Saturday, May 21, 2016

The Time of the Twins: Dragonlance Legends Vol 1 By Margaret Weiss and Tracy Hickman

The Time of the Twins
Dragonlance Legends Vol 1
By Margaret Weiss and Tracy Hickman
Copyright 1986

Raistlin Majere aspires to be a god, supplanting the legendary mage, Fistandantilus and take his place in pre-cataclysm Istar. Crysania, the heir to the title of High Priest of Paladine has made it her mission to stop him.


It has been several years since the end of the War of the Lance. Raistlin has disappeared to the Tower of High Sorcery and his twin brother, Cameron, has fallen on hard times of his own making. Cameron is an obese drunk, despondent over the rejection of his beloved twin. His wife, Tika, is embarrassed to have their old friend, Tanis Half Elven see him when he visits the Inn of the Last Home while escorting Crysania to meet their old friend, Tasslehoff Burrfoot who was to find a special person to aid Crysania in her quest to save Raistlin.

Tika has had it with the slovenly Cameron and kicks him out of the house, demanding that he find Crysania who has struck out on her own to head to the tower and plead her case for Raistlin before the council of mages at the Tower of Wayreth. Cameron leaves grudgingly with Tas and the gully dwarf, Bupu to whom Raistlin had once showed a great kindness.

Cameron and Tas eventually catch up to Crysania and they head for the tower. Just outside the grove that leads to the tower, they encounter the death knight, Lord Soth who is under the command of Raistlin and Cameron’s half-sister, Kitiara who aspires to usurp Raistlin in his plans and establish her own dominion. Lord Soth nearly kills Crysania before Paladine intercedes and takes her soul to safety.

Cameron and Tas arrive at the Tower of Wayreth where they learn of Raistlin’s plot to travel back in time to supplant Fistandantilus and make his bid for godship. The council resolves to send Cameron and Crysania back in time for a twofold purpose. Crysania’s soul can be restored to her there and together they can thwart Raistlin’s ambitions.

The spell is prepared and Cameron and Crysania are sent back in time. Tas accidently intervenes and is transported with them. Upon their arrival in Istar, Cameron is arrested, believed to have raped and/or assaulted Crysania who is unconscious. He is sold into slavery and made a gladiator. Tas is sold as well to the same owner and used as an errand runner.

All has transpired according to Raistlin’s design. He has Cameron sold into slavery so he can regain his strength and stamina to assist Raistlin later. Crysania is taken to the Temple of Paladine and is accepted as one of the priests. There, she meets the Kingpriest of Istar, a holy man of incredible power bestowed upon him by Paladine himself. She and the other priests live in awe of the Kingpriest.

Cameron adapts well to the life of a gladiator and comes to enjoy it because all of the deaths are fake and the matches are staged as pure entertainment. However, when he kills one of his opponents with a real weapon that was supposed to be fake, he is convinced that Raistlin, who has already supplanted Fistandantilus and taken his life force is behind it. Cameron decides he must kill Raistlin.

Meanwhile, Crysania’s new mentor and the other true clerics of Istar have been taken away to be spared the wrath of the gods coming in the cataclysm. She finds Raistlin in the High Priest’s chambers and Raistlin reveals the all powerful High Priest is nothing more than a scared but power hungry man. Crysania now knows that it is not within the Kingpriest’s power to prevent the cataclysm.

Storms and catastrophes start to sweep Istar in prelude to the coming cataclysm. Cameron tries to convince his friends to leave, telling them the city is about to be destroyed. Meanwhile, Tas has acquired from Cameron’s trunk the time traveling device with hopes of preventing the cataclysm. He goes to the Kingpriest’s chambers. He hears the Kingpriest’s pleas to the gods to give him the power to wipe out evil in the world. Crysania is there also. She is asked by the elven priest, Loralon to join him and the other true clerics of Istar to depart to safety. She refuses, hoping to save Raistlin.

Raistlin is forced to fight his friends in the arena using real weapons. To his dismay, he must kill them. As the cataclysm builds around him and the city starts to crumble, he races off the Kingpriest’s palace to kill Raistlin. He and Crysania, with Tas trailing them, have fled underground to Fistandantilus’ secret chambers beneath the palace. Cameron finds them there and is going to kill Raistlin when Crysania intervenes and allows Raistlin to complete his spell that rescues them all from the cataclysm and sends them to another point in time.

I first read The Time of the Twins upon its release in 1986 and immediately recognized it as superior to the earlier trilogy, The Dragonlance Chronicles. Weiss and Hickman, who had a long and fruitful writing partnership with TSR Hobbies, matured as writers between the first trilogy and the second.

While both are written at the level of young adult, Time of the Twins is more complex in its character development and subplots. Tas, who was often employed as little more than comic relief in the first trilogy, is developed as a much more noble creature. Also, great nuance is given to his natural desire to acquire objects that don’t belong to him. Cameron was pretty well developed in the Chronicles, but we get a better feeling for the man’s intellect rather than blind love for his twin. Crysania is a newer character who enjoys the most development in the first book. Her motives are quite complex and not entirely revealed to the reader.

Raistlin is the star of the first book even though little of it is written from his point of view. His character also becomes much deeper. The most poignant moment in the Chronicles was Raistlin’s charm of the gully dwarf, Bupu. This was the first hint that there was more to him than a grumpy, withered mage. The whole trilogy centers upon his lust for power. But, we find that even that lust for power and rejection of all human emotion can be cracked by affection and perhaps love for Crysania.

The city of Istar is presented wonderfully in its culture. Its imminent destruction is laid out nicely as a backdrop to the action centered on the characters. Too often, writers will ignore developing a suitable backdrop to their rising action to add to the excitement. Bravo, Weiss and Hickman.

I was disappointed in some of the unexplained actions in the book. No real reason is given for Tanis just giving up his mission to escort Crysania. An explanation would have been nice. The inn that was there and then wasn’t when Tas obtained the clues as to Crysania’s whereabouts was never explained. While Kitiara’s actions are sure to be covered in the second and third books of the trilogy, she is introduced, then dismissed for the rest of the book. The trilogy as a whole would have been better served to have woven her into the first third of the story.

To many fans of the swords and sorcery subgenre who enjoy Tolkien, the exploits of Elric, the turning of the Wheel of Time, or the Princes of Amber, Dragonlance is dismissed as lightweight Dungeons and Dragons tie-in and promotional material. That is too bad. While the works of Weiss and Hickman and the other authors who have written in the world of Dragonlance have created stories much lighter than those deep and weighty tomes, they are good stories that can be enjoyed for their wonderful storytelling.

