Thursday, December 18, 2014

David Morrell, INSPECTOR OF THE DEAD--A Worthy Sequel and a Remarkable Re-creation

Inspector of the Dead
David Morrell
Mulholland Books/Little, Brown and Company
March 2015

Recently, the Fall 2014 issue of Dark Discoveries concentrated much of its attention—in both fiction and non-fiction—on the possibilities inherent in secret societies in horror. It is a bit of a shame that I did not receive the ARC of David Morrell’s newest thriller, Inspector of the Dead, sooner, since had I done so, my contribution to DD might have taken a distinctly different turn.
Not that Inspector of the Dead is explicitly linked to horror. Indeed, as might be expected from a sequel to Morrell’s earlier Murder as a Fine Art (see for my review), none of the traditional monsters of horror appear in this intricate tale of murder, madness, and revenge in mid-Victorian England. Darkness there is aplenty, and blood and gore, some tastefully insinuated, some described in intimate detail. But the story emphasizes the intellectual (and occasionally physical) exertions required for Thomas De Quincey, the notorious “Opium Eater”; his brilliant and resilient daughter, Emily; and their two stalwart detective friends from the London Police to solve a series of gruesome, upper-class murders that have a single point in common—clues left at each scene point to previous attempts to assassinate Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, suggesting a network of dangerous, unknown malcontents.
And the clues are moving irrevocably closer…presumably, to another attempt on the monarch’s life.
As did the earlier story, Inspector of the Dead encapsulates history, sociology, psychology (both current and nineteenth-century understandings), criminology, and literature in a complex web leading to devastating discoveries and—as promised—a cataclysmic confrontation in the Throne Room of Buckingham Palace itself.
All of these elements are intriguing, of course, but what makes the novel of particular interest for me is that at its most fundamental levels, it is about monsters, the most devastating kind: human beings. There are allusions to other sorts, as when customers at a pub, having drunk doctored beer and gin, hallucinate creatures and break out into a deadly public brawl. But throughout, the story concentrates on what transforms humans into monsters.
For some, monstrousness is an almost unavoidable response to rigid Victorian morals, standards, and values. Churchgoers in the finer parts of town see nothing wrong with turning away starving children, often condemning the children to a lingering death by starvation…or worse. In their world, social status determines individual worth, and, in spite of twenty-first-century attitudes, many of Morrell’s characters merely act the way they believe they are supposed to act. The main characters constantly confront this kind of unthinking evil as they move from the highest levels of society to the lowest and reveal to readers how tragically locked into assumption every stratum is.
Unfortunately, too many powerful and influential people turned their backs on a particularly egregious social injustice that resulted in the horrifying deaths of four Irish immigrants and set the surviving child on a course of revenge that would take dozens more lives in horrendous, meticulously planned murders.
Acting in the name of a secret society, “Young England,” a criminal mastermind manipulates private and public confidence in the government, the nation, the monarchy itself nearly to the point of revolution, so convincingly that everything the police attempt to track down the villain results in strengthening the hold the society exerts.
The substrata of political and social commentary ultimately merge with the plotline to provide a single sentence, quoted from the historical De Quincey, that illuminates the entire volume: “The horrors that madden the grief that gnaws at the heart.”
From such horrors come madness and desperation, obsessions with revenge and retribution…and human monsters.
Lest I have made Inspector of the Dead sound too much like a sociological treatise, readers can rest assured that Morrell provides not only opportunities for thought and consideration but also moments of high adventure, ranging from the battlefields of the Crimean War to the shadowed back streets of London’s worst districts. The book is a brilliant amalgam of history and fiction, of reflection and speculation, of possibility and probability. And a thoroughly enjoyable read from beginning to end.


