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___THE SUMMER READS_ _

 

Summer is for vacations. It's the time to slack off. So, in the spirit of Africa heat incinerating Tucson during these months, I'm taking hammock time, selecting for vacuousness, and short-stubbing my reviews accordingly. Natch, they're not all gonna be racetrack dogs, as some will have legs beyond the event, just as some will slip right in the starting blocks—anotherwords, it's the game as usual! Besides, I'm usually traveling up and down the West, so I don't have my research tools or a solid connection to the internet.

So, that'll do, Pig.

 

 

 
HALFWAY HUMAN by CAROLYN IVE-S GILMAN, c.1998

 

The alien said, “you've got to understand how hard it is for me, to live in a gendered world. . . Sexuality is always present, with you. It never leaves your minds. It's as if you exist in a cloud of pheromones I can't sense, but only guess at. I have to be on my guard all the time, thinking of hidden meanings, body language, and innuendoes. I can never assume I understand you, never take anything at face value. It all has to go through a gender-filter in my brain. I wish I could get away from it, just be able to relax, be in a completely nonsexual situation, just for a day.”

—Tedla, p.15

 

 

In this thinly-veiled feminist manifesto, a world is handed out where sexual characteristics are not exteriorized until matriculation—or puberty achieved—and a third distinction is revealed degenderized “like one of those prudish children's dolls”(p.5). This is the class tagged as “blands”, and are asexual neuters that, behind closed doors or “grayspace”, perform the essential tasks of maids, servants, butlers, day laborers, and any menial workers doing the jobs historically held by chattel. Their planet is called Gammadis, and, in the present time of the novel, a jittery détente is progressing since the First Contact team of humans were extradited a dozen years ago for violating Star Trek's Prime Directive(1). You can imagine what a setback this is for the capitalistic engines of Capella Two—the colony taking the place of our old and presumably long-destroyed Earth—because new, economic markets are its commercial fodder. The timeframe of any action between Capella Two and Gammadis is a little woozy since the invented modes of space travel are wayports of instantaneous matter transportation combined with non-descript starships. This seems most important for a plot point of the concluding chapter, as it somehow allows people to travel the great distance to Gammadis' solar system almost immediately compared to the return trip which lasts fifty-one years. And visa versa.

Author Gilman structures her novel by keeping current in third-person limited, while digressing for backstory with first-person confessional from the totem character Tedla, a Gammadian bland who is the flashpoint of the story. The 3P sections get annoying when the core character—Valerie Endrada, a retired xenologist—constantly interprets what other characters are meaning underneath their dialogues. There is also an authorial decision to re-make Tedla over and over again, sometimes causing disproportion between action, intelligence, emotional decisions, and intended, symbolic meaning of this permutational character. In some of its testimonials segueing throughout the novel, you just don't expect “it”—Gammadian pronoun for neuters—to talk that way.

Even to the observant tourist, Gammadian ethnology appears civilized, stable, and apropos for its technological and societal evolvements. They advance an astounding dedication to their ethical standards, exemplified by the yearly Justification Time where individuals judge their worth and achievements to nature, culture, and humanity. And, like a hari-kari ritual suicide, irresponsible and unproductive lives fall on their swords while chanting “we must continue to earn the favor of existence”(p.104). They control populations from exploding and protect the natural environment from pollution. Cooperation is favored over competition; sharing over selling

 

1) As the right of each sentient species to live in accordance with its normal cultural evolution is considered sacred, no Star Fleet personnel may interfere with the healthy development of alien life and culture.

 

Reviewer's Note: Sorry this didn't get finished. It was shaping up to be a pretty good review of a very interesting read, albeit a little of a stumblebum in its preachiness. Time just gotta way frum me. And instead of trying to finish this review, I'm gonna spend the time reading more Carolyn Ives Gilman.

Copyright 07/15/2014 by Larry Crawford

THE RUINS by SCOTT SMITH, c.2006

Plotwise, it's like every haunted house story and its variants you ever read or viewed, from Cabin in the Woods to Haunting of Hill House, this one just happens outside, on a hill in the Yucatan jungle, next to an abandoned mine shaft, vines dense around the hill like Friar Tuck's hairstyle, and custodial Mayans chasing tourists away or, if the thrillseekers make it past them, they get an arrow in the throat for trying to leave.

