Saturday, April 12, 2014

"What This Book Is...and What It It Not"--Preface to ORSON SCOTT CARD: PENETRATING TO THE GENTLE HEART

For those of you interested, here is some of the prefatory material for my new book on Orson Scott ard. It not only explains the various parts of the book but gives a rationale for it. I hope to have the finished book, print and ebook, ready in a few weeks. Watch here to keep posted. Thanks


Orson Scott Card: Penetrating to the Gentle Heart has been a long time in the making…nearly three decades. It began with an essay written for the Sunstone Theological Symposium in 1987; the latest essay was written in 2014. Unlike many literary studies of individual authors, this book intentionally does not intend to discuss, explain, anatomize, or critique every novel and story by Orson Scott Card. Given his prolific output, to achieve such a task—if a single writer could do it at all—would require hundreds, if not thousands, or pages.
Instead, this study concentrates on providing paradigms for approaching Card’s stories based upon intense examination of a number of early works, with particular emphasis on Ender’s Game, with its sequels and prequels; the Tales of Alvin Maker; the Homecoming series; and The Folk of the Fringe. Certainly other novels will be mentioned, but this volume makes no claim at being comprehensive or definitive.
By looking closely at key early works, however, scholars, students, and readers may identify key images and themes that recur throughout Card’s storytelling, from the earliest through the latest. And by assessing the critical approaches contained herein, they can—I think—discover profitable ways to look at almost all of Card’s books.
Many of the essays included originally appeared in the 1980s and 1990s. In the Image of God: Theme Characterization, and Landscape in the Fiction of Orson Scott Card, reproduced here as Part I, was published by Greenwood Press in 1990. It was the first book-length study of Card and remains one of the few scholarly books devoted exclusively to him. It was originally intended for a limited audience—specifically university, college, and public libraries—and has accordingly reached relatively few readers. One of my purposes in securing publication rights from the original publisher has been to make the ideas and conclusions in it available to a much wider readership. It appears largely as it was first written; I have edited for smoothness and correctness (I hope that I am a more accomplished writer now than I was a quarter of a century ago). I have made no attempt to update it to include the scores of subsequent novels that deserve attention.
“Part II: ‘The Epic of Ender: In Search of the Godlike Man’” stems from my graduate researches into epic and epic theory with John M. Steadman at the University of California, Riverside. Under his tutelage, I read extensively into the literature of the genre, both primary and secondary. One of my first published papers, “The Epic of Dune: Epic Tradi­tions in Modern Science Fic­tion,” applied much of what I had learned to science fiction, using Frank Herbert’s monumental novel as a point of departure.
In 2002, I was invited to serve as Academic Guest of Honor at EnderCon, which provided an opportunity to apply the same methodology to Ender’s Game. The original paper and subsequent published essay incorporated only a portion of what seemed necessary to complete the comparison between ancient and modern, however; the chapter as it here appears provides that completion, discussing twelve key convention and how they apply to Card’s novel.
“Part III: Approaches” focuses on several modes of assessing Card and his work. “Orson Scott Card: An Approach to Mythopoeic Fiction” extends a Guest of Honor Address delivered at the 1994 Conference of the Mythopoeic Society and includes a lengthy analysis of Lost Boys. “The Story that Binds Them Together,” presented to  the Philological Association of the Pacific Coast in 1991, examines The Folk of the Fringe in relation to Medieval Mystery pageants. “Literature and Genre: Scrambling Toward the Light” responds to criticisms made about Ender’s Game and other LDS science fiction and fantasy.
Over the years, I have received requests for interviews about my work. The two interviews included in Part III reflect my thinking about Card—and about Stephen King—as directed to a high-school student and an online expert in fantasy and horror.
“Part IV: Introductions and Afterwords” reproduces two biographical introductions to Card published in the late 1980s and early 1990s. They have not been updated, since most of the more recent information is readily available at a number of Card-oriented online sites. They do, however, provide insights into how Card was received as a fiction writer, a science-fiction and fantasy writer, and a Mormon writer in the early years. Afterwords to the first edition of The Worthing Saga and the first paperback edition of The Folk of the Fringe are also reproduced.
The final part presents reviews of fourteen novels shortly following their first publication. These piece were written for mainstream, science-fiction and fantasy, and Mormon-oriented journals and represent immediate responses and reactions to the stories.
 
