Sunday, March 12, 2017

Night Chills By Dean Koontz

Night Chills
By Dean Koontz
Copyright 1976

Paul Annendale takes his children, Mark and Rya, camping near the small, New England town of Black Water. Little does he – or the residents of Black Water – know that the town has been brainwashed by an evil corporate mastermind as a test case for eventual world domination.

Scientist Ogden Salsbury and millionaire Leonard Dawson have concocted a scheme to pollute the town’s water supply with a serum that will make the residents particularly susceptible to subliminal advertising. Then, using various media purchased by a dummy corporation, inculcate the residents with subliminal suggestions through advertising and messages inserted in movies, opening their mind to absolute control using simple keywords.

Young Mark stumbles onto Salsbury toying with one of the town’s residents and pays the price. Paul, his girlfriend and her father search the town for Mark and learn the horrible secret of Salsbury’s domination. Untainted by exposure to the poisoned water, they are the only ones left in Black Water that can fight the evil.

This was an early entry by Dean Koontz and it is strongly plotted. It moves along quite nicely and has a little love story as a subplot. Koontz certainly can tell a story and his use of flashback to explain the development of the serum and the program to dominate the world is particularly effective.

What stands out strongly in this book is the erotica. This has always been a Koontz strength and what sets him apart from most other writers in the horror genre. It is entirely sadistic with Ogden Salsbury either dominating or thinking about dominating women sexually with his mind control technique.

I’ve read reviews – mostly by women – who feel this is gratuitous and unnecessary sexploitation in the novel. I disagree wholeheartedly. It establishes the effectiveness of Salsbury’s programming. It shows the reader just how strong and effective it is. Without these two or three scenes, the novel would have been rather flat and dull.

The characters are a bit thin. But they do reflect a writer still honing his craft. Paul is well developed as the pining widower looking to move on with his life with a new woman. But Ogden Salsbury is just a bit cartoonish. He really lacks complexity. All we know is that he has mommy issues and horrible fear and hatred of women. Koontz doesn’t give us much more than that. But it’s enough to make this short novel work.

This is one of the earliest Koontz novels I’ve read and, to my knowledge, this is the first use of a frequent Koontz villain – the evil corporation. Koontz employs this device again and again in many books with varying results. It worked well in the novel, Midnight. Here, it works on a superficial level as a vehicle for a mad villain. Again, we are talking about a fairly short novel. So, it only takes the bare essential elements to make it work.

I’ve always had mixed feelings about Dean Koontz. I enjoy his early work much, much more than his later stuff. He’s always been a bit of a novel factory. But, in his later work, the heroes were all great overachievers and there was always a dog. I like dogs well enough. But one dog novel is enough for anyone.

That said, Night Chills is a work by a young author who was not yet trapped in a formula or recycling characters. It is thin and short. But sometimes, that can be fun and Night Chills was an easy, fun read.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick Vol 5 The Eye of the Sybil and Other Classics By Philip K. Dick

The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick Vol 5
The Eye of the Sybil and Other Classics

By Philip K. Dick

Introduction by Thomas M. Disch
Author Thomas Disch remarks that there are writers that readers read and there are readers writers read. While Philip K. Dick’s stories got lost in time for a while, they have returned and a new generation is discovering them.

The Little Black Box
Two proponents of the religion known as Mercerism are harassed by a state department bent on wiping out the nascent religion as it grows in popularity through an Empathy Box that allows his followers to experience their savior’s torment as stones are hurled at his as he walks through the desert.

Philip K. Dick expands upon the dystopian religion he introduced in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. We get a better idea of how it developed in its early days and how Empathy Boxes were once contraband. Superb short story with interesting characters and a well-paced plot.

The War with the Fnools
Government agencies are at war with an alien race trying to invade the earth. The Fnools try to blend in by duplicating humans in every day occupations. Their new gig is as real estate salesmen. However, Fnools are easy to spot because they are only two foot tall. However, when a captured Fnool takes a drag off a cigarette, he doubles in size. He adds another two feet when he has a swig of whiskey. Now, at six foot tall, he sneaks into the agency’s bomb shelter where a secretary is hiding. He returns from there eight feet tall. Mankind might have a battle on its hands if the Fnools decide to take up vices.

This alien invasions story was a little light and silly for me. It’s obvious that, for whatever reason, Dick was trying to keep it just that way and make the end just a bit risqué. There was nothing wrong in the writing. Just not my kind of story.

Precious Artifact
Earth is devastated after an interplanetary war and human terraformers are sent to Mars to prepare the planet for human habitation. The most successful of the terraformers, Mitt Biskle, wants to return to Earth. A psychologist tries to discourage him, reminding him that his family is en route from Earth to join him on Mars. He travels to Earth and immediately becomes suspicious that human beings are all but gone from the planet and that their enemy, The Proxima.

