Saturday, June 18, 2016

The Wolf’s Hour By Robert McCammon

The Wolf’s Hour
By Robert McCammon
Copyright 1989

What is a lycanthrope in the eyes of God?

Michael Gallatin, British spy and Russian werewolf. He reconciles his dual existence to become a hero of D-day.

The Wolf’s Hour tells two tales. It tells the story of spy Michael Gallatin infiltrating the upper echelons of the Nazi command to gather intelligence about a possible counter operation to thwart the D-Day invasion and the story of young Michael Gallatin who is bitten by a werewolf as a child and becomes a werewolf.

Mikhail Gallatinov is the young son of a Russian general loyal to the Tsar. One day, while his family is on a picnic in the Russian countryside, the Bolsheviks catch up with his family and assassinate all but Michael who is off in the woods. After the attack, the soldiers and Michael are attacked by wolves. The wolf spares his life and he is taken to a remote castle where he soon joins a small pack of lycanthropes who live there in secret.

Michael is raised by this pack, learning to hunt and learning all that he will need to eventually function in normal society including languages, mathematics, and history. Eventually, the Russian soldiers catch up with the pack and all of Michael’s new family is slaughtered. He escapes and makes his way to Great Britain.

Many years later, with his name changed to Gallatin, he is a retired British spy, having earned hero status in Libya during the desert campaign. While there, his lover is murdered by a German spy. Heartbroken, he retreats to his English castle.

He is approached by the British and Americans about infiltrating the German command to learn more about a possible attempt to thwart the D-day invasion. He parachutes into occupied France and, with the help of the French resistance, makes his way to Berlin. There, he is invited to a private club popular with the German high command, posing as a German baron and lover of a popular German film star who is part of the resistance.

With information provided by a French spy named Adam who tells him about an operation called “Iron Fist” he seeks out a German artist who assisted in the project, a chemical plant owner who makes deadly gas, and the man who assassinated his lover a few years prior.

Michael learns that the artist was hired to paint bullet holes on an aircraft. He also painted a caricature of Hitler on the plane, much in the style of American and British aviators paint the noses of their planes. He also learns that the Germans are developing a new, potent gas for an unknown purpose. Gallatin eventually puts it all together. The Germans plan to fly a plane disguised as a wounded American bomber to London where they plan to drop their horrible gas, killing the English in a most horrid way.

Before he can counter the Germans, he is captured and placed aboard a train by the man who murdered his lover in Libya. He is forced to run a deadly gauntlet of traps through the plane why the skilled hunter stalks him. Gallatin outwits him and escapes. He returns to Berlin and he and his fellow spies make their way to the remote island where the gas is being developed.

Once there, they launch an attack on the plant and are able to destroy it. But the shipment of gas has already departed, on its way to a Dutch airfield where it will be placed on the disguised bomber and delivered to London on the eve of D-Day.

The group travels to the remote airfield and confront the Nazis. The plane takes off and Michael and his friends pursue it in a German aircraft. An air battle ensues and Gallatin and his friends are able to eventually take down the aircraft and save London and the Allied invasion.

The Wolf’s Hour followed Swan Song in McCammon’s library and is a worthy successor. In Swan Song, McCammon perfected the art of creating memorable and unusual characters with Sister being one of the strongest characters I’ve ever read in genre fiction. Michael Gallatin is similarly strong.

Going into The Wolf’s Hour, I was anticipating a character who was torn apart and guilt-ridden over his duel existence. Instead, McCammon turned the cliché on its head.

McCammon’s werewolves are noble creatures who are persecuted and forced to live in isolation. They live and love as humans. They are educated and refined. The adult Michael Gallatin is far from guilt-ridden. He embraces who and what he is and uses it to his advantage. That is far removed from Larry Talbot and his tortured existence.