Monday, December 15, 2014

Secret Societies…and Horror

I grew up hearing about secret societies…or, more precisely, about one particular secret society.
I am a Latter-day Saint (Mormon), as were my parents, and part of my early education included hearing stories from and reading in the Book of Mormon. In one of the divisions that make up that book, several passages are devoted to a group called the Gadianton Robbers, from the name of their founder. After a while, it becomes apparent that the name “Gadianton” is rather like the name “Dread Pirate Roberts,” since the society recurs and flourishes over several generations, long after the founder is dead.
Almost without fail, the rise of the Gadianton Robbers parallels a decline in society at large. As individual and institutions grow proud and wealthy—and inordinately greedy—they seek undue power over others, and the Robbers invariably reappear as an exterior threat corresponding to the internal one. Wealth disappears, murderers commit their acts in secrecy and are never identified; and when they are, they are frequently related to their victims. Healthy political action comes to a standstill as Chief judges are murdered on the judgment seat. Society is thrown into chaos.
Whether taken historically, symbolically, or metaphorically, the Gadianton Robbers simultaneously stand for the consequences that result from a broken social order and one of the causes of that fracture.
The idea that an originally small group might persist, grow, and eventually become a threat to the larger community, then, was already familiar when I began seriously reading horror in my early thirties.
I was introduced to the genre by a student, who asked one day if I had read any Stephen King. I had not. He recommended Dead Zone. I read it that weekend, and over the next summer read most of the major works by the top authors.
Stephen King…and ‘Salem’s Lot (1975), in which a small, secret group destroys a once tightly knit community, feeding off individuals’ pride and greed and fear. The fact that the figure forming the core of the group was supernatural, a vampire, was less compelling for me than vision of the systematic dissolution of friendships, of family bonds, of religious faith, of almost everything that makes society possible.
I read Robert R. McCammon…and Bethany’s Sin (1980). As with ‘Salem’s Lot, a small town. As with Salem’s Lot, an outsider arrives, this time with his wife and family, and again a cabal reveals itself that dissolves the family and demands blood.
I read many more, too many to recall by name after nearly four decades, but time and again, the image of the secret society appeared, always associated with monsters (in fact or in act), always associated with evil.
And that is, perhaps, appropriate. After all, the point of secret societies as they appear in horror and dark fiction is invariably to protect identities, to preserve anonymity, to cloak intentions, to disguise realities, until the final evil is unveiled. Nothing quite so jars characters—or readers—than to discover that the old man remembered from a character’s childhood as kindly and helpful is actually a voracious monster, in private moments slavering for children’s blood. Or that the grade-school teacher so often caricatured by students as a witch…is one.
Such groups release characters from consequences, at least until the climax when, one hopes, the underlying evil is defeated. Despicable acts committed in secret, in disguise, under the pretense of goodness and charity, do not immediately recoil on the perpetrators; indeed, part of the insidiousness of such groups is that they often plant false evidences of guilt, creating trails leading, often, to the hero or heroes. For long portions of novel after novel, even when the society is partly revealed, readers cannot be sure who is who, who is trustworthy, who is culpable for the most horrific acts.
That such clandestine groups can even emerge in horror novels is almost always an admission that the society harboring them, the world that encourages their founding and growth, is seriously skewed. As with the Gadianton Robbers in the Book of Mormon, secret societies function most effectively as distorted mirrors of the external realities. If all relationships were healthy, if political and social actions moved toward the betterment of everyone involved—rather than toward the enrichment of the powerful and the selfish—there would be no need for secret societies.
And there would be no horror.
For me, the most complete treatment of such a secret society in recent horror occurs in a novel by Michaelbrent Collings, This Darkness Light (2014—he’s my son but he is also a fine storyteller). Apocalyptic horror in the deepest sense of the word (apocalypse, ‘to uncover, to reveal’), Darkness begins with a simple premise: a gunshot man who should have died hours earlier and an ICU nurse are forced to flee because someone—actually a group of someones—wants them dead. Close behind them is a deadly assassin, who is being manipulated by the same unknown group. Gradually, readers discover that the unknown, unnamed ‘secret society’ not only controls local thugs but also controls the President of the United States, directing his thoughts and actions until an apocalypse is inevitable.
Although Darkness ultimately develops a religious theme, its treatment of a secret society of ruthless, merciless, almost maniacal killers parallels those in horror novel after horror novel. The external threat merely makes manifest internal sicknesses, cancer and plague, that are already destroying the world. The more horrific the actions become, the more deaths inflicted upon innocents, the more blighted the landscape until it seems inescapable that the world, through pride and greed and selfishness, has brought upon itself its own version of the Gadianton Robbers.