As should be apparent, Orson Scott Card: Penetrating to the Gentle Heart is part overview (Image of God), part reference, and part appreciation. It is not intended to be read novel-like, from start to finish, but rather to be used selectively, with Card’s earlier novels as starting points and thematic approaches to be applied by the student/reader to later works. Because treatments of various works overlap across the book, there is a certain amount of necessary repetition—Card’s themes and images intertwine through novel after novel, with a key passage in one often providing an explication for key passages in another. Even so, most times what seem repetitions also incorporate differing viewpoints, making each contribute to the book.
And a final point. This book contains much about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons). To write a book about Orson Scott Card without taking into account his religious backgrounds and some of the key elements of Mormonism would be tantamount to closing one eye and missing essential portions of a large and complex tapestry. I’ve avoided—to the extent possible—references to specific Mormon doctrines except as they relate directly to Card’s words in his novels and stories. And in almost every case, such references—when not presented in conjunction with Card’s own statements—are the results of my readings and my interpretations.
 

 

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Michael Philip Cash, STILLWELL--A HAUNTING ON LONG ISLAND


Stillwell: A Haunting on Long Island
Michael Philip Cash
Redfeather Publishing, 2013 

Having read Michael Philip Cash’s earlier novel, Brook X—A First Hand Account of the Great Cicada Invasion, I received Stillwell—A Haunting on Long Island with a sense of anticipation tinged with an odd feeling of familiarity, as though I were about to read something by an old friend. I’ve never met Cash nor corresponded substantively with him, but I remembered the feeling of comfort-within-horror in the earlier novel.
As things turned out, the feelings were justified.
Stillwell examines a broken family. Paul Russo’s wife has died and his three children are not handling the crisis well. Nor is he. He has largely ignored his job during the final weeks of his wife’s illess…and his children. Following the funeral, he must face the inconceivable: a life without her. At the same time, however, he has a much-needed opportunity to get back to work. A life-long friend has asked him to sell a centuries-old mansion on Long Island. The commission from the sale will go a long ways toward re-establishing the Russos’ financial stability.
There is a drawback, however…actually two.
The first is that Stillwell Manor, easily worth cool twenty million, will likely be a hard sell. It is the scene of the murder-suicide of the previous owners, which will turn many prospective buyers off; and it is haunted, in fact has been from the eighteenth century. Somehow Paul must deal with these difficulties, which only seem to increase the more he discovers about the old place and the more intimately he involves himself with the Andrews family, past and present.
The second drawback is even more formidable.
Paul Russo half believes that he is going insane. He has had dreams, evil dreams of his dead wife’s spirit in the clutches (literally) of a horrific demon, a beast-thing that will not allow her to move forward into the afterlife. As the story progresses—the actions taking little more than a week to complete—Paul fells increasingly drawn into the world of his nightmares that somehow, inexplicably, focuses on Stillwell Manor and the ancient well nearby. 

The novel is less horror than ghost story. That is, there is an otherworldly feel about even the most terrifying events, usually recounted as occurring within dreams; while the actual “real world” circumstances are recounted with precisely, almost obsessive detail that balances and often contravenes scenes of horror. The story unfolds slowly, with the opening chapters devoting more time to Allison Russo’s death and Paul’s struggle to cope than with anything outré or unexpected. When the supernatural does begin to intrude, it does so almost unnoticed, building gradually to a combustive conclusion that simultaneously resolves both haunting: the one at Stillwell Manor and the one confronting Paul.
The storytelling is clear and precise. Perhaps my only critique of the book is that it leaves me with a lingering wish for more, that the tale had not been told quite so crisply—the same sense, by the way, that I had when finishing Brood X. Still, Cash tells his story well, creating and animating a bit of history as he invites us into a decaying, atmospheric old pile on Long Island.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

William Meikle, PROFESSOR CHALLENGER: THE KEW GROWTHS AND OTHER STORIES--More Challenger, More Fun


Professor Challenger: The Kew Growths and Other Stories
William Meikle
Dark Renaissance Books, 2014
Trade paperback, 240 pp., $17.95 

About a year ago, I had the pleasurable opportunity of reviewing William Meikle’s Sherlock Holmes: Revenant (http://michaelrcollings.blogspot.com/2012/04/sherlock-holmes-revisited-usual.html). Given my responses to the earlier book, when I received a review copy of Professor Challenger: the Kew Growths and Other Stories, I could barely wait to begin reading.
That was last Thursday. Today is Saturday.
Which means that the eagerness was fully justified and well rewarded. 