McCammon makes Gallatin into a Bond type superhero without allowing the trope to devolve into a foolish cliché. He sleeps with no less than four women in the novel. He reduces them all to putty in his hands. Along the way, McCammon shows us he has a real knack for writing effective erotica. Much like Bond, Gallatin escapes many impossible situations by outwitting his adversaries. The only thing Gallatin lacked was the Bond collection of fancy automobiles and gadgets.

The split narrative is employed effectively and enhances both timelines. Mikhail Gallatinov is developed as a young man of valor, honor and education and a wolf of cunning and great hunting skill. Michael Gallatin is developed as a loyal Englishman dedicated to helping win the war while also being the gallant hero seeking to avenge his murdered lover.

But The Wolf’s Hour is not a character study. It is a spy story blended with a horror novel, although the horror really plays a secondary role only used to enhance the spy story. Coming in at over 600 pages, the story seldom lags and the plot moves nicely. Like most McCammon books, the story relies on expansive geography, moving all over Europe. It does not quite rise to the level of splatterpunk a la Jack Ketchum, but McCammon shows he can be quite graphic in describing gore and violence.

The book’s one glaring weakness is at the end. The scene with Winston Churchill was just a tiny bit of overkill when the novel could have been effectively terminated several pages earlier. As a matter of personal taste, I like novels with short chapters. The Wolf’s Hour’s chapters were quite long. More frequent breaks are a better way to tell a long story.

The Wolf’s Hour
was another step in the evolution of McCammon as a writer. In this book, he is moving away from the horror and supernatural genres into more mainstream writing. The Wolf’s Hour is primarily a spy novel. McCammon would continue to move in this direction with the publication of Mine, Boy’s Life, and Gone South.

The Wolf’s Hour does not quite achieve the epic status of Swan Song which is one of the finest pieces of genre fiction I’ve ever read. But it does stand as one of the top three books McCammon has written and is a fine and worthy entry into the werewolf subgenre, well worth reading for both horror and spy novel fans.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

The Howling Man By Charles Beaumont

The Howling Man
By Charles Beaumont
Copyright 1992

Introduction by Roger Anker
Editor Roger Anker provides a brief biography of the short but prolific life of Charles Beaumont. Born Charles Nutt, he changed his name because of people making fun of him. He overcame a stunted education to become a prolific writer of screenplays, novels, short stories and teleplays. He was part of the “California School” of writers that included Richard Matheson, Ray Bradbury, Rod Serling, and William F. Nolan. His life was cut tragically short when he developed Alzheimer’s Disease in his late 30s. He died in 1967.

Miss Gentibelle
(introduced by Ray Bradbury)
Young Robert is raised by his harsh and demanding mother to believe he is a girl. He is enraged when he learns the truth about his gender from the gardener. The gardener leaves, promising to return with the authorities. Robert, however, has to take matters into his own hands.

This story is quite simple. The main character – the boy with mommy issues – is used over and over again in horror fiction. The plot is simple and straight forward. But, what makes the reading worthwhile is not always the tale itself, but the teller and how he tells it and Beaumont tells this trite little tale quite wonderfully.

The Vanishing Man

Mr. Minchell, an accounting clerk at a big city agency, notices that nobody notices him. He is invisible. Store clerks don’t notice him and neither does his family. At first, he laments this development. But then, he decides to fulfill a childhood ambition.

Beaumont relies on an often employed subtext of the 1950s – that of the diminished stature of the working person – mostly male clerical workers. As the postwar boom raged and companies became larger and larger, the worker began to feel smaller and smaller. This was the subtext behind Richard Matheson’s The Shrinking Man. Here, the emphasis is more on age than social standing as the man approaches 50 with his dreams unfulfilled. It was an ok story that mimicked the writing style of Franz Kafka.

A Place of Meeting

A group of people gather in a clearing and report on their search efforts. One by one, each report the area of the earth they were assigned to search is dead – with no life of any kind left. The group then resolves to return to the ground and wait for the next evolution of man to emerge again and take part in society.

The premise, in my reading experience, was original. I knew the story was a short one and was wondering where it was headed right up until the next to last paragraph. Great idea well executed.