This is the heavy, meaty science fiction that Dick produces so well in his short fiction. Complex and full of emotion, Precious Artifact delivers an emotional climax with a wonderful twist.

Retreat Syndrome
Did John Cuppertino murder his wife as he believes? Or is she fine and living in Los Angeles as his psychologist tells him? Is he living in San Jose and working at a middle management job? Or is he in a prison on Ganymede? Is his mind being manipulated by an unscrupulous government and/or an unscrupulous corporation? Or is he insane?

Dick wrote many of these stories where false memories are implanted or created to delude the hero of the story. This one is okay, but falls just a bit short of creating a mood of desperation on John Cuppertino’s part.

A Terran Odyssey

This tells the story of several members of a post-nuclear war society where man and animals have mutated into strange beings with curious habits. The tales of a trap maker, a little girl with her brother living inside her and a disc jockey interweve.

As we see Dick’s short stories growing longer as he progresses with age and development, they become increasingly intricate. This tale is one of his most intricate short stories. The sparse character development actually serves to increase the dystopian feel. Wonderfully told from multiple points of view, the story eventually ends where we knew it needed to.

A Terran Odyssey was not published in Dick’s lifetime. It became part of his novel, Dr. Bloodmoney.

Your Appointment Will be Yesterday

Time flows backwards for many in the future thanks to a nifty little invention. But when a saboteur threatens to put time in the forward flow again, agents have to act today (which is yesterday) to prevent it to preserve their way of life.

It’s an inventive premise but a wholly unsatisfying story with too many plot holes to overlook even in a short story.

Holy Quarrel
A computer repairman is awakened by military intelligence. He is summoned to work on the Genux-B computer that monitors military movements all over the world to determine the likelihood of war. The computer believes the country is at war and that the enemy is in northern California. The culprit is an evil gumball vendor and his products.

Perhaps an argument against computerization is made here in the early days of computerization. There was a strong fear of computers and computer errors when they first entered the mainstream. The gumball angle is not as stupid as it sounds.

A Game of Unchance
A Mars settlement is visited by an interstellar travelling amusement show. They offer games of chance that offer prizes of small dolls. A local man figures out how to activate the dolls and bring them to life, unleashing a menace upon the planet and perhaps the galaxy.

This is the old fashioned science fiction that I like and few write it as well as Dick.

Not By Its Cover

Books, bound in Wub fur are defective. The type changes to reflect a belief in life unending. The publisher is most distressed that the books they are publishing with these very expensive covers and binding are defective. They search for clues as to who is changing the text and how it is being done.

Dick revisits his first ever short story, Therein Lies the Wub. Wubs, creatures of Mars, seem like primitive creatures. But there fur has properties unseen and heretofore unobserved. A thoroughly enjoyable story.

Return Match
A killer pinball machine stalks a detective who raided a casino where it was housed. Aliens brought it to earth and put it in their casino to play a dirty trick on earthlings.

I love the premise and the straight-forward science fiction. But this story is clumsy and falls flat. I think Dick was trying for commentary on impulse and gambling. It didn’t work.

Faith of our Fathers
In a future world where the communists rule the globe, a young party official purchases what he thinks is snuff from a street vendor. It is actually a drug that allows him to see the truth. He finds out that the party leader is not what he seems. He is much, much more.

Dark and heavy story telling from Dick in this masterpiece. Dick often dabbles in alternative futures with government and culture. This is a superb example. This particular story was published in Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions and was one of the best in that legendary collection.

The Story to End All Stories for Harlan Ellison’s Anthology Dangerous Visions
A woman copulates with a mutant animal in a post-nuclear war zoo and gives birth to another mutant. She is forced to fight another woman for possession of it.

This story might have totaled 500 words and I suspect that it was some sort of inside joke between Dick and Harlan Ellison

The Electric Ant
A man goes to the hospital following the amputation of his hand. There, he learns that he is not really a man, but a synthetic human. To learn the nature of himself and the fabric of time, he begins to tamper with his memory systems and discovers who and what is real and who is not. Others make the same discovery.

This is a subject explored in the subtext of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. What does it mean to be human? In that story, there was external conflict. In this story, the conflict is all internal when the android is tempted over and over to push the limits of his experiments to the brink. A masterfully told and thoroughly enjoyable tale.

Cadbury, the Beaver Who Lacked
Cadbury works all day gnawing on trees and is paid in blue poker chips. His wife wants him to work harder and earn white poker chips. He tosses out a message in a bottle and a female beaver responds. He goes to meet her and finds out the grass is not greener.

