "The Two Drovers", and travelled the sometimes twisted routes the path to justice can take.

Perhaps reflecting the author’s age at the time of writing, callow youth often wins the day over grizzled cunning. In "Saint With A Six-Gun", a na├»ve deputy is conned by a dangerous prisoner before learning on the job and putting matters right. There are other examples of honest, uncorrupted young guys made good, such as the lieutenant in "Red Hell Hits Canyon Diablo" who gets his men out of a pickle with some Apaches by beating them in a drinking contest.

Most of Leonard’s gun-toting protagonists are upright fellows. Whether seasoned or bright forest green, his men have honesty and loyalty, and they’re almost always up against sneering braggarts, bullies and cowards. You might expect dated stories to have dated attitudes towards native Americans, black people or Mexicans, but there is no stereotyping involved. I’d venture that the young Leonard was aware of the flaws of some westerns’ white-hats-versus-black-hats storytelling, and keen to put these right. Thus, you get the neat "Nagual", which shows what appears to be a slow-witted Mexican character who reveals the truth about a domestic murder in a very clever, subtle manner. Then there’s "Hurrah For Captain Early!" which seeks to right a historical wrong by outlining the part played by black soldiers in the civil war.

Despite often being portrayed as something to be fought for, women are also cast in a more modern light. There are pervy moments, such as the pivotal scene in "The Captives" in which a woman hostage strips off to distract her guard. But by and large women are strong – and when they aren’t, it’s because of the pigs who seek to control them, such as the stuffed-shirt husband in "Tonto Woman" or the would-be rapist in "The Colonel’s Lady".

One of the most affecting stories in the book was "The Rancher’s Lady", where a widower hooks up with a woman he’s been courting through correspondence, only to discover that she is, shall we say, well-known in the town. The morality in this one was moving, as opposed to viscerally satisfying - although the main character’s tormentor gets his ears boxed, just the same.

It amused me that – as per one of his 10 rules – Leonard didn’t waste a lot of time on description. I lost count over the amount of "adobe buildings" his cowpokes encounter, for example. It could be said that if he missed bits and pieces out, it was because his knowledge was the same as ours – gleaned from feature films and books. And detail is never sacrificed unnecessarily. He researched the outfits, firearms and customs of the old west in just enough detail, but I don’t think anyone would have given him a PhD.

Stick to what your characters say and do, Leonard would say. Those are the important parts.

Ah, phooey to the rules. Like Elmore Leonard, most successful writers learned on the job, rather than getting bogged down on theory. Whether you’re a keen student of the craft or simply a fan of a good yarn, you can’t go wrong with this book.

January 23, 2014

A PRETTY MOUTH

by Molly Tanzer
248 pages, Lazy Fascist Press

Review by S.P. Miskowski

My first encounter with Molly Tanzer’s delightful fiction occurred at the 2011 World Horror Convention, where Tanzer read an excerpt from "The Infernal History of the Ivybridge Twins." This cleverly cockeyed story of inappropriate devotion between 18th century aristocratic siblings first appeared in the Innsmouth Free Press anthology Historical Lovecraft. It was soon reprinted in The Book of Cthulhu (Night Shade Books). Around the same time Cameron Pierce at Lazy Fascist Press invited Tanzer to turn the growing history of one peculiar family into a book. The result is A Pretty Mouth, and I haven’t had this much pure, crazy fun reading a work of fiction in a long time.

For anyone looking for a good read, this is it. Tanzer knows how to tell a tale. The pacing is expert and the characters are immediately engaging. A Pretty Mouth is definitely a page-turner. Yet each period Tanzer recreates is specific and wildly vivid. Nothing is tossed off. The underlying foundation for the book is a solid grasp of history, language, and philosophy. So the more you know of British history and the more classics you have read, the more fun you will have.

The book is comprised of four short stories and a novella. Each tale is set in a different era and may be read and enjoyed separately. Together they form a substantial arc, revealing hundreds of years of strange (often supernaturally strange) behavior among the highborn Calipashes. The mysterious origin of the family curse is withheld until the last story, creating dramatic suspense while the author traces several generations in reverse chronological order.

"A Spotted Trouble at Dolor-on-the-Downs" takes place in Edwardian England at the Marine Vivarium, a resort hotel catering to the whims of the aristocracy. There Alastair Fitzroy, the twenty-seventh Lord Calipash, frets over the impending demise of his family’s estate and wonders how to get his sister to stop languishing all day in her bath. The Lord Calipash is at a loss until he bumps into his old school chum Bertie Wooster. It seems Bertie’s valet Jeeves is a wizard at solving problems.

The audacity of introducing these characters to assist in a Wodehouse-worthy situation is matched perfectly by Tanzer’s facility with prose style. The entire story is recounted by Jeeves as an entry in the Club Book of the Junior Ganymede Club for Gentlemen’s Personal Gentlemen. The language and historical references could pass for original Wodehouse, if not for the aquatic creature in a tank in the basement, and the amphibious inclinations of Lady Alethea in the bathtub. The conclusion is both fitting and hilarious.

"The Hour of the Tortoise" takes us on a Victorian Gothic journey. If the author has missed a theme from that privately kinky, publicly repressed era I don’t know what it might be. Our heroine Chelone travels by train to her former home in the country, to visit her dying patron, a crusty old man to whom she may or may not be related by blood. Chelone was banished from the estate years ago and eventually earned her meager living by writing tales of erotic intrigue for a popular though disreputable magazine. Throughout the story Chelone weaves her Gothic fiction until the fate of our heroine and hers become inextricably entwined.