Monday, May 9, 2016

The Last Command By Timothy Zahn

The Last Command
By Timothy Zahn
Copyright 1994

Grand Admiral Thrawn has captured most of the fabled Katana Fleet and has in operation the emperor’s cloning device. He decides the time has come to move against the New Republic and bring full scale war to the galaxy. He takes his first system with nary a fight by blasting the planet’s defense force with a turbo cannon while a cloaked ship fires at the same point from under the shield, making the New Republic wonder how he has acquired such firepower. Thrawn soon sets his sites on Coruscant.

Leia gives birth to her two twins and cares for them in the emperor’s palace on Conruscant. Mara Jade is still a resident of the palace, staying there with Talon Kardde’s hacker, Ghent, who is working to find the mysterious Delta Source that is transmitting information to Thrawn from inside the palace. One evening, an imperial commando squad slips into the palace and attempts to kidnap Leia’s twins on behalf of Thrawn who wants to give them to evil Jedi Master, Jorus C’both. Mara is there to save the twins as well as Leia.

The lone surviving commando of the raid tells New Republic investigators that Mara Jade is Delta Source and assisted them with getting into the palace. Mara is put in prison. Han and Leia, knowing that Mara saved their lives and the lives of their children help free her. Mara then tells them where they can find the planet, Wayland and the emperor’s cloning device.

New Republic investigators determine that Delta Source must be a droid rather than human. Using all of the leaked messages, they determine that all of the conversations took place in a particular hallway inside the palace. They start their investigation of the hallway and the droids passing through, but Leia figures out the listening device is actually part of an ornamental plant in the hallway. Delta Source is shut down.

Talon Kardde tries to organize the smugglers into a coalition to fight the Empire. They hold a preliminary meeting that is interrupted by an imperial attack. The smugglers scatter and Kardde fears his efforts were for naught. He puts together another organizational meeting, but an uninvited guest shows up and accuses Kardde of setting them up at the last meeting so he can corner the market on smuggling. However, Kardde is able to turn the tables on the false accusations and win the loyalty of his fellow smugglers.

They decide to raid the imperial shipyards at Bilbringi. There, they hope to obtain a device that will allow the New Republic to locate and destroy cloaked asteroids surrounding Coruscant. Unbeknownst to the smugglers, the New Republic has the same plan and prepares for a sneak attack while feinting at the trap on another planet Thrawn has set for them.

Luke, Lando, Han, Mara, Chewbacca, the droids and a couple of their Noghri allies set off for Wayland. They arrive and find the mountain where the cloning device is housed to be heavily guarded by imperial troops. They find a back door and enter. Luke and Mara note right away that they are cut off from the Force. The place is full of the creatures, the Ysilarmi which have the ability to block the force.

Han, Lando and Chewbacca attack the imperial forces while Luke and Leia make their way to the imperial throne room in the top of the mountain. Han and his friends rig the cloning device to explode. Joined by Leia and Kardde, they head for the throne room to help Luke and Mara.

Luke and Mara arrive to find C’Baoth there and very much in touch with the Force. He demands that Luke and Mara join him as his pupils. When they refuse, Mara is stunned with an electric shock. Luke is forced to fight a clone of himself taken from the hand he lost on Bespin fighting Darth Vader. The clone (Luuke as he is called in the text) is armed with Luke’s old light saber. Luke wages a fierce battle with the clone. Han and Leia arrive on the scene and are immediately taken out of commission.

While C’Baoth is busy fighting all these battles, Mara attacks and kills him. She then kills Luuke – fulfilling her destiny set by the emperor during her time as the Emperor’s Hand to kill Luke Skywalker. The whole group flees Wayland as the cloning device is destroyed.

At Bilbringi, the New Republic forces come out of light speed to find that Thrawn has not fallen for their feint attack and has deployed his defenses at the shipyard. They prepare for a long, hard battle when they learn that the smugglers are already on the inside of the shipyard and ready to fight. Things still do not go well for the New Republic and their allies as the fight goes on. The tables are turned, however, when Thrawn and his second in command, Captain Palleon, receive word of the destruction of the cloning device on Wayland. When the forces there tell Thrawn that Noghri were part of the attacking force, Thrawn’s Noghri body guard kills him in revenge for the Empire’s mistreatment of the Noghri people. With Thrawn dead, Captain Palleon orders the withdrawal of Imperial troops from the shipyard.

When they return to Coruscant, Luke give Mara his old light saber and invites her to train as a Jedi.

This trilogy was a lot of fun, much like the original movies. The books predated the prequel trilogy and unlike those rather average movies, did not take itself too seriously. There are plenty of coincidences and ex deus machina to keep the fun and action flowing. But that really isn’t the point of these books.

As I stated: these books were fun. The original trilogy was fun. One went to see the movies to have fun and one picks up these books to have fun. To analyze them with the same strict parameters as one would serious science fiction or general fiction is to destroy the fun.

Fans of Star Wars overlook the many plot inconsistencies in the three original movies and prequels. We overlook the sappy story. We wallow in the Saturday matinee serial cliffhangers and ex deus machina plot resolutions. Would we have done this for something as deep as Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Alien, or E.T.? No. Those were serious science fiction. When the author and the material aren’t taking themselves too seriously, it is easy to just go along for the ride with the simple plot devices.

This is not to say that Zahn did not write these books well. He certainly did. I have not read any other Timothy Zahn, so I have no other work with which to compare. But I get the sense that he must write military fiction and write it well. The battle scenes and fight scenes were well paced and told with precision. Clever strategy and grand schemes were laid out and explained in detail. While the plot was fun, don’t dismiss how seriously Timothy Zahn took his subject matter in these books.

The Thrawn Trilogy, even with its simplistic plot and science fiction clichés, still made it onto NPR’s list of best science fiction books. It is there with lofty titles such as The Lord of the Rings, Dune, Childhood’s End, and the other paragons and cornerstones of the genre. That is lofty company indeed.

At the time these books were published, Star Wars nostalgia had not yet developed. Star Wars toys were no longer available in stores. There were no other Star Wars books. The movies remained very much fixed in popular culture, but it had not yet achieved the status it holds today. These books were the first next thing.

I recall first seeing them in a bookstore and thinking they could not be good. As a serious fan of genre fiction, I knew the movies were great movies. But I’d also read the novel adaptations of them as well as Alan Dean Foster’s Splinter of the Mind’s Eye. They were great when I was in sixth grade. I’m not sure I would enjoy them as much today.

