Monday, June 29, 2015

Erin A. Thomas, AN INKLING HOPE: Moments of Calmness and Grandeur

an inkling hope: select poems
Erin A. Thomas
Formless Press (Verdi NV), 2014
Trade paperback, 190 pp.

Erin A. Thomas’s collection of something like two hundred poems is a model of how a poetry book should be put together.
To begin with least things first, it is a well-constructed, sturdy volume—thick enough to have that certain heft that makes it feel comfortable to the hand, thin enough to fit in a pack and handily take out for a few minutes enjoyment.
It is well presented, from Cedar Lee’s intriguing cover design, “Grounded,” to the clear, easily readable typeface (which at my age I appreciate).
It employs useful and infrequently seen critical apparatus. The “Notes” provide information about the genesis and evolution of individual poems, ranging from short sentences to considerations of longer historical, personal, literary, and philosophical points. Sometimes these notes merely indicate a direction, an intention, a hope on the poet’s part; other times, they help unfold intricacies of structure, content, and language that—when one returns to the poem—increase its depth and resonance. By separating them into a separate section, Thomas ensures the flow of what is most important—the poetry—while allowing himself to speak directly to readers…if they are interested in listening.
That is followed by “Index of First Lines,” a now generally ignored convention of earlier collections. It helps readers who, intrigued by a powerful opening line, wish to find the poem again. In a book such as this, which is not overtly organized thematically, such an Index is useful. (There is also an Index to titles at the front, in case one wants to search that way.)
The final section is the “Index of Forms.” This one is quite important. Thomas is something between a free-verse and a formalist poet. In one poem, he may create the illusion of free verse while subtly employing an undercurrent of stresses and rhythms; in another, a glance will immediately identify the piece as a sonnet—fourteen lines, octave and sestet, etc.—but reading it might point to an underlying relaxation of metrics, the frequent use of half- and slant-rhymes, creative permutations upon the “rules” so that the poem reflects both past and present. In this section, he speaks to his general poetics, defining the forms classically and as he might use them, identifying points at which he shifts expectations, and discussing poems in which he has explored with form and arrived at his own conclusions. For anyone interested in how poems come to be, this section is informative and entertaining.
So much for the last 37 pages of an inkling hope.
That leaves the first 153.
And here is where the book shines.

The first major poem, following a quatrain suggesting what poetry means to Thomas, is the eponymous “an inkling hope.” It is crucial to what follows, since it introduces themes, images, motifs, and metaphors that will echo throughout, while talking-about-without-talking-about the art of poetry itself. Its five stanzas are firmly embedded in the natural world: in seed and leaves and trees and flowers, metaphors for growth and dis-covery that form the core of many subsequent pieces. At the end, here as elsewhere, Thomas joins tenor and vehicle in a moment of particular insight as the unnamed character

reached and plucked one ripe idea
and nursed the tangs of inspiration

Sometimes the poems consist of a single instant of awareness, of the natural world suddenly clarifying something for the poet, as in “Monday at St. Rose”:

the pale ghosts of saints
peer in on empty wooden
pews and out across
vacant parking lots where crows
search the cracks for seeds and crumbs

or in the aptly titled “what is haiku”:

silent stone waters
wimpled light reflections
golden flashes of fins

His subjects range from the abstract “prayer”—which, rather like George Herbert’s seventeenth-century meditation on the subject, couples form and discipline to image and observation in arriving at meaning—to the concrete, as in “Aftermath,” in which the speechlessness and grief of the survivors of a tsunami are compressed into a tautly structured Shakespearean sonnet.
“Wordplay” approaches the knotty contradictions of form and freedom in verse, of structure (which implies premeditation and external control) and spontaneity (which implies direct expression of emotion). Unsurprisingly, Thomas speaks for the former in his sestet:

          If all it takes to make a poem
is just to write what thoughts may roam
     with no consideration for the flow of words,
          then poetry is not an art,
but just a means for ailing hearts
     to air undisciplined emotions to the world.

Emotions there are aplenty in an inkling hope—but also discipline, form, structure, control…and art.

If I have a quibble about the collection, it is that often poems are presented without initial capitals or internal/terminal punctuations. The result is that sometimes it becomes difficult to tell if a line is intended to stand alone or if it should be connected to lines above or below. In a lovely trio of haiku, “birch,” for example, the last line of the first poem contains a metaphorical appositive and needs to be broken from the first two:

     one by four the breeze
loosens wings from tall white limbs
     butterflies in flight

The final line of the second, however, seems to continue the middle line to create a single syntactical, more literal unit:

     five by ten the winds
scatter yellow shades of brown
     silent through the air
The lack of punctuation and shift of direction might lead to momentary ambiguity.
On the whole, though, an inkling hope offers up page upon page of gentle delights, images both nostalgic and breathtaking, insight subtle and direct. It is well worth reading.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Steven L. Peck, A SHORT STAY IN HELL--"I Saw Eternity the Other Night...."

A Short Stay in Hell
Steven L. Peck
Strange Violins Editions, 2012
Hardcover, trade paperback, ebook

