Monday, January 9, 2017

The Girl Next Door By Jack Ketchum

The Girl Next Door
By Jack Ketchum
Copyright 1989

David is a preteen boy living in suburbia. He has his friends in the neighborhood and they do the things preteen boys do. His parents are in a loveless marriage and it bothers him. He does his best to endure.

His next door neighbors are his best friends. Donnie and Ralph are not quite as sophisticated in their thinking, but are good guys. Their mother, Ruth, is the ultimate cool mom. She lets the boys drink in her home and keeps their secrets.

One day, David discovers Meg – Ruth’s niece. She and her sister, Susan, have come to live with their Aunt Ruth after their parents were killed in a car accident. Susan is left disabled by the accident. But Meg is pretty and David is immediately smitten with her.

Ruth, however, is not. She takes an instant dislike to Meg and what she sees as Meg’s rebelliousness. The confrontations start out as shouting, then slapping. Soon, things turn much more violent and ugly.

Meg is locked in the basement. Donnie and Ralph take turns hitting her. She is strung up, made to stand on her toes. All of this is done under Ruth’s direction. Meg is starved, forced to eat feces, and urinated upon in her basement dungeon. David observes passively. He is disturbed by his passivity and even participates to a limited degree. He notes that Ruth is becoming increasingly unstable. The more unstable Ruth becomes, the worse it gets for Meg.

Soon, other neighborhood kids join the abuse as it spirals deeper into madness. The phrase, “I fuck, fuck me,” is burned into her stomach. She is molested and eventually raped by the boys. Susan is made to watch. Ruth promises Meg that any misbehavior on her part will result in Susan having to endure her torture. Susan eventually falls into a near catatonic state as her sister is tortured and raped. Eventually, Ruth burns her clitoris with a hot iron to destroy in Meg any sexual desire, having branded her a slut.

Finally, David can take no more. He remembers those early feelings of desire he felt for Meg and resolves to rescue her. His plans go awry and his friends and Ruth turn on him, imprisoning him as well. Finally, the final confrontation ensues and David extracts a measure of justice for poor Ruth.

The Girl Next Door was a singular reading experience for me. I read it in one sitting, unable to put the book down. Ketchum’s ability to tell a story and compel the reader to move forward despite being horrified is unmatched in my reading experience.

The story opens with such innocence -- similar to Stephen King's The Body and Apt Pupil. A preteen boy with a troubled homelife finds a pretty girl and falls for her. He thinks about her constantly. He falls in love for the first time.

The neighborhood kids are just as wholesome at first. They play rough games. Some of them are a little scary, but in a fun way. They are enjoying the springtime of life.

So, when events fly downhill to the depths that Ketchum descends, it's all the more shocking.

It may sound like torture porn. It may sound as if it is cheap whacking material for the sexually depraved. The Girl Next Door is none of that. Ketchum finds just the right words to horrify. The action unfolds in a spellbindingly compelling manner. But his prose is not cheap. There are no cheap thrills in this book. Every horror, every action lends itself to the dread the reader feels. And just when it seems the horror is going to reach an unspeakable level of depravity, Ketchum’s first person narrative backs off in an incredibly imaginative way.

Ketchum leaves his reader emotionally exhausted. There is no happy ending. David, the narrator, is left permanently scarred by what he witnessed and by his passivity, allowed to happen. There is no recovery for him. There is no moving on.

And there is no moving on for the reader. I don’t think a sane person can say the enjoyed the experience of reading The Girl Next Door. However, one can appreciate the fact that they’ve read something entirely unique. They can appreciate that they’ve read a masterfully told story. They can appreciate that they made it to the end because reading this book will leave you feeling different about what you read in the future.

The Girl Next Door
is not for casual fans of horror. Reading this book without having digested many of the works of Stephen King, Robert Bloch, H.P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe or Dennis Etchison would be like getting on the biggest, baddest roller coaster at the amusement park without having ever ridden the bumper cars. One must be used to the shocks, the violence, and the depravity that is an important part of modern horror to venture into Ketchum’s masterwork. One must know what else is out there before they can measure The Girl Next Door against it because, while better horror books have been written, none have been so gripping.

The story is loosely based on the real life story of Sylvia Likens who was tortured to death by her aunt and neighborhood children in Indianapolis in 1965. Ketchum changes up quite a few things to make the story original, but the striking similarity is there. When you know that a real life teenage girl had to endure such tortures, it makes the book even more horrific.

For true fans and connoisseurs of horror, The Girl Next Door is a must read. It will leave you emotionally exhausted, doubting the morality of your fellow man, and completely worn out. However, this is all worth it to read such a masterfully crafted story so compellingly told. Jack Ketchum is a master of the craft with few peers.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Pebble in the Sky By Isaac Asimov

Pebble in the Sky
By Isaac Asimov
Copyright 1950

Joseph Schwartz is a retired Jewish tailor living in New York City. He enjoys is humdrum life in the Big Apple of the 1940s. One day, while taking a walk, he is hit by an errant experimental beam and is catapulted into a world that is totally alien to him.

He finds a farm with a house made of plastic. He can not speak the language the couple there speak, but they take him in as a farm hand. Harboring unregistered people in this time on Earth is a crime and the farmer grows nervous. So, he takes him to a local scientist, Dr. Affret Shrekt, who subjects him to an experimental beam that is supposed to enhance his intelligence.