My initial impression was wrong. These books are good. They are well written, well plotted, and fun, fun, FUN! They should be enjoyed by fans of science fiction and savored by fans of Star Wars.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Haunted By Chuck Palahniuk

Haunted
By Chuck Palahniuk
Copyright 2005

Guinea Pigs
A writer reveals how he and others were lured to what they believed to be a writers’ retreat only to become lab rats in a madman’s experiment.

A relatively short introduction that reveals just enough to portend suspense.

Chapter 1
A bus cruises around town and picks up participants for the writers’ conference. The driver is dubbed Saint Gut-Free because he’s so skinny despite a proclivity for junk food. There is a poem about Saint Gut-Free titled, Landmarks and a short story by Saint Gut-Free titled, Guts, which explains why he is so skinny despite his intake of food.

Guts
Guts is supposedly Palahniuk’s most famous story. I’m not real familiar with his work, so I’ll take the author’s word for it. I usually just skim poetry, not liking it much as a literary form. So, I’ll let other readers reach conclusions about that. However, I read Guts with intense interest. According to the author, people have passed out during live readings of Guts. It’s pretty graphic. However, if an author can make graphic and gross serve a purpose in an otherwise good story, more power to him. Palahniuk makes it work quite nicely and Guts was an entertaining read.

Chapter 2
More attendees of the workshop board the bus as it makes its way through town. One new passenger is Mother Nature.

Under Cover: A Poem About Mother Nature

This poem describes how Mother Nature tried to become a nun to lay low for an unknown reason. She, however, failed the aptitude test and the drug test.

Poems are poems and I don’t know how to evaluate poems. This one was easy to read and grasp the meaning of this untrained poem reader. So that’s a plus.

Foot Work
Mother Nature is a foot massager trained in the science of reflexology. She is barely making a living at it. She runs into an old friend from school who gets her into what amounts to foot massage prostitution. She makes good money. But she and her friend off their pimp and Mother Nature has to go on the lamb with the Russian mob hunting her.

This was another strange tale of sexual deviancy. Well told and well paced, the story was a delightful read. It is told in an odd, second person narrative, but Palahniuk makes it work.

Chapter 3
It is the residents’ first week at the retreat and they find the accommodations not to their liking. The building is dusty and moldy with windows bricked up. The food is all freeze-dried. They complain. Some ask to leave. Mr. Whittier says that they are using excuses – the same excuses that kept them from writing in the outside world. Miss America suspects she is pregnant and wants to see a doctor. Mr. Whittier will not relent.

Product Improvements: A Poem About Miss America
The poem describes Miss America as a commodity that she, herself, is trying to broker and sell. She constantly looks at herself to find what is wrong and improve it.

This poem is a bit more amateurish in my untrained opinion. The model as a commodity is an old, trite, metaphor. While it is true, Palahniuk could have been more creative in his use of it.

Green Room: A Short Story by Miss America
With a prompt from Mr. Whittier, Miss America composes a story about how she met her boyfriend. The fictional her is a pitch lady, selling an exercise machine she invented herself. She is touring the country, doing local television news programs. In the green room, she meets a man hawking investment programs. He gives her advice on how to be a successful pitch person and she falls in love with him.

The story is not exciting, but passable. I can state from having worked in the newsroom that not every person, position, and movement in a broadcast has a bit of lingo to describe it. I suspect that Palahniuk has over-researched his subject just a bit here.

Chapter 4
Miss America pulls the fire alarms in the building in an attempt to gain her release from the group. Mr. Whittier reminds the group of that legendary meeting of amateur writers that took place at Villa Diodati that led to Mary Shelley writing Frankenstein. We learn that Lady Baglady is quite refined and cultured, belying her appearance.

The staccato pace of Palahniuk’s story narrative is starting to wear a little thin. The “this happened and this happened,” style of writing where events seemingly have no connection is effective when used sparingly. Otherwise, it is like an over-spiced meal.

Slumming
Lady Baglady and her husband are wealthy socialites jetsetting to be seen at the most important fundraisers and most opulent settings. To cure the boredom of belonging to the leisure class, they take to the streets to pretend they are homeless. While huddling in a doorway, they witness the murder of a wealthy Brazilian socialite. Soon, Lady Baglady’s husband is murdered and homeless people across the city are being killed as the killers look for Lady Baglady to off the other witness.

This story was silly and the smashmouth subtext as pleasant as a punch in the face. It was painful to read.

Chapter 5
Mr. Whittier recounts for the group the account of the time that Mary Shelley spent with her friend, Lord Byron, and others at Villa Diodoti and how that time inspired not only Frankenstein, but the creation of the modern vampire in John Polidori’s book, The Vampyre. The narrator recounts how the group met at a coffee house after responding to a advertisement and how many – the smart ones – left the coffee house without signing up. However, Reverend Godless botched the wiring to the fire alarms with the help of the Missing Link and Countess Foresight stuck the tines of plastic forks in the locks. Most are not ready to leave. Lady Baglady finally breaks down and the man with the tape recorder constantly running – the Earl of Slander – is there to document the reactions of those present.

Swan Song
The Earl of Slander is a freelance journalist. One day his dog is poisoned and he must take it to the vet. He discovers that his vet is a former child star of a famous television show. He left Hollywood to go to college and care for animals. The Earl pitches an editor on the story. But the editor says people don’t want stories about former child stars who make good. They want stories about former child stars wallowing in misery and degradation. The Earl decides to make his story rather than just write it.

This was a much better story than Slumming. Plausible, it has no absurd metaphor or subtext. Well paced with believable characters, it works on every level. One might think it just a little too cynical in its depiction of journalists. But it’s not all that far removed from reality.

Chapter Six
Several of the residents vandalize the food they don’t like, dramatically reducing the overall amount of the food. Mr. Whittier eats too much turkey and has severe abdominal cramps and the narrator dreams of him dying in some dramatic fashion and how it will play out in the television miniseries he is contemplating. However, Mr. Whittier survives and is put to bed.

Dog Years
Brandon Whittier is a resident of a rest home. His body is old, shriveled, and nearly used up. Yet he listens to rap and rock and roll and enjoys video games. Though he has the body of an old man, he is quite young. He is the victim of a horrible genetic disease known as progeria. It causes the cells of the body to age nearly seven times faster, making old people out of young people. He tells a soccer mom nurse that he is 18 and doesn’t want to die a virgin. She takes sympathy and has sex with him. He then confesses that he is just 13 years old and blackmails her for cash lest he turn her in for rape of a minor. We learn that Brandon Whittier has done this over and over again.

Interesting how Palahniuk chose to approach the writing style of this story. There is no dialogue. The sentence structure is staccato, but much different than the staccato style I complained about earlier. In Dog Years, he makes frequent use of sentence fragments. At some points, he deliberately breaks sentences in half to make them fragments. But he makes it work. Palahniuk is a clever writer.