Not long ago, I received an invitation to submit a story for an anthology-in-progress, tentatively titled Windows into Hell, edited by James Wymore. Each story was to reflect—or refract, or possibly diffract—Steven L. Peck’s marvelously ironically titled novella, A Short Stay in Hell. Briefly put, the submission guidelines required that a character find himself or herself in an unexpected version of Hell and through the ensuing experiences discover something elemental about self, others, and/or humanity. Not the least of the enjoyment that came from working on the project was being able to read and think about Peck’s original story.
Peck’s seminal version is easy to summarize. Soren Johansson—recently departed husband, father, and faithful Mormon—confronts a “proficient demon,” who condemns him to search library shelves in a Zoroastrian Hell until he discovers a book that details his entire life.
This one-sentence digest of a long story of course fails to reveal the essence of the book or the shocks awaiting Johannson as he sets out on his quest. For one thing, the story is not about Zoroastrianism on any specific level, other than that the revelation that a religion practiced by small groups of people, most of them some thousands of years dead, is the only true Religion adds a delicious sense of obliqueness to the disparity between what Johannson expects and what he experiences.
For another, the library consists of every book that could possibly be written, which means that nearly all of them contain nothing but gibberish—random, meaningless strings of print. But that fact dwindles in importance next to the unimaginable number of books involved. Each book is 410 pages long, no more, no less; with forty lines per page and eighty characters per line, for a total of 1,312,000 characters per book. Given some 95 characters in English, including common typographical marks, the total of books would be 95 raised to the 1,312,000th power—or 95 followed by a considerable number of zeroes, more by orders of magnitude than the estimated sum of electrons in the known universe.
One implication of this is that the library containing all of these volumes must itself be multiple times larger than the universe as we know it. And in a Hell in which discovery of three recognizable words forming a meaningful phrase is cause for celebration, the prospects of Johannson finding the book he searches for are vanishingly small. And the time it will take him to find it cosmically long. 
If A Short Stay in Hell were only about one man in a disconcerting place looking for a certain book, it might be interesting for the sheer ingenuity of the conceit. But there is far more involved, and here is where the story demonstrates the powers of its teller. 
Perhaps the first important theme deals with love and relationships. Johannson had been happily married before his death and fully expected to meet his wife in a Mormon version of Heaven…but does not. Instead, as he explores the unending corridors of the library, he encounters others to love, for friendship, for companionship, for intimacy. And discovers that what seemed fulfilling over the stretch of years cannot be sustained for eternities, and that what can be found—even amid the strangenesses of the library—can easily be lost. As he notes with casual understatement: “After a billion years there is nothing left to say, and you wander apart, uncaring in the end.” Ultimately, even memories fade, and Johannson must stand alone.  
Humanity comes under scrutiny as well. Everyone Johannson meets in his particular Hell is white—there appear to be no Asians, Hispanics, or Blacks. No children or old people. And they all speak English…with an American accent. As he moves up and down through the library, and across the eons, he discovers that being surrounded by a sameness becomes itself a kind of punishment. Everyone and everything becomes, to use his word, “bland.” Perfect homogeneity becomes its own curse. That does not keep groups from forming, shifting memberships with time, some intent upon finding the books that will release them, others determined to gain power and control, even when it means torturing and killing fellow sufferers day after day after day…because in this Hell, one may die one day but be alive and well and healed the next, just in time for greater evils and pains.    
Ideas such as these are important to A Short Stay in Hell, as well as others considered more fleetingly. They fade in importance, however, in the face of what seems to me the great, overriding theme of this thought-experiment (to borrow a phrase from Ursula K. Le Guin): to attempt the contradictory, the paradoxical, and the impossible and create eternity in prose.
Though the probabilities of finding a book whose contents make sense from beginning to end are ridiculously low, such books do exist. A library capable of holding the astronomical number of volumes suggested would require a structure larger than the universe, but it would ultimately have concrete limits, even though rising or falling for 30,000 years might fail to bring those boundaries into view.
But the time….
The hundreds, the thousands, the millions, the billions of years Johannson devotes to specific goals—all are treated as though they were but the passing of seconds. There are individual days, counted off by gigantic clocks everywhere visible, but they lead only to eons upon eons, to light-years upon light-years, to light-years of light-years—passed in searching for a single, meaningful book.
There is nothing new about an author positing vast expanses of time. It happens frequently enough in traditional science fiction. What is different here is that Peck makes the unimaginable incalculability of time-without-end, of Eternity itself, seem a possibility. By the end of A Short Stay in Hell, Johannson is exhausted—emptied out, drained of everything—except a single, fragile hope. After enduring that stay vicariously through him, I too began—in a minute, fumbling, finite way—to understood the facileness and the futility of attempting to, or claiming to, understand God, Time, and Eternity.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Not–So-Good Horror: Why Little Things Count

Some years back, following my introduction to the magical darkness of Stephen King, I spent a summer binge-reading horror. Among the dozens I devoured, one comes readily to mind.
It was a first novel by a then-newcomer to the genre. I vividly remember working through it, reading the final page, staring at the mass-market paperback for a moment, then—in a fit of pique—ripping it in half along the spine and throwing it across the room. (Anyone who knows me and my respect for all books will understand how unlike me that would be.) And, immediately repenting both the pique and the tearing, going to the bookstore and buying a copy to keep on my shelf.
I did so for two reasons. First, to chastise myself for mistreating a book. And second, to remind me what truly Not-So-Good horror looked like.
I mentioned the book occasionally over the years, during classes on creative writing and on con panels emphasizing writing skills, because the book, as I remembered it, represented an extreme in manipulative, exploitative content and inadequate characterizations, particularly for the many characters that were brought on stage only in order to be cruelly and violently slaughtered.
When I decided to write this essay, I took the book from my shelf and re-read it.
Yes, its content was still manipulative and exploitative; and, yes, its characters seemed flat and often unsympathetic. And, indeed, all but a few were introduced then, in a page or few, destroyed.
But what struck me this time through, after three decades of reading, teaching, writing, editing, and writing about horror, was that the book was, in addition to what I remembered, simply weakly written. With the advent and rise of indie authors and POD publication and the proliferation of small presses, a number of readers, writers, and reviewers have begun decrying the fact that many books—even books published by big-name presses—are at best workmanlike, at worst unreadable. Several have concentrated on first-time offerings, bemoaning the disappearance of potentially strong stories and characters under an overflow of basic mistakes.
Using my favorite Not-So-Good horror first-novel as a guide I would like to look at several of these…most within the first four pages.