Meanwhile, an anthropologist from the Galactic Empire, Dr. Bel Arvardan is visiting earth to study earthmen. Earthmen are regarded as the lowest form of life in the empire. Their planet is mostly radioactive. They are uncultured, unsophisticated, and contribute little to the empire in general.

However, there is a theory that all life in the thousands of planets that comprise the Trantorian Empire originated from Earth (as we know from the Robot series). Arvardan is on Earth to explore that theory.

Schwartz soon develops extraordinary intelligence and eventually super abilities to read minds. Using these abilities, he learns of a plot by Earth’s leadership to spread a deadly virus throughout the galaxy – a virus harmless to earthmen, but deadly to the inhabitants of other planets. He enlists Shekt, Shekt’s daughter, Pola, and Arvardan in an effort to thwart the plot.

The group is captured by earth’s leadership and drugged. While they are held prisoner, Schwartz’s abilities continue to grow and he is eventually able to dominate the leader of the earth’s forces. He convinces a pilot to bomb the installation in St. Louis where the biological weapons are housed, saving the Empire.

Pebble in the Sky
is one of Asimov’s earliest efforts and therefore one of his most simplistic. The simplicity did not detract from the reading enjoyment. Instead, it enhanced it and made it superior to the second novel in the series, The Currents of Space which was too complex without corresponding character development.

It starts out quite weak. Perhaps that stems from being technologically dated. But the beam that sends Schwartz thousands of years into the future read like a third grade attempt at science fiction. From that point on, Pebble in the Sky had all the charm of a Golden Age Sci-Fi novel with a fast pace, linear plot, and predictable characters. That is not what people usually look for in a good novel. But, when reading Sci-Fi from this era, it is refreshing to read something so light and enjoyable.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Speaks the Nightbird By Robert McCammon

Speaks the Nightbird
By Robert McCammon
Copyright 2002

Matthew Corbett, raised in a New York orphanage, is now the clerk for magistrate Isaac Woodward. The year is 1699 and the two are en route to the Carolina colony settlement of Fount Royal to oversee the trial of Rachel Howarth – accused of witchcraft and the murder of her husband and the local minister.

The two are waylaid on their way by an unscrupulous innkeeper, but eventually arrive in the colony, sans all of their worldly possessions. The rainy weather has afflicted Woodward with a cold that gets progressively worse. Woodward resolves that the trial will go forward despite his ill health.

Matthew makes a grievous error before the trial begins that costs him dearly. He enters a barn belonging to the blacksmith to investigate. He finds some strange objects secluded in a bag buried in the hay. Before he can ascertain what they are, he is caught and sentenced to three days in jail and three lashes.

At the order of the settlement founder, he is jailed alongside of Rachel Howarth and is immediately smitten with the dusky woman of Portuguese descent. She is polite and occasionally looks to Matthew for emotional support, but obviously does not return his affection.

As Matthew is imprisoned and colony officials press for the trial to move forward, the trial is held in the jail itself so that Matthew may continue his sentence. Witnesses to Rachel’s witchcraft are brought in one by one. They describe seeing sexual congress with demons and Satan himself. Yet, there are no witnesses to the murders themselves. Matthew is convinced she is guilty of neither crime and is determined to prove her innocence – much to the chagrin of the locals.

The inhabitants of Fount Royal want Howart executed and the sooner the better. Her presence and fear of her has caused many to leave the colony. They blame her evil for the ongoing rain that has blighted many crops. Unexplained fires take the schoolhouse and uninhabited homes. The sooner Rachel Howarth is burned at the stake the better as far as the people of Fount Royal are concerned.

Matthew is eventually released and receives his three lashes. As Woodward becomes bedridden with his malady, Matthew commences with his investigation. He learns about the strange residents of Fount Royal – the Oxford educated school master with a bum knee, the blacksmith with a strong affection for his horse, the master of Fount Royal and Matthew’s host who is determined to see Howarth burn, the ratcatcher with a taste for ancient literature, a settlement clerk with a strong grudge against his employer. Also in town are a group of “maskers” or actors who are to deliver a performance of morality tales to lift the spirits of the townspeople and a preacher who has his own proposal to “save” Rachel.

Clues abound. There is the theft of a Spanish gold coin taken from the waylaying innkeeper. Turtles with Spanish coins in their bellies. Mysterious deliveries of buckets of incendiaries in the night. Matthew struggles to put it all together.

Matthew encounters many red herrings in his investigation, but eventually discovers who is behind the two murders, the framing of Rachel, and their motives involving secluded pirate treasure. But he can’t prove any of them to the magistrate. With his health ebbing, Woodward signs Rachel’s death warrant. Matthew becomes desperate.

He decides to take her from her prison and flee to the Florida country. Being Portuguese, he is hopeful that she can find sanctuary among the Spanish. With the help of a couple slaves, he spirits her away and they head south into the swamp. As they make their way toward Florida, Matthew is attacked by a bear. He is badly injured but manages to kill the bear. They are rescued by some friendly Indians and in their camp, Matthew finds the final piece of the puzzle that will allow him to return to Fount Royal and prove Rachel’s innocence.