The Devil You Say (introduced by Howard Browne)
A former reporter and newspaper publisher tells his fellow reporters of his experience of owning a small town newspaper where his business partner was Satan himself. Satan broke the most amazing stories.

This was Beaumont’s first sold story and it is wonderful. The camp is exceptional. The narrative well paced, and the end is suitably sad. Fans of the Twilight Zone will recognize this story as the basis for the episode The Printer’s Devil.

Free Dirt (Introduced by Dennis Etchison)
A man obsessed with getting things for free, learns of free dirt being given away by a cemetery. He is determined to take advantage and hauls it all home to create a garden in his back yard to get free vegetables. His vegetables grow and he devours them in one meal with unlikely results.

This one didn’t have much appeal to me. It has the flavor of a Twilight Zone script, but the twist at the end was flat and not well delivered.

Song for a Lady
A newlywed couple decides to book passage for their honeymoon cruise aboard the Lady Anne – a dilapidated old steamer making its last transatlantic voyage. When they board, they are met with hostility by the passengers who are all old. Eventually, the passengers warm to the young couple, but surprise them at the end of their voyage.

Knowing the nature of Beaumont’s writing from repeated viewings of the Twilight Zone, where this story was headed would not have been a surprise even had I not seen the Twilight Zone episode he penned based on this story. Nonetheless, it was a well told story with a romantic ending of sorts. I wish I could have read it before seeing the Twilight Zone adaptation.

Last Rites (Introduced by Richard Matheson)
A priest rushes to the house of his friend who is bedridden and clearly dying. The priest urgently wants to call a doctor. His friend will not hear of it. His friend asks the priest: Can an artificial man who has felt joy, sorrow, pain and pleasure, have a soul? If so, will the priest administer last rites to that artificial man?

This question is one often pondered by science fiction writers. Isaac Asimov did it with Bicentennial Man and Brian Aldiss with Super Toys Last all Summer Long. This story does not riff on the trope in any original manner. But it was well written and does ask deeply spiritual questions. An okay story, but not one of Beaumont’s best.

The Howling Man (introduced by Harlan Ellison)
A young American backpacks across rural Germany when he falls ill. In a state of delirium, he is taken into a monastery by a group of reclusive monks. As he recovers, he hears a constant wailing of a man nearby which the monks will not acknowledge exists. He finally makes his way to where a man is being held in a cell. The monks claim he is the devil. The man claims the monks are insane.

An absolutely brilliant story told in an old, gothic style of first person narrative. I used to eat this stuff up as a kid and the joy hasn’t gone out of the experience in my later years. Fans of the Twilight Zone will recognize this story as one Beaumont adapted for the small screen and made it one of the best episodes of that stellar series.

The Dark Music
A puritanical teacher who is fighting a winning battle to keep sex education out of her school, is enchanted by mysterious music she hears one day while on a field trip in the woods. As she leads her puritanical life fights for her puritanical values, she is drawn to that woods again and again full of lustful heat.

This story didn’t work for me. I got the allegory. But I just didn’t care about the main character. She wasn’t sympathetic or tragic. The end was unsatisfying.

The Magic Man (introduced by Charles E. Fritch)
A magician and peddler of patent medicines arrives in his favorite town to do his show. The residents of the town love him and look forward to seeing his performance. As he tells his tales of adventure and performs his feats of wonder, the audience begs to know how it is done. Since he knows he’s dying and this may well be his last performance, he reveals his secrets. Instead of loving him for it, the audience leaves disappointed.

How much I like a story teller’s mainstream stories is a true gauge of how much I like a story teller. I don’t like mainstream short fiction. I do love this story. No tricks with the language. No lofty prose. Just a man telling a good story about an interesting character and conveying a subtext that contains a lesson we all learn as children: knowing how a trick is done ruins them magic.

Fair Lady (introduced by George Clayton Johnson)
A doughty, older school teacher lives out her loveless existence in a boarding house room. One day, she boards a bus and is immediately attracted to the bus driver. Over a period of three years, she rides the bus daily and falls in love with him – all while having just the briefest of daily conversations with him. Then one day, she boards and he is not there.