A first-time novelist—indeed, any novelist, any writer—needs to start strongly. Readers may give a story only a few lines, at most a few pages, before deciding whether or not to continue. The writing should be controlled, paced, appropriate to the story, and focused on hooking readers and keeping them.
It should never be repetitive and boring.
Yet on the first two pages of this N-S-G novel, two sentences break both conventions.
The setting is a cellar, dank, dark, foreboding, and well-enough introduced, albeit a bit heavy-handedly. The creatures de jour, we are told, had “tired of hunting and concentrated, instead, on the raw meat which was tossed down into the rank, fetid darkness.”  The final clause is unnecessarily passive—“was thrown down”—particularly since the novel never quite explains why meat was tossed into the cellar; but more telling is the redundancy of down. A cellar is, by definition, ‘down’; the sentence would be made more sprightly by deleting the unneeded preposition, leaving “raw meat thrown into the rank, fetid darkness.” Or “tossed,” “dropped,” or any number of other verbs that would specify an action…always assuming that we are eventually told by whom and why.
This quibble over a passive and a preposition might seem little more than that, a quibble, except that shortly thereafter comes this: “Only a single shaft of weak light broke through the darkness, forcing its way in by way of a small hole in the cellar bulkhead.” “Forcing its way in by way of” is repetitive and wordy, with five weak words in a row: two vague, repeated nouns—“way”—and three prepositions. Replacing the three with through results in “forcing its way through a small hole,” tightening the sentence.
Noticing that wobble, however, and concentrating on the sentence for a moment, suggests other, more subtle problems. “Only a single shaft” has two delimiters, only and single, and they mean essentially the same thing. In this case, both could be deleted and the remaining phrase—the already singular “a shaft”—would carry the necessary  meaning.
Next, the light is “weak,” not in itself problematical but overtly contradicted by two subsequent verbals: broke, which implies a certain amount of strength; and the even more emphatic forcing. In attempting to build the sense of horror, the sentence undercuts its own beginning. The light enters through “a small hole in the cellar bulkhead.” “Small hole” gives few explicit indications of kind or extent; perhaps crack would be more descriptive. And, given the setting, bulkhead, which normally refers to ships and aircraft, automatically defines the slanting exterior door leading into a cellar.
If one were to take all of this into account, the result might be: “A shaft of weak light penetrated the darkness through a crack in the bulkhead.” No more is actually needed, and, taken in its context of simply establishing an eerie landscape, it would be more powerful.
On the next page, the world is described as “spinning round so fast.” Same problem: redundancy. To spin is to ‘revolve’ or ‘rotate’—that is, to move rapidly around. And, since things rarely spin slowly (most would fall if they tried to), “so fast” isn’t needed. The world is spinning; in the established context of a drunk vomiting then leaning against a gatepost, that would be sufficient.
Six lines on, the character’s “stomach continued to somersault.” Two points. First, although he has vomited, there is no previous reference to somersaulting; thus the stomach cannot continue to do so. More directly, however, the sentence takes a nicely imagistic word, somersault, and replaces it with a flat, non-active verb, continued, which is about as useful as is, are, was, were, seems,and becomes in creating interest. The true sentence verb is hidden as a nominal phrase (a verb/infinitive functioning as an object). “His stomach somersaulted.” Enough said.
A few words further in the same paragraph, the character “stumbled down the path towards the front of the house, stumbling once over one of the chipped granite slabs.” Note the sequences of “preposition + the” following an otherwise fine verb; the short, rhythmical syntactic repetitions effectively defuse the aimless sense of stumble. Almost as if the author were aware of the inconsistence between verb and rhythm, he then repeats the verb as stumbling, followed immediately by the more overt repetition of once and one. Unless he stumbled twice over the same slab—which would indicate severe drunkenness—or once over two slabs, only one of the two words is needed is needed, or, since slab is singular, both might be deleted. Stripped, the sentence might read, “He stumbled over a chipped granite slab leading to the house,” with the option of adding other specific descriptors to make his inebriation more visual, if desired.
Two short sentences farther, he “fell forward” (a weak, two-part verb that might as well be fell, tripped, or tumbled) and dropped a bottle of whiskey, which landed “in the thick grass on one side of the path” (note the parade of prepositions) and there “remained unbroken.” Although Douglas Adams once wrote a similar phrase, he used it consciously and to comic effect. Here, the flatness of remained as a verb and unbroken as an adjective form of break seems unconscious, and the context speaks against comedy.

It would be unnecessary—and probably unseemly—to dissect the book page by page. But when this many wobbles occur in four pages, it makes it increasingly difficult to concentrate on the story, on the characters, the creatures, and the overriding sense of horror the author intends. But reading the novel cover to cover reveals that the problems never decrease; they continue throughout and include not only repetition, wordiness, weak substitute verbs, and prepositional strings, but also

·        Frequent run-together sentences, that make readers stop midway through to determine which parts belong together;
·        Cryptic, unnecessary adverbs, including “He smiled cryptically” and “She smiled inanely”;
·        Redundancies such as “small portable TV set,” “at that precise minute in time,” “collapsed in on itself,” and “and also”;
·        Repetition of identical phrases, including “all manner of…,” “obscene black monstrosities” (perhaps a dozen times); “sickle shaped teeth” (without the necessary hyphen to make them “sickle-shaped” rather than “shaped by sickles”—or better, sickled, which means shaped like a sickle)
·        Syntactical oddities like “The three men got to their feet, a wave of pain so powerful that it staggered him, causing the rep to support himself against the wall for a second,” in which him could refer to any of the three men and rep is ambiguous, since all three represent companies;
·        Throw-away phrases such as “needless to say”; and
·        Logical inconsistencies, including having a naked man “fumble for the key,” while standing at the door—the text makes it clear that he knows that the key is elsewhere in the room.

Taken individually, none of the problems might seriously damage a strong story; taken in such numbers and such varieties, however, the story gradually becomes submerged beneath the weakness of the writing.
This essay is not intended to character-assassinate a particular story, certainly not to suggest that the writer did not polish and hone his craft through subsequent novels. It is, however, to argue that far too many horror novels—especially first novels—seem more intent on creating tone and atmosphere than on presenting a story clearly told and immediately accessible. Trying to create dark, eerie, threatening, and frightening landscapes and creatures, authors often concentrate on asserting words rather than creating structures, much as do would-be Lovecraftians who insist on using eldritch, unutterable, gibbering, or rugose in every other paragraph, deflating the effect of the words. In the case of this N-S-G horror novel, hideous and monstrosities occur more often than eldritch does in the entirety of Lovecraft’s works.

I will keep the novel on my shelf. And I will probably refer to it from time to time. But at least now I understand more completely my reasons for ripping it in half after the first reading. Back then, at the beginning of my teaching career, I thought that what had distressed me most was the failure of content, substance. Re-reading it this time, I realized that the problem was more complex—and paradoxically much simpler—than that: at ground, it was the deficiency of the writing itself.


Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Stephen King, ROADWORK--A Retro-review

Around 1995, George Beahm asked me to write short commentaries on each of Stephen King’s books to date. The result was a series of introductions, in chronological order of publication, which formed a portion of Beahm’s subsequent The Stephen King Companion. That excellent compilation of things-King is being revised and reissued; and, with George’s kind permission, I will reprint my original essays (lightly edited for correctness and style) at Collings Notes.
The essays are roughly twenty years old and are in some senses dated, but the underlying suggestions and approaches to King’s works remain viable. I hope you enjoy the essays.