  Because, believe me, if you're jailed on that pile of death with the mounds of bones peeping out of vine bunches all around you, a cell phone which isn't really a cell phone calling you to the bottom of a darkened shaft so you break your back in the fall trying to find it, yeah, you and your buddies with no food or water to speak of, the couple of girls are no help, and the Greek doesn't speak the language and the German is reticent, stoic; boy, it gets even tougher when your bud thinks the vines have penetrated his skin and he's cuttin' himself, bleeding out all over, everyone getting hysterical, hungry, terrorized, even drunk ‘cause you brought tequila instead of water. Next morning, the Greek with the broken back is still alive, still screaming outside the tent in the mud while the vines strip his legs of flesh. Inside the tent, you hear your own voice mimicked from the jungle, you know the vines are laughing at you, waiting, savoring, enjoying each ghastly encounter, slurping your vomit, drinking all the spilled blood, chewing the dying flesh of your body while you slept.

Beyond hope, you know it's not gonna end real well. Even when you try most of the Boy Scout tricks of survival like rain water retention, fire building, rationing the brought twinkies since there's nothing on the hill except those fuckin' vines which are getting bolder, moving in defiance of everything rational, goading you with creepy notions as if they were sentient and doing all this for no other reason than pure, unsullied evil. Will your brain explode from fear, or, will you drift off, mumbling incoherencies like one of the girls does? You didn't think you could hold on through the fear, the horror, the certain death approaching while absorbing more pain, more mental anguish, more grief seeing your friends fall screaming and crying covered in flesh-eating vines.

The Ruins is a full-bore rocket-ride of visceral horror. At 319 pages, it's a little verbose as superfluous details and pieces of backstory fill in between the chewfests and frenzied reactions. For those seeking logic and rules in the world, turn to the Eagle Scout as he organizes the group with survival chores, even going as far as suggesting they eat one of their dead. They are all slipping into a fog of insanity from these dire, impossible circumstances, the promises of being rescued become dimmer with each, black-as-tar nightfall.

There is no reasonable explanation given for the animated, killing vines(1). With no apparent subtext to muck up the horror, this is that ticking clock rundown to unavoidable death—you know, pretty much what you're denying about your own life path—just compressed with unpredictable circumstances and lots and lots of fear and pain.

But that's why you read this kind of fiction, right? As if experiencing it vicariously will somehow ward off experiencing it for real, eh? Well, good luck with that.

 

 1) The closest it gets is one character speculating that whatever the vines are, they came out of the viscera of the earth via the mine shaft, apparently seeking not photosynthesis but something more alive and squirmy.

 

Copyright 06/15/2014 by Larry Crawford

 

PRODIGAL by MELANIE TEM, c.1991

“Ethan is dead”(p.10) our protagonist—tween Lucy Ann Brill—claims even before he actually is dead, for us, the readers, anyway. In the opening pages, Ethan visits his sister Lucy in her bedroom, “breathing bad breath in her face . . . and he had his hands around her neck”(p.1), and he doesn't appear to be embracing her. He's been missing for a long time, we're informed, and he is the oldest of a family of seven kids. Into drugs and anti-social behavior for quite a while, he's the family's first rebel without a cause, and will be summarily aped in chronological order by his siblings. He appears to Lucy and her Mother as an apparition, somewhere between daydreams and night terrors, never speaking, always electro charged with hidden meaning. By page 75 there's an actual body and a funeral.

But that doesn't mean Ethan stops visiting.

The Brills seem to be a typical dysfunctional American family. The focus is on the top three sibs—Ethan, Rae, and Lucy—while the younger ones are mainly parroting, background noise. Representing the top, middle, and start of the teener years, rebellion and dissatisfaction are their playing cards. The parents feel, well, saddled under the weight of these children. Together, they hug, kiss, and dance, but the older kids are embarrassed by them. There's a Married, With Children-like arena to the Brills—not in actuality so much as in spirit—that feels more like overuse than clichéd.

Until dead Ethan starts crawling in bed naked with his Mother, that is, although no incestual eroticism is exploited.

Cognizant through third-person limited PofV, Lucy is a whiny, frustrated narrator. There's not much she likes about her family, and, since she's so dominate in the telling of this tale, her view of parents makes them appear overly tolerant—can't spank ‘em, says Dr. Spock—overly loving—hugging over bugging, says Dr. Phil—and bummed out over a dead son, missing daughter, rebelling Lucy with the fourth child not far behind, and the unfairness of the world in general.

Then Jerry Johnston shows up, touting himself as a counselor for troubled teens, and immediately stinking of Chester the Molester pheromones to any half-aware reader. I guess we're supposed to see that incipient self-discovery means tossing yourself to the outside world, as “there were things her parents couldn't do for her no matter how much they wanted to. . . That was what it must mean to grow up”(p.347).

So, if you want to grow up, masturbate a lot.

 

Copyright 08/10/2011 by Larry Crawford

WOLFSANGEL by M. D. LACHLAN, c.2010

 

Now the animal cries and howling struck up again, but in a higher key.