Sunday, December 7, 2014

Santa and the Christ

A Parable

The old man paused, a spot of silence
Midway between night
And lacy whisperings
Around the edges of a dawn.
He paused, and sighed, and stretched,
His breath a silver shadow in a frozen world.
“Almost finished…finished, really,” he thought,
“This journey through withdrawing night,
Among the curling ghosts of fires almost dead,
Tendril-fingers reaching,
Grasping as a million fingers soon would be,
Tearing at bright paper and glossy ribbon-bows.
Well, it is over for this season, and soon….”

Then he saw a gleam, a strand
Of liquid gold on crusted snow.
It wasn’t a house…more a shed,
With broken shutters, shingles savaged
By December’s latest blast.
One candle-stub guttered
Through a dust-smudged pane.
Slowly he opened the door
(For the first time in half a century
The hinges did not squeak)
And glanced inside.
Behind him, snow-puffs swirled
On a pre-dawn breeze.
Shimmers of frozen air shrouded the room.
But where he walked
Warmth followed, spreading its blanket
Through darkness (snowflakes
Glistened on his beard, though,
Unmelted and unmelting).

He sniffed. Somewhere, crouched in musty corners,
Clinging bat-like to splintered rafters,
The lingering scent of cattle,
Years old, gone before the longer years
Of emptiness and decay.
No tree here. No twinkling lights,
Computer toys,
Film-foil tinsel
Counterfeiting icicles.
Only the couple sleeping in a broken bed
And the baby in a rough-cut cradle.
A tattered, hand-pieced quilt
Lay across the crib, a tuft of straw
In shocks on frozen earth.
The old man paused and smiled—
Warmth billowed through the room.
The old man knelt
To touch a bare-plank floor
With a knee for once unmindful
Of its old arthritic ache.
He knelt, and smiled, and paused.

And the Spirit of Giving bowed before
The enduring Gift of All.

 [From: All Calm, All Bright: Christmas Offerings.]

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

On Dialect

I first consciously discovered the uses and abuses of dialect many years ago when I read Emily Brontë’s masterful Wuthering Heights. I loved the book; I still do. But—then and now—I have a serious problem with one element of her storytelling.
One of the characters from whom readers glean a good deal of information about Cathy and Heathcliff is an old Cornish serving man, Joseph. His tale-telling lends a fair amount of impetus to the story, and he rightly belongs in it. In 1847, however, when ‘Ellis Bell’ published his one and only novel, the ancient dialects of Cornwall still constituted a thriving part of the English linguistic landscape. For Brontë to incorporate large chunks of one into the story made a certain sense, lending authenticity to the landscape (so critically important to Wuthering Heights) and to the characters. Unfortunately, for late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century readers, Cornish dialects have long since faded, so that instead of providing “local color,” Joseph’s extended passages become difficult, almost unintelligible. If we consider one paragraph devoted to Joseph’s narrative, the problems become clear:

They sit up all night together continually, and Hindley has been borrowing money on his land, and does nothing but play and drink: I heard only a week ago—it was Joseph who told me—I met him at Gimmerton: “Nelly,” he said, “we’s hae a crowner’s ‘quest enow, at ahr folks’.  One on ’em ’s a’most getten his finger cut off wi’ hauding t’ other fro’ stickin’ hisseln loike a cawlf.  That’s maister, yeah knaw, ’at ’s soa up o’ going tuh t’ grand ’sizes.  He’s noan feared o’ t’ bench o’ judges, norther Paul, nur Peter, nur John, nur Matthew, nor noan on ’em, not he!  He fair likes—he langs to set his brazened face agean ’em!  And yon bonny lad Heathcliff, yah mind, he’s a rare ’un.  He can girn a laugh as well ’s onybody at a raight divil’s jest.  Does he niver say nowt of his fine living amang us, when he goes to t’ Grange?  This is t’ way on ’t:—up at sun-down: dice, brandy, cloised shutters, und can’le-light till next day at noon: then, t’fooil gangs banning und raving to his cham’er, makking dacent fowks dig thur fingers i’ thur lugs fur varry shame; un’ the knave, why he can caint his brass, un’ ate, un’ sleep, un’ off to his neighbour’s to gossip wi’ t’ wife.  I’ course, he tells Dame Catherine how her fathur’s goold runs into his pocket, and her fathur’s son gallops down t’ broad road, while he flees afore to oppen t’ pikes!”  Now, Miss Linton, Joseph is an old rascal, but no liar; and, if his account of Heathcliff’s conduct be true, you would never think of desiring such a husband, would you?’ (Ch. X)

Unfamiliar words, quaint but initially unintelligible archaisms, seemingly erratic contractions, colloquial sentence constructions—all might have defined authentic character traits a century and a half ago, but now they merely become obstacles to clarity and force.
Now compare that passage with one written less than forty years later (1884), the opening sentence from Chapter XXXX of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn:

We was feeling pretty good after breakfast, and took my canoe and went over the river a-fishing, with a lunch, and had a good time, and took a look at the raft and found her all right, and got home late to supper, and found them in such a sweat and worry they didn’t know which end they was standing on, and made us go right off to bed the minute we was done supper, and wouldn’t tell us what the trouble was, and never let on a word about the new letter, but didn’t need to, because we knowed as much about it as anybody did, and as soon as we was half up stairs and her back was turned we slid for the cellar cubboard and loaded up a good lunch and took it up to our room and went to bed, and got up about half-past eleven, and Tom put on Aunt Sally’s dress that he stole and was going to start with the lunch, but says:
“Where’s the butter?”

The differences between the two are remarkable. Both establish a strong character while providing needed suggestions as to education level, social standing (for the mid-nineteenth century), sophistication, credibility, and native intelligence. Both rely on non-standard usages and structures to identify their speakers.
But whereas the first is replete with difficult words and equally difficult pronunciations, the second contains only one word that might be problematical—cubbord—and the context provides an immediate definition. There are a few non-standard usages, such as “we was” and “we knowed”; and an obvious colloquial construction, “a-fishing.” Rather extraordinarily, the passage is a single sentence, structured upon and as conjunction, which gives precisely the insight into Huck’s mode of thinking that Twain needs, defining a boy who sees the world in terms of the present and the obvious, with little need for the complex multileveled utterances of subordination. For Huck, life is “this” and “this” and “this” and “this,” everything of equal immediacy and of equal importance.
What is most surprising about the second passage as dialect is, in fact, what is not there. There are none of the terminal clippings so often used to establish a drawling, leisurely Southern sense to speech. Twain gives readers “feeling” instead of the generally expected “feelin’,” “standing” instead of “standin’.” Indeed, the informality of the first particle in “a-fishing” is almost contradicted by the presence of the terminal “g.”
Except that by this time, in a novel build upon a flawless sense of the ebb and flow of human conversation, there is no need for Twain to instruct readers in how to ‘hear’ secific words; readers already know to delete certain sounds. The opening lines of the story provide almost immediate training in how to understand and interpret Huck’s world:

You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched but mainly he told the truth. That is nothing. I never seen anybody but lied one time or another, without it was Aunt Polly, or the widow, or maybe Mary. Aunt Polly—Tom’s Aunt Polly, she is—and Mary, and the Widow Douglas is all told about in that book, which is mostly a true book, with some stretchers, as I said before.