Imagine if you will, a convivial gathering of several men noted for their storytelling, their varied outlooks on the world and what it does—and might—contain, and the enduring strength of their characters a century or so later. Imagine them speculating about stories that might be written, could be written, should be written, then turning to yet another of their fellows—this one himself fictional—and turning him loose with the ideas.
The result of such a meeting might be the stories in Professor Challenger. The men gathered at that imagined event would include, first and foremost, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Although Sherlock Holmes is arguably his most popular and most readily recognizable creation, Professor George Edward Challenger certainly has a following of his own, not only for the exciting adventures of The Lost World (1912), but also for the lesser-known but still remarkable The Poison Belt (1913), The Land of Mist (1926), “When the World Screamed” (1928), and “The Disintegration Machine” (1929).  Meikle pays appropriate homage to The Lost World in this collection in a long tale, “The Valley of the Lost,” set on an almost unreachable plateau in Montana inhabited by sabre-tooth tigers, wooly mammoths, gigantic eagles, and a race of miniature humans; but his Challenger also reflects the eagerly scientifically bent of Doyle’s often bombastic, always headstrong character. In several of the stories—most notably “Ripples in the Ether” and “Parting the Veil”—he fiddles with mechanisms that threaten the existence of humanity itself. In other stories he explores the depths of mysterious caverns and searches the banks of a Scottish loch, always on the look-out for ways to explain strange events by scientific means. And always accompanied by his intrepid reporter/friend, Edward Malone.
Malone would, of course, be the fictional person at the imagined gathering. Malone’s contribution, much like Dr. Watson’s in Doyle’s originals and in the multiple pastiches since, is to write down what happens. He frequently hesitates when Challenger forges ahead; he often relies on Challenger’s bull-like strength when his own fails; he is willing to fall back on superstition and legend when Challenger’s scientific approach seems to fail. But throughout everything, he is the staunch observer, the trusty scribe who ultimately reveals all, even deep, dark secrets that the British government does its best to cover up.
Also present at the gathering, though less directly involved in the storytelling, would be several notables, contemporaries of Doyle but of vastly different imaginations. One would be H. G. Wells, whose most memorable characters—invading Martians—do not quite make an appearance in “The Penge Terror” but very nearly do so. More vocal, perhaps, would be the American H. P. Lovecraft, whose imagination helps inform “The Kew Growths,” with their reference to the mystical plains of Leng”; and “Drums in the Deep,” with its evocation of ancient catacombs, ghastly fish-creatures, and secret rites, culminating in a chant to Dagon. Robert Louis Stevenson provides the ultimately explanation for “The Ape-Man,” and Nicholas Tesla—present by means of a trans-Atlantic telephone call—helps resolve the key problem in “Parting the Veil.”
  Throughout Professor Challenger, Meilke adroitly maintains the illusion of an early twentieth-century observer of mystifying and threatening encounters while slyly and often humorously suggesting his twenty-first-century audiences. Malone never refers to zombies in “Parting the Veil,” for example, preferring the more generic undead; but modern readers will immediately recognizing the slavering hordes that rise from London’s soil and the threat of a “zombie apocalypse’ only narrowly averted. The result is a collection of eleven tales that range from action-adventure to horror, each accompanied by an appropriate, often stirring illustration by M. Wayne Miller, whose black-and-white renderings make shadows come alive.
As was Sherlock Holmes: Revenant, Professor Challenger: The Kew Growths and Other Stories is a credit to both the originator and the modern storyteller. My only complaint is that, as short stories, several of the tales seem truncated—I would certainly not mind reading more about the unknown Montana plateau or the rise of the zombies in last-century London. With what Meikle has given us, however, I remain grateful…and thoroughly entertained.