They return to find Fount Royal nearly empty. The continued bad luck and the escape of the witch have driven people away. Working with his host, Matthew is able to assemble all of the suspects in one room and one by one, eliminate them until the real murderer is proven.

Rachel is set free and decides to stay in Fount Royal for a while. Magistrate Woodward struggles valiantly against his illness – and against 17th century curatives, but eventually succumbs. Before he dies, Woodward gives to Matthew the name of a magistrate in New York who will provide him with employment.

The book ends as Matthew leaves Fount Royal and the Carolina colony behind, a little richer in money and having loved a woman who could not return that love. He heads for New York for new employment and thoughts of visiting vengeance upon the master of the orphanage where he grew up.

Speaks the Nightbird was Robert McCammon’s triumphant return to publishing. While the book reestablished the author after nearly 10 years of silence, it was also the book that derailed his career.

Like all writers do, McCammon grew in his skill at crafting stories and matured. Behind him were B-movie pastiches and other horrors. He had written a beautiful coming of age story in Boy’s Life, a fantastic chase thriller with Mine, and a quarky thriller with Gone South. He was clearly moving away from the horror genre and determined not to get pigeon-holed as a horror writer.

His publisher was unhappy when he delivered Speaks the Nightbird – a historical fiction murder mystery. They wanted another horror story they could market with McCammon’s name which had increased in value with horror readers. McCammon, discouraged, withdrew the manuscript and retired from writing.

Almost 10 years later, he submitted to Speaks the Nightbird to a small publishing house in Alabama. They took a risk on the voluminous book and published it. In doing so, they released to the public another McCammon masterpiece.

For someone who did not write mysteries, McCammon’s first effort was absolutely brilliant! There are no easy solutions to the crimes in Speaks the Nightbird. The red herrings are all plausible. Like classic murder mysteries, everybody and nobody had a motive. The young lady who was framed was tragic. Young Matthew’s love for her pure. It all worked quite well together as McCammon weaved his tale.

The inhabitants of Fount Royal are all quarky and bizarre in their own way, but never silly. Nobody is over the top in their behavior and all conform to the social norms of the period. As Matthew encounters them again and again, the characters and suspects become more richly developed and more mysterious. I do not ordinarily enjoy murder mysteries, but when the characters are as well developed as these, it is impossible not to enjoy the story.

To dismiss Speaks the Nightbird as just a murder mystery is to give it short shrift. It functions as a wonderful piece of historical fiction. It is a wonderful character study of Matthew. Many subplots are working underneath the murder mystery and, while not all are directly related to the mystery itself, they serve to enrich the plot and make the book more engaging.

My only complaint about Speaks the Nightbird is a small one. The resolution of the murder is a trite device. Gathering all the suspects in a room and cross examining them is too much like the mass produced Ellery Queen, Sherlock Holmes, Perry Mason mysteries. A better device could have been employed. Having said that, McCammon does make the best use possible of the cliché. He has you guessing right up until the resolution.

Speaks the Nightbird is an absolute triumph for a brilliant author who would defy convention and publishing house dictates. McCammon would not be confined to horror. There is nothing wrong – and very much that is right – with writing horror for a living. But McCammon obviously felt he’d mined the genre for all he could. He had to go where his muse took him and it took him to Matthew Corbett’s world – a world he would revisit again and again with great success.

Since it was published in 2002, Speaks the Nightbird and its hero, Matthew Corbett have generated sequels that fans find equally thrilling and satisfying. The Queen of Bedlam, Mister Slaughter, and later novels all feature the young law clerk. It is not unusual for an older writer to become attached to a hero such as Corbett and decide to see where the writing takes him. Stephen King has latched onto Detective Bill Hodges in the waning days of his career. Dean Koontz has his Odd Thomas and the characters of Frankenstein to explore. None of them are as good or deep as Matthew Corbett.

Speaks the Nightbird is a fantastic genre blend. Well researched, it is a fantastic historical fiction novel. Well plotted with excellent characters, it makes a fine murder mystery. With its notions of witchcraft and demons, it will appeal to fans of horror. Kudos Mr. McCammon on one of the finest novels of the 21st century so far.

Monday, December 5, 2016

The Currents of Space By Isaac Asimov

The Currents of Space
By Isaac Asimov
Copyright 1952

The story takes place in the backdrop of Trantor's rise from a large regional power to a galaxy-wide empire, unifying millions of worlds. This story occurs around the year 11,000 AD (originally 34,500 AD, according to Asimov's early 1950s chronology), when the Trantorian Empire encompasses roughly half of the galaxy.

The independent planet Sark exploits the planet Florina and derives its great wealth from "kyrt", a versatile and fluorescent fiber that can only be grown on Florina. The relationship between the two planets is analogous to the situation between European imperial powers and their colonies during the 19th century, where the Florinians are forced to work in kyrt fields and are treated as an inferior race by the Sarkites. Attempts to break the Sark monopoly and grow kyrt on other worlds have thus far been unsuccessful. Meanwhile, Trantor would like to add these two worlds to its growing empire.