Roadwork (1981)

Perhaps the best introduction to Roadwork, the third published 'Richard Bachman' novel, is King’s own tag-quotation: "'I don’t know why. You don’t know why. Most likely God don’t know why, either. It’s just Government business, that’s all'—Man-in-the-street interview concerning Viet Nam circa 1967." 
King’s Barton George Dawes is trapped in the same conundrum as the man-in-the-street. Dawes does not know why—why his son Charlie died of a brain tumor; why he and his wife had no more children; why the government decided to build a freeway extension that would destroy the home where Charlie died; why the roadwork would also destroy the Blue Ribbon Laundry where Dawes has worked his entire adult life; why he finds it impossible to look for a new home, even when the government has offered him more than fair market value for the old one; why his ties with his wife and to his marriage are slowly disintegrating; why his whole life, in fact, is disintegrating; why he is disintegrating.
There are no true answers to any of these questions, but Dawes’ search for at least some illusion of understanding comprises most of Roadwork, arguably the closest to a strictly mainstream novel King would write until well into the 1990’s, with Gerald’s Game and Dolores Claiborne. Here, however, King does not allow one specific social or political agenda to distort the coloring of his tale, as he will in Gerald’s Game; instead he uses a complex of public issues central to the mid-1970s as periphery to his primary story of a man driven to obsession, insanity, and death by his inordinate need for answers. While there are horrors in Roadwork, they are the ‘real’ horrors of gas shortages (whether genuine or artificially induced is irrelevant), small businesses being gobbled up by conglomerates for whom the “bottom line” is indeed the bottom line, increasing suburban isolation and alienation, disruption of social and family ties by devastating economic pressures, and—always—the specter of death by cancer, by accident, by suicide.
In Roadwork, King follows the same basic pattern as the other Bachman novels. His central character is thrust onto a road to obsession from which there is no deviating and no turning back. He understands that death or madness waits at the end but has no choice but to continue. The countdown to the final chapter, “January 20, 1974,” continues as inexorably as Charlie Dekker’s confrontation with the cops, as Ray Garraty’s eternal Long Walk, as Ben Richard’s rigged run, and as Billy Halleck’s implacable weight loss (to say nothing of Roland of Gilead’s quest for the Dark Tower, or the gravitation of seven children/adults to a hidden den in the sewers beneath the streets of Derry).
At the same time, there is a strong sense of King moving beyond the limits of his straight-line narrative.  Literary allusions to Hemingway’s Nick Adams stories surface at oddly disquieting moments and demonstrate King’s awareness of and attempts to incorporate mainstream literature into his text. Roadwork also breaks with King’s frequently transparent narrative voice as King suggests the tensions building in Dawes not only through the character’s words and actions, but also through the narrative style itself. Virtually every sign, every written word noted by Dawes in the novel (and there are quite a few, from construction signs to digital clocks) is introduced with a minor variation on the static phrase “And it said:”—as if the acts of saying and of meaning are somehow alienated from each other, and the fact that signs “say” must constantly be underscored in order to have some control over meaning and reality. The phrase becomes a mantra for Dawes, who seems to keep his tenuous hold on sanity by repeating habitual actions as frequently as King’s narrator repeats “And it said: ….” Style moves into symbol, and allusion concentrates characterization.
The sense of tension building to an explosion point in a novel with the prosaic title Roadwork emphasizes King’s achievement in creating his own unique sense of terror and horror without any fantastic or overtly supernatural elements. His consistent awareness of larger social and political themes that can be woven throughout his story and transformed into vehicles for modern horror is here highlighted, as are several of his equally consistent characters. We see the Italian-American mobster who, while not having anything approaching a heart of gold is nevertheless oddly attractive to and attracted by a wholly unlikely protagonist—a figure increasingly important in Thinner and transformed to threat in The Drawing of the Three. We also have the father-figure/son-figure relationship of Ben Mears and Mark Petrie in “Salem’s Lot’, and Roland and Jake in The Dark Tower, but here developed in the connections between Dawes alter-ego George and the shadowy memory of his dead child, which transforms what should be a healthy exchange into one fraught with peril. We have the husband and wife divorced by insanity long before the courts can legally separate them, as in The Shining. And worse, at least from Dawes’ point of view, we see the wife blooming in unexpected ways after she separates her identity from that of merely being her husband’s wife. Finally, we have a wash of minor characters whose sole purpose is to expose and heighten our awareness of Dawes’ instability, yet who take on a vigor and individuality that is one of the hallmarks of King’s prose.

In the final analysis, Roadwork is weakened by being a one-note novel…and the pitch of that single note is undeviatingly hysterical. Dawes’ inability to adapt to new contexts remains consistent throughout, and each of his incrementally more devastating confrontations with co-workers, employers, wife, friends, and finally civil authorities is essentially the same scene, emotionally and psychologically. Even so, however, Roadwork maintains a solidity of pacing and development, a sense of inevitability that even Dawes’ in his greatest extremity would have recognized…and perhaps admired.    

Friday, June 19, 2015

Al Carlisle, THE MIND OF THE DEVIL--Horrors Beyond Fiction

The Mind of the Devil
Al Carlisle
Genius Book Publishing, 2015
ARC, trade paperback, 246 pp.