Adisla held Feileg to her in the darkness. “Are you going to kill me?”

“I am going to die for you,” said Feileg, unpicking the bonds around his ankles.

—P.342

 

This is the lead volume in a trilogy of historical novels set in Viking times called The Craw. Some may call this a werewolf origin story. While most of these kinds of sagas—Abacrombie's work, Cook's Black Company, Gentle's Ash, etc.—take a modern look at the traditional Sword and Sorcery Fantasy genre with an in-the-trenches accounting usually cast with the lower minions of battle-weary grunts, slaves, and working-class commoners, author Lachlan follows that course with emphasis on Magic and its influences. As a result, lots of time is spent under spells or explaining magical logistics to his audience, which can become slightly confusing and certainly daunting at times. However, the reward of immersion is a narrative like no other, especially if focusing on the other plot buoys along the way, such as the romantic interest and entanglements, and the ebb and flow of the werewolf-doppelganger developments.

And, beyond its cerebral contortions, there's plenty of the anticipated blood-and-guttings associated with axe, spear, and mace battles, plus feral animal slaughter leaving fields of half-chewed legs, arms, and heads littering the pages.

Storywise, it's pretty simple: the road to power with all its nasty twists; revenge and its destructive focus; star-crossed lovers challenged beyond duty and attachment. There is quite a proclivity towards death, presented without fearing it, even longing for its earthly finality in glory, and, as a source of immortality and a desirable transformation to better realities like Vahalla. There is fear, certainly, but it is of Fate, the conniving gods, and waking up in an afterlife shithole.

Copyright 08/26/2014 by Larry Crawford

FENRIR by M. D. LACHLAN, c.2011

The second novel in the series is titled after the wolf destined to kill Odin. It submerges into even more conglomerated, Norse mythology as its thaumaturgical mischief leads into an invasion of France by 10th century Vikings, subverting its lead characters as reincarnated archetypes from Wolfsangel struggling tenaciously to live up to or run away from their fated destinies, otherwise known as Whimsies of the Gods. The leading directive follows Lady Aelis, feisty sister of Count Eudes from a besieged Paris while she struggles her way to safety, which is, of course, not safe by any means. There's another character thrust saddlebagged onto Aelis', centered on a living Saint named Jehan of St. Germain who is basically vegetable matter with a brain until he is taken over by one of the before-mentioned archetypes, becoming a stereotypical pawn for Christian theology bringing salvation to Pagans by pleading Hotel Heaven as the 4-star afterlife resort over the celestial mead halls of Norsemen battle heros. But all that pucky gets plucked when the Wolf shows up.

Actually, it becomes rather convoluded and boring compared to the riveting establishment and discovery of Wolfsangel. Middle novels can certainly stall, but author Lachlan is asking his audience to step beyond mere continuance and accept characters within characters, dressed up with confusing and complex runes and baffling sigils presumably connecting with the global lore of Scandinavian eccentricities. It seems to get flatter and flatter—kinda like the European belief of the Earth at the time—until anything looks possible and it all collapses in on itself buried in a jumble of bad juju. Although dead at 402/532, there's plenty in the Norse pantheon to study up on for the third volume.

 

Copyright 08/30/2014 by Larry Crawford

 

LORD OF SLAUGHTER by M. D. LACHLAN, c. 2012

Again, character paths are shuffled like a deck of tarot cards, with destinies playing out in the hands of unknown forces. Well, not quite unknown, as we have all of Norse mythology to fall back on. The problem—again—is the tumbling up from past destinies which complicate and confuse all characterizations with who is who and what is really what. Is this a free-willed character, a dabbler or pseudo-player, or Odin's next Happy Meal? The problem is that everyone has so many question marks hanging on them, it is hard to grasp their essence or even invest in their fated lives. Stringing stories just adds to the confusion; it forces slick surfaces for the reader to just slide by, grasping little to prepare for what's up ahead.

  Dead at 260/403.

Copyright 09/18/2011 by Larry Crawford

 

GALVESTON by NIC PIZZOLATTO, c.2010

Author Nic has a real knack for catchy titles, doesn't he? Witness his career jumper, True Detective, so brilliant it soars atmospheres above its prosaic name. And here, Nic's first and only novel Galveston—yawn—another example of Don't Judge A Book By Its Title . . .