Chapter Seven
The writers in residence at the theater awaken to find their food rancid and spoiling. Mr. Whittier lays dying in his bed. The heat and hot water are out, due to the Duke of Vandals destroying the gas lines.

Ambition
The Duke of Vandals is convicted of defacing public property after he affixes a mailing label with his artwork painted on it to a public wall. He is not making much money and is bitter about other artists who have achieved great fame. He is offered an opportunity for promotion and showing at first class art galleries. All he has to do is kill another artist who is devaluing the value of his work by flooding the market. Soon, he becomes a tool for art investors who want to increase the value of their holdings.

The story narrative was much better than the short story which had no major flaws, but was not particularly engaging or interesting.

Chapter 8
Mrs. Clark waxes philosophic on the youthful desire for disaster to slow down life.

Post Production
Tess Clark and her husband shoot a porno movie of themselves, convinced that they will sell it on the Internet and get rich. They want to finance a child. It all goes wrong when they see themselves on camera.

This story lacked any real depth or analysis besides banal philosophizing. Why were they so appalled by their own images on the video screen? We get a little foreshadowing of the Tess Clark character in that we find out the daughter they were working to have will die tragically.

Chapter 9
The Theater residents begin to cut off fingers and toes and feeding them to the cat. The reasoning is, the more scarred a person is, the more prominently they will be portrayed in the drama that is surely to be written about them after they gain their release.

Exodus
Director Denial is a social worker in a police precinct. Her secretary is responsible for ordering supplies for the precinct. When two anatomically correct sex dolls of children are mistakenly ordered, the detectives in the precinct start using the dolls to pleasure themselves. Cora takes upon herself to save the children from them.

This story is confusing in that it is hard to separate Cora Marshall from Director Denial. It is also rather offensive to detectives to assume that they’d all be perverts. But it was told and well paced.

Chapter 10
The residents plan to move Mr. Whittier’s body to the cellar. They also try to dispose of the spoiling food by flushing it down the toilet. When the toilets clog, they lose one more fixture of civilization. The spoiled food begins to take on an aroma.

Reverend Godless is a former military man now working as a drag queen. Part of his schtick is to allow people to punch him in exchange for money. He and his friends are raising money for a holy war – against religion.

This was a limp, lifeless, useless story that didn’t even have the endearing quality of silliness.

Chapter 11
The residents begin to collect lightbulbs from an artificial tree.

Ritual
Matchmaker falls for a woman who decides she wants a better looking man with a larger penis. He hires a male prostitute to woo her and eventually dump her. He then reenters her life, hoping to catch her on the rebound.

Like all of the stories in this volume, there is a high degree of absurdity. Sometimes, it works. Sometimes it does not. It does not in this story.

Chapter 12
The residents find the Duke of Vandals murdered. His head is crushed and his hands are clutching the exercise machine promoted by Miss America. The residents accuse Tess Clark of the murder. They also realize that one partner with whom they would have to share the royalties of their story has been eliminated.

The Nightmare Box

Tess Clark’s daughter, Cassandra shaves off her eyebrows and packs a suitcase. She then sits naked in the living room, semi-catatonic. Clark recounts how her daughter attended a gallery opening and looked into a mysterious box dubbed the Nightmare Box. It had destroyed the lives of others before, and now apparently has destroyed Cassandra’s mind as she disappears from the apartment where she lives.

This is the best story, by far, in this book so far. This story actually made for compelling reading. I was intrigued by the mysterious box and what it revealed. This is the sort of story I expected from a writer of Palahniuk’s reputation.

Chapter 13

When the toilet, furnace, and other amenities start working again, the residents vandalize them to make their story more dramatic. Director Denial cuts off all of her toes and half of her fingers to ramp up the drama.

Civil Twilight
Sister Vigilante moves about the night of the city, using a bowling ball to kill people at random? Her reasoning? Crime goes down when a serial killer is on the loose. She’s doing her civic duty.

This story, like the last one, is dark without being silly. It is a bit abstract which makes the reader pay close attention to the prose. Another worthy entry in this collection.

Chapter 14
Comrade Snarky is dead. She apparently died of natural causes. Chef Assassin warms up his carving knives and goes to work carving the choice cuts from her body for the residents to dine on.

Product Placement

Chef Assassin writes a letter to the president of a knife company, praising them for their superior product. He uses them for cooking and for carving up unfriendly food critics. He promises not to reveal that he uses their product to kill in exchange for a large cash bribe. He awaits their reply.

A short short story. Nonetheless, it works with a nice twist coming at the end.

Chapter 15
The residents microwave and eat Cora the Cat.

Crippled
Agent Tattletale is committing insurance fraud, faking a severe injury, when he is nearly caught by a private investigator. He kills the private investigator and enrolls in a correspondence course to become a private investigator himself to spy on other people who are faking disabilities.

This story works because it is plausible. Private investigators are often employed to find people faking disability claims.

Chapter 16
Miss America apologizes for killing the cat. She is afraid that she has contracted a bacterial infection from the cat scratches. Her water breaks and she heads for her room.

Dissertation
The Missing Link is a Chewlah Indian out on a date with a graduate student who is doing her dissertation on sasquatches and associated phenomena. She believes that a recent plane crash was caused by a 13 year old Chewlah Indian girl who transformed – as if a werewolf – aboard the plane and caused the crash. She relates her theory to Missing Link who tells her the girl in question was his sister.

I like this story and it is a worthy entry into the lore of the werewolf. Palahniuk weaves the sasquatch legend the werewolf legend together quite nicely. If it’s been done before, I’ve never read it.

Chapter 18
Mrs. Clark comforts Miss America as she goes into labor. She tells Miss America that being a mother is an important role, but is painful. Miss Clark goes on to tell Miss America that her daughter, Cassandra was at one of Mr. Whittier’s writer retreats when she disappeared.

Poster Child
The missing Cassandra is found wandering naked along a highway. She has missing digits and has been sodomized with a piece of wood. She will not tell her mother or police about her attackers. She said she mutilated herself.

This story lacked the poignancy it could have had. It lacked the punch it could have had. The story lacked.

Chapter 19
Miss America’s labor continues and the Countess Foresight presides as midwife. Miss America is afraid Countess Foresight is going to take her baby. Chef Assassin prepares to cook another meal of the freshest meat.

Something’s Got to Give

The Countess Foresight has the gift of touching objects and knowing the truth about the object’s history. She enters an antique shop where she finds what might be a really incredible relic – the preserved fetus of Marilyn Monroe’s miscarriage. She finds it’s a fake and murders the shopkeeper. Many years later, she is on parole with an ankle bracelet attached to her.