There is a hidden irony in Sark's dominion over Florina: clear parallels to the American South growing cotton with slave labor. The Florinians are one of the lightest-skinned people in a galaxy where racial categories seem to have been forgotten, except by the people of Sark. One of the characters, Dr. Selim Junz, comes from Libair, a planet with some of the galaxy's darkest-skinned people, and feels sympathy for the Florinians.[1] (The planet Libair takes its name from Liberia, a country in Africa, which would explain a dark-skinned genetic inheritance. Liberia was also settled by freed slaves from America.) Also, Asimov chose the name of "kyrt" to be rather similar to "cotton", and he explains that it contains cellulose.

The possible destruction of Florina is predicted by Rik, a "spatio-analyst", who has had his mind manipulated by a "psychic probe" device, resulting in gross amnesia. When Rik gradually starts remembering his past, it produces a political crisis involving Sark, Florina, and Trantor. Rik, a native of the Earth, had discovered that Florina's sun is about to explode into a nova because it is being fed carbon by one of the outer-space "currents of space", supposedly rather like the currents of the ocean.

It is also revealed at long last that the special energetic wavelength of light that is being emitted by Florina's sun is what causes the very high-quality kyrt fiber to grow there. This is the explanation why kyrt cannot be grown on other planets – since stars going nova are really quite rare, and stars with habitable planets that go nova are rarer still.
Because losing Florina would mean losing the only source of its vast wealth, there is strong resistance from Sark to accept the message. However, when it is explained that the wealth is already lost since the conditions that enable kyrt to grow can be easily duplicated anywhere now that they are understood, they become more amenable. When Trantor offers to buy out the entire planet for a very high price, the offer is readily accepted.

Even though there is not yet a full Galactic Empire, Trantor does control the now largely radioactive Earth. The idea of evacuating Earth is mentioned, but that is strongly rejected by Rik. He insists that it is the original planet of the human race, though this is not generally accepted.

Before there was Spice on Arrakis in Frank Herbert’s Dune, there was Kyrt on Florina in Asimov’s Currents of Space. Like so many science fiction novels, Asimov’s story is a struggle of exploitation of a native peoples for a natural resource. I don’t know if it is the earliest example of this trope. But it is the earliest I’ve read.

Asimov weaves a fairly complex tale of espionage, spying, betrayal and nobility in The Currents of Space. However, Asimov’s pulp sensibilities got in the way of him ever really developing the story the way it could have or should have been done.

Like so many science fiction writers of that generation, Isaac Asimov cut his teeth on the pulps. He wrote for them from a very early age and they eagerly published his work, developing for him a large fan base that allowed him to publish novels that sold well. A pulp writer economizes words. Pulps want a lot of story in just a little space. What usually suffers in this case is character development.

Asimov’s characters in The Currents of Space are paper thin. They are thin even by the standards of 1950s science fiction. When telling a story of espionage, it helps if the reader has a vested interest in the fate of the characters and the fate of their cause. Asimov doesn’t get the reader invested in those characters or their cause.

The book has very much the feel of the space opera that were featured in the reels of the Saturday matinee features of the 1950s. The plot moves almost constantly which helps make up for the shortcomings of character development. The action is non-stop. Of course, many years later, George Lucas would refine the space opera and make it something divine in the annals of science fiction with Star Wars.

For as thin as it is, The Currents of Space does have a little subtext. The people of Sark, who exploit the people and resources of Florina, are black – or at least dark skinned. The workers of Florina are white. Like the plantation owners of the antebellum South, the rulers of Sark use educated Florinians to supervise the workers. The subtext is not thinly veiled, but like most other aspects of The Currents of Space, it is not developed.

The Currents of Space is not one of Asimov’s better works and of all of the books within the Foundation universe, it is probably the weakest. It does not have the character development to sustain its complex plot. It is not without its charm with its non-stop action. But it is devoid of humor or any other nuance that might have added just a little bit to this tale.

The Currents of Space is the second in the chronology of Asimov’s Galactic Empire series with the first being The Stars Like Dust and the third being Pebble in the Sky.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Dune By Frank Herbert

By Frank Herbert
Copyright 1965

In Dune, Frank Herbert spins a complex tale of interstellar spying, treachery, mysticism, and military science fiction. He does a wonderful job of blending the genres.

Melange – or “Spice” -- grows on but one planet in the universe. Arrakis is the center of commerce for the Landsraad – the families that rule the universe. The emperor Shaddam IV grants House Atreides and its Duke, Leto, the planet. Fearing Leto’s popularity among the Landsraad, Shaddam hopes that a feud between Atreides and the House Harkonnen will spell the end of Leto’s power.

The Atreides move to Arrakis. Leto brings with him his concubine, Lady Jessica – a Bene Gesserit, and his teenaged son Paul. The Bene Gesserits are an order of witches who use their disciplined and trained minds to exert control of themselves and others. Paul is also a Bene Gesserit. Jessica was ordered by her order to give birth to a daughter. But Jessica chose to conceive a son as an heir for Leto.