There's lots of stories out there about mean guys going soft, ending up in a dumpster as dead as the Pillsbury Doughboy. Or, like our first-person, anti-hero says in finish, “I was worried I'd live forever”(p.258). Roy Cady is a thug who catches a ribbon of decency and tugs on it—hand over hand—until it releases Redemption. Author Nic accomplishes this by time-jumping 20 years into a current, oncoming hurricane while Our Hero makes his last reconciliation. His telling of getting' there—the main bulk of the novel—is wrenchingly credible with all the merit badges associated with Noir: betrayal, revenge, despair, anguish, pain and death. Yeah, there's an upside but it's bittersweet in flavor. In Roy 's head, you go through all the arguments, all the decisions flooding the way to a higher ground.

It starts with a terse and spectacular shoot out where Roy evades getting cacked and rescues another victim intended for torturous death, a teenage hooker named Rocky. On the lam, they pick up Tiffany—Rocky's 3-year old daughter, oops, I mean sister—from an abusive step-father. Guess where they run to? Hint: it's somewhere in Texas .

This novel is not just a shadow from the glory days of Roman Noir of the 40s. Sure, it contains all the detritus of sleazy bars, fleabag hotels, room-temperature IQ human rubble, bully-body pickup trucks, lost and loser dreams. But there's a tied-off vein of hope beyond the shiv-bloody prices to pay for it.

Galveston has done something rare. It has delivered peace among the chaos and indifference of the Void. Even if it's just a sliver; even if it's still Reaper time for our sympathetic characters. It's not the gutting of the true and deep blackness of yesteryear's Noir, but then there should be enough of that just living in the 21st Century to avoid pursuing it in our Art.

 

Copyright 09/18/2014 by Larry Crawford

 

SILK by CAITLIN R. KIERNAN, c. 1998

What can you say about a book that starts rolling with:

 

“Ummm,” Robin murmurs, accepts the pipe, but her wide, acid-bright eyes never waver from the television screen, from the silent gore and splatter of a pirated, second-generation Italian zombie flick, sound all the way down so that everything becomes an impromptu video for the Skinny Puppy or Marilyn Manson pounding from the stereo. But Robin knows where all the shrieks and moans belong and on cue she opens her mouth wide, perfect teeth and pink tongue, and Spyder shuts her eyes, feels the scream tear itself from Robin's throat and wash over her, filling up the room until the jealous music pulls it apart.

--p.1-2

 

Spyder is a demon and recruiting human blood bags like Robin into her “mesmerizing world of ritual and ceremony”(back cover blurb). I read Poppy Brite's 1992 debut novel Lost Souls. I don't think I need to read author Keirnan's similar starter in all its overly-anxious prose.

Dead at page 11 out of 353.

Copyright 10/10/2014 by Larry Crawford

 

NIGHT LIFE by RAY GARTON, c.2007

 

This is a sequel to Garton's spot-on Live Girls of 1987. Unfortunately it's more of a stain than a spot, as it spills out as an investigative procedural souring with predictability. As a summer read, however, it's damn, ah, lively.

Some Stephen King-like author wants to discover if vampires are real. He hires two detectives who find a hidden world of vampires living amongst us, socially structured quite similar to humanity but far more primeval. The club Live Girls in Times Square which was destroyed in a blast from the previous book, is referenced as a bloodsucker's bushwhacking paradise, creating a multitude of don't-wannabe vamps who treat it as an affliction and wear very heavy sunscreen and drink bottled blood. The two brought forth are Casey and Davey(1), working as screenwriters in Hollywood, speculatively the future scripters of True Blood, if they can survive this novel. When our investigators meet them, unwanted connections are made and the Brutals show up, abducting the two girls but leaving the guys for obvious plot reasons.

The Brutals. Ahh, the vampires of legendary familiarity. Full-bore sociopaths with fangs, a perchance for darkness and flying around on batwings(2). They've got a fleabag hotel in North Hollywood with 5 stories of locked rooms holding their blood drinking fountains, and they use them in the sex trade business until they look too emasculated and unappealing to their human and post-human customers. Immediately the two girls—Karen and Casey—get slotted for abusive porn filmwork. They are videoed being gang raped and savagely beaten by a dozen guys over and over again. Casey gets the worst of it, culminating when the Brutals send her severed head back to her husband(3). Karen is chosen by the queen Vampirella Anya as her personal sex toy.

Meanwhile, the guys are ramping up for an assault on the Royal Arms Hotel with MP5s and stun grenades. Fuck the silver bullets and wooden stakes; it's all about the volume of lead poured into these archfiends until they're a mound of gore. The NRA would be proud.