This story was graphic and ugly – both the story narrative portion and the short story. Palahniuk achieves a high level of creepiness with his use of implied gore.

Chapter 20
Miss America’s baby is dead and is eaten. The residents inform Miss America they are keeping her alive to be the next course.

Hot Potting
Miss Leroy is a bartender at a second rate lodge in ski country where hot springs and geysers are common. Also common is people being boiled alive when they accidently stumble into these hot springs. One night, Miss Leroy hears a coworker screaming outside. She goes out into a snowstorm to find him nearly boiled alive. She sits with him in that snowstorm as he slowly dies. She develops frostbite that causes her to lose her lips.

The graphic telling of this tale works well once again. It is grueling, yet compelling and a little scientific explanation makes it even better.

Chapter 21
Miss America has died, having bled out. Mrs. Clark completes the sad tale of her daughter.

Cassandra
Tess Clark’s daughter no longer really functions after having returned. Tess decides it’s time to end Cassandra’s life rather than let her go on living her pained existence.

Read like the conclusion of a longer story – which it was. It was not a complete story.

Chapter 22
Miss America is dead and is eaten. Tess Clark is dead, having been murdered in her room. The Matchmaker cuts off his penis and promptly bleeds to death. The Missing Link tries to eat it and chokes to death. The residents believe they hear potential rescuers working on the lock.

Evil Spirits

Miss Sneezy is an inmate in a government operated hospital for people who are highly infectious – but unafflicted – with deadly diseases. They are a threat to all who come into contact with them. She’s a 22 year old virgin and a new resident is being brought in who is reputed to be a well endowed male. She contemplates losing her virginity and perhaps getting pregnant.

The story narrative was just over-the-top nonsense to offend the senses while adding nothing to what little story there is in this collection of stories supposedly adding up to a story. Evil Spirits, however, has a great deal of charm. I wish there had been more of it and it had gone farther.

Chapter 23
Mr. Whittier returns to tell the residents that he faked his death and has been watching them all with hidden cameras. He says this group behaved much the way the previous group had, falling in love with their pain and embracing it. He tells Miss Sneezy that, if she wants to be loved, he will love her. He tells the residents that the door is unlocked and they are free to go.

Obsolete
Venus is Heaven. That riff on the title of the Ray Bradbury classic describes Mr. Whittier’s story of what happens after a manned space exploration discovers dead souls on Venus living the party life. A family piles into their car parked in the garage and turns on the motor, waiting to die. Dying – or Emigrating – is encouraged by the government to kill off the human race so that no souls are called back and they can all live the party life through eternity.

The narrative story was an unimaginative climax. The short story was brilliant! Shades of Logan’s Run, The Martian Chronicles, and I am Legend are mixed in to make the story creepy with the tongue brushing ever so lightly against the cheek.

Chapter 24
Mr. Whittier and Miss Sneezy depart the theater. Angry that their odyssey is over and not enough people have died, Mother Nature attacks Miss Sneezy outside the theater with a knife and kills her. With Mr. Whittier outside, protesting, she and St. Gut Free lock the door and jam the knife into it. The residents ponder how their story will be written.

This was my first experience with Palahniuk and it was awful! I realize I was reading something that was a bit experimental, so I will not let it dissuade me from reading Palahniuk in the future.

This book features so much gratuitous gore that I’m surprised blood did not flow from the pages. Sometimes, it was employed effectively such as in Guts. In other places, it was beyond gratuitous and was used perhaps to distract the reader from the fact that the story – especially the main story – lacked any real depth.

Many of the short stories were quite entertaining and engaging. But Slumming was the most foolish piece of drivel I’ve read since I quit reading newspaper comics. It was almost bad enough to stop me from finishing the book.

The mains story was pretentious and pointless. These people were supposed to be writers. I guess Palahniuk made them writers because they had to be something. Nothing in the story had anything to do about the suffering of the artist or writer, which I assumed was going to be the prevailing theme. Instead, there was no prevailing theme.

Characters were assigned a motivation that belied any semblance of reality. The self-mutilation, cannibalism, and violence were all vain attempts to disgust the reader. Palahniuk’s use of them were like the maker of a teen thriller putting in gotcha scene after gotcha scene. I expected much better from Chuck Palahniuk.

If you are a Palahniuk fan, read Haunting if you must. If you’re not a fan, avoid it at all costs.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Stinger By Robert R. McCammon

Stinger
By Robert R. McCammon
Copyright 1988

Inferno, Texas is a western Texas town on hard times and nearly dead. The copper mine has played out and people are leaving. The remaining inhabitants, already isolated by geography, are going to find themselves cut off from the rest of the world.


A small spaceship crashes in Inferno and its lone occupant takes possession of the body of a six year old girl. Little Stevie Hammond is now Daufin, an alien fugitive from a faraway planet.

Shortly after Daufin’s arrival, another ship arrives. It lands at a large automotive chop shop at the edge of town. Daufin tells the Hammonds and the military men who have arrived in Inferno that the ship is inhabited by Stinger, a bounty hunter from space pursuing her.

One night, a riot breaks out at a local arcade when the white gang and the Hispanic gang who war constantly in Inferno decide to fight. Stinger makes his presence known, destroying many of the buildings and houses in Inferno. He starts taking possession of many of the town’s inhabitants, asking about Daufin’s location. To keep his quarry from fleeing, Stinger places a force field around the town.

Daufin tells the people of Inferno that Stinger will take her and he and his race will return to take over Earth and imprison its residents. As various creatures move through Inferno, killing and destroying in pursuit of his quarry, Daufin, joined by Stevie’s parents, an Air Force Colonel, and the town drunk, use Stinger’s own underground tunnels to make their way to his ship where he controls his minions. Meanwhile, the leaders of the two warring gangs join forces to see to the safety of the town’s residents.

After capturing a couple Inferno residents, Stinger decides to return to his home planet with them as his bounty instead, promising to return to take over the planet. Daufin and her group race against time to get to the ship and destroy Stinger so that Daufin can return Stevie Hammond’s body to her and use the ship to get home.

I’ve seen it written in a couple reviews that the story contained in Stinger is very much like a B-movie. I wholeheartedly concur with this analysis. It has the charm of a B-movie with stereotypical – yet endearing characters. It has the simple, moralistic story of a B-movie. It has space aliens and the race against time to save humanity. The only thing missing is the grainy photography and the horrible audio.