This is a mainstream love story with feints at literary prose. The story is solid. Beaumont is able to tap the reader’s emotions by making the emotions of the character familiar to them. This story is not to my taste. But I can see why Johnson liked it.

A Point of Honor
A young man is about to be initiated into a street gang. To complete the initiation, he must murder the manager of a local theater. He contemplates the importance of the gang in his life, his personal honor, and his fear as he waits for his victim.

To this point, I have sounded very much like a Charles Beaumont fanboy. He has been worthy of the praise I have heaped upon him so far. In this story, it’s a swing and a miss. It’s a character study that left me saying, so what?

The Hunger (introduced by Richard Christian Anderson)
A woman lives with her two widowed sisters in a small town. They all live in fear – and a little excitement – of a serial rapist and killer who is stalking the area. The woman becomes convinced that if she can meet him and seduce him, she can change him.

This story had great character development and the split narrative worked wonderfully. It had a great climax but a not so thrilling ending.

Black Country (introduced by Ray Russell)
A black jazz musician takes on a white female singer and a white male saxophone player. He eventually takes the woman as a lover and the sax player as an apprentice trumpet player. When cancer ravages his body and he can no longer play, he kills himself. But he’s passed something along – something very important to him – to his apprentice.

It’s easy to ascertain from this story that Beaumont was a fan of jazz and blues. Ray Russell points out that this story was almost musical in its composition. It did have a rhythm in its prose. While it’s a better entry into the bewitched jazz musician subgenre than Richard Matheson’s entry, it is dated.

Gentlemen, Please Sit (introduced by Frank M. Robinson)
A drone is invited to a private club by his boss. The club, located in a desolate part of town, is a comedy club dedicated to preserving old humor that is considered racist or offensive in today’s society. The man does not find it too terribly funny. The next day, he regrets his reaction.

As a story, this entry was rather pedestrian. However, it does provide some commentary that is still relevant today about political correctness and how it curbs and reduces comedy.

The Jungle
An urban planner and his dying wife are the last residents of a modern city built in the jungles of Africa. The man confronts a local witch doctor who explains to him the natives’ culture is different, but not inferior and they did not need to be modernized or eradicated by the white man.

This story lacked a real climax. The twist wasn’t all that shocking. It did contain some interesting insights into the importance of indigenous culture as a bonding agent to keep people civilized. Twilight Zone fans will recognize the title. Beaumont incorporated some of the ideas from this story into his script for that episode.

The New People (introduced by Saul David)
A middle-aged professional couple move into a neighborhood inhabited by other middle-aged professional couples. The man is not entirely happy while his wife is giddy with excitement. They invite their new neighbors over. One man – a Hollywood screenwriter – tells his new neighbor that he is in danger and that he must move or suffer horrible consequences. He shows him why.

I don’t know if this story predates Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby. But it relies on the same trope: there are evil Satanists living in our midst. While Levin’s social commentary was more about the decline of Christianity in the 1960s, Beaumont speaks more to the search for excitement and adventure in middle age.

Perchance to Dream
A man walks into a psychiatrist’s office exhausted and sleep deprived. He tells the psychiatrist that if he goes to sleep, he will die in his dream. He then relates the detail of the dream that will lead up to his death.

Having seen the Twilight Zone episode of the same name, I was not surprised by the twist ending. That does not diminish the quality of the story. The straight forward narrative builds toward the exciting climax at just the right pace.

The Crooked Man

In a dystopian future, gay people are open and outed with their sexuality while heterosexuals are considered deviant and are hunted by vice squads. A man goes to a gay bar hoping to meet the woman whom he loves. When they meet, they are immediately tagged as deviants.

For the time in which this was written, this story was quite progressive. It predates the Stonewall Riots and the start of gay liberation. Today, its progressivism is blunted by its depicture of any kind of consensual sexuality between adults as deviant. As a story, the metaphor is too heavy handed and plot nominal.