Some time ago, I reviewed Dr. Al Carlisle’s earlier study, I’m Not Guilty: The Development of the Violent Mind—the Case of Ted Bundy ( I found that book chilling and hypnotic in its step-by-step investigation into Bundy’s psychology and motivations as expressed through Bundy’s own words and Carlisle’s professional assessment of them and of him.
Now Dr. Carlisle has added to our knowledge of psychopathy in his study of two men convicted of and executed (according to their direct requests) for kidnapping, molesting/raping, and murdering children: The Mind of the Devil: The Development of the Violent Mind—The Cases of Arthur Gary Bishop and Westley Allan Dodd.  
The book is not for the faint-of-heart, although not for the reasons usually adduced when one talks about horror fiction, for example. The text itself is purposefully non-sensational. Carlisle goes into fair depth in presenting and discussing both men’s pasts, their educations, their increasingly serious withdrawals into loneliness and what they considered emotional self-sufficiency, their growing and ever more aggressive addictions to sexuality, especially in their relationships with (mostly) prepubescent boys. Of the attacks themselves,  of the gruesome particulars of the assaults, even of the basic facts of the murders, however, the book says little; yet what little it says creates a more penetrating chill than any grisly, point-by-point revelations could. Because it is cold, disconnected, dispassionate…and represents the essence of the killers’ absolute lack of humanity.
Carlisle begins and ends the book with a single question: How do seemingly normal children grow up to be monsters? The purpose of each case study is the same: to trace the steps whereby two initially innocent boys willingly selected alternate pathways, indulged obsessions, and embraced addictions that they knew would inevitably lead them to their own executions. The victims—numbering far more than the eight boys murdered—are presented sympathetically, emphasizing that they bear no guilt whatsoever for what was done to them. The murderers speak in their own words about their thoughts, their actions, their plans, their expectations…and about the sequence of events that allowed them to coldly take the lives of children.
It would be nice—especially in the context of this week’s events—to report that Dr. Carlisle’s investigations discovered the key to identifying early signs that would allow intervention, treatment, and prevention. And would protect future potential victims. He does compare traits in the two men, suggesting similarities that might open possibilities for further studies. At the same time, however, he notes that at each stage, both men chose directions that ultimately made it impossible for them to stop murdering. His conclusion (not a spoiler, since this is not fiction) is clear, direct, and compelling: while society may have gained a sense of justice when the killers were captured, tried, and executed,

Executing these killers doesn’t fully resolve the problem. If we were to better understand how little children can grow to become monsters it will at least be a step in the right direction. Bluntly put, it’s difficult to change what we don’t understand.

Books like I’m Not Guilty and The Mind of the Devil are such steps.  

James P. Blaylock, BENEATH LONDON--Steampunk at Its Most Inventive

Beneath London
James P. Blaylock
Titan Books, 2015
Trade paperback, 410 pp., $14.95

James P. Blaylock’s Beneath London is the long, dense, complex, multi-charactered sequel to The Aylesford Skull, with its hero, Professor Langdon St. Ives. St. Ives is central in this novel as well, primarily because all of the others peopling the tale revolve in some way around him: his wife and his servant/companion; his neighbors from Aylesford and their families and associates; his best friend, his best friend’s nephew, and a woman who might or might not be the friend’s fiancĂ©; several individuals he encountered in the previous novel, including a fascinating dwarf with hidden but useful skills and a prodigious imagination…and a dead villain who might or might not be dead; and a living and horrendously vicious villain whose principle interest seems to be capturing St. Ives and doing his will upon him.
In addition to manipulating this large cast of players, the novel ingeniously exploits its setting—late-Victorian London. Much of the action takes place above ground, in warrens of streets glutted with the poverty-stricken and desperate, in the mansions of the wealthy, in respectable inns and disgusting death houses (the term morgue still too recent a coinage for popular use), and in a thoroughly insane insane asylum where the patients display more humanity than the doctors.
In addition to these places—as fascinating and as fully realized as they are—Blaylock creates an inversion of them in the labyrinth of passages, roads, even rudimentary villages existing (as the title suggests) beneath London. It is a vast land of shadows and darkness broken by the sickly green glow of bioluminescent mushrooms that are much more than simple fungi. They can grow to enormous size and all of them—largest to smallest—are carnivorous, drawing sustenance from the living but paralyzed bodies of their victims. Including humans. And they can apparently extend human life indefinitely, one reason the arch-villain is interested in them.
Language plays a role as well. Blaylock has mastered the diction, the rhythms and cadences, the mannerisms of several levels of Victorian society, playing each against the other in extended scenes of wit, verbal byplay, and flyting that give the novel a compellingly human sense, even when some of the participants are well beyond the boundaries of humanity. In those passages in which Blaylock pauses in the direct-line narrative to consider minor issues, his writing more than sustains interest…until readers realize that the seeming digressions are anything but.
All of this is not to ignore the outrageousness of Blaylock’s steampunk creations, starting with lanterns for examining the underground world, progressing to wire- and tube-encrusted machines,  and culminating in a Wild, Wild West-style decapitation device that kills the body but leaves the head alive. Or the action sequences: hideous murders, kidnappings and abductions, hair-raising close calls and ingenious escapes, street brawls, explosions, and a head-to-head climax in the underworld in which evil is—as it should be—destroyed and goodness rewarded.

Finally, Beneath London is fun. Any novel that can seamlessly incorporate a farm-elephant named Doctor Johnson, a blind girl who can see through her elbow, an elegant upper-class matron who can whack bad guys with the best of them, and a hero who more often than not functions as bystander and reporter yet manages not to be diminished by that—any novel offering all of these and more deserves to be read and enjoyed.   

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Gene O'Neill, THE HITCHHIKING EFFECT--Effecting Stories...and Touching

The Hitchhiking Effect
Gene O’Neill
Dark Renaissance Books, 2015
Trade paperback, 274 pp., $19.95