The characters in Stinger are indeed one dimensional and each fits the stereotype of the roll they are supposed to play. The town drunk is a tragic figure who finds redemption. The gang leaders are actually intelligent, caring individuals who play the roles society has dictated for them. The Air Force Colonel is efficient and a natural leader. The sheriff is a fat coward. There is not one character in Stinger that is remarkable or outside the norm.

The plot is just as straight forward as one would expect from an 1:15 minute movie. There is the subplot of the gang rivalry and McCammon feints at other subplots such as the old widow whose husband has hidden a fortune somewhere in the town, the sinister chop shop owner who dominates the local economy, and a few others. But none are really developed and are woven in only to introduce peripheral characters.

With one dimensional characters and a one dimensional story, Stinger is still a charming novel. How? McCammon is a great storyteller. While coming in at almost 600 pages, it certainly could have been shorter. But McCammon keeps the action moving and, with the whole story unfolding over a 24 hour period, there are just a few slow moments. It moves just like a B-grade, 1950s sci-fi flick.

My chief criticism of Stinger is, McCammon did not take full advantage of the force field and the feeling of claustrophobia – than feeling of isolation – that is so effectively employed by great horror writers. Yes, the force field is there and McCammon provides a wonderful description of it. There is some action involving the force field when it first arrives. But McCammon never really uses it to create a mood of confinement. This would have added another dimension to the novel.

This was my first reading of Stinger since Stephen King published Under the Dome. McCammon is often compared to King – sometimes unfairly – by reviewers including me. When reviewing McCammon, the reviewer will often look to a comparable King work for comparison. In this instance, McCammon was first, but King did it better. King uses his dome to create that feeling of isolation and confinement. That is the prevailing theme in Under the Dome. I wish McCammon had given us just a little more of this mood.

Stinger is what I call a Gummy Bear novel. There’s not much there that is intellectually nutritious and you certainly would not want to confine yourself to a steady diet of books Like Stinger. But, every once in a while, when you find a tasty one, there’s no sin in indulging your literary sweet tooth and enjoying it for what it is. Stinger is a fun book.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power By Robert Caro

The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power
By Robert Caro
Copyright 2012

Robert Caro’s most excellent biography of Lyndon Johnson moves forward with volume four of what is expected to be a five volume series. In The Passage of Power, Caro examines Johnson’s vice presidential years and his advancement to the ultimate office following the assassination of John F. Kennedy.


Before he was elected vice president, Johnson aspired to be president. But he was hesitant to seek the office, perhaps fearing loss and humiliation. When he entered the race for delegates, he was too late and he miscalculated. He relied on senators who he thought could control their states’ delegations. Kennedy relied on governors who actually exercised more influence.

When they went to the convention in 1960, Johnson was way behind in declared delegates, but still in position to challenge Kennedy. But Kennedy’s money, stellar organization, and natural charm won out. Much to the consternation of brother Bobby Kennedy, JFK asked Johnson to be his running mate. The move was less about uniting the party and more about winning the south, especially delegate-rich Texas.

Johnson campaigned almost exclusively in the South. It was during the campaign that Kennedy’s team of Harvard-educated advisors started making fun of Johnson and his lack of education and sophistication. “Cornpone” was the nickname the assigned to him. The nickname would stick through the Kennedy administration.

It was Johnson’s knack for “finding” votes that secured Texas for Kennedy and along with “found” votes in Illinois, this secured the election for Kennedy and Johnson. If Johnson was hoping for some significant role in the Kennedy administration, he was to be disappointed.

Kennedy kept Johnson at arm’s length. According to Caro, this was to keep Johnson from consolidating power. Caro has noted through his biography Johnson’s ability to find power where others can’t or don’t. The astute Kennedy was aware of this ability. Many thought that Johnson may have been helpful in advancing legislation given his knack for advancing the legislative process. But Kennedy feared that Johnson would be able to control the Kennedy legislative agenda. Kennedy would not even accept advice from Johnson.

Caro details wonderfully the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Kennedy response to it. Kennedy’s advisors were split among hawks and those who wanted a more measured approach. Early on, Johnson was part of the debate and came down on the side of the hawks. But Bobby saw to it that Johnson was marginalized and eventually shut out of the debate.

Caro also details meticulously the relationship between Johnson and Bobby Kennedy. This was a relationship of mutual hatred. Johnson had made some negative remarks about Joe Kennedy during the campaign and Bobby – ever loyal to family – never forgot. As one Kennedy loyalist was to say, “When Bobby Kennedy hated you, you stayed hated.” Johnson made a few efforts at reconciliation, but Bobby wasn’t having it. Bobby openly demonstrated his contempt for Johnson in cabinet meetings and in remarks to associates.

As Johnson became more and more marginalized, he became sullen and withdrawn. Reporters who once sought him out for insight into beltway shenanigans no longer called. At cabinet meetings, he seldom offered opinions or advice. He was a miserable man, stripped of power and trappings.

Of course, all of that changed on November 22, 1963. Caro again shows his brilliant writing chops as he describes the drama and trauma of those events and the days that followed. The Johnsons accompanied the Kennedys to the hospital after the shooting. Johnson was squirreled away in a small conference room with just a couple aides when he found out that Kennedy had died and he was the new president.

Caro provides blow by blow, vivid descriptions of what went on aboard Air Force One immediately following the assassination. Johnson, now in full control, orchestrating his swearing in, insisting that it happen there and now to assure continuity of government. As they took off, Johnson pleaded with Kennedy men to stay on with the new administration to help that continuity. While he got no hard commitments, most eventually did stay on.

Back In DC, Johnson set up his temporary headquarters in the Old Executive Office Building next door to the White House with just limited space. It should have been chaos, but the old Lyndon Johnson, who was always so firmly in control when crisis hit, managed his team and saw to it that the transition of power went smoothly. One cannot help but admire him for the job he did in those frightening days following the assassination.

Johnson prepared to address Congress. He knew John Kennedy was now a martyr for the causes he supported and Johnson was determined to see them through while putting his own stamp on the presidency. His address is perhaps one of the finest ever delivered by a president in the House chamber. His words were reassuring. His determination strong. His reverence of JFK immense. The nation and the world was much more confident after Johnson’s address.

Johnson and his team went right to work on advancing the two key pieces of the Kennedy legislative agenda. Those were cuts in corporate tax rates to spur economic growth and a civil rights bill with much more substance than any passed previously. Those old skills as a legislator were still there and Johnson went right to work on advising Congress how to get them dislodged from committee and on the floor of the Senate in the right order to assure a chance at passage.