“You don’t know about me without you…,” “that ain’t no matter,” and “There was things…” prepare readers sufficiently that they automatically hear “That’s nothin’” rather than “That is nothing” and “Widder Douglas” rather than “Widow Douglas.” By the time Twain releases the marathon sentence in Chapter XXXX, there is no need for him to write:

We wuz feelin’ purty good afta’ breakfast, ‘n’ took m’ c’noe ‘n’ went over th’ river a-fishin’, with a lunch, ’n’ had a good time, ‘n’ took a look at th’ raft ‘n’ found ‘er alright, ‘n’ got home late to supper, ‘n’ found ‘em in such a sweat ‘n’ worry they di’n’t know which end they wuz standin’ on, ‘n’ made us go right off t’ bed th’ minute we wuz done supper, ‘n’ wouldn’t tell us what th’ trouble wuz, ‘n’ never let on a word ‘bout th’ new letter, but di’n’t need to, ‘cause we knowed as much ‘bout it as anybody did, ‘n’ as soon as we wuz half up stairs ‘n’ her back wuz turned we slid fer th’ cellar cubboard ‘n’ loaded up a good lunch ‘n’ took it up t’ our room ‘n’ went t’ bed, ‘n’ got up ‘bout half-past ‘leven, ‘n’ Tom put on Aunt Sally’s dress that he stole ‘n’ wuz goin’ to start with the lunch, but says:
“Where’s th’ butter?”

Spelled like this, the sentence becomes a stumbling block rather than a guide to characterization and authenticity—and one can only imagine the entire book written this way. Chances are good that Adventures of Huckleberry Finn would not be in the running for Great American Novel, if indeed anyone now even bothered to struggle through it.
Instead, Twain had the genius to suggest a regional dialect rather than re-create one. Rare but carefully positioned out-of-the-ordinary words and spellings, deftly handled spoken-level sentence structures, and a consistent context (including landscapes, actions, and characterization) allow Twain to tap into the advantages of dialect without succumbing to its dangers. Twain constructs the vernacular only to the extent necessary as a vehicle for his social criticism, allowing educated readers—who would, after all, buy more copies than uneducated readers—to become enmeshed in Huck’s story while remaining several degrees distant from it. They could initially look down upon Huck for his provincial attitudes and provincial speech patterns while gradually discovering—painfully, in many cases—that they themselves have misunderstood such key concepts as friendship, loyalty, freedom, and nobility.   

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Stephen King's THE STAND--Looking Back at Differences

The Stand: The Complete and Uncut Edition
Stephen King

[Shortly after The Stand: The Complete and Uncut Edition appeared, I was asked to review some of the differences between it and the original 1978 version and assess the effectiveness of the expanded story. In light of the recent news that the book is now scheduled as a four-film theatrical release, I thought those comments might be of interest.]