This story is a wee bit more than sexist. It is really anti-woman. All of the woman are exploitive and manipulative. I’m not a fan of intelligent animal stories and did not find this one exceptional enough to enjoy.

A Little Something for Us Tempunauts
Three time travelers return to their time and earth. Except that it’s not their time. It is about a week in the future – far from their destination of more than 100 years in the future. In reality, they have just died and will attend their own funerals. They are trapped in a time loop that keeps them repeating this same pattern over and over again. They strive to break it.

The mysteries and perils of time travel are oft explored in science fiction. Dick revives an frequently used trope and makes it work nicely.

The Pre-Persons
In a dystopian society where scarcity of resources is a reality, abortion is not just used on the unborn as a means of population control. Parents can now have their children aborted up to the age of 12 when the government has determined they have a soul. Two men and two boys resist.

This is a powerful story and leaves little doubt as to where Philip K. Dick stood on the issue of abortion.

The Eye of the Sibyl
Sybils are people who foretell events and have attachments to past consciences. A man, aptly named Philos Dicktos, simultaneously lives in the time of Julius Caesar and John Kennedy and foretells the assassination of both.

This story is confusing with its parallel narratives and uneasy transitions between those two narratives. The story is obviously inspired by Dick’s “spiritual” experience in 1974 and what one might describe as a breakdown.

The Day Mr. Computer Fell out of its Tree

A lovelorn computer creates a topsy turvy world when it cannot find someone to love. The leaders of the world set out to find a woman who lives in the earth and listens to radio soap operas so that she might show the computer some love.

This represents another attempt by Dick to write light, comical science fiction. I hate it.

The Exit Door Leads In
Bob Bibleman goes out for lunch and ends up “recruited” to go to college. There, while learning about philosophy, he is tested on basic morality, leadership, and initiative.

Dick’s later fiction is much less plot oriented and more philosophy oriented. This particular story was written for a Rolling Stone publication for colleges upon request.

Chains of Air, Web of Aether
A man living on a remote, frozen world reluctantly enters into a relationship with his neighbor who has a horrible disease. He cares for her during her treatment and recovery, all the while denying to himself that he cares about her.

There is a lot of emotion in this story that is not typically found in Dick stories. PKD was a bizarre dude and didn’t really convey a great depth of human feeling in his stories. However, the reader can easily identify with the hero of this story and his mixed emotions.

Strange Memories of Death
A man recounts how his apartment building went condo and one of the tenants – and eccentric old woman – was forced to move out. He did not know her, but thinks about how life must be for her, being forced from the only home she’s known for years.

This is the first entirely non-genre fiction I’ve ever read by Philip K. Dick. I can’t help but feel he wrote it to work out some lingering guilt or other emotions. As such stories go, it was perfectly acceptable. Not my cup of tea.

I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon
A man partially awakens from cryogenic sleep during a ten year space voyage. The ship’s computer, recognizing that the man will go insane if he is not mentally stimulated for ten years, constructs scenarios inside the man’s mind, drawing on memories. The memories awaken old guilts and hurts that destroy any chance of happiness when he finally arrives at his destination.

This was a disturbing story that was exceptionally told. It really lays bare how small, but pivotal deeds in our youth can deeply affect us in our adult life.

Rautavaara’s Case
Space debris strikes a ship and wipes out two members of the three person crew. The third person has her brain revived by aliens who are eager to study human behavior as she hallucinates. Meanwhile, Earth officials protest the abuse of their near-dead astronaut.

Deep religious issues are explored in this short story. How might one religion see the relationship another has with its deity? Also explored are the ethics of keeping alive a brain damaged person.

The Alien Mind

A cruel and heartless astronaut kills his pet cat when the cat sends his ship slightly off course and embarrasses him in front of an alien race. That race makes sure he pays for his cruelty.

It was an interesting topic to approach in a science fiction setting. However, the story itself fell flat with a vanilla ending.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Mister Slaughter By Robert R. McCammon

Mister Slaughter
By Robert R. McCammon
Copyright 2010

The adventures of Matthew Corbett continue in the third installment in Robert McCammon’s remarkable and thoroughly enjoyable series. Instead of solving mysteries, Matthew is hired security to escort a mass murderer to justice.

In the wake of his adventures in The Queen of Bedlam, Matthew is basking in his new found celebrity. He’s the toast of the town for unmasking The Masker. He dresses like a dandy and likes to be seen in New York’s trendiest taverns. But his budget is suffering for it.