 

 

 

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Adam Cesare, THE SUMMER JOB: A Summner Excursion into Terror


The Summer Job
Adam Cesare
Samhain, January 2014
Trade paperback, $15.00; eBook, $5.50 

After re-inventing herself following high school—divesting herself of her nickname “Silverfish” and playing down her piercings and tattoos—Claire takes advantage of the situation to re-invent herself again when her sometime boyfriend inadvertently burns down the Sunrise Cantina. Suddenly out of her job as a waitress, she applies for the post of “guest liaison” at The Brant Hotel in a one-street town in western Massachusetts. What she discovers when she and her best friend/roommate Allison arrive in Mission is a picture-postcard-perfect building owned by an old-fashioned matron and staffed by rather stodgy but pleasant country folk. Her tasks will be light, Victoria Brant assures her, just filling out the regular crew to take care of the increased number of summer travelers.
Unfortunately for Claire, for Allison, and for nearly everyone else in The Summer Job, nothing and nobody in the hamlet is as it seems. In the dense forests surrounding Mission, a group of local young people—referred to by Brant slightingly as the “children”—have established a rustic camp of sorts, where they drink, smoke, have parties…and kill the occasional passersby. Not to be outdone by their competition, the older inhabitants of Mission have their own secret enclaves in the basement of the hotel, spearheaded by the imperturbable Ms Brant and presided over by the mysterious Father Hayley who, since being horribly burned in a fire that destroyed his church, has lived at The Brant Hotel free of charge.
As Claire discovers more and more about the workings inside and around the hotel, she finds herself caught up in an escalating war between the two factions, her situation made even more difficult as she becomes involved with an enigmatic—but definitely hunky—young man, Tobin, whom she thinks she might love but whom she doesn’t entirely trust.
When the war breaks out into gunfire, Claire faces choices both difficult and bloody. 

The Summer Job is fast-paced horror in which the monsters wear human guises, behave like normal humans, and reveal themselves only at the last moment…as humans. There is a sense of pointlessness about the savagery that the two offshoots of an original Satanist cult show toward each other; yet at the same time, Cesare tells his story with more wit and humor that one might expect, alleviating the nearly overwhelming atmosphere of dread with casual comments, such as when Bert, a missing pet dog, is found in a refrigerator, dead, skinned, and prepared for cooking. Though nauseated by what she has discovered, while scooping the remains into a black garbage bag, Claire off-handedly refers to a “bag of Bert,” lightening the moment just enough to make her subsequent realization—that the chef  at The Brant must have already, perhaps frequently, served dog meat to the patrons…and to her—that much more devastating.
Light on deep philosophical insights, on intense or complex characterization, or even on details about the intricacies of cults, The Summer Job reads pretty much the way Victoria Brant describes the eponymous employment opportunity to Claire: a bit of work, a fair amount of  pleasure, and a chance to spend a some entertaining time exploring an intriguing (if ultimately deadly)  community.    

 

 

Friday, March 14, 2014

MicK Ridgewell's EVIL NEVER DIES--Nosferatu Redivivus


Evil Never Dies
Mick Ridgewell
Samhain, April 2014
Trade paperback, 264 pp., $15.00; eBook 

Newsman Roland Millhouse has been given what he considers a fluff-piece assignment: to interview Patricia Owens on the occasion of her 120th birthday. Expecting a fragile if not decrepit old woman, he is startled when the woman greeting him at the door of her aging farmhouse looks to be a sprightly seventy…or perhaps younger. At first his questions are typical, including the standard “how do you explain your longevity?”
He received his second surprise of the day when she responds: “The short answer is, the reason I have lived so long is that evil never dies.”
From there she begins her story—a detailed account of the summer of 1912, when the small Canadian community of Kings Shore underwent a terror that left it forever marked. Referring to a thick journal covering that summer, Patricia embarks on a tale of death, demons, and vampires.
Evil Never Dies presents an intriguing re-imagining of the vampire, specifically the Nosferatu-style creature, inhumanly swift and deadly, as first the “old one,” then his newly minted followers ravage the small town, destroying everyone Patricia loves. The novel creates a deliberate pacing by interrupting the back story with present-time details—walks to the cemetery where the victims are buried; to the abandoned farmstead and the rock-capped well that contains a horrible secret; or simply to the front porch to refresh themselves with lemonade. As a result of the shift from past to present, Patricia’s story reveals itself almost agonizingly slowly, paralleling her increasing debilitation and apparently rapid regressing to her true age.
As useful as it is as a narrative device, the shifts also create problems. The main story—the incursions of vampires into a small, enclosed community—often seems little more than an adjunct to drinking lemonade or taking walks, since those mundane actions are given as much attention as the horror itself. After a while, the breaks seem more artificial than essential, distractions from the evolving revelations concerning the vampires. In addition, there is a certain amount of unnecessary repetition throughout—as when Roland reminds us again and again how agile and youthful Patricia was on that first day and how much older she looks.
If one can overlook those two difficulties, Evil Never Dies becomes a well thought out re-creation of the late nineteenth- early twentieth-century vampiric milieu, such as was established in Stoker’s Dracula (1897) or, perhaps more to the point, Murneau’s Nosferatu (1922). The creatures are terrifying, the image of evil trapped at the bottom of an ancient well, the specter of graveyard headstones standing as silent witness to horror—all work to make Evil Never Dies a worthwhile read.