It is rare when a collection of stories and novellas spanning some thirty years leaves me with a single, overwhelming emotional impression. In the case of Gene O’Neill’s The Hitchhiking Effect, there is an additional sense of the unusual in that his compilation of ten stories—most dealing with the physically, mentally, and emotionally debilitating effects of war on those most closely connected with it, whether serving or supporting—contains its share of realistically portrayed grief and loss, of violence and bloodshed, of death and disruption, yet when I finished the final story, “Firebug,” what I felt was a highly paradoxical sense of gentleness and peace.
In “The Burden of Indigo,” for example, the earliest of the stories, O’Neill introduces readers to a world in which criminals are punished by being stained, a specific color representing a specific crime. The main character is known simply as “the indigo man” and is a deep, rich purple-blue from head to foot, including his hair and clothing. Such Colored People are ostracized from the domed communities where humanity now lives and are doomed to wander the empty stretches between. The story deals with his increasing belief that his indigo is fading—that he is perhaps gaining some kind of exoneration, a cure, for his unnamed (but implied) crime of two decades before. Yet even as he feels a nascent hope, he must deal with the fears and prejudices of normals he encounters, until his final meeting with a strange, almost mystical figure, who in the most unusual way, alleviates his suffering.
In the final novelette, “Firebug” (first published here), a neophyte arson investigator is assigned to a series of fires in abandoned warehouses, the most recent of which killed a homeless person. As clues accumulate, he is forced to include among his prime suspects his own father. While that story progresses, however, readers enter the mind of the firebug through journal entries, following an all-too-familiar progression from abused childhood, to traumatic loss of parents, to infatuation with violence and destruction…in this case, a developing pyromania. Oh, and along the way, O’Neill reveals that the pyromaniac is not technically the Firebug—there is an actual (?) fire-bug inside the flame of a cigarette lighter that, when released, causes the conflagrations. The story ends, as it should, in the discovery of the perpetrator and the resolution of unsolved cases, but again, as with “The Burden of Indigo,” there is a powerful sense of rightness, of peacefulness and gentleness and ultimate reconciliation.
I’ve chosen to write at length about the first and the last, but other of the stories could have demonstrated my point. “Graffiti Sonata” concentrates on a man’s harrowing loss and his discovery of images chalked onto an overpass…that seem to move and that eventually bring him to understanding, acceptance, and peace. In “Balance,” a Force Recon vet, recently released from a VA hospital, commits outright murder but does so for the purest, most humanitarian of motives, only to have the stakes suddenly reversed. “Dance of the Blue Lady” allows a boy-man who abruptly has no place in the community to find peace and solace. A longer piece, “The Confessions of St. Zach” breaks the pattern slightly in its depiction of a United States devastated by atomic bombs. In the aftermath, Jacob Zachary, his wife, and his seventeen-year-old son initially find shelter among a small group of survivors, only to discover that safety is relative and that what is at risk is not only their lives but their humanity. In spite of the grimness and horror of the story, however, the final paragraph—indeed, the last three words—transforms and elevates it beyond its overt content.
“The Hungry Skull: A Love Story” and “Rusting Chickens” approach the power of love and loss from different directions. The first is a science-fictional story set in the same world of Cal Wild as “The Burden of Indigo” and centers on a jump-ship pilot—half human, half machine—who seems oddly entranced by a death-play at a histro-bistro, in which the actors performing in The Gunfight at the O.K.Corral literally shoot to kill. In the second, Force Recon veteran Rob McKenna becomes convinced, first that the metal chickens ornamenting the yard are moving of their own volition, and then that his wife is somehow betraying him. Both stories are tightly told and devastating in their implications for the characters—and for the readers’ conceptions of love and loss and sacrifice—yet when the end comes to each, there also comes the realization that what happens is perfectly imagined and perfectly accomplished.

I’ve not said much about the intensity with which O’Neill confronts the realities of warfare in story after story—that becomes obvious as readers explore his worlds. War destroys…even its survivors. The point is not the number of the enemy killed or the amount of territory captured or even the points of belief justified but the lasting damage warfare does to individuals and the extraordinary, often supernal, effort it takes to overcome it.        

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Peter Dudar, WHERE SPIDERS FEAR TO SPIN--Ghosts, Spiders, and Vicious People

Where Spiders Fear to Spin
Peter N. Dudar
Books & Boos Press (Hebron CT), 2015
Trade paperback, 136 pp., $7.99

Peter N. Dudar’s novella, Where Spiders Fear to Spin—in this volume coupled with a highly effective short story, “Peripheral Vision”—offers intriguing insights on life, death, and the often permeable boundary between them; on love and hate and the difficulty in distinguishing them; on loss and grief and the ways they can distort human perceptions and emotions; and most of all, on ghosts. Both the novella and the story are quintessential ghost stories, but readers would do well not to expect traditional wispy, moaning, transparently ectoplasmic presences, because in these tales, ghosts can kill.
Where Spiders Fear to Spin has as principle characters four individuals tied by bonds of love and hate and fear: Sadie Mills, an aging soap-opera star now dying slowly and painfully, who had been fully as promiscuous as the wealthy woman she portrayed on Forbidden Steam; Theresa Mills, her daughter, who, as she approaches an unfulfilled mid-life, is torn between hatred for the woman she now must nurse and love for the memory of her dead father; Andy Mills, twenty years dead and now returned as a grotesque, monstrous ghost dedicated to revenge; and… a spider, patiently spinning her complex web in the rafters of the sickroom.
Lest anyone be tempted to conjure images of Charlotte’s Web (as the characters in fact do), this spider is a creature driven by instinct and dread, concerned solely with her survival and that of the eggs she carries within her. Initially, she seems almost peripheral to the central story, but in Dudar’s adept hands, she becomes an instrument of retribution in a most startling and appropriate way—in essence, a symbolic and literal force for justice and balance.
From the utter nastiness of the opening scene between Sadie of the Soaps and her bitter, vindictive daughter, to the final glimpse of Sadie entering a Hell beyond her worst imagining, Dudar tests the limits of family, depicting two utterly self-centered women whose lives focus more on the dead than on the living. Sadie is obsessed with her dead career; and Theresa, with her dead father, killed in car wreck. The women quarrel incessantly, about everything, each trying to score a point on the other. When Andy’s ghost appears, mother and daughter must confront realities rather than dreams—and the process nearly destroys them both.
“Peripheral Vision” amplifies on the themes of obsessive love and obsessive guilt as Theodore Danvers begins seeing the ghost of his dead son…but in this story indirectly, a momentary blur in the corner of his eye. He relates his haunting to Sister Margaret Willis, a church bereavement councilor; and readers immediately become enmeshed in the growth of his self-reproach, his isolation, and ultimately his self-destructive madness. It is a powerful story, to be sure, but not a pretty one.  
The novella and the accompanying short story can be read in a single sitting, which intensifies the incremental tensions as Dudar raises questions of whether mutual understanding, acceptance, and forgiveness are possible, for either the living or the dead. His ghosts are real, his supernatural intrusions treated matter-of-factly; even the nameless spider perceives Andy’s ghostly presence and is terrified by it. This method of treatment gives both Where Spiders Fear to Spin and “Peripheral Vision” a kind of hardness, an oddly fitting definiteness, a sense of the uncompromising nature of the dead who can reach from the Beyond and force their wills upon mortals.


Monday, June 15, 2015

Stephen King's DANSE MACABRE--A Retro-Review

Around 1995, George Beahm asked me to write short commentaries on each of Stephen King’s books to date. The result was a series of introductions, in chronological order of publication, which formed a portion of Beahm’s subsequent The Stephen King Companion. That excellent compilation of things-King is being revised and reissued; and, with George’s kind permission, I will reprint my original essays (lightly edited for correctness and style) at Collings Notes.
The essays are roughly twenty years old and are in some senses dated, but the underlying suggestions and approaches to King’s works remain viable. I hope you enjoy the essays.