A chance find of lots of cash would seem to be the answer to Matthew’s budgetary woes. Before he can put the money to work, however, he and Hudson Greathouse are hired and dispatched to the Bedlam Asylum to pick up Tyranthus Slaughter – a mass killer in London and a notorious highwayman in the New World. They are to escort him to New York where he will be shipped to London to meet justice and the hangman.

Matthew and Greathouse arrive at the asylum and take Slaughter into custody. However, greed waylays them and allows Slaughter to escape. Matthew and Greathouse barely survive and Greathouse is badly injured. They are rescued by some local Indians. One of the Indians, who spent a great deal of time in Europe, agrees to help Matthew track his quarry.

Slaughter proves to be the most diabolical being Matthew has ever encountered. He kills without compunction or motive on his way to meet his employer – an agent for the notorious Professor Fell who has placed a death mark on Corbett and Greathouse. Matthew is riddled with guilt as he and Walker In Two Worlds track Slaughter across the countryside in a game of cat and mouse. The bodies pile up and Matthew knows that, had he divulged his acquisition of wealth to Greathouse before Slaughter led them astray, these deaths would have been avoided.

Matthew finally catches up to Slaughter at a remote hog farm, renown for their fantastic sausage. There, he learns a great deal about the enigmatic Professor Fell. Before he can catch Slaughter, however, he escapes and sets out to carry out another murder assignment. The target is someone very close to Matthew.

Matthew pursues him and the two meet. When the chips are down, Matthew finds an unlikely ally and Slaughter meets his end. He returns to the Indian reservation to find Greathouse nearly healed and ready to return to New York.

In earlier reviews of Speaks the Nightbird and The Queen of Bedlam, I professed and indifference to mystery stories, but my enjoyment of those two novels which were indeed complex mysteries. This book was a cat and mouse chase story. I normally revel in chase stories like Mine and Gone South by McCammon. However, I did not enjoy this book as much as I did the earlier works.

This is not to say I didn’t enjoy the reading. McCammon has me hooked on Matthew Corbett. The deliciously morbid twist near the end was delightful. McCammon’s characters were as interesting as ever. The book suffered no major defect and is beloved by Corbett fans and fans of McCammon.

I didn’t find this chase story as compelling reading as the mysteries. All in all, the events in the chase were pretty predictable except for the aforementioned twist. Matthew’s mysterious ally was obvious. The fight scenes were pedestrian. I like Matthew more for his wits than his brawn.

This was also, by far, the shortest of the Matthew Corbett novels. It was not the immersive experience the two prior books were. I love a long, deep novel with rich characters, interweaved subplots, and compelling action. Of course, Corbett and Greathouse are already developed by the earlier novels and McCammon does a fine job with Walker In Two Worlds. But there were no subplots. The chase was straight forward.

My minor gripes aside, this was a fine entry in the Corbett series and an enjoyable read. It is not as dense and layered as the earlier entries, but shows another side of Corbett – the Matthew Corbett tried by physical challenges rather than mental.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

The Stars, Like Dust By Isaac Asimov

The Stars, Like Dust
By Isaac Asimov
Copyright 1951

Biron Farrill is a student on Earth, completing his college studies when he detects a bomb in his dorm room. He escapes, but is whisked away after a professor informs him that his father, a political dissident, has been murdered by the Tyranni who rule many star systems.

He is sent to Rhodia, one of Tyran’s conquered planets, to learn about a plot to overthrow Tyranni rule. He is betrayed by the Director of Rhodia and is forced to flee with the Director’s daughter, Artemisia and her uncle Gilbert. They travel to the planet Lingane to meet with dissidents there.

There, they meet the Autarch of Lingane (who is revealed to be Sander Jonti, the man who sent Farrill to Rhodia from Earth), who seems to possess knowledge of a rebellion world. With him and his followers, the group travel to the heart of the Horsehead Nebula — they believe that for any rebellion world to exist and not be known to the Tyranni, it must be located in a place like the Horsehead Nebula.

The Tyranni spaceship stolen by Farrill is being tracked by a fleet of Tyranni vessels led by Simok Aratap, the Tyrannian Commissioner. With him is the Director, who is shown to be nervous about his daughter's and brother's well-being. They keep themselves at a distance for fear of Farrill discovering them until Farrill lands on one planet in the heart of the nebula.

The Autarch believes that the planet is the rebellion world. However, there is no sign of life anywhere. When the Autarch and Farrill leave the spaceship to apparently set up a radio transmitter, Farrill faces the Autarch and accuses him of getting his father killed at the hands of the Tyranni. The Autarch affirms the accusation, to which Farrill adds that the Autarch feared his father's growing reputation. That is why he arranged Farrill's father's death.