 

FROM DARKNESS COMES: THE HORROR BOX SET--My Two Bits Worth


From Darkness Comes: The Horror Box Set
Thorn Publishing, February 2014
Kindle, $.99 

 
It’s something of a recent phenomenon in eBooks—packaging a number of highly rated novels as a ‘boxed set’ available on Kindle for less than a dollar. It results in a powerful publicity tool for the authors whose books are included and an equally powerful opportunity for a wide range of entertaining reading.
From Darkness Comes: The Horror Box Set contains eight complete novels: That Ghoul Ava, by TW Brown; Kin, by Kealan Patrick Burke; The Colony: Genesis, by Michaelbrent Collings; Chronicler of the Undead, by Mainak Dhar; Painted Darkness, by Brian James Freeman; Chasing Spirits, by Glynn James; The Home, by Scott Nicholson; and Preta’s Realm: The Haunting, by J. Thorn.
Since I’ve now read two of the selections, I suppose it is appropriate for me to put in my two-bits worth of reviewing.
I read Michaelbrent’s The Colony: Genesis when it first came out. It is the opening salvo in a multi-volume zombie-saga, the final installment of which is scheduled for later this year. Since I’ve already spoken to some degree about it (and the comments will be reprinted in my forthcoming Chain of Evil: The JournalStone Guide to Writing Darkness), I will say here only that each volume of the series confirms my faith in my son’s storytelling abilities.
The second book in the set—Scott Nicholson’s The Home—was new to me, even though it was first published 2005. I had tried to read another Nicholson novel several months ago but was unable to finish it, so I approached this one with some trepidation.
And at first, the trepidation seemed warranted.
In many ways, The Home seemed like an extended cliché. The setting is a 1930s monstrosity, a featureless grey building that had originally housed an insane asylum—with all of the accoutrements of horror that such places feature—and now is home to several dozen children. The children themselves initially come across as typical: social misfits that include the fifteen-year-old bully and his sycophantic, army-jacketed flunky; an anorexic/bulimic girl whose distorted body-image controls her thinking; a sensitive twelve-year-old who, abused mentally and physically by his psychiatrist father, had retreated into a mental world fashioned along the lines of his favorite tough-guy actors. The institution’s director is an alcoholic whose surface religiosity masks his own deep flaws, including his need to administer corporal punishment whether deserved or not. The head scientist is determined to make his name as a psychiatrist—mentioning the holy trinity of Freud, Skinner, and himself—regardless of the physical and emotional trauma to his victims/subjects. Social workers are reduced to their nickname, “shrinking” their charges’ self-esteem while bolstering their own.
Then something remarkable happens. Gradually, as the major characters assemble and begin the task of revealing themselves through their words, their actions, and, most critically, their thoughts, The Home moves from threatening to degenerate into a clichéd mess and instead strikes out in unusual and original directions.
Largely through layers of motivation, self-revelation, and deft narrative pacing, Nicholson transforms what could have been ordinary into a constantly evolving study of barriers—between sanity and insanity, science and religion, and, most importantly, life and death. With each page, the story develops greater and greater complexity and ambiguity, leading to a conclusion that is apocalyptic in the oldest sense of the word—an ‘uncovering,’ a ‘revealing’ of  truths beyond anything the characters might have imagined.
As a story, The Home offers entertainment and intrigue while inviting readers to reconsider many of their assumptions about sanity, truth, life, even reality itself.