In 1990, after years of rumors, promises, and tantalizing hints, King’s monumental prose-epic, The Stand, finally appeared as King originally intended it. Its publication climaxed complicated negotiations with Doubleday, which allowed King to restore some 400 pages of manuscript text excised for the novel’s 1978 appearance and to update the setting to 1990. In addition, King appended an explanation of some of the more substantive changes between the two editions, as well as an account of how and why the book was originally cut.
As King notes, a number of readers, reviewers, and critics attacked the first version for being too long. Confronted by the unexpurgated 1990 The Stand, exceeding 1,150 pages in the hardcover edition, such readers must be approaching apoplexy. But there are also those who see The Stand, even in its earlier truncated form, as ranking among King’s most ambitious, coherent, involving, and ultimately successful novels.
The 1990 restoration substantiates those claims.
Most of the restorations appear in large blocks of narrative. Returning them to the text intensifies the novel, particularly in defining characters’ motivations, backgrounds, and personalities.  The new opening chapter thrusts us directly into the panic of the superflu as Charlie, Sally, and Baby La Von desperately flee the military a secret military base. The next chapter (Chapter 1 in the 1978 version) brings us back to familiar grounds as Stu Redman discovers that he and his friends have abruptly been immersed in a real-world horror. Beginning with panic, then moving to Redman’s more phlegmatic calm, King alters the movement of the novel, creating an uneven texture designed to keep readers slightly off balance. Thus, something as direct as beginning the story one stage earlier than in the 1978 version introduces intricate variations of pacing and narration that King will exploit further as the story continues.
Other restorations substantively alter the novel’s atmosphere. When Frannie Goldsmith confront her mother in the family’s formal parlor, she introduces much earlier than in the 1978 version the central themes of past versus future and the possible sterility of both.  Frannie’s obsession with keeping her child actually begins here and thus intensifies her terrors for the child’s life in her subsequent dark dreams and again in the final pages.
The 1990 version also incorporates more detail concerning the spread and the devastation of the superflu. The alterations range from single-paragraph vignettes, frightening in their simplicity and in King’s ability to sketch plausible characters in a minimum of space, to near chapters designed to enrich the novels portraits of social dissociation. These restorations establish more plausibly the survivors’ reactions to the new world the superflu has created.  In one instance, a devout Catholic has lost his entire family and can find no peace or purpose in his survival. Being a Catholic, however, he cannot commit suicide; somehow, he must reconcile the two. In a matter of a handful of sentences, King encapsulates the man’s suffering, his grief and loss, and his fatal resolution.  In another episode, a more extended passage covering several pages, King shows a contingent of black soldiers exorcising their frustrations with the white military hierarchy by shooting randomly chosen victims and televising the entire process. In his introduction not only of racial but of only barely subliminal sexual themes, King creates a segment compelling in its violence and frightening in its implications—for 1978 as well as for 1990.  An episode detailing Trashcan’s flight westward and his meeting with an embodied madness even deeper and more terrifying than his own—the Kid—highlights Trashcan and his devotion to the Dark Man; simultaneously it again explores the darker possibilities of sexuality, symbolically linking orgasm with death. In the latter two cases, it seems evident why King might have chosen to delete, in spite of his assurances in the introduction that censorship was not the key element in the 1978 cuts.
 Critically, in terms of The Stand’s relationship to other works, a new final chapter emphasizes the Dark Man’s centrality as theme and image in the entire range of King’s fictions, from an early poem through the continuing narratives of The Dark Tower.  In The Eyes of the Dragon and the Dark Tower episodes, Randall Flagg emerges as a mystical personification of evil, moving at will through alternate worlds. In the 1978 version, the Dark Man simply disappears when Trashcan arrives in Las Vegas with an armed nuclear bomb. In the 1990 restoration, he disappears, precisely as before. But now, he also reappears—this time on a white beach in a tropical, innocent world (the imagistic connections with the end of The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger and the beginning of The Drawing of the Three seem significant). His insidious introduction of evil into what appears as an untouched paradise emphasizes King’s theme of Eden Lost and makes even more poignant the fragile hopes for life and peace that Stuart and Frannie express in their final dialogue.
Each of the restorations and changes strengthens the novel. King was not satisfied merely to reconstruct the novel as he had originally envisioned it; he also carefully revised the entire manuscript to bring it up-to-date for 1990’s readers. This often includes changing or adding such details as the names of songs and singing groups, fleeting political and social allusions, and brand-name references more immediately recognizable to later audiences. The fantasy elements intrude into the science-fictional framework much sooner, diminishing the sense that the novel begins as post-apocalypse science fiction and then, about halfway through, abruptly introduces the fantastical elements of dreams and portents, prophets and prophecy. The greater emphasis on the superflu and its consequences makes the transition from extrapolation to mysticism more believable. In this respect, it is significant that most of the changes—especially those relating to characterization, setting, backgrounds, and atmosphere—occur early in the book. 
The conclusion seems tighter as well. The bomb scene still occurs with about fifty pages to go, but since so much more has happened earlier it seems (subjectively at least) much closer to the end of the novel than in the earlier book. In the 1978 version, the bomb itself seems subordinated to Glenn Bateman’s laughter when he finally sees the Dark Man and understands what a little thing they have all been afraid of. Stu Redman’s long trek home almost displaces the explosion in Las Vegas as a focal point for the conclusion. Now, laughter, bomb, and trek are more balanced, especially against Flagg’s appearance in the last chapter. We understand forcibly that one story of good versus evil, Light versus Dark, has concluded … but another has just begun.
The Stand in either of its manifestations is one of King’s strongest novels. It is a consistent, readable, teachable response to life in a frighteningly technology-oriented world; it also reminds us that there we may sometime be forced to find a place for the spiritual and the supernatural within that world. The restored novel confirms King’s position as a master storyteller; and at the same time, it provides even readers familiar with all of his works to date increasing insight into the growth and transformation over more than a decade of his abilities, his themes, and his narrative power.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Geoff Brown and Amanda J. Spedding, eds, SNAFU: Heroes—One Good SNAFU Deserves Another