Blood Brothers
A vampire goes to a psychiatrist to complain about his state. He is ill-equipped to be a vampire and hates his life. But he has an unlikely tie to the psychiatrist.

This story was a little tongue in cheek and suited for a younger audience. But it was well paced and as hard as I tried to guess the twist, I honestly did not see it coming. Of course, Beaumont cheated just a little by not giving any clues.

A Death in the Country (introduced by William F. Nolan)

This is a story of a 1950s vintage stock car racer who goes from town to town, racing the local and collecting purses to fund his trip to the next town. When he arrives at the fair grounds and pulls into the pit, he meets a nice young man driving a hot new car while he drives an older car in need of an engine rebuild. He’s determined to show at least third to collect some money. Still, he admires the kid’s enthusiasm and the support of his young girlfriend. But, when they hit the tracks, war is war.

This is a character study and I’m not a fan of character studies. However, I like the backdrop of the old stock car scene for the character and I like stock car drivers of that area. Beaumont was an authority on auto racing and brought that expertise to this story to make it work nicely.

The Music of the Yellow Brass
A young, desperate bullfighter finally stands on the precipice of greatness when he is awarded the opportunity to engage a notorious bull in a highly billed contest. He is wined and dined the night before the big show. But the day he is to go out and fight, he learns that his manager sold him out. He goes forward to fight anyway.

This is an oft employed trope of the longshot getting his shot at the bigtime. From Rocky to the Twilight Zone episode, The Big Tall Wish, they are all the same. This one is no different and does not distinguish itself.

Night Ride
A jazz band picks up a new piano player with a gift for translating misery into beautiful and soulful blues. When that young piano player catches the fancy of a young girl, the band leader becomes concerned. He takes drastic action with horrible consequences.

It is obvious that Beaumont was fascinated by jazz and blues and the venues that featured that music in the 1950s and 60s. Not being fascinated with that music, I find these stories rather dull. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with this story. It’s just not to my taste.

The Intruder, Chapter 10 (introduced by Roger Corman)
A rabble rouser arrives in a small southern town to preach against integration of schools. The man builds toward a fever pitch, then disappears just as a black family drives through town. Stirred up and angry, the mob confronts the family, destroys the car, and comes close to killing them before the law arrives. A local lawyer tries to get the sheriff to make an arrest. But the sheriff isn’t interested.

This is a chapter from Beaumont’s novel that he adapted for a screenplay to be directed by Roger Corman. The movie got made on a shoestring budget. It received critical acclaim, but did not do well at the box office. Most consider it Corman’s finest work.

Mourning Song
(introduced by Jerry Sohl)
In an unnamed town in an undefined time, the residents fear when old Solomon comes to town. He is an elderly man with a bird on his shoulder and no eyes. He carries with him a guitar. When he stops and plays in front of your home, death is coming for you or your loved ones. One young boy refuses to believe that Solomon has any special powers. He goes in believing that into adulthood.

The writing in this story reminded me so much of John Wyndham in Chrysalids. Obviously, the stories are quite different. But the narrative voice and the main character bear a striking resemblance to each other. This was a beautifully told story that came up just a bit abrupt.

To Hell with Claude (introduced by Chad Oliver)
Claude is king of the world and master of the universe. He is vexed to find out the perfect world he created combining European feudalism with southern plantation culture has been infected with literature – the root of all subversion. He travels to Miskatonic University posing as a freshman student and enrolls to go undercover and find the purveyors of the befouling words.

This story was rather silly. I’ve seen several authors take great literature and figures from literature and incorporate them into stories to make statements about the importance of stories. The point is usually made, but the stories aren’t particularly enjoyable.

Appointment with Eddie

The world’s most famous entertainer wants an appointment with a hole in the wall barber in New York City. He’s desperate for that appointment and acts as if it’s a life or death matter. His agent tries to get him that appointment with Eddie the Barber who charges one dollar for a haircut. Despite his shop being empty, Eddie says he doesn’t have an opening and doesn’t know when he’ll have an opening. The entertainer is distraught to the point of suicide. His agent learns from other entertainers that you’re not really a success until Eddie agrees to cut your hair.