His adversary early on was the venerable Sen. Harry Byrd of Virginia who was holding up the tax bill. A budget hawk, Byrd insisted on a federal budget of less than $100 billion. The proposed budget put forward by Kennedy was $104 billion. Johnson agreed to Byrd’s demands and Byrd responded by moving the tax bill forward.

In the House, the civil rights bill was held up in the Rules Committee. Speaker John McCormack was unable to force its release. Johnson organized a coalition of liberal Democrats and Midwestern Republicans to start a discharge petition that would overrule the Rules Committee chairman. Rather than face the humiliation of being overruled, the Rules Committee sent the bill to the full House.

The book ends as the fight for these two bills is about to commence in the full bodies of Congress. Johnson is enjoying remarkably high approval ratings. He is calm, confident, and happy. The Republicans are about to nominate the abrasive Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater as their standard bearer in 1964. Johnson is confident that he will secure the nomination, but the specter of Bobby Kennedy is still out there, perhaps waiting to steal it from him.

What is remarkable about this book is the transformation of Caro from a Johnson detractor into a Johnson admirer. Through the first three volumes of the series, Caro points out Johnson’s pettiness, arrogance, abusiveness, and overall hubris. That is absent in this volume. Here, Caro has nothing but praise for Johnson and his conduct.

While many dismiss a five volume work on the life of Lyndon Johnson as perhaps overkill – boring overkill, they are really missing out. While Caro chronicles the ups and downs of Johnson’s life and career, he also brings to life decades of American political history and drama. There is nothing dull about the story of this president whom history has yet to render its final verdict. He and Richard Nixon were the two most involved men in the postwar era of governance with their entire lives intertwined with that of the nation.

One point of historical contention that Caro addresses is the possible involvement of Lyndon Johnson in Kennedy’s assassination. Several historians are marginal ability have put forth this theory. With this biography establishing Caro as the foremost authority on the life of Lyndon Johnson, when he says he can find no evidence of such conspiracy, we can take it as accepted fact.

The Passage of Power
is the result of meticulous research by one of the world’s most adept historians. It is the product of an historian who also has a flare for the dramatic in bringing the drama of world events to life. While one might criticize Caro for getting just a little too bogged down in legislative machinations, one cannot dismiss his narrative voice which resembles that of a gifted storyteller. The Passage of Power is one of the best presidential biographies you’ll ever read.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Dark Force Rising By Timothy Zahn

Dark Force Rising
By Timothy Zahn
Copyright 1992

Timothy Zahn’s 1991 Star Wars sequel, Heir to the Empire was a huge hit at a time when Star Wars nostalgia was not yet vogue. He followed up in 1992 with the sequel, Dark Force Rising and picked up right where the previous book left off.


As Heir to the Empire closed, Admiral Ackbar was under arrest for treason. Han, Leia, Chewbacca, and Lando spread out across the galaxy to find evidence to exonerate him. First, Leia decides to undertake a diplomatic mission to Honoghr to meet with the Noghri who have pledged their allegiance to the Empire because of the earlier aid of Darth Vader when their planet was devastated.

Meanwhile, smuggler Talon Karrde has learned the location of the legendary Katana Fleet – a fleet of more than 200 dreadnought ships created by the Old Republic and lost when the crew was infected with a disease that drove them insane. The fleet, which is highly automated through a central control ship, is a valuable prize sought by both the Empire and the Alliance and could tilt the balance of power if found.

Han and Lando learn of the Katana fleet when they encounter Senator Bel Ilbis, a former Old Republic official who split from the Rebel Alliance after disagreements with Mon Mothma and has been waging his own independent war against the Empire. He is flying three of the dreadnoughts. Han, Lando, and Ben Ilbis’s people set out to capture the Katana fleet.

Mara Jade is captured by Admiral Thrawn who is also seeking the Katana fleet. She presents herself as the Emperor’s Hand and a loyal member of the Empire. Thrawn enlists her to meet with Talon Karrde and ascertain the location of the Katana fleet. She finds Karrde, but Thrawn betrays her and takes Karrde prisoner. He learns the location of the Katana fleet and sets out to get there before the Alliance.

Luke goes to Jomark to meet with the Jedi Master, Joruus C’baoth. C’baoth wants to train Luke and is eager to bring Leia and her unborn twins to Jomark as well. Luke becomes C’baoth’s pupil, but finds the old Jedi master full of darkness and prone to treating people harshly. While Luke is training, Mara Jade arrives to plead for Luke’s help in rescuing Talon Karrde from Admiral Thrawn. C’baoth tries to keep them both there, but Luke and Mara effect escape.

Leia and Chewbacca are pinned down on Honoghr when Thrawn shows up looking for her to turn her over to C’baoth in exchange for his assistance. She learns that the droids assigned to restore the planet’s environment are making little progress and are actually spying on the Noghri. When Thrawn departs, she and Chewbacca are allowed to leave, but there are no promises of future diplomatic relations. She returns to Coruscant to fight on behalf of Admiral Ackbar.

Luke and Mara are able to effect Karrde’s escape from the Imperial star destroyer and the three head for the Katana fleet. On Coruscant, Leia debates Ackbar’s political nemesis, Counselor Fey’lya who tries to downplay the importance of capturing the Katana fleet. When Leia heads an independent mission and takes off for the Katana coordinates, Fey’lya leads a competing mission.

Han and Lando, with Bel Ilbis, are also heading to the Katana fleet. All of the groups arrive nearly at the same time. Luke, Lando, and Han are aboard the Katana flagship and find it deserted except for maintenance droids. When the Imperials arrive, they board the ship and a shootout ensues.

Leia and Fey’lya arrive and Fey’lya orders Luke, Han, Mara, and Lando placed under arrest. When Leia protests, he pulls a blaster on her and orders her arrest as well. Meanwhile, the Empire is deploying its fighters to engage the rebels and take the fleet. Leia is able to expose Fey’lya as a traitor and unite Bel Ilbis’s rebels with the alliance. But it is too late. Thrawn makes off with all but 15 of the dreadnoughts.

Mara Jade is nearly killed in the battle, but ejects from her ship at the last second. Luke and Han, still aboard the flagship, note with dread that all of the Imperial troops are the same person. Admiral Thrawn has located and used the Emperor’s cloning device and is building an army and crew to man his new ships.

Having dispensed with the need to deploy every tagline, catch phrase, and clever gimmick from the original moves, Zahn moves forward with what amounts to a pretty good piece of militaristic science fiction in Dark Force Rising.

Unlike Heir to the Empire, Zahn is able to stay true to the characters established and developed by George Lucas without using those trite catch phrases that made portions of Heir to the Empire a bore to read. Each main character acts as you would expect them too while undergoing further development at Zahn’s hand. While it is less important now with three prequels and a sequel out, in the mid-1990s, it was heartening to see these old friends again and watch them become deeper and richer.