SNAFU: Heroes—An Anthology of Military Horrors
Geoff Brown and Amanda J. Spedding, eds.
Cohesion Press, 2014.

With the publication of SNAFU: An Anthology of Military Horrors, the editorial team of Geoff Brown and Amanda J Spedding scored an undeniable win (for my review, see Now, with the four novella-length tales in SNAFU: Heroes—An Anthology of Military Horrors, they demonstrate that the excellences of the earlier volume were not merely fortuitous. With contributions by Jonathan Maberry, Weston Ochse, James A. Moore, and Joseph Nassise, there is military action aplenty, enough monsters—and frightening enough monsters—to satisfy even the most discriminating of readers, and sufficient opportunities for snafus on every level, from individuals making faulty decisions to layers of bureaucratic red tape that threaten humanity’s safety.

The first story, Joseph Nassise’s “The Hungry Dark: A Templar Chronicles Mission,” takes Knight Commander William Cade and his Echo Team through a nightmarish encounter with zombies and demons in a village in Germany’s Black Forest. Darkness is a theme throughout: the darkness of night falling over the infected village, the darkness of death and betrayal as the team and a handful of survivors struggle to endure until the dawn, the darkness of a powerful storm that isolates Cade and the others from any hope of help, the darkness of demonic powers intent upon emerging into this world and controlling it. To make matters immeasurably worse, in the early stages of infection, there is no way to identify the infected from the healthy, enemies from friends. Eventually, everything relies on Cade’s intuitiveness, his courage and drive, and his willingness to sacrifice himself for all.
Weston Ochse’s tantalizingly titled “Tarzan Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” is essentially a parable about a broken world and a broken mind. It begins cataclysmically: “The earth was rent as if a leviathan had burst free to sail the galaxy for better worlds to chew.” And from there, we are introduced to an earth fissured and cracked, to innumerable monsters  of varying sorts emerging from the scars to wreak havoc on their surroundings. The Sonoran Rift, in the middle of the desert near Bisbee, Arizona, is the setting; among the battalion sent in to destroy any monsters that might rise from it is an incognito reporter, gambling his life in the hopes of garnering a once-in-a-lifetime exposé. And there are monsters—gigantic tarantulas and, more frightening perhaps, equally gigantic tarantula hawks, huge wasps that lay their eggs in the still-living bodies of tarantulas paralyzed by a venomous sting. But that is not the end of the monsters. Andy Fryerson becomes convinced that one of his fellows intends to rape an innocent woman and—just as Fryerson had tried to come to the aid of a girl he had known years before, imagining himself a wrong-righting Tarzan dropping from the trees—he now vows to stop the attack…no matter what. No one and no thing will stop him.
James A. Moore’s “War Stories” represents in some ways a retreat from the expansiveness of the first two. It begins quietly, intimately, with two characters: a young man fresh from appalling experiences in Viet Nam (and equally appalling ones upon returning to the States); and his grandfather, a veteran of both World War II and Korea. Realizing that his grandson is on the brink of a breakdown, the old man sits with him on the family porch and, for the first time, opens up about his wartime experiences and inviting his grandson to reciprocate. Moore skims through this part, as the two establish a powerful bond…powerful enough for the grandfather to relate one final encounter, with Nazis, death-camp victims used for experimentation, unbelievable monsters created from humans, and one anomalous individual who might or might not have been human, or a monster. The story accentuates the inhumanity of war by expanding its characters—literally and physically—as the grandfather and a few others fight against seven-foot-tall monstrosities and the human-monsters that created them.
The final story is Jonathan Maberry’s “Changeling: A Joe Ledger Adventure.” It begins shortly after Ledger has witnessed the death of the second woman he had ever loved, Grace Courtland, and his subsequent descent into a distanced coldness, a ruthlessness that he himself describes as monstrous. Now he is summoned from the prospect of enjoying a baseball double-header on a perfect May afternoon to investigate a supposedly empty scientific laboratory. The place had recently been raided by multiple alphabet-agencies, none of which fully trust the others. Ledger’s enigmatic boss, Mr. Church, is convinced that there is more inside than simply empty rooms, particularly since a dozen or so of the scientists who should have been inside have never been found. Angry at the interruption in his life and at the multiple administrative snafus that prevent anyone from going in, Ledger enters the building. There he discovers—no great surprise, of course—monsters beyond his imagining. But more importantly, he discovers another person already inside, already searching for answers, already more knowledgeable about the lab that anyone should be…or could be. And worse, she triggers excruciating memories of Courtland.