Danse Macabre (1981)

To date, Danse Macabre is King’s only full-length foray into non-fiction, academic criticism, or scholarship. Although he has amassed enough wordage for several accumulations of criticism in the frequent (and frequently lengthy) introductions and afterwords to his novels and collections—as well as in reviews and interviews—his primary statements concerning horror as genre appear here. The result of a brief teaching stint at the University of Maine at Orono in 1978 and 1979, and based on his Themes in Supernatural Literature course, Danse Macabre is doubly valuable as an insider’s history of horror in literature, film, and television over several decades, and as a guide to King’s personal vision within that genre.
Anyone associating the terms “critical,” “academic,” or “scholarly” with a book claiming to be the results of a series of university course or a disquisition on the development of a literary genre will be pleasantly relieved to discover, early in Danse Macabre, that just because King is writing non-fiction he has not left behind the distinctive narrative voice that had already become his trademark. Although the book is a cogent and concise study of dark fantasy, it is also clearly from the mind and pen of Stephen King, replete with personal reminiscences that in turn set the stage for conclusions about the functions, nature, and purposes of horror.
Danse Macabre covers the field from the release of Jack Arnold’s It Came From Outer Space through John Carpenter’s Halloween and David Lynch’s Eraserhead (both released in 1978). Along the way King discusses key films and novels that contributed to the development of contemporary horror. As an added bonus, he includes alphabetical lists of one hundred films and one hundred novels particularly important to horror. These lists, coupled with a full index, contribute to the book’s value as a research tool. Within the text, he discusses such seminal writers as Peter Straub, Anne Rivers Siddons, Shirley Jackson, Ira Levin, Jack Finney, Ray Bradbury, Richard Matheson, Ramsey Campbell, and James Herbert; and films including Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, Don Siegel’s and Philip Kaufman’s versions of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and others on his list of the twenty scariest films ever. Many of the observations about these and other cultural artifacts are King’s own; others are citations from academic and popular culture critics that help bolster King’s personal comments.
Along with films and novels, King also examines television series including The Twilight Zone, Thriller, and The Outer Limits, providing readers with a number of useful keys in understanding the frequent cinematic quality of King’s stories. Many of his narratives depend for their effects upon childhood memories of specific television episodes and filmic images. And, lest he be criticized for dealing exclusively with what have evolved as classics, he also tackles the long list of less successful ventures into television horror: Darren McGavin as the unforgettable (because so awful) Kolchak, the Night Stalker and Irwin Allen’s Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. Even the failures are notable in their ambitiousness; as King notes about the Kolchak series, “there is something childlike and unsophisticated in its very awfulness” (229).
In the final chapters, King defines essential connections between the dark fantasy of page and stage and screen (silver or small), and the darker realism of the world around us…as mediated by the “dreamy eyes of [the] child” one perceives in a Ray Bradbury or a Jack Finney or a H.P. Lovecraft or a Harlan Ellison. For King—and presumably for the readers and fans who consume his words—horror is not merely a dance of death, a danse macabre; much less is it simplistic escapist literature to be enjoyed by the unsophisticated and the unlettered and then discarded. Instead, it is “at bottom a dance of dreams. It’s a way of awakening the child inside, who never dies but only sleeps ever more deeply. If the horror story is our rehearsal for death, then its strict moralities make it also a reaffirmation of life and good will and simple imagination—just one more pipeline to the infinite” (380).
Perhaps more than any other single critical remark, King’s evaluations of his chosen genre in Danse Macabre provide its ultimate rationale and justification. Indirectly, his text concentrates on the strict morality of almost all of King’s tales, on their ultimate affirmations, and on their essential positioning, clearly on the side of the Light.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Brett J. Talley and Others, LIMBUS, INC.: BOOK II--A Powerful Continuation of a Fertile Idea

Limbus, Inc.—Book II
Brett J. Talley (editor), Harry Shannon, Joe R. Lansdale, Joe McKinney, Gary A. Braunbeck, Jonathan Maberry
JournalStone, 2014
Trade paperback, Ebook

Having read and enjoyed Limbus (2013; for my review see Limbus, Inc. when it first came out, I looked forward, simply as an interested reader, to the next in the series (and, yes, volume three is in the works). As it turned out I had personal reasons as well for my anticipation. Of the six authors included in the new collection, I have had the pleasure and the honor of editing stories for five of them during my tenure as JournalStone’s Senior Publications Editor, and I have known and followed the career of the sixth for some years. I knew each of them to be skillful, accomplished storytellers and was eager to see how they would handle that mysterious, anomalous, at times bewildering corporation, Limbus, Inc. In one sentence: they lived up to my expectations.
Because of my connections with JournalStone, I do not intend what follows to be a traditional review; I am too close to the publisher and the authors for the objectivity that would require. Instead, this is an unapologetic appreciation for six fascinating stories and the men behind them.

Brett J. Talley provides the framework for the narratives with his prologue, interludes, and epilogue, which bit by bit reveal the story of Conrad McKay and his search for anonymity. Having plumbed the depths of the internet as the notorious hacker “Jack Rabbit”—and in the process made enemies of nations, security organizations, and some less than savory denizens of the deep net, he spends his time quietly in an obscure Czech village, playing chess with the local bartender and checking to make certain that the internet holds no clues as to his whereabouts.
When he finds a thread bearing the message “How Lucky Do You Feel?” he opens it, and in doing so he propels himself into a virtual world of questions, challenges, and puzzles. Each successful answer unlocks a story—five in all—leading him deeper and deeper into the complexities of Limbus, Inc., until finally he achieves what he has been searching for all along.
Talley is best known for his two superb Lovecraftian novels, That Which Should Not Be and He Who Walks in Shadow, the SF/horror novel The Void, and the award-nominated The Reborn. In Limbus II he demonstrates not only his abilities in writing fiction but also in editing and arranging it. His links hold the stories together and create of them a classic framed narrative, one voice tempering the others as the volume progresses.