Once the plot gets spanked out of its seeking agenda, it takes off like a howling alley cat. The actions of the two mainplot groups—the vamps and their victims against the investigators and saviors—hook together in alternating syncopation toward the inevitable, big-bang finale. In fact, it reads more like a movie script out of its screenplay format, mainly because author Garton details most indiscriminate actions as if visualizing for the set designers and dialogue blockers, forestalling most use of metaphors and irony and their more evocative, innervational connections. A lot of it reads as filler, as in “he went to the sink and washed his plate and fork clean, then put them on a drain rack to dry. He dried his hands on a hand-towel tied to the handle of the refrigerator . . .”(p.76). However, this bare-ass approach does force the thriller action straight into your face immediately with inescapable captivation. Any subtextual message is absent, too, unless you see this as an apologue about teenage runaways starry-eyed with fame and fortune meeting their unjust rewards by being monetarily forced into the sex and/or the slave trade.

In conclusion, this is a passable Summer Read but doesn't contain that wildcat and vanguarding astonishment of Live Girls. Twenty years has softened the original ground of blood-and/as-semen vamp exploitation to the level of soft pornography. On that point, Night Life is lost in the crowded, mad rush to relocate to a trailer park in Bon Temps, Louisiana.

 

 

1) Davey Owens is blood-bitten in Live Girls and ends up being the hero who blows the club up. He pretty much repeats that feat here. I guess once bitten, twice shy doesn't apply.

2) There is really no reason for this transmuted affectation. Yeah, pulling Susie out of her convertible BMW as she enters the garage and flying away is a cool visual, but it also adds to the Groan Factor. Although, later finding your wife bunched up on the front door welcome mat as a massive gangbang bruise is quite impressive.

3) Author Garton cops out here. He gives us anal and gang rape scenes, plus lesbian and straight fuck peekaboos, but no decapitation scene, only its consequence. I mean, gorror is gorror, and these monsters are certainly capable of a genuine skull fuck, or, at least, some headless-corpse torso boning mayhem. Oh, come on, don't look at me that way! This is 21st Century, internet-addicted America, you chodas.

 

Copyright 10/25/2014 by Larry Crawford

 

SERENA by RON RASH, 371 pages, c.2008

 

 

McIntyre raised his eyes and contemplated the wasteland strewn out before him where not a single live thing rose. The other men also looked out on what was in part their handiwork and grew silent. When McIntyre spoke his voice had no stridency, only a solemnity so profound and humble all grew attentive.

“I think this is what the end of the world will be like,” McIntyre said, and none among them raised his voice to disagree.

—p.336

 

 

This is what the lead characters of Serena have created, smirking all the way to the bank. It is hard to find more despicable characters in modern fiction than Serena and George Pemberton. They are the sole owners of Pemberton Lumber Company, having either killed or driven their initial partners out of business. In fact, anyone who offers even the slightest affront or crosses them in any way is summarily dispatched by murder or job loss. Serena roughshods the cutting crews on a dazzlingly-white Arabian horse with a Kazakhstan, snake-hunting Golden Eagle perched on her arm. The men respect her for her proven knowledge—she was raised by lumberpeople in Colorado, her family dying in a dubious way—medical skills—she saves a man who loses his hand to a missed axe cut and later becomes her murderous adjunct—and, well, grandisimo cojones. Captivated, they think of Serena “as beyond gender, the same as they might some phenomenon of nature such as rain or lightening”(p.180). Maybe ruminating on her—like author Rash notes—as “threatening the world with high astounding terms” in the verses of Marlowe's Tamburlaine the Great (1587), putties in the theatrical cracks without disturbing the center of Serena's limitless conceit.

Serena, the apex predator, gives nothing because there's nothing there to give, only destruction and death. In that way she transcends the flesh, becoming a Goddess—cold as a statue of Kali. She is made up of determination glued together with a child-like selfishness. George, fixated on the mindsets of power, wealth, and success, is naturally drawn to Serena's commanding strength in these desires. He never fully understands that he is merely an inanimate chess piece. Even the meager help he gives his illegitimate son to escape Serena's deadly wrath is not about caring, but keeping his own legacy alive. Sure, there's a sliver of empathy there, but it is mere kindling in his fiery addiction to Serena.  

George, a young Princeton graduate, runs the books and the business end, occasionally taking off his shirt and laying railroad spur track for supposed respect from his workers; however, he is rarely seen among the sawyers and choke setters working muddy slopes in dangerous peril that main or kill at least one worker a week. Compared to Serena, he is a poser; to the rest of us, a villainous, evil man who is not beyond manslaughter himself.  

Their thousands upon thousands of acres of clearcut desolation in North Carolina just after Jump Time on Wall Street in 1929 is being hampered by pesky conservationists with the upcoming creation of the Smoky Mountain National Park. After recognizing even they can't fight the federal government, Serena's later-enacted dream becomes decimating a richer and larger forest known as the Amazon Basin . “Give us a lifetime and Mrs. Pemberton and I will cut down every tree, not just Brazil but in the world”(p.346), George says pompously on his thirtieth birthday. 