New characters also undergo further development. Karrde comes across much less shrewd and much more wise. Mara Jade, who sometimes appeared to be a caricature of hatred in the first book, is revealed as much more emotionally complex and smarter than she appeared earlier. The major new edition in this book, Senator Bel Ilbis, promises to be an interesting character as well as it looks as if he will be a major player in book three.

The book evolves much as the movies did. Characters are constantly on the move from place to place. Luck – or the Force depending on your point of view – plays a major part in their success. There is quite a bit of ex deus machina, but we’re not talking about Bradbury or Asimov here. It is space opera in the tradition of the Saturday matinee with lucky breaks and cliffhangers abound.

The major drawback – or attraction if you are so inclined – is The Thrawn Trilogy and Star Wars in general is science fiction junk food. There is nothing intellectually nourishing here. The language is simple. While there are many subplots, there are few twists or hidden motivations. In other words, its true to George Lucas’s vision.

Zahn’s vision of the post-rebellion galaxy comes to a head in book three titled, The Last Command. Admiral Thrawn, with his new fleet and clone crew, will launch what he hopes will be the decisive offensive in his effort to wipe out the nascent New Republic.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Shock III By Richard Matheson

Shock III
By Richard Matheson
Copyright 1966

Girl of My Dreams
An extortionist uses his girlfriend’s precognition to extort money from the loved ones of people who are going to die. For the right sum, the man will provide the time and location of the accident so it can be avoided. But the man is getting tired of the weepy girl and is going to make a break from her after one last job.


Typical Matheson prose – tight and taut. Does anybody know better than Matheson how to pace a story and develop a character with fewer words? I love the guy!

‘Tis the Season to be Jelly

A family contemplates and discusses the marriage of one of their own in a world where their bodies are breaking down and deteriorating because of nuclear fallout.

This story was lackluster. Sometimes, writing phonetically and in a hillbilly patois is effective. Matheson misses the mark in this attempt – and misses it badly.

Return
A scientist travels ahead in time 500 years in a time machine, promising his wife he will return in time for dinner. When he gets there, he is told he is of that time and cannot return. But his wife can be brought forward for a limited time. He struggles to return anyway.

This is the kind of story that makes me love science fiction. No fancy literary props. No hidden message or subtext. Just a well told story full of action and emotion. Matheson is the king!

The Jazz Machine
A black jazz musician learns that a white guy in his audience has developed a machine that can take the music of a jazz musician and put words to describe the emotions behind it. The musician is disturbed and appalled.

I liked the clipped narrative and dialogue in this story. It was way too heavy on the phonetic dialogue for my tastes. Matheson’s love of jazz is clearly reflected in this story.

The Disinheritors
A married couple drives off into the woods to have a picnic. After a large meal, she wants to walk. He wants to take a nap. She wanders off and finds herself living out the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Part of her disbelieves she is actually living a fairy tale. Another part of her seems to be ordering her to live the fairy tale.

This story had the feel of a young reader story. It was told like a story teller would tell a story to children – without dialogue and a steady rhythm of “this happened, then this happened, then she thought this.” The twist had a childlike feel and the last sentence was the capper that screamed for ages eight and up.

Slaughter House
A pair of fussy brothers move into a house haunted by the evil spirit of the former resident whose picture hangs over the mantle. Each in his own turn falls for the lusty succubus and turns on the other. The story is revealed through a manuscript mailed to a newspaper.

It’s interesting how Matheson can take all the worn out haunted house tropes and weave them into a story that is interesting and compelling reading. The main characters are brothers, but one can’t help but feel the homosexual overtones in the narrative. The two brothers react to each other’s feelings and emotions like lovers.

Shock Wave
A church organist tries to convince the lay leader that something is wrong with their immense pipe organ. It seems the organ does not want to be replaced and when it goes, it intends to take a few people with it.

How can you not love a haunted organ story? It’s not as tongue in cheek as the description might make it seem.

When the Walker Sleeps
A space hero must defeat aliens who threaten his planet’s power supply and defend a young, pretty nurse who is to see to his health.

Sound like a science fiction cliché? It is supposed to be. Matheson twists it in the end quite effectively. Most of the story is told in a second person narrative, which can make reading it difficult and the prose unwieldy. Again, all is revealed in the twist.

Witch War
Pre-adolescent girls with the powers of telekinesis are deployed as weapons in a war. They engage the enemy with no sense of right or wrong, sympathy, or empathy.

Today, the story would be considered sexist given the stereotypical dialogue employed by Matheson for the young girls. Perhaps it was social commentary on the amorality of teenagers or perhaps just teenage girls. It was a creepy story given the helplessness of the targets.

First Anniversary
As he celebrates his first anniversary with his wife, a man loses the ability to smell and taste his wife. He is perplexed, frightened, and sad. He sees a doctor who tries to help him psychologically. But one evening at home, he discovers the truth while still trying to convince himself that the problem lies within himself.

This story was not as risqué as it might sound in my summary and has the creepy ending that would have made it suitable juvenilia or comic book fare.

Miss Stardust
A public relations man is brought on board to promote a beauty contest that advertises itself as crowning the most beautiful woman in the universe. But when aliens arrive from other planets demanding their women be exhibited and judged, the whole event becomes complicated.

I am never too pleased when Matheson tries to engage in dark humor. It usually doesn’t work for me and falls flat. In this case, the trope is long worn out and probably was when Matheson wrote this story back in the 1950s. The humor might have worked if his descriptions of his various aliens weren’t so silly.

Full Circle
A newspaper writer is dispatched to attend and review a play put on by Martian performers. As he watches the show, the reporter is intrigued with the actor who plays Rip Van Winkle. He goes backstage to meet him and finds a man full of bitterness and anger at what Earth people have done to his planet and his race.

This story’s subtext was paper thin and time has dated its subversive intent and social commentary. Still, Matheson does capture the raw emotion American blacks must have felt – particularly entertainers – at being good enough to entertain white audiences and not good enough to be societal equals with whites.

Nightmare at 20,000 Feet
A man riding in a plane notices a creature on the wing determined to damage the aircraft’s engines. He alerts the stewardess, to no avail. The creature hides from everyone but him. Wilson is desperate to alert someone – anyone – as to the creature and the danger he presents.

I’ve always loved the Twilight Zone episode based on this story. Frankly, I enjoy it just a little more than the short story itself. Perhaps that is because I’ve seen the show so many times, any anticipation of the climax has been diminished.