In a fight, Farrill subdues the Autarch with help from the Autarch's aide, Tedor Rizzet, who reveals that he is ashamed of the Autarch for killing a great man like Farrill's father. Later, as Farrill and Rizzet try to explain everything to the rest of the crew they picked up from Lingane, the Tyranni fleet arrives and takes them prisoner. Aratap interrogates Farrill, Artemisia, Gillbret and Rizzet in order to ascertain the coordinates of the rebellion world but they do not know where it is. However, the Autarch reveals the coordinates to Aratap. Rizzet kills the Autarch with a blaster in anger.

While Aratap interrogates Farrill, Gillbret manages to escape to the engine room of the spaceship and short the hyperatomics. Farrill, realising the danger, manages to contact Aratap. The engines are repaired, but Gillbret is injured and later dies.

The space jump is made with the coordinates given to them by the late Autarch. However, they find a planetless system consisting only of a white-dwarf star. Aratap lets Farrill and the others go, believing that there is no rebellion world. Aratap makes it clear that he will never to be chosen as Director. Biron and Artemisia are allowed to marry.

It is eventually revealed that there is indeed a rebellion in the making, located on Rhodia itself. The Director is its leader; he deliberately took on the persona of a nervous and timid old man to throw off suspicion from himself and his planet.

It is further revealed that the Director, who possesses a collection of ancient documents, has searched for, and found, a document that will help a future empire-yet-to-be (likely Trantor) govern the galaxy. This document is ultimately revealed to be the United States Constitution.

The Stars, Like Dust works
on a level not achieved by The Currents of Space or Pebble in the Sky. It does not try to be a complex spy thriller told in less than 200 pages. Nor does it get weighed down in heavy politics or distracting and ineffective subplots. The Stars, Like Dust is pure space opera loaded with shootouts, space trips, mysterious planets, and evil bad guys.

This is not, in and of itself, the definition of good science fiction. Subplots, intrigue, complex schemes and thick character development are all ingredients of great general fiction and genre fiction. But when an author tries and fails to effectively incorporate these elements into the story, the result is drudgery for the reader. When an author tries, and succeeds to tell a simple, but exciting, story, that’s reading gold.

This is not to say The Stars, Like Dust was a great story telling achievement. It had a couple serious flaws. The first was the introduction of a mysterious document Biron was supposed to secretly obtain on Earth that was so powerful it would help foment revolution. This is the book’s only subplot and mercifully, Asimov dismisses his own foolishness until near the end when the characters have an, “oh yeah, what about that?” moment.

That document is, of course, the U.S. Constitution. While I am as reverent of the Constitution and its principles as anyone, I hate to see it inserted into science fiction. I can’t help but remember William Shatner’s melodramatic reading of the Preamble in the Star Trek episode, The Omega Glory. That is a painful memory. This subplot didn’t need to be there.

Of course, there is also the dated sexism in the story. Biron’s love interest, Artemisia, is the consummate female lead in these pulp era science fiction stories. She is a bystander. She is a passive narrative voice. She has no active role. Today’s readers are a little more demanding of their heroines.

Asimov’s early works deliver for me just what I want them to: good stories that are well-paced and well told. Writers who cut their teeth on pulp magazines work hard to economize words and tell stories that move to economize on space. Asimov, like Bradbury, Matheson, Dick, and the other greats who emerged from this format, rank among the great story tellers and I love them!

Although it was the third written, The Stars, Like Dust is the first in the chronology of the Galactic Empire series that lies between Asimov's Robots series and Foundation series. It takes place centuries before the rise of Trantor as the rulers of the galaxy. The beauty of the Galactic Empire series is, it need not be read in chronological order by story or by publication date. The novels each stand on their own.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

A Stir of Echoes By Richard Matheson

A Stir of Echoes
By Richard Matheson
Copyright 1958

Tom Wallace is a workaday, blue collar joe in 1950s suburbia. He has a lovely wife, a little boy, and a baby on the way. One evening, he attends a neighborhood party and brings along his oddball brother in law. Everything changes for him and his neighbors.

Tom, his wife, Anne, and her brother, Phil, attend a party held at their next door neighbor’s house. They attend to oblige them, but dread it because they throw dreadfully boring parties. Phil, a Berkley psych major, decides to inject some excitement into the party by hypnotizing someone. All turn down his offer until Tom agrees. Phil puts him under.

Everyone has a good laugh at Tom’s antics under hypnosis. Tom and Anne go home that night and Tom is unable to sleep. He goes to the kitchen and finds there a woman, dressed in black. Tom and Anne are discomfited by the specter and her frequent appearances put a strain on their marriage.