Fortunately, George doesn't have a lifetime, but Serena manages one—to the detriment of the Earth—not falling to the Ten of Swords until 45 years later at the age of 75. Ironically, it is the same blade wielded by George's son Jacob that killed his maternal grandfather in the opening scenes of the novel. 

Author Rash writes from the tradition of Faulkner and O'Conner, although he is closer in many ways to Erskine Caldwell in vision and scope. The bullet points of the Southern Gothic genre are all there—interminable loss, wrenching despair and living conditions, stoic yet abounding honor and pride, family above all else, but revenge at all costs—and author Rash lays them out with lyrical metaphors(1) and envisionary prose. His sinkholes are characterization and overstatement. Personalities are barely studied above their archetypes, and not nearly as investigated as the bludgeoning of the landscape around them. The reader is beaten over the head with eating what you planted verses killing what you can sell. Also, the carnival incident of Chapter 28—proving once and for all that Serena is the real deal—is superfluous to the read. Style-wise, the use of Elizabethan drama fancies are a little too transparent. Snipes and his loggers are a useful yet somewhat comical respite from the Robespierrian malevolence of the Pembertons, but their aside Chorus is too dated a technique for my taste.  

But beyond its faults, Serena will stand as a testament of pure, fictional evil, and Serena takes her place among the Hall of Famers from Medea to Catherine Tramell. In this sense, her distance from a fleshed-out character is seen as enigmatic and the quintessence of the deified that author Rash has sublimely created.

   

1) “a sense of weightlessness like the moment between the rise and fall on a rope swing”—p.264.

Copyright 11/15/2014 by Larry Crawford

 

THE DRY SALVAGES by CAITLIN R. KIERNAN, 123 pages, c.2004

 

After I watched 1997's Event Horizon for the second time a coupla weeks ago, I said to myself, too bad there's not a better way to tell this story . . . 

And here it is: because this novella is a haunting; it is Ishmael at the finish, “and I only am escaped alone to tell thee”(p.120). As a first-person narrative, it modulates between eighty-year-old Audrey Cather, a long-retired exopaleontologist, writing her “old woman's wasted memories”(p.21) in a Paris hovel apartment of the despotic future, and the defining moment of her life fifty years earlier in a space rescue mission on an obscure moon 15 light years away called Piros. They were told to be looking for the remains of an alien endeavor from 500 years in the past, but, in fact, the 4-man team in the ship Montelius have been sent to investigate a prior mission's disaster that has lost its on-the-ground explorer team, plus the two remaining humans are closed off in their quarters reading William Blake, listening to Beatles tunes, self-mutilating, and suicidally non-communicative. The Gilgamesh is being run by synthetic bots and the ship's computers when they arrive. Not able to make any meaningful contact with the crew and with all the files locked beyond decryption and held at bay by a bot with a boltgun they have to kill to leave, the rescuers from the Montelius decide to seek answers on Piros' surface.  

At this point the read establishes a tantalizing that tickles forever, even when you leave the novel. It kicks up other masters of deconstructed prose like Aickman, Ligotti, or Barron, although author Kiernan seems more emotion-driven around the bondings of horror. As Audrey says toward the end of her story, “There are no answers. There is no truth. There [is] only . . . an infinite regression of improbable unlikelihoods leading nowhere at all”(p.118). Sure, the disquieted source is hard to describe, because answers are subtly buried in the questions, but the questions demand further information to be relevant. One thing is certain, however; everybody aboard both starships are terrified, so terrified they take death over discovery, and very, very certain that nothing—that's no thing—can leave that moon's surface.  

Piros evidently had an event that wiped out five billion years of life, leaving it a “barren, arid corpse of a world”(p.101). Now, the surface examined by arriving humans is an apparent mining site left standing millennia ago. There's roads, dusty machinery and an open pit mine that can be seen from space. Fossils are discovered that are humanoid in structure, along with impressions and artifacts hinting at another species like Earth's sea serpents, possibly lifted from the liquid pool filling the bottom of the pit mine.  

On Piros, the team splits in twos, and Audrey—always untrustworthy by her own admission—enters the abandoned shuttle with Captain Joakim. The in-flight voice recorder just adds complexity onto the conundrum with its laughter and hysterics(1), especially since there is no power to run the thing in the first place. Then the sandstorm increases blurring visibility, and reality tears away, leaving hallucinations or epiphanous visions into something indeterminate, cataclysmic, abominable.

 

Dark revolving in silent activity.

A self-containing shadow, in enormous labors occupied.