On Arrakis, the Atreides are able to thwart initial Harkonnen traps and complications while simultaneously, through Leto's Swordmaster Duncan Idaho, building trust with the mysterious desert Fremen, with whom they hope to ally. However, the Atreides are ultimately unable to withstand a devastating Harkonnen attack, supported by the Emperor's fearsome, virtually invincible Sardaukar troops disguised as Harkonnen troops and made possible by a traitor within House Atreides itself, the Suk doctor Wellington Yueh. House Atreides is scattered, and of its principal retainers, Mentat Thufir Hawat is taken by the Baron Harkonnen and eventually provides his reluctant services whilst formulating a plan to undermine the Baron; the troubadour-soldier Gurney Halleck escapes with the aid of smugglers, whom he joins; and Duncan Idaho is killed defending Paul and Jessica. Per his bargain, Yueh delivers a captive Leto to the Baron, but double-crosses the Harkonnens by ensuring that Paul and Jessica escape. He also provides Leto with a poison-gas capsule in the form of a false tooth, which Yueh instructs a drugged Leto to use to simultaneously commit suicide and assassinate Harkonnen. The Baron kills Yueh, and Leto dies in his failed attempt on the Baron's life, though the Baron's twisted Mentat Piter De Vries dies with him. Paul and Jessica flee into the deep desert, escaping the Harkonnens by following instructions laid out in advance by the traitor Yueh. They successfully navigate through a sandstorm, a seemingly impossible task that leaves the Baron convinced that both of them are dead.

Jessica's Bene Gesserit abilities and Paul's developing skills help them join a band of Fremen. Paul and his mother quickly learn Fremen ways while teaching the Fremen what they call the "weirding way", or the Bene Gesserit method of fighting. Jessica becomes a Reverend Mother, ingesting the poisonous Water of Life while pregnant with her second child; this unborn daughter Alia is subjected to the same ordeal, acquiring the full abilities of a Reverend Mother before even being born. Paul takes a Fremen lover, Chani, with whom he fathers a son. Two years pass, and Paul increasingly recognizes the strength of the Fremen fighting force and their potential to overtake even the "unstoppable" Sardaukar and win back Arrakis. The spice diet of the Fremen and his own developing mental powers cause Paul's prescience to increase dramatically, allowing his foresight of future "paths" of possible events. Regarded by the Fremen as their prophesied messiah, Paul grows in influence and begins a jihad against Harkonnen rule of the planet under his new Fremen name, Muad'Dib. However, Paul becomes aware through his prescience that, if he is not careful, the Fremen will extend that jihad against all the known universe, which Paul describes as a humanity-spanning subconscious effort to avoid genetic stagnation.

Both the Emperor and the Baron Harkonnen show increasing concern at the fervor of religious fanaticism shown on Arrakis for this "Muad'Dib", not guessing that this leader is the presumed-dead Paul. Harkonnen plots to send his nephew and heir-presumptive Feyd-Rautha as a replacement for his more brutish nephew Glossu Rabban — who is in charge of the planet — with the hope of gaining the respect of the population. However, the Emperor is highly suspicious of the Baron and sends spies to watch his movements.[verification needed] Hawat explains the Emperor's suspicions: the Sardaukar, all but invincible in battle, are trained on the prison planet Salusa Secundus, whose inhospitable conditions allow only the best to survive. Arrakis serves as a similar crucible, and the Emperor fears that the Baron could recruit from it a fighting force to rival his Sardaukar, just as House Atreides had intended before their destruction.

Paul is reunited with Gurney. Completely loyal to the Atreides, Gurney is convinced that Jessica is the traitor who caused the House's downfall, and nearly kills her before being stopped by Paul. Disturbed that his prescience had not predicted this possibility, Paul decides to take the Water of Life, an act which will either confirm his status as the Kwisatz Haderach or kill him. After three weeks in a near-death state, Paul emerges with his powers refined and focused; he is able to see past, present, and future at will, down both male and female lines. Looking into space, he sees that the Emperor and the Harkonnens have amassed a huge armada to invade the planet and regain control. Paul also realizes that his ability to destroy all spice production on Arrakis using the Water of Life is his means of seizing control of it.

In an Imperial attack on a Fremen settlement, Paul and Chani's infant son Leto II is killed and the four-year-old Alia is captured by Sardaukar. She is brought to the planet's capital Arrakeen, where the Baron Harkonnen is attempting to thwart the Fremen jihad under the close watch of the Emperor. The Emperor is surprised at Alia's defiance of his power and her confidence in her brother, whom she reveals to be Paul Atreides. At that moment, under cover of a gigantic sandstorm, Paul and his army of Fremen attack the city riding sandworms; Alia assassinates the Baron and escapes during the confusion. Paul defeats the Sardaukar and confronts the Emperor, threatening to destroy the spice, thereby ending space travel and crippling both Imperial power and the Bene Gesserit in one blow. The new Baron Harkonnen, Feyd-Rautha, challenges Paul to a knife duel to the death in a final attempt to stop his overthrow, but is defeated despite an attempt at treachery. Realizing that Paul is capable of doing all he has threatened, the Emperor is forced to abdicate and to promise his daughter Princess Irulan in marriage to Paul. Paul ascends the throne, his control of Arrakis and the spice establishing a new kind of power over the Empire that will change the face of the known universe. But in spite of his power, Paul discovers that he will not be able to stop the jihad in his visions. His legendary state among the Fremen has grown beyond his power to control it.

Frank Herbert’s Dune ranks as one of the most heralded – if not the most heralded – science fiction novel of all time. It won the Hugo in 1966 as well as the Nebula for best novel in 1966. It certainly deserves the accolades heaped upon it.