Tom begins to sense the feelings of people around him and eventually can read their thoughts. He learns of the amorous desires of one of his female neighbors for him. He also learns that his best buddy is cheating on his pregnant wife.

Slowly, Tom and Anne’s life and the lives of their neighbors descend into chaos. Husbands and wives try to kill each other. Tom predicts disasters and death. All the while, the specter of the woman in black demands Tom’s attention. He needs to identify her and find out what it is she wants.

With a little sleuthing and use of his new abilities, Tom learns that the woman is his next door neighbor – and landlord’s – sister in law who moved away with nary a goodbye to her neighbors. Tom figures out that she was murdered and he’s confident that he knows who killed her. But at just the wrong moment, his enhanced intuition fails him and the murderer turns out to be the unlikeliest of the suburbanites.

I love the works of Richard Matheson – his print work and his screenwork. The man is nothing short of brilliant and was a pioneer in the art of small screen writing and teleplays. With that said, A Stir of Echoes left me a little disappointed.

One thing that every reader of Richard Matheson knows is that you are going to get sparse prose. Matheson was an old pulp writer and pulp writers had to economize on words to get as much story as possible into as few words as he could manage. This takes real talent and few – if any – were as good at economizing words as Matheson. In A Stir of Echoes, he could have used a few more words.

There were too many characters and none of them were developed adequately. Matheson is not a writer of character studies, but his books and stories usually give you a well developed main character that the reader can root for. Not so in this book. Tom is sympathetic, but not someone I really rooted for. Both his virtues and character flaws were underplayed. He was flat.

The periphery characters came and went as was necessary for the story, but also were lifeless. A rogue babysitter kidnaps their child for no apparent reason. His amorous neighbor is amorous, but we don’t know why. His landlord doesn’t like him, but we don’t know why. The ghost should have been chilling, sympathetic, ominous, or something. She was little more than a device for the story.

What did stand out as good in A Stir of Echoes was the mystery and the two plot twists that came near the end. I’m not a reader of mysteries, but enjoy them when they are part of a good ghost story or other story of the supernatural. Matheson had me thinking, analyzing and guessing up until the end, and then blue all of my predictions out of the water with a well-developed and plausible twist. Even when he falls short on character development, count on Matheson to come through with a solid plot.

The subtext of A Stir of Echoes was not hard to discern, given the time it was written. Suburbs of the 1950s were seen as idyllic where nice white people worked at a factory, paid their bills, and led nice, white people lives free from strife and misfortune. Matheson showed that every neighborhood has some sort of dark undercurrent. That those days and places of Ozzie and Harriet were not always as idyllic as portrayed or as Baby Boomers remember them.

A Stir of Echoes
was made into a movie in 1999 starring Kevin Bacon. This is a rare case of the movie being superior to the book. The movie better developed its characters and the script made the ghost story and the underlying murder much more ominous and creepy.

This book is a must read for any fan of Richard Matheson because, by virtue of the movie and its standing with fans of horror cinema, it is one of his better known and more popular titles. However, fans of the movie are going to be disappointed in the one dimensional prose and flat characters.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Keeping Faith: The Memoirs of Jimmy Carter By Jimmy Carter

Keeping Faith: The Memoirs of Jimmy Carter
By Jimmy Carter
Copyright 1982

Jimmy Carter is a prodigious memoirist, writing several autobiographical accounts of his life. Keeping Faith is a memoir of his presidency and opens not at the beginning of his presidency, but on its final day.

Carter chooses an unusual format to recall his presidential years. Traditionally, presidents move in chronological order, starting at the beginning and moving through the issues and crises as they presented themselves. Instead, Carter takes one issue at a time and provides narrative and commentary on them.

I didn’t think this particular format worked. It made for dry reading. When you read the memoirs of former presidents like Nixon, Ford, and Clinton, you get to know those men through their thoughts, their expressed frustrations, and their expressed ideals. Carter’s approach has him saying, “I proposed this. Congress did this. I said that and he said this.” It is all very dry and the man who is Jimmy Carter remains an enigma.

Jimmy Carter had a brutal presidency and one not known for great achievements. The Camp David Accords stand as perhaps the one reach for greatness that Carter made and as perhaps one of the great diplomatic achievements of the twentieth century. Shamefully, Carter’s retelling of the events make it almost impossible to appreciate the accords for what they were.

Carter was known as a detail man. He micromanaged every facet of his administration. In telling the story of the Camp David Accords, Carter spares no detail, no matter how mundane. My eyes glazed over as I read blow by blow accounts of meetings between the parties. There were way too many details and not nearly enough analysis. Almost half of the book deals with Camp David and there was certainly much more going on in the four years of the Carter administration.