—William Blake, The Book of Urizen , c.1794

 

In the novel's present time, no one is left from the Montelius crew except Audrey, and she wonders when ANSA—the ruling authority of these matters—will send “some nickelslick, jackwired investigator of violated legal confidences”(p.86) to take her away for writing this all down. Her only confidant is Zora, a synthetic girl who lives in the apartments. She has become astrophobic, paranoid, phantom-obsessed. It all becomes too real when Zora is revealed to be an agent and places her under house arrest. This way, humanity will be salvaged from afflictive prospects, and Audrey'll have this dubitable journal all to herself.

 

“There was never any truth. Only moments, and what they contained, and the parts of ourselves we lost.”

—Audrey Cather, exopaleontologist, p.109

 

 

1) reminding me a lot of the selfie video tape found in the mysteriously-sinking sailboat in 1989's film Dead Calm. Also, of course, there's the nightmare, incomprehensible visions from Event Horizon that pepper all those badly-acted scenes of befuddlement.

 

Copyright 11/17/2014 by Larry Crawford

 

AFTER THE FALL, BEFORE THE FALL, DURING THE FALL by NANCY KRESS, 189 pages, c.2012

You have to admire author Kress' acumen in taking a currently overstretched plotline—EOTW—and tidily tying it into a fresh and fascinating knot. After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall is an ingenious way to tell a tale: start three stories, all with different time lines, entwine them until they coalesce while saturating with different leitmotifs—apocalypse and alien invasion—all the while braiding in emotional and sociological character-driven concerns. And making it a page grabber while you're at it.

Of the three plot strings, the futureset of 2035 is the most fascinating, albeit the most difficult to conceptualize. It focuses on apparently the last struggle of humanity that is locked in a complex plastic prison of stark white corridors and rooms nicknamed The Shell. They are the refugees of a war against alien invaders called the Tesslie. The essential needs are surmounted the same way you'd treat your pet hamster. Most inmates feel they are lab specimens, something like the human incarceration of 1969's Slaughterhouse Five. But instead of just two, there are a handful of humans of all ages, but the attrition rate is higher than new births; hence The Grab, a gimcrack that transports a passenger back in time, but only for 10 minutes. On rotation, it becomes the job of the few teenagers to grab what they can from the past, depending on where they land. Grocery stores are good, Wal-Mart even better, but the most coveted destination of all is the ones that allow for the kidnapping of human babies.  

They are playing against the biggest odds of all for the survival of the human race.  

The time traveling is always to the same segment—realtime, like 2014—which is also the timestream of the second plotline. Julie Kahn is a computer scientist who has discovered a pattern of unexplainable kidnappings and burglary. Working with the FBI, her predictive algorithms are sourcing future sites, similar to the projections of Roger Mexico in 1973's Gravity's Rainbow to find the next V-2 rocket hit in WWII's London . Julie's world is complicated by a child from her now-estranged lover, a married man, who is still around her in the workplace. She is “caught as always in the rich stew of love, exasperation, fatigue, and joy that was motherhood”(p.97).  

The third timestream is sans characters and follows the mutated bacterium that destroys all plant life above tide level. This triggers under-ocean magma plates to shift and volcanoes and cauldrons to spew, which causes the 200-ft high megatsunamis that drowns most land masses. World governments think it's a terrorist attack and fire nuclear rockets at the enemies. Conclusion? Looks like mass destruction of all plant and animal life, all of it happening offthepage.  

In the end, Julie meets up with Pete, the 15-year-old main Grabber, explains that it is not Tesslies—she uses the convincing argument, “we humans always blame the wrong ones”(p.174)—and fumbles out the Gaia theory with, “we poisoned the Earth and raped her and denuded her. We ruined the oceans and air and forests, and now she is fighting back”(p.172). She hands Pete her baby but can't go herself because it is major deus ex machina from this point on, and Pete rides the gold sparklers back to 2035 just in time to join the exodus out of the Shell and onto a habitable Earth.  

Finishing the novel, I wondered how author Kress could win the Nebula award for this novella. But, more importantly, I am curious how author Kress thought she could get away with not explaining her most essential plot device. The novel starts out strong with unique storytelling, passable characters, a great dangling carrot of intrigue and suspense, but then it bows under the shadow of a huge question mark so implausible it's scary. Timeline travel is all screwy, the Tesslies are met but never explained, and you can't jumpstart a whole species with only a dozen or so people, most of them sterile. Is the implication that futurepeople save them, thereby saving themselves?(1) Hell, that's a dilettantish trap. Maybe the Tesslies just happened to be swooshing around our solar system looking for a drive-in theater, saw Earth's disaster, and decided to help out. Yeah. I mean, with all the science paraded around to describe this absolute cataclysm, what seems to be left to account for the Shell and its machinery is “it's not mysticism, it's Darwinian self-preservation. Maybe Gaia will start over. Maybe you in the Shell are part of that!”(p.174). This is explaining something by praising its contradiction.  