This was a well told story with a strong narrative voice. But the subtext is important here and Beaumont, being an entertainer of sorts, knows what he is talking about. Stephen King once said he knew he’d made it when Playboy published him. Beaumont, a charter member of Playboy’s distinguished stable of writers, may have been writing about the affirmation he got from Playboy or some other publication.

The Crime of Willie Washington

Willie Washington is a black man who works on a railroad in an undetermined time in the past. One night, Willie stabs a man in a fit of anger and worries he has killed him. When the man lives and Willie is not arrested, he figures he’s got away with a crime. Later, he is arrested and tried for the rape and murder of a white woman of which he is innocent. He relies on his faith as the state tries three times to execute him. When he is eventually set free, his faith is tested by tough circumstances.

On the surface, one might expect this to be an examination of racism in the criminal justice system. It is not. Although Willie is black, the story is more about faith and how it is tested and how it can remain strong or waiver in even the strongest believers.

The Man with the Crooked Nose
A bookseller has an employee who shuffles about silently, attending to his duties. He does not speak since he does not know English, but sings beautifully. One day, a portly man with a crooked nose walks in and destroys the silent man’s demeanor.

This story has one of those nebulous endings that drive me crazy. I guess if an author leaves you wanting more, he’s written a well told story.

The Carnival
A young boy is paralyzed in a car vs. bike accident. For three years, he sits and mopes in his wheel chair. His father takes him to a carnival to stimulate his imagination. He sees the boy born without arms and legs and his imagination is stimulated.

This was a really weak note to end an otherwise stellar collection of short stories. Lots of imagery, very little substance.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Childhood’s End By Arthur C. Clarke

Childhood’s End
By Arthur C. Clarke
Copyright 1953

Childhood’s End stands as one of the most transformative and important novels in science fiction history. Written in an era when the Cold War was developing into something ugly and atomic weapons were new and scary, it touched a nerve with readers much like the movie, The Day the Earth Stood Still.

The novel is divided into three parts.

In Part 1, the aliens – or Overlords as they come to be called – arrive in ships that position themselves over every major city in the world. The Soviets and the Americans had been engaged in the Space Race, but that ceases with the arrival of the space ships.

After a brief period of observation, the aliens speak to Earthlings. The new supervisor of Earth, Karellen, tells the head of the United Nations, Rikki Stormgren, that the Overlords are going to assume control over international affairs to prevent war and save the human race. Otherwise, man is free to go about his business.

Many herald the intervention of the Overlords and the era of world peace they bring about. But a dissident movement arises. Stormgren serves as the only point of contact with the Overlords and while he has been to their ship many times, he has never seen them. While he does not approve of the dissident movement, Stormgren is eager to have the aliens reveal themselves to increase trust among humans. Karrelen tells him the time is not right.

After being kidnapped and held hostage by dissidents, Karellen agrees to smuggle aboard the Overlord ship a device that will allow him to see the Karrelen. The device works and Stormgren is horrified by what he sees. He then retires to a country estate.

In Part 2, the human race has moved on to an era called the Golden Age where creativity abounds, free of the strife of human conflict. The Overlords have revealed themselves and they fit the classic description of demons or the devil with horns, wings, and cloven hooves. They interact with the human race, albeit sparingly.

The Overlords have developed an interest in the occult and psychic research. While this field is considered passe by modern society, one man maintains an extensive library on the subject. Millionaire Rupert Boyce allows the Overlord, Rashaverek, to study his collection.

One evening, Boyce holds a party with Rashaverek as his guest of honor since interaction with an Overlord is considered a high honor. At the party, the guests hold a séance with a Ouija Board. Boyce’s brother-in-law asks the board to identify the Overlords’ home star. The board spells out the star coordinates. Meanwhile, one of Boyce’s guests faints.