Carter does not reveal much about the relationships he had with his close advisors. He does discuss Bert Lance and that relationship in great detail because Lance’s scandal was a tremendous blow to the administration that placed a premium on honesty. But Carter’s chief of staff, Hamilton Jordan, was a colorful character who was prone to saying and doing the wrong thing. Carter provides no insight into what it was like to work with Jordan. We scarcely get to know his closest advisors with the exception of Zbigniew Brzezinski who was National Security Advisor and Cyrus Vance who was his first secretary of state.

Carter also gives very short shrift to his domestic agenda and relations with Congress. To read Carter’s memoirs, one would believe that Carter had warm relations with Tip O’Neill and Robert Byrd. It was quite the contrary. Carter enjoyed four years of Democratic rule in both chambers of Congress, but could not get a domestic agenda passed. This was because he did not and would not understand how Congress worked. This was in an age when the prerogatives of the legislature meant more to its members than party loyalty. Carter never got that and, in writing his memoirs, it appears he still doesn’t understand why he met with so much resistance from his party.

Carter had to feel some angst over the state of the economy during the latter half of his presidency. It was certainly in shambles. Unemployment was double digits, interest rates were sky-high, and inflation was out of control. Add to it an energy shortage and you have the makings of an economic calamity. Carter does not comment on this at all. He does discuss his efforts at passing an energy program, but provides scant detail as to what this program was. Nor does he provide any analysis as to why it failed to pass. The economy, as bad as it was, is barely mentioned.

Where Carter is at his best in writing about his years in the White House is in describing the events that led up to the Iranian hostage crisis and measures he took to secure their release. The book opens with his very last minute efforts to push through the transfer of funds to Iran to secure their release. In later chapters, he describes the American relationship with Iran and the Shah and how it deteriorated. The conflict between diplomats, the military, and security officials that followed the fall of the Shah is fascinating and Carter tells it well.

Here, Carter does make the reader sympathize with him. He was clearly anguished by the plight of the hostages and spared no effort in trying to secure their safe release. He also clearly describes the abortive military effort to rescue the hostages and how it failed. This failure was unfairly laid at the feet of Carter by the American public and led to a rapid deterioration of his approval. Carter does not complain and in retrospect, it was quite unfair. I respect the man for having made the bold attempt at rescue.

What I was looking forward to the most was a narrative about the Crisis of Confidence speech – or the “Malaise Speech” as it is commonly known. Not before or since has a national presidential address been so poorly conceived and delivered and I was curious to see how Carter would defend it.

He chose not to defend it. In his telling, it was all a grand success. The reality was much different. When he cancelled his scheduled address to the nation on energy and retreated to Camp David, he created an air of crisis where none existed. That is not necessarily bad. A manufactured crisis can serve a president well. But when you start inviting poets and ministers to advise you as Carter did during his retreat, you appear to be a leader full of self-doubt. When you are the president, you can admit error. But you can never admit to a lack of self-confidence. That is how it appeared to the nation.

Then the speech itself was delivered. It resonated well as a call to action. Then, pundits and opponents began to parse it. Upon closer examination, Carter seemed to be blaming the American people for the state of woe in the country. He accepted no responsibility. He made no exclamation of meeting the challenges facing the nation. Ronald Reagan used its text to malign Carter as a man out of touch with his country. The crisis of confidence was not in themselves, Reagan said. The crisis of confidence was in the man in the White House.

Carter’s bitterness toward Reagan seeps into his memoir. While this is a natural human emotion, it is not statesmanlike and Carter comes off looking somewhat petty. Reagan was considerate to Carter as the outgoing president and Carter refuses to acknowledge this.

Carter does express a great deal of warmth for Gerald Ford and, on several occasions, talks about the support Ford lent him as president. He also seems to hold Richard Nixon in high regard, discussing his advice in foreign affairs and the long trip the two took together to the Begin funeral.

The Carter presidency is soon due an unbiased and thorough examination by scholars as passions fade about the man and his presidency. They will soon begin that dispassionate analysis that we are now getting of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. A president’s memoirs lend themselves to this process. But Carter’s offer scant information to historians that’s not already available. Historians look to memoirs for a man’s passions, prejudices, anguish, and pride. Carter leaves little for historians to work with in this dry tome.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

The Queen of Bedlam By Robert McCammon

The Queen of Bedlam
By Robert McCammon
Copyright 2007

Three years after Matthew Corbett freed the falsely accused witch of the Fount Royal settlement in the Carolina colony, Matthew Corbett has relocated to New York City. He is a clerk to a distinguished magistrate and a young man about town. He is also a bitter, angry young man bent on revenge against Eben Ausley, the evil head of the orphanage where he grew up.