Herbert masterfully crafts a wonderful universe full of political and business intrigue. He develops a mystical theology based in witchcraft. He takes these old story tropes of political intrigue, magic and mysticism, combines them with superb storytelling with plenty of well crafted battle scenes and delivers a novel that is an incredibly fulfilling reading experience.

I am not an historian of science fiction literature. I am a fan of the great pulp writers who elevated the craft. Guys like Asimov, Matheson, Dick, Heinlein, and Bradbury are my favorite authors to read. It seems to me that, prior to Dune, most sci-fi story telling lacked this multi-dimensional storytelling. Yes, there was plenty of political intrigue and skullduggery in Asimov’s Foundation, which predates Dune. Many sci-fi writers dabbled in mysticism in their stories and novels. But none ever developed – in my reading experience – the complexity that Herbert achieves with Dune.

The novel – like most novels – was not without its shortcomings. My chief criticism is Paul’s seamless development from spoiled prince to legendary Muad’Dib. Such a change in status would be unsettling. The death of his father, the seeming betrayal of his closest ally, the displacement from a castle to a desert would be disconcerting. Finding out that you are a living legend might also be somewhat emotional. Not to Paul.

He simply rolls with the punches and is seemingly devoid of any self-analysis, any crisis of confidence, any sense of displacement. This really robs the reader of emotional attachment to the story’s hero. Paul, while a heroic figure, is not particularly sympathetic. The people he leads – oppressed for time immemorial – are certainly sympathetic. His worried mother. His displaced wife. His tragic girlfriend all invoke sympathy. But not the heroic Paul. I would have liked to care about Paul a lot more.

It’s almost impossible to miss the influence of Herbert’s Dune upon George Lucas in his development of the Star Wars universe. Like Herbert, Lucas places a great deal of emphasis on the development of a fictional theology and making it an integral part of his story. Lucas’ theology of the Force and an order of knights known as the Jedi is completely different than the witchcraft of the Bene Gesserit. But it appears Herbert provided the blueprint for how to develop theology within science fiction.

Dune is not only a must-read for even the casual fan of American science fiction. It is a must-read for students of contemporary American literature. It certainly ranks among the great American novels of the 20th century.

Dune has inspired two movie adaptations. David Lynch directed a rather erratic adaptation in 1981 starring Kyle Maclachlan and Sting. In 2000, the SyFy network adapted it for a more complex miniseries which incorporated bits from subsequent novels to more fully develop the political intrigue.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Kender, Gully Dwarves, and Gnomes Dragonlance Tales, Vol. 2

Kender, Gully Dwarves, and Gnomes
Dragonlance Tales, Vol. 2
Copyright 1987

Snowsong by Nancy Varian Berberick
Tanis, Sturm, Flint, and Tasslehoff are returning from a mission when they are snowbound on a mountain. They find a meager shelter and Tanis and Sturm go out to hunt firewood. They get lost and are attacked by wolves. Meanwhile, Tas annoys Flint to no end trying to coax music from an old recorder given to him. Suddenly, Tas “finds the music” in the recorder and his song calls to the creatures stuck in the storm and invites them to the refuge. Tanis and Sturm, who have given up and are resigned to dying, hear the song as well.

I do not ordinarily like characters like Tasslehoff Burrfoot. I generally like my fantasy fiction heavy and without the comic relief. Tas is an exception. I love the character Weiss and Hickman created and the light comedy he brings to their tales. Berberick captures the Weiss and Hickman characters and humor wonderfully and tells a serious tale with light, comedic breaks without being silly. I’ve not read any of Berberick’s Dragonlance fiction. But I have to believe it is up to par judging by the way she stayed true to characters not of her making.

The Wizard’s Spectacles by Morris Simon
The elf, Dalamar, who will go on to be Raistlin’s apprentice, flees to a dwarf’s mine to hide from Sylvanesti pursuers. He brings with him a box of scrolls and spectacles made of gems of true seeing. When Dalamar is abducted, the dwarf begins using the glasses to read the scrolls to smite his enemies and impress his friends.

This story worked well. An old gaming cliché is to use the fireball spell for amusement and it was just as tiresome here. But the characters were well developed and the plot moved along nicely.

The Storyteller by Barbara Siegel and Scott Siegel
A story teller is arrested by the local dragon lord for telling stories that bring together humans, kender, and dwarves. He tells his cellmate his story then relates to the reader how the races came together again to rescue him.

Starts out sort of light. Then it develops into your typical fantasy combat tale. But the end made the whole story worthwhile reading. This is one of the best short story entries in the Dragonlance canon.

A Shaggy Dog’s Tale by Danny Peary
Tasslehoff Burfoot tells a group of children about Gorath, a general in the Dragon Lord’s army and his lust for revenge against a woman who escaped slavery and her warrior boyfriend. Gorath confronts them in the clearing and begins his assault. But that assault is interrupted by a shaggy dog with a lust of his own.

A children’s tale told to fictional children is what this is. Children’s tales are usually written with dialogue that contains perfect grammar. This can be – and is – annoying for the adult reader. Not the kind of fantasy fare I enjoy, but a worthwhile tale for children.

Lord Toede’s Disastrous Hunt by Harold Bakst
Lord Toede, former Dragon Lord of Solace goes hunting for game. Instead, a pair of Kender arrange for him to meet a much more fearsome creature.