Jan Roddick, Boyce’s brother in law, decides to stow away on an Overlord spacecraft to travel to their home planet. With the help of a brilliant oceanographer, Roddick constructs a container to stow away in and puts himself into suspended animation to survive the trip. At the end of the second part of the book, we learn the Roddick arrived safely and was discovered by the Overlords.

In the third and final part of the book, man is getting bored and many feel that creativity has languished in a life of total security. Several people split off from society and form an art colony known as New Athens. Among them are George and Jean Gregson. Jean is the woman who fainted at Rupert Boyce’s party. The Gregsons have been under the Overlord’s surveillance since that night. Her offspring are the seeds of man’s transformation to a higher plane of existence.

It all starts with the Gregson children. They display telekinetic powers and other special abilities. These abilities begin to manifest in other earth children. Deeming the time to be right, Korellen reveals the Overlords true purpose.

They serve a higher intelligence called the Overmind. The Overmind is an amalgamation of ancient intelligence culled from other worlds. The current children of earth are to be man’s last generation. They will join the Overmind and mankind will die out as a race. The Overlords were sent to earth to guide and observe.

Meanwhile, Jan Rodricks is on the Overlord home planet awaiting his return to earth. The Overlords explain to him the nature of their mission and tell him that, despite being servants of the Overmind, they can not join with it. They do not know why.

Rodricks returns to earth approximately 80 years after he left it. Mankind is dying out. Many have committed suicide. New Athens wiped itself out with a nuclear bomb. Earth’s children are communing mentally and testing their powers. They alter the moon’s rotation and orbit. They are evolving quickly.

As the last of the Overlords prepares to depart, having completed their mission, Rodricks agrees to stay behind and transmit his observations of the final stages of man’s evolution. Rodrick watches as the earth slowly dissolves into etherealness. He fills a great sense of fulfillment on behalf of man. He transmits his final thoughts to the Overlords, hoping that the information he provides will help them make that connection with the Overmind. The Overlords speed away from earth’s solar system, bidding a final salute to the race that was man.

Childhood’s End is heralded as one of the great achievements in science fiction and rightfully so. Clarke tells a grand story of huge proportions in few pages. The language makes the story accessible to readers of all ages and is uplifting in its theme. The book was awarded the Hugo Award retroactively in 2004.

Rodrick explores political and social subtexts in his novel. Written during the early, spooky days of the Cold War, the Soviets are clearly the bad guys in the beginning and the last to fall into line with the Overlords. The Overlords domination of man explores the age-old battle between security and liberty. Clarke never comes down hard on one side or the other, but lays out the arguments for both quite well.

Clarke examines how conflict, security, comfort, and creativity interact as well. One would think that, free of danger, man’s creativity would flourish. Deprived of the need to defend himself against murderers, muggers, and thieves, his mind would be free to explore all sorts of creative vistas. Not in Clarke’s mind and probably not in reality. Creativity and innovation often arise from conflict. Man has an inherent need for conflict in his life lest his intellect and creative impulses become stunted.

Arthur C. Clarke was obviously an optimist. And while he embraced atheism late in his life, this book contains spiritual elements worthy of exploring in a theology class. Near the end, Rodrick asks the Overlords if earlier encounters with man may have led to Christianity’s conception of the devil. Karellen responds that man’s conception of Satan is not memory, but a prediction of man’s ultimate fate stored in the brain of each person. His book ends with the ultimate spiritual achievement -- communing with the higher power. What could be more optimistic than that?

Exploring so many themes and containing so many subtexts within the short span of this novel is a remarkable achievement. Clarke, like all the genre authors of his era, was a product of the pulp magazines. When writing for these publications, words were at a premium. Each words and sentence counted. These men – and a few women – learned to hone their prose to get as much story into those few words as possible. The death of the pulps has made this nearly a lost art.