 

 

 

 

 

Monday, March 3, 2014

W.D. Gagliani, WOLF'S CUT--Too Much Too Often


Wolf’s Cut
W.D. Gagliani
Samhain, March 2014
Tradepaperback, 281 pp., $16.00 

Wolf’s Cut is the fifth volume in a series involving a werewolf homicide cop named, appropriately enough, Nick Lupo. As such it shares the strengths and the weaknesses of serial narratives.
Its strengths are a solid sense of characters—major and minor—as they enter this story with detailed backgrounds, motivations, and responses to their various situations…for several, how they handle being werewolves. There is an equivalent sense of solid landscapes, mapped in earlier novels and continued in this one.
Its weakness, unfortunately, are intimately connected with its strengths. Many of the characters and situations continue from earlier stories, and Wolf’s Cut devotes much of its first fifty or so pages to stopping the current story—the mob’s attempt to take over a reservation casino—and giving detailed flashbacks into characters, organizations, actions, and other carryovers. One particular piece of information is emphasized at least six times, when readers (especially those familiar with the series) would lock it in after the first repetition.
In addition, throughout most of the book, there are half a dozen hubs of action, until a seventh is sudden added three-quarters of the way through. Managing shifts among the various landscapes—and times, since portions move back to post-WWII Italy—without disrupting the threads associated with each character proves difficult, increasingly so as the story progresses.
Add to that the dozen or so major characters, often referred to by their situations in previous novels, and Wolf’s Cut becomes a potentially solid story that threatens to get lost in its own minutiae.
Gagliani’s take on the werewolf motif is interesting, but as with other points it sometimes clogs the storytelling. A key factor in combatting the creatures is their horrific reaction to being stabbed by one of two silver-bladed knives from the Vatican; and each time the story refers to the Vatican silvers, it stops to recount bits of their history, to describe their power against werewolves (as if showing it were not sufficient), and, more disturbingly, to repeat and repeat that these are the Vatican knives, not just any old silver blades.
Another element in the makeup of his creatures is their increased libido, based upon fundamental changes in DNA subsequent to being bitten. Again, that is an intriguing detail that should strengthen Gagliani’s representation. Unfortunately, again, it begins to overshadow all of the werewolves, their actions and reactions. At least one character slips into almost a caricature—a sex-driven female, wolf and will and always willing, devastatingly beautiful and urgent to have…and destroy…any man who crosses her path. A bit of that works well; too much, and the novel seems to be striving for a subtitle: “ A Sex Manual for Werewolves.”
Wolf’s Cut is also bulky, wordy at times, with a fair number of malformed sentences that, for me at least, interfere with the story it so wants to tell. And there is a story, almost buried under all of the difficulties. The tribes struggle against the mob; a reservation doctor’s struggle with problems internal and external; Nick Lupo’s struggle with his basic identity—all of these could blend into a strong, taut, well-told horror-thriller. Just not this one.  

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Lee McGeorge, VAMPIRES Untitled, Unseen, and Unleashed


Lee McGeorge
Vampire “Untitled”
Speartip (UK), 2012 

Vampire “Unseen”
Speartip (UK), 2013 

Vampire “ Unleashed”
Speartip (UK), forthcoming 

Paul McGovern is a mild, retiring writer, fresh from the university, about to spend six months in Romania working on a series of can’t-miss blockbuster novels.
He is also a vampire.
Perhaps. 

The qualification stems from the fact that in this trilogy (two novels completed, one more to come) Lee McGeorge fundamentally redefines vampire in some fascinating and frustrating ways.
When McGovern arrives in Romania, he discovers that his new apartment is in a featureless, Communist-era concrete block; the room is as uninviting as the landscape, with no hot water and intermittent electricity and heating. On his first day there, he is accosted in the street by two men, one of whom threatens to castrate him. Shortly thereafter, the same two men severely beat him, this time in the foyer of his own building. With each confrontation, he retreats further and further into himself, his suffering ameliorated only by his acquaintance with a young woman, Ildico.
As much as Ildico becomes a savior-image to McGovern, she also introduces him to a key local belief that ultimately alters him completely: vampires. At first he scoffs at the idea, going so far as to visit a mysterious gravesite deep in the surrounding forests. But as events progress, he is drawn further and further into the realm of myth and legend, even while struggling to rationalize both the idea and its effects on him.
Early in Vampire “Untitled,” his perceptions shift: 

A vampire wasn’t some mythical creature that transformed into a bat and flew in the night to drink blood. A vampire was a man capable of inflicting cruelty and violence. Someone who could enact such violence and believe his actions were just. (123) 