This darkly romantic story is worthy of a Bronte, except for the naughty bits written by our heroine for her demanding editor. The naughty bits are hugely entertaining, by the way. The language, setting, and characterization are flawless; all contribute to a keen portrait of an intellectual woman undone by patriarchal power. The madwoman in the attic has nothing on our fair Chelone.

In "The Infernal History of the Ivybridge Twins," Tanzer ranges over the ideas and influences shaping society during the Seven Years’ War. In Devonshire the ancestral home of the Lords Calipash sprawls across the countryside, dominating the landscape while reflecting a mania for architectural and garden design. Nothing is too ornate or superfluous to be considered worthwhile. The style of Tanzer’s prose in this section would please Henry Fielding, and readers are frequently reminded that the shocking events presented are intended purely as an example of unacceptable behavior. In other words, it is a romp and it is delicious fun.

For the novella "A Pretty Mouth" and the short story "Damnatio Memoriae" the author mixes anachronistic language with historically accurate detail and strikes a perfect balance. "A Pretty Mouth" takes place at Wadham College, Oxford in the 17th century. The boys who attend the prestigious institution are typical of their age and degree of privilege. Their nefarious adventures will strike a chord with readers fond of stories about school days. But this magical tale is a far cry from the idealized world of Harry Potter and his little chums. These boys woo and taunt and brutalize one another. Their secret experiments are matters of life and death–and sex. In a stunning reversal we catch a glimpse of the vast gulf between genders in an era when girls were expected to sew and sing while boys studied Greek and Latin and grew up to rule the world.

Finally, "Damnatio Memoriae" takes us to the shores of Britannia circa 40 A.D., where our hero Petronius stumbles through an unwanted trek led by a female barbarian. Along the way we meet the ideal Roman soldier, who turns out to be an ancestor to all of the Lords Calipash we have encountered in the previous stories. To find out where that trek leads and how the dashing and courageous Roman acquires the family curse, you will have to read the book. Lucky you!

For reviewing purposes I requested and received an advance reading copy of A Pretty Mouth from the publisher, Lazy Fascist Press.

January 19, 2014

A SEASON IN CARCOSA

edited by Joseph S. Pulver Sr.
292 pages, Miskatonic River Press

Review by S.P. Miskowski

It sometimes seems as if I have been writing this post for weeks, or months. Maybe I’ve been writing it all of my life. The details of my existence fade. The face I wear now is not the face I wore when I began. Or maybe it is the same face and I’ve forgotten.

My latest attempt at providing insight and perspective concerning A Season in Carcosa (edited by Joseph S. Pulver, Sr.) has proved as futile as all the others. For the purpose of this record I resort to comparing my experience to a dream of many years ago.

Night fell as I ascended the burnished staircase to the Odd Fellows Hall. No longer a meeting place, the hall’s upstairs ballrooms were rented for ballet classes and theatrical experiments. In smaller rooms, narrow as cubbyholes, artists, performers, and practitioners of occult sciences resided as quietly as mice.

I searched every room, muttering apologies along the way. In one room a woman located a beating heart wrapped in a scarf inside a mahogany chest of drawers. In another a painter depicted a sunrise so real it was blinding and could only be approached by wearing protective goggles…

Let’s face it: Nothing I say is guaranteed to entice you to read this gorgeous anthology. But if you have reached this point in the post without grumbling or grinding your teeth, let us agree that you have unusual taste in fiction and a willingness to enter a writer’s world without reservation. This anthology, then, is for you. Layered and varied, with interlocking themes and images that shift and resonate long after you finish reading, A Season in Carcosa is for the adventurous lover of all that is strange lying just beneath the surface of life and art.

The works gathered in this volume are original. The writers are among the most imaginative artists crafting dark fantasy today: Joel Lane, Simon Strantzas, Don Webb, Daniel Mills, Gary McMahon, Ann K. Schwader, Cate Gardner, Edward Morris, Richard Gavin, Joseph S. Pulver, Sr., Kristin Prevallet, Richard A. Lupoff, Anna Tambour, Michael Kelly, Cody Goodfellow, John Langan, Pearce Hansen, Robin Spriggs, and Allyson Bird.

The prompt is The King in Yellow, a collection of weird tales by Robert W. Chambers, first published in 1895. Rife with characters on the verge of collapse, the collection reflected the fin de siecle clash between rationalism and emotionalism, positivism and decadence, while inventing a new literary mythology. A yellow sign, a king in tattered robes and a play with the power to induce madness are the icons of this mythology, and they recur throughout A Season in Carcosa.

The styles range from Bukowski bowery prose to the high-minded self-justification of an early 20th century composer. Yet they share an atmosphere of veiled sickness and ruined dreams. Most of the characters have become lost. Yet they obsessively continue their journey far beyond the loss of the object of devotion.

To decipher all of the permutations and implications of the icons and themes connecting Chambers’s stories to this anthology, you will want to read The King in Yellow. To wander in a state of dreamlike wonder from one odd room to another, discovering tantalizing literary beauty at every dark turn, simply open the pages of A Season in Carcosa.

For the purpose of writing this post I requested and received a digital reading copy of A Season in Carcosa.