I continue to admire the way the Dragonlance contributors can keep the Kender entertaining without making them silly. I don’t like silly fantasy.

Definitions of Honor by Richard A. Knaack
A Knight of Solamnia travels to a remote fishing village to lay waste to a Minotaur that is terrifying villagers. He confronts the Minotaur, prepared for battle, when the member of a fierce and proud race instead engages him in a conversation about pride, honor, and dignity and how one achieves them.

Not nearly as boring as perhaps I made it seem. Still, it was a little light on action and quite heavy on philosophy.

Hearth Cat and Winter Wren by Nancy Varian Berberick
A cat and wren inhabit the house of an evil magic user. But they are not what they seem to be. The wren flies off to get help while a caged squirrel ponders his future of escaping and getting eaten by the cat or living out his life in a cage.

The author constructed this story nicely in that we are not led by the nose to the hook. Again, Berberick makes good use of the Dragonlance characters and keeps them true to form. A nicely done story.

Wanna Bet by Margaret Weiss and Tracy Hickman
Caramon and Tika’s sons – two fighters and a magic user lose a drinking contest to a dwarf. They find themselves shanghaied on a Gnomish ship with the dwarf. He has recruited them to find a lost jewel legendary to the dwarfs. They arrive on the island where the jewel is secreted away and find the natives dispirited by the loss of all their women. They press on to the castle where the jewel is located and find themselves bewitched by its siren song.

This story had wonderful character development. But the story was a bit of a cliché and the climax fairly predictable. The creators of Dragonlance certainly could have contributed a more worthwhile story to the collection.

Into the Heart of the Story
by Michael Williams
A gnome sets the record straight regarding the role and important part the race played in the War of the Lance.

This story was unreadable. Foolish footnotes, lousy poetry. Not worth the effort to read and therefore, I didn’t finish it.

Dagger Flight by Nick O’Donohoe
A enchanted and living dagger provides a different point of view on the attack on Solace and the flight of the companions as they fled Solace. Ostensibly Flint’s dagger, it is evil and longs to be fed blood.

This was the second weakest story in the book. This collection started out strong, but finished just horribly with the last two stories.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Ghost Story By Peter Straub

Ghost Story
By Peter Straub
Copyright 1979

It’s the age of disco -- or at least its waning days. America is held hostage and international tension is at an all-time high. None of this touches the small, upscale village of Millburn, New York which retains the charm of New England in the era of Carter. The Chowder Society – a group of five aging professionals – is the center of the small village’s social scene.

The Chowder Society – Attorney Sears James, Attorney Ricky Hawthorne, Doctor John Jaffre, writer Edward Wanderley, and wealthy playboy Lewis Benedickt – have a favorite activity in which they engage once every two weeks. They share ghost stories.

The story opens with a bit of a prologue of a young man in bed with a young woman in an upstairs hotel room. The man awakens to find himself in bed with a monster. When he tries to escape, he falls from a window to his death.

Flash forward a couple years. The Chowder Society is meeting sans one of their members. Mr. Wanderley has been dead almost a year. He died at a party held in the honor of a young actress being squired by Wandereley as he was ghost writing her biography. The Chowder Society is haunted by a nightmare they all share, but refuse to discuss. Instead, Sears James decides to invite Wanderley’s nephew – the brother of the man in the opening scene – who is an occult writer – to come to town and help the old men explain their dilemma.

Meanwhile, James and Hawthorne need to respond to the complaints of a regular complaining client who lives out on a farm. They arrive with the sheriff and find the man’s livestock all dead. What is strange is that all of the animals have their throats cut, but there is no blood present. The sheriff (an itinerant drunk) points out that the event is not uncommon. He’s learned through various law enforcement conferences that the same events have transpired all over the country in various locations at various times. The farmer promises to be extra vigilant in keeping an eye on his existing livestock to capture the predator.

Later that night, the Chowder Society convenes with bourbon, cigars, and James regales the group with a tale – supposedly true. He talks of his early days of teaching in a small New England town. The town was poor and the accommodations he lived in frugal beyond description. He teaches his charges of all age levels. One day, he notices a boy who is determined to argue whether or not the earth is flat or round. He will not hear reason. His name is Fenny Bate and the other kids shun him. When James asks the boy where he learned this misinformation, he says he heard it from Gregory, presumably his brother.

James takes to the woods to find the shack where the Bates live. He finally finds Fenny and his sister. Off in the distance projecting an air of malevolence, is Gregory. James tries to reason with the kids. But he sees the abject poverty in which they live and realizes the social circumstances of the town and finally gives up. He sees Gregory watching the kids and the school from afar and asks some of the other kids about Gregory. They say that Gregory used to do repairs on the school, but one day, Fenny and his sister pushed over a ladder he was on, killing Gregory.

James decides to keep Fenny and his sister after school to teach them. Gregory shows up and Fenny gets real scared and agitated. Fenny eventually dies there on the spot. He is put in an unmarked grave beside his brother and James is left haunted. He finished out the school year before returning to Milburne.

As scary and creepy as that story was, the members of the Chowder Society know a scarier and creepier story. It was a story they lived together 50 years earlier. James fears it may be the source of all their ills.