And yet…. And yet as Vampires “Untitled” nears its conclusion, McGovern sees himself as somehow transformed, not into a bat but into a creature haunted by visions of bloody and gruesome revenge, by the image of an ice-white naked man just on the periphery of his vision, and by the memories of brutal murders he has himself committed.
Vampire “Untitled” brings McGovern to Romania and ends as he plans his escape back to London…to avenge himself on an unsuspecting woman. It introduces the complex ramifications of assigning vampirism as a species of human psychological aberrations triggered by some evil force within the forest. It establishes the changes in McGovern’s core personality, doing so gradually, through frequent dreams and near-fugue states that might or might not reflect reality. The pacing is careful, cadenced, and convincing as events lead to a bloody climax.
In Vampire “Unseen,” McGovern is in London, plotting his revenge for a months-old slight and assaulting or slaughtering anyone who gets in his path. But things are not going to go smoothly for him; unknown to him, a Romanian detective, Corneliu Latis, has been reassigned to follow McGovern, to penetrate his several disguises, and to capture him…or kill him. Latis is now affiliated with a super-secret Romanian hospital/think tank devoted to understanding the pathology of the disease that will—or at least should—degenerate McGovern’s cognitive processes and ultimately kill him. But McGovern is not following the recognizable pattern; he is in fact becoming quicker, stronger, more cunning and capable…and more violent. At the end of the volume, Latis has joined forces with an unexpected and unusual underground figure who can provide him with the funds and the protection to follow McGovern.
The as-yet-unpublished third volume, Vampire “Unleashed” promises to explore the think tank further, to penetrate to the roots of vampirism as it has been redefined, and to bring McGovern’s story to a conclusion one way or the other…and along the way to spill countless gallons of blood in any number of violent confrontations.
In redefining the vampire, McGeorge has established the boundaries—or lack thereof—of what is appropriate and inappropriate for his novels. There is no lack of harsh language; no lack of intensely bloody scenes; no lack of overtly sexual actions and, perhaps worse, imaginings that somehow blend uncomfortably with reality in ways that even the characters do not understand.  Certainly not for timid or tepid readers, the Vampire novels establish a creature outside of human norms, one whose entire being is devoted to carnality and violence. And they play fair with the creature in how they tell his story.

Monday, February 10, 2014

"Going a Mile a Minute!"

Thinking about age and perspective recently, about moments that younger generations take for granted or are not even aware of.... My earliest recollection of such a moment involves the first time I was aware of traveling sixty miles an hour! 


Going a Mile a Minute!   

was a climax sixty years ago—
six children crammed pre-astronautic
inside stuffy  sleek-backed  grey-wind lines
of the uncle’s cone-nosed Studebaker

as it struggled up the gantry-gravel road
halfway between Elba and Burley
beneath a clear blue Idaho sky—
last week of vacation, last visit 

to the homestead farm, last picnic up
Cripple Creek, last watermelons floating lazy
dead-man’s floats in icy water
reminding shockingly of last winter’s snows 

still hunched on Cleveland’s upper flanks—
but in the valley  heat crowded the gravel road
as the uncle’s Studebaker approached
the overlook—six children crushed closer

hung over the back seat almost into
the uncle’s lap—heads bobbing back and forth
in urgent efforts to focus on the cyclopean
speedometer arrow-hovering at thirty-five 

dropping to thirty to twenty-five to
twenty as the cloud of summer dust wailed
beneath bald tires and drifted sobbing down
the hill behind the Studebaker— 

and the crest—a momentary hovering in
space before the sleek-silver woman shimmering the hood
dipped her curtsey to obsolescent gravity—and the
car slid over the edge and down down down 

down between wide fields of winter wheat and
down down down and the arrow-needle
swings up and around past thirty-five again
past forty forty-five fifty-five 
 
and the slope smooths out to embrace
a rutted level road stretching toward
clumps of cottonwoods distant grey—
but the needle quivers upward upward 

fifty-seven   -eight   -nine   and at the climax
with a scream adumbrating “We have lift-off”
six voices pitch above the Studebaker’s cranked-up
whine and deafen the uncle 

with “A  mile  a  minute!…a  mile  a  minute!…
a  mile  a  minute!” as the old car shudders
across wagon ruts and skirts fields just past
harvesting and the arrow-needle

droops exhausted down down down
to a sedate and somber thirty-five and
six children huddle in voiceless thrill against thick
stuffy grey pile and work to catch their breath 

re-fill lungs with earth-bound breath
and contemplate with newly adult tenderness
the mystery and the wonder and the awe
of going a mile a minute.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