As Matthew stalks Ausley through the streets of New York, cataloging in his mind Ausley’s comings and goings and gambling losses, he stumbles into a murder mystery. A serial killer is working the streets of New York and his nom de guerre is The Masker. He has already killed a doctor and, as Matthew stalks his quarry through the streets, he comes across a second murder – that of a local merchant who was well respected in town.

Loving a good mystery and always determined to see justice done, Matthew devotes his spare time to the solving of the Masker murders. He comes to the attention of a local businesswoman who runs a “problem solver” agency – private investigators. Matthew is hired as a junior associate of the Herrald Agency and put into rigorous training in fighting and self defense.

He also comes to the attention of the widow of the businessman who was murdered. She offers him ten shillings to find her husband’s killer. Matthew gives up clerking and turns to private sleuthing.

His first official case for the Herrald Agency is to visit a nearby asylum where an elderly woman is housed. She is incommunicative, but is kept in regal comfort by a mysterious benefactor. In talking to her, Matthew quickly establishes a link between the Masker murders and the mysterious Queen of Bedlam.

The case takes a stranger turn when Aubrey himself is the victim of a Masker murder with Matthew in pursuit. He stalks the murderer to the home of a local lawyer and acquaintance. The lawyer, dubious of Matthew’s suspicions, allows him to search the home. He finds nothing.

As the case evolves, Matthew soon unravels underhanded and unethical business practices in the New World spanning between New York and Philadelphia. In doing so, he comes to the attention of a mysterious, villainous criminal empire headed by a faceless Dr. Fell. He and the daughter of a local printer are taken prisoner by Dr. Fell’s men and are confronted with the prospect of becoming quarry in a hunt carried out by young orphans brandishing daggers. In the end, and unlikely alliance of good and corrupt comes together to save the day and Matthew escapes. He returns to New York to unmask the Masker and solve the crime.

He returns to the Bedlam asylum for one final meeting with the Queen. He brings with him the answer to her mysterious question and ties up all the ends. He looks forward to advancing in the Herrald Agency and moving on to new adventures while avoiding the mysterious Dr. Fell who now has it in for him.

I enjoyed McCammon’s second installment of the Matthew Corbett series every bit as much as I did the first. As I stated in my review of Speaks the Nightbird, I am not a fan of mysteries. Nor am I much of a fan of historical fiction. But I am a fan of Corbett and a huge fan of Mr. McCammon.

I don’t read enough mystery fiction to be an expert on how they should be written. I have read enough to recognize telegraphed clues, obvious suspects, thin red herrings, and ex deus machina and how it ruins the book. The reader is not going to find that in the Corbett series.

Just like Speaks the Nightbird, McCammon keeps the reader thinking. The red herrings are well disguised and not discerned easily. The clues are well disguised and cleverly contrived. There are several mysteries within the mystery and more than a few subplots which McCammon brings together delightfully at the end. If McCammon keeps writing mysteries, I’ll certainly keep reading them.

Recurring characters can be a mixed bag for writers. Too often, they become like the Hardy Boys. Same people who never change solving the same mysteries with different venues and different clues. Corbett evolves under McCammon’s treatment. He’s no longer the naïve youth just a few years out of the orphanage. He’s older and angry to a large degree. His anger directed at Eban Aubley serves to make him a human and plausible character rather than a caricature hero dedicated to truth, justice and the American way.

McCammon does not let that bitterness and anger undermine what we like about Corbett which is his dogged determination to do what is right. The problem of Aubrey is sorted out nicely to lend itself to the mystery, resolve the reader’s – and Matthew’s -- desire for justice for the fiend, and to leave Matthew’s hands clean.

Corbett gets a sidekick of sorts in The Queen of Bedlam that promises to add future dimensions to new Corbett adventures. Hudson Greathouse, a senior partner at the Herrald Agency, is Matthew’s superior and trainer and sometimes antagonist. He’s the opposite of Matthew in that he’s surly, a brawler, and cocksure. The addition of Greathouse increases the awareness of Matthew’s shortcomings and enhances his strengths. The partnering lent itself well to Matthew’s development in The Queen of Bedlam and promises to make the next book in the adventures of Matthew Corbett, Mister Slaughter, more interesting as it promises Matthew’s further development.

As Stephen King once said, people are much more interesting than monsters. In the hands of a lesser writer, Matthew Corbett could be the same character confronting a new monster each week on the same station. That would be boring. With McCammon at the helm, Matthew Corbett promises to be an evolving character meeting new and different situations. That is a promising prospect for his fans.