Childhood’s End
is a must for any serious or even casual fan of science fiction. Stripped of all of the technical details today’s science fiction often gets bogged down in, Childhood’s End explores the very nature of what it is to be human and humankind’s place in the universe. It is nothing short of brilliant.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Book to Movie: I, Robot (2004)

Book to Movie: I, Robot (2004)
Based on characters created by Isaac Asimov
From short story collection, I, Robot
Directed by Alex Proyas
Screenplay by Jeff Vintar and Akiva Goldsman

In 2004, robots as envisioned by Isaac Asimov got the screen treatment. The movie script does not resemble any of the stories from the short story collection or any of the novels.

It does incorporate the characters from the short story collection. They include roboticist Dr. Susan Calvin and Dr. Alfred Lansing who created the Three Laws of Robotics.

Like the stories and the novels, the plot centers around the Three Laws and how robots and humans interpret them. And, like the novels, the main plot is a murder mystery.

Dr. Alfred Lanning, cofounder of U.S. Robots and Mechanical Men commits suicide. Before he commits suicide, he sends a message to Chicago police detective, Del Spooner, that indicates that all is not as it seems in the case. Spooner, who has a strong prejudice against robots because one elected to save him rather than a small girl in a car crash, is determined to investigate despite being discouraged by his boss and the CEO of USR who is about to introduce and mass market a new robot – the NS-5.

Spooner’s first clue is that there is no way that Lanning could have jumped through the window to his death. It would have required the strength of a robot to force him through the window, strengthening his belief that it was the robot – Sonny, the prototype for the NS-5 that committed the murder. Spooner and Calvin learn that Sonny has different programming that allows him to bypass the Three Laws.

Spooner suspicion grows when he and Calvin are attacked by NS-5 robots in direct violation of the Three Laws. When the CEO Robertson learns of the attack and of Sonny’s special abilities, he orders Calvin to destroy his mind using a type of virus called nanites. That does not stop what comes next.

NS-5 robots move into a robot storage area (the now dried up Lake Michigan) and dismantle older robots and prepare to take over the world. They turn on their masters in Chicago and presumably across the country to seize power. Believing that Robertson is behind the power grab, Spooner and Calvin head to USR headquarters only to find Robertson murdered.

Dr. Calvin ponders the situation and determines only one other entity had the ability to establish control over USR’s entire stock of robots. That entity is VIKI (Virtual Interactive Kinetic Intelligence). VIKI is the central interphase for all of USR’s operations. She has concluded that in order to fully obey the Three Laws, robots must be allowed to protect and control humans to keep them safe from themselves.

With an army of NS-5s trying to stop them, Spooner and Calvin rush to infect VIKI with nanites. They access VIKI’s core and Spooner is able to inject the nanites into her systems, bringing her down. The NS-5s immediately return to their default programming.

Sonny tells Spooner and Calvin that Dr. Lanning knew of VIKI’s treachery and created him specifically for the purpose of killing Lanning to bring Spooner into the investigation. Now over his bigotry toward robots, Spooner says that, since Sonny is a robot, he is not guilty of murder since the statute does not cover robots.

Sonny leaves NSR’s headquarters and travels to Lake Michigan where he will become a transformational figure for the NS-5 robots, just as he had seen himself in his dream.

I, Robot was a nifty science fiction movie that was well plotted, well acted and well directed. There were a couple scenes that were really heavy on CGI to show off special effects while not adding much to the movie. But, that was typical of science fiction for that era (and this one, unfortunately).

However, I, Robot did not rely on CGI and eye candy to make it attractive to viewers. The mystery set up the twist wonderfully. As I watched the movie unfold, I was amazed at how obviously the script telegraphed who the villain was – and I was wrong. Will Smith does an excellent job as Spooner, making bigotry an element of his character, but not the defining element which would have made him one dimensional.

As for its attachment to the Asimov stories, There wasn’t much. The Three Laws, the characters’ names, and the fact that it was about robots is about all the Asimov elements there were. Had they called the movie something else, I’m quite certain that the Asimov estate would not have challenged the movie makers.

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

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 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.