David Gerrold, DEATHBEAST—On the Insufficiency of Labels


Deathbeast
David Gerrold
Popular Library, 1978; BenBella Books, 2014, Kindle
 

Deathbeast is science fiction. It displays several characteristics of science fiction, including beginning with a near-future technological innovation that fundamentally alters the way humanity views itself and its world. It speculates about time travel, in this case to the Cretaceous, where intrepid and otherwise hunters deploy cutting-edge weaponry (for 1978) against the greatest—or perhaps only the second greatest—predator that world has yet known, Tyrannosaurus Rex.
So why am I posting this essay on a site geared toward discussions of horror?
Well, because Deathbeast is also horror. It displays several characteristics of horror, including beginning with a small group of disparate individuals, utterly isolated and dependent upon each other, who confront something beyond their expectations, beyond their science, and beyond their understanding. It revels in blood and gore, death and destruction, even stopping at key intervals to speculate about their effects on the hunters, physiologically and psychologically. It has a “bad place,” one particular location haunted by a “monster” (and the word occurs time and again throughout); and once the group arrives there, everything becomes a struggle for survival.
As far as that goes, it is also action-adventure. It displays several characteristics of that genre, including a single-minded quest that leads the adventurers into danger after danger, with barely a breathing space between. It does not spare anyone; characters who might be expected to survive in a more leisurely story die and (in connection with the previous paragraph’s contentions) die gruesomely. For the last pages, characters literally run non-stop for their lives, setting up a cataclysmic confrontation between humans and beast that does not end until the final sentences.
In addition it is a semi-philosophical novel, with disquisitions on life and death, on love and hate, on male and female, on predator and prey. At one moment, it might take readers on an imaginative and poetic exploration of an ancient moon; at another, it might consider the complex and ultimately fatal relationship between hunter and hunted. Along the way, it reaches out to bring Melville’s Moby Dick in as allusion and as guide to theme and imagery, especially in one character’s obsession with hunting and killing the novel’s analog to the Great White Whale; it seems likely that the name of Melville’s character, Captain Ahab, was at least echoing in Gerrold’s mind when he named his alpha hunter Ethab. Yet the book also alludes to popular culture with King Kong and the moral and ethical questions the various films by that name raise.
It is in part predictive, taking early hints that dinosaurs were not sluggish, cold-blooded behemoths—as they were invariably depicted in books such as Roy Chapman Anderson’s 1953 YA volume, All About Dinosaurs—and exploring the ramifications of that shift in understanding. It predates by a couple of years the first authoritative assertions of an asteroid-caused mass extinction and thus does not discuss that; in its place the novel offers an alternative, almost mystical explanation based upon the suggestion that the human characters, by interacting with dinosaurs and introducing the giants to true fear, brought about the extinction.
It even has a touch of the romance, although the human relationships as developed are a far cry from typical. One of the most lyrical passages is indeed about romance and sex—as practiced by two brontosaurs (now more commonly called apatosaurs) in a shallow lake. And, as is the practice in many romance novels, the culmination takes place discretely, off screen.
That passage in some ways highlights why I found Deathbeast fascinating. After establishing how enormous the creatures are, using rather blunt scientific terms, Gerrold shifts unhesitatingly into a paragraph concentrating on sinuous, intertwining necks and sensuous movements. For that moment, for that paragraph, the brontos cease to be monstrous, nearly mindless lizards rutting in mud shallows and become something quite different, something almost elegant.
The same or similar effects recur throughout. The opening pages are narrated in crisp, coldly dispassionate terms, appropriate to science fiction. With the appearance of the first saurian, however, the language shifts noticeably, becoming more consonant with horror—the word itself and its cognate horrified occur frequently, always in connection with the death-dealing monsters. When he shifts language, Gerrold also shifts the essentials of sentence structure and paragraphics. Sentences become run-on or loosely connected by dashes, creating a kind of breathless terror in the reader; punctuation becomes extreme (?!!); word choice becomes heightened, almost melodramatic; and the pacing increases with the characters’ heartbeats.
No one will probably ever claim that Deathbeast is the oft-mentioned Great American Novel; it probably will never even be in contention as the Great American Science Fiction Novel. But as an early example of what is now called “cross-generic fiction,” it intrigues because Gerrold handles the various threads with ease and expertise, allowing readers a glimpse behind the story to the larger themes and “kinds” that impel it and the language required to create each.