Each of the stories is well handled, deftly written, approaching questions of what constitutes a monster and what constitutes a hero from vastly different directions. Each answers some of those questions; each leaves others frustratingly unanswered. But in the ambiguities inherent in each story, in the unresolved possibilities of the natural and the supernatural, lie the strengths that makes each powerful.
SNAFU:Heroes is the first in several advertised follow-up anthologies to the original SNAFU, that will include SNAFU: Wolves at the Door and SNAFU II: Survival of the Fittest. From the evidence in the first two volumes, these are books to watch out for, the purchase, and to enjoy thoroughly.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Index to Essays, Poems, and Other Non-Fiction--October 2011-November 2014

Essays, Poems, Filamental Emblems, and Notes:
“A Rose by Any Other Name—Some Types of Sentences.”
“An Interview on Orson Scott Card,” conducted by Caitlan Mack.
“An Interview on Stephen King,” conducted by Erin Frey.
“Faith within Fantasy: Stephen King, Richard Bachman, and Seventeenth-Century Devotional Literature.”
“First Foray.” Introduction to Collings Notes.
“Happy Halloween.” Announcement for Collings’s books.
“‘He Said,’ ‘She Said’: Speech Tags in Narrative.”
“Introspections: On Sex, Gender, Mormons, Marriage, and Exaltation.”
“Life, the Universe, & Everything 32.” Announcement of Collings as Special Guest, with schedule.
“My Good News—A Position as Senior Publications Editor for JournalStone Publishing.”
“On Entering the Fantastic.” Excerpt from C. S. Lewis’s Ransom Trilogy: Essays on Genre.
“On Seventeenth-Century Ghosts and What We Can Learn from Them.”
“On Taliesin: The Joseph Smith/King Arthur Sonets. Excerpts; poetry.
“‘On the Viking Immolation…’—for Ethan.” Poem.
“Personal Poetry Inventory.” Excerpt from The Art and Craft of Poetry: Twenty Exercises Toward Mastery.
“Seven Grammar Rules It is Safe to Ignore—When Needed.”
“So You Want to Turn Your Readers Off—Its’ Easy!”
“Starshine and Shadows: Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror.” Overview of Collings’s original website at and
“The Master: The Continuing Impact of Stephen King—HWA Roundtable Discussion.”
“Thoughts on ‘Ordain Women’ (The Phrase, Not the Organization).” LDS content.
“Three Hallmarks of Horror: Location, Isolation, and Language.”
 “Three Hallmarks of Horror: Part Three—Language.”
“Three Hallmarks of Horror: Part Two—Isolation.”
“To ‘Is’ or Not to ‘Is’…Or Perhaps to Do Both.”
“World Horror Convention, Provo UT, 2016.” Announcement of Collings as Academic Guest of Honor, with brief bibliography. 10/2014.