As the group grows more wary of the dreams haunting them, they each tell a tale of being haunted or terrified by a supernatural being. Lewis Benedikt’s wife was driven to suicide by something she saw in a hotel room. Wanderley died of an apparent heart attack and the young actress he was squiring disappeared from the face of the earth. Even Don Wanderley – Edward Wanderley’s nephew – has an encounter with a young woman and his brother dies after stealing her away.

After comparing notes, the group notices that their fem fatales all have the same initials: A.M. What worries Don Wanderley – summoned because of his knowledge of the supernatural – is that James and Hawthorne have a new secretary and her name is Alma Mobley.

Finally, after Benedikt dies mysteriously, the town bad boy disappears, and others come up missing or dead, Hawthorne and James decide it is time they told Don Wanderley the story of Eva Galli.

Galli was a young woman who moved to town in the 1920s and immediately charmed the young members of the Chowder Society just as they were starting their professional lives. The boys, sexually immature and naïve, keep the relationship purely platonic, just enjoying her company. She is engaged to a local man. When that man breaks it off, she invites the Society to her home. There, she becomes sexually aggressive with Benedikt who is appalled by her behavior. She bites and slaps him and when they try to restrain her, she falls and hits her head on a brick hearth. She is apparently dead.

The young men panic and decide to borrow a car to get help. Instead, they decide to place Galli’s body in the back seat and submerge it in a local quarry. As they car slips into the depths, Galli sits up and smiles at the boys through the back window. They are stricken with terror.

Now, the horrors of their past – Eva Galli/Anna Mobley and the Bate brothers – have come back to torment and kill them. Mobley reveals to them that the three are part of a race much older than humanity. They are the source of all of mankind’s tales of the supernatural. They are long-lived and they are evil.

As the holidays come and pass, Milburne is snowed in and isolated from the world. The jail is converted into a morgue for the victims of the supernatural terror. James, Hawthorne, Don Wanderley, and a young boy set out to hunt down and kill the creatures once and for all. Eventually, Don Wanderley is left to capture the creature in the form of a young girl and send her to her final reward.

This was a selection of my monthly book club and was recommended by yours truly. I had not read it before and knew it had a stellar reputation among fans of horror fiction. After having read it, I understand why. It generated the most intense and enjoyable discussion my book club has had in its eight year existence.

The characters in this book were wonderful. One can imagine these patrician souls, living their patrician lives, and enjoying their patrician luxuries. Sears James – whose very name screams patrician – is particularly well developed. He is the group skeptic, to patrician and set in the logic of his elder years to believe what is happening to him despite his experience with the Bate family.

The creatures – Mobley and the Bate brothers – were fascinating. Straub told Stephen King that he read all of the old American masters like Lovecraft, Poe, and Hawthorne before writing Ghost Story. In his creatures, he combines all the tropes of haunting into one creature and provides a rationale for their existence. Then he hints a Lovecraft’s Old Ones – an evil race older than mankind itself.

One of the important elements of horror fiction is isolation. Isolation can take many forms. It can be emotional, geographical, or racial. In Ghost Story, Straub employs the oft-used trope of the snowstorm to cut off the town from civilization. Then, he ramps it up just a bit more. As more and more people die in the town, the citizens isolate themselves from each other. There is no authority. The sheriff – a drunken halfwit – is a non-factor. The Chowder Society is very much on its own in confronting Mobley and her minions.

Straub throws the reader for a loop by starting his story at the end with the prologue. Several members of our group were thrown by Straub’s prologue. Some remarked that the first few chapters seemed to remotely detached from the prologue that the story was not making sense to them. Ghost Story does require some patience to read. It builds slowly then races forward. It all eventually makes sense and makes the whole reading experience of this novel worthwhile.

In our discussion of the creature, one member pointed out that perhaps the initials of the women the creature used were all A.M. He added that it might be Alpha and Omega – the beginning and the end. Little nuances like this made the book such a fascinating club story.

There is a subtext in Ghost Story. Although is a resident of England, Straub is very much an American writer. Remember when this novel was written and published. The 1970s were winding down. It was a decade of social and political upheaval in the United States. There was a longing to return to “traditional values.” In a Rockwellian America, what is more wholesome and American than small town New England?

Straub deconstructs this myth. Behind the scenes of this portrait of small town America is a Peyton Place. There is drunkenness, corruption, and lots and lots of adultery. What better place for evil to show its face than a location putting up the façade of wholesomeness?

In his review of all things horror – Danse Macabre – Stephen King puts Ghost Story in the pantheon of great modern horror novels. He made this claim in 1981. Twenty-five years later, this statement holds true. Unlike much of the horror written in the 1970s, Ghost Story stands the test of time. It is timeless. The language is timeless. The evil is timeless. The characters are timeless. The setting is timeless. This story works in Colonial New England and it works in 2016 America.

Ghost Story is ranked number 15 in the Goodreads poll of great horror novels. That puts in some distinguished company like King’s master works The Shining and IT. It closely resembles another of King’s most heralded work, Salem’s Lot. I found it to be superior. King was in your face with his cynicism regarding small town America. Straub is much more subtle. Also missing from Salem’s Lot was a sense of isolation. Like any good horror novel, Ghost Story made the reader feel just a wee bit claustrophobic.