The first story, Harry Shannon’s “Zero at the Bone” opens by quoting Emily Dickinson’s remarkable condensation and evocation of sudden fear, “A Narrow Fellow in the Grass,” and moves immediately into the story of Mike Dolan—once known as “Snake”—at an AA meeting, stating that he wants nothing more than to forget…most particularly, forget the death of his wife and unborn child. Later, still angry, frustrated, and depressed, he sees an ad for Limbus, Inc. Eventually he contacts Limbus and is offered an unspecified job—“Save the girl”—the reward for which is exactly what he said he wanted, to forget.
Shannon handles Snake’s story deftly. He combines Snake’s necessary revelations of his history and sufferings with tense action and just enough science-fictional detail to satisfy readers of Limbus I. Along the way he treats such contemporary issues as PTSD, dysfunctional families, the toll of alcohol and drugs, and the horrors of loss, without allowing them to overwhelm the primary story. They work, in fact, to deepen Snake’s character and prepare him inwardly for the mission he receives. And, in the end, he is rewarded with precisely what was promised, although it immeasurably exceeds his wildest expectations.

Joe R. Lansdale’s “Fishing for Dinosaurs” is the most outrĂ©  of the stories, something perhaps to be expected of the author of, for example, the extraordinarily imaginative The Complete Drive-In: Three Novels of Anarchy, Aliens, & the Popcorn King (for my review of that decidedly unconventional classic, see  As did Shannon, Lansdale incorporates into his narrative a contemporary, and highly contentious, issue: global warming and the concomitant melting of the ice packs. But being Lansdale, he gives it a quirky twist—the melting has exposed a gigantic hole at the pole and things are escaping from the world inside.  Ray Slater and a select group are assigned by Limbus to catch the escapees before they spread and devastate the outer world. If the idea of a “world inside” the earth sounds a bit Burroughsian, that is intentional, as is the fact that one of the books Slater sees during his visit to the company is the Necronomicon, or that one of his companions is named Ayesha and another, Alan Quatermain.
Enough said.
All that remains is for readers to settle back and enjoy the enormous fun…and excitement, and tension, and fear, and ultimate loss and restoration of Lansdale’s version of  Limbus and its inscrutable way of intruding into a life fraught with pain and from the ruin bringing resolution and—in the deepest and oldest senses of the word—essential comedy.

In “Lost and Found,” Joe McKinney brings to bear his experiences on the San Antonio police force to present Alan Becker, a Homicide detective on the verge of losing what little he has left of his life. Following the deaths of his wife and children a year earlier, Becker has slipped so far along the path of despair, hopelessness, loneliness, and alcoholism that all that remains is the final act of so many burned-out cops: suicide. When he is arrested for drunk driving by a young officer whose actions don’t quite fit Becker’s sense of what is appropriate, he receives the key to changing his life in the form of a business card…from Limbus, Inc. Rather than being arrested, being charged with a DWI, and losing his job, he agrees to do one thing. He must find a man named Gary Harper.
What follows is part police procedural, part detective story, part exploration into horrors internal and external (especially when it comes to the pig-men), part ghost story, and all fascinating examination of men and motivations.  Becker becomes intensely human in his gradual renewal as his search leads him into new and entirely unexpected—and increasingly deadly—directions, to culminate as all stories involving Limbus, Inc., must, not only with resolution but ultimately with redemption.
It all works, and there is not a zombie in sight.

Gary A. Braunbeck’s contribution begins perfectly, with the slightly pretentious, overtly academic and stuffy-sounding title, “The Transmigration of Librarian Blain Evans,” followed by an immediate intrusion of explosive action: “…and now there were bodies scattered on the ground in front of him….”  With Bond-like efficiency, Evans destroys everyone and everything standing between him and his goal and begins his escape, only to break off the narrative and shift to himself five years earlier—a middle-aged staff librarian on the verge of the collapse of his marriage and of his life. Braunbeck works his tale from a slightly different angle than did the other contributors; in spite of assumptions created by the juxtaposition of the action sequence with the revelation of what Evans had been like, Evans is not contacted by Limbus, Inc.
His wife is.
She accepts an offer that entails more money than either she or Evans could have imagined but that also requires a relocation. Something Evans finds impossible to consider. The next day, she and their children move out. After that, Evans’ life collapses into lethargy, an unwanted and unpaid leave from the library, and increasing drunkenness, until, on his way to an AA meeting, he is kidnapped by two men in a car marked with the Nimbus, Inc., logo. Evans does not volunteer for his mission; he has been volunteered.
The story moves repeatedly from then to now as Evans is transformed from mild-mannered librarian to unstoppable killing machine fully aware of his powers, both physical and psychological. His struggle to save his life in the present parallels his attempts to understand who he is and what he is becoming in the past—and at the perfect moment, the two narratives coalesce and Evans’ transformation is complete.

In the final story, Jonathan Maberry pulls out all of the stops. “Three Guys Walk into a Bar” might well have been titled “Three (or Four) Characters Walk into a Story,” because that is what happens. And it happens brilliantly.
Sam Hunter appeared in Maberry’s “Strip Search” in Limbus I, where readers learn that he is not only a private detective but a werewolf. This story opens with Hunter discovering a card tucked into the upholstery of his car, and no one will be surprised to find that it is a business card advertising Limbus, Inc. The real surprise comes when Hunter speaks to a Limbus representative, who asks him if he is familiar with Pine Deep, Pennsylvania.
And suddenly, we are in the midst of the terrifying world of Ghost Road Blues, Dead Man’s Song, and Bad Moon Rising, where such things as werewolves are old news and where death and horror are everyday commodities. Hunter teams up with Police Chief Malcolm Crow and his deputy Iron Mike Sweeney on the trail of murderers who are, by all evidence, particularly vicious werewolves.
In the midst of their probe, they are joined by a fourth investigator, none other than the intrepid Joe Ledger…and the story shifts from being simply about werewolves (as if that weren’t bad enough) to being an all-or-nothing pursuit of a gang of international terrorists intent upon creating a species of super-soldier werewolves…and they have succeeded.
The worlds of Hunter, Crow (and Sweeney), and Ledger mesh perfectly, each character bringing to the incrementally taut thriller unique perceptions and talents that emerge as the search narrows. As is appropriate for the volume, however, Hunter proves that Limbus was correct in approaching him as he discovers and exploits the secrets of his own heritage.

From beginning to end, Limbus, Inc., Book II provides an array of satisfying tales, combining seemingly impenetrable darkness with an almost inevitable light, horror with restoration, unbearable tension with unexpected but aptly placed comedy. Talley, Shannon, Lansdale, McKinney, Braunbeck, and Maberry are all names that suggest imagination and innovation. In Limbus, II, they live up to their reputations.