Which is no explanation at all.

 

1) Do I really have to reference Varley's great story, 1977's Air Raid, then later expanded by Varley to 1983's Millennium, later turned into the movie 1989's Millennium? And nary a single award—although nominated—for this timetravel masterpiece.

 

Copyright 08/04/2014 by Larry Crawford

 

THE WANDERER IN UNKNOWN REALMS by JOHN CONNOLLY, 96 pages, c.2013

 

Toward the end of this novella, the protagonist asks the question: “If I am not a husband, not a father, not a soldier, then what am I? Who am I?”(p.66). In answer, you are an investigator, a seeker through clues or runes or epiphanies, searching for understanding, for some pattern of meaning that makes sense, and has the power to push you further into more depth, more density, more comprehension into the resolution you pursue but will never fully resolve. In this sense, you are a philosopher, a scientist of life always evolving, always modifying in magnitude, in season, in continuance, migrating the maze called reality. The journey is all you really have to call your own; it is the solidity of your ethereal being. You might be a doctor, a lawyer, an Indian chief—these are tributary researches accumulated along the path—but the essence is the reach you've appointed to yourself, or have substituted for the idolatry of corporal and existent sensation.  

Barring a numinous intervention, the journey's end of this awareness appears determined, not by you, but by the very presence you are consumed with: a conclusion—ironically enough—not with what animation is, but what it is not.  

This mental and physical sojourn engenders a fascinating, and universal theme, especially throughout mankind's artistic endeavors. Isn't it, like Cormac McCarthy says, “the major issue in the world. For you, for me, for all of us. It just is.” 

Through a very well-worn plot,(1) the detective (or the reader if there's a predilection for this sort of thing) is trying to discover the whereabouts of a quite eccentric and hermetic elderly man—a Mr. Maulding—who is apparently fulfilling a life's quest to abandon this mortal coil with his cognizance intact and in perpetuity. The vehicle for this is an occult book, a “work so unusual that it doesn't have a fixed title, or rather, it's known by a number of names, none of which quite captures the essence of it”(p.51). Out of the choices, I prefer Fractured Atlas. It is whispered its contents are that of the ingredients of “remote matter”(p.27) and possibly how to trespass in that secret arena.  

The detective finds intimate traces, however, that favor the opposite. Narrowing his investigation to cabalistic bookstores, he tracks down a book scout who has been indirectly hired to find this rare volume. Coming onto a Mr. Maggs—“he stinks because he's bad inside. He'd steal the smell from a corpse”(p.59)—the detective does indeed find his carcass entombed in his hovel apartment, along with and eaten by Boschian creatures the combination of an earwig and large lobster definitely not natural to this world. Strangely, they have chewed out of his brain through the eyesockets. Returning down the trail of clues, the detective climaxes the adventure back at Maulding's country estate where he'd first seen these crustacean-like abominations along with a nightmarish vision of an enlivened, humanoid shadow, its face the “impression of many sharp angles, as though a plate of black glass had dropped and been frozen . . . [among] unknown constellations and a black sun”(p.34). He senses the book—now authentically known as Terrae Incognitae—is there; and it is, lying conspicuously open on a solitary table in a secret room behind a revolving bookcase. 

But the pages are blank.  

The detective now knows why a creepy bookseller declared, “the book is rewriting the world.” 

 

“But . . . it is men who . . . change the world. Books may inspire them, but they are passive objects, not active ones.”

She shook her head.

“You're a fool if that is what you truly believe. A book is a carrier, and the ideas contained within its covers are an infection waiting to be spread. They breed in men. They adapt according to the host. Books alter men, and men, in their turn, alter worlds. . . Not all books . . . are beautiful inside and out. We breathe in the dust of the worst of them, fragments of their venom, and we poison ourselves. . . Books are not fixed objects: they transmit words and ideas. Their effect on each reader is unique. They put pictures in our minds. They take root. You saw Maggs. You saw what might happen to a man who underestimates a book.”

—p.75-6  

 

It is also now believable to him that the book sought Maulding out, possibly hiding for centuries, “not allow[ing] itself to be read, not until its time had come”(p.77).  

As any sane man would do, the detective burns the book. He ruminates on the cursed manuscript literary exploding Maulding's cranium with its heinous visions of the “Not-God”, then, contrarily, that it was all a hoax and he was dealt the Fool's card.  

But behind that, the third possibility enters his head as “the sky is darkening, and it will not be light again”(p.95).  

Author Connolly is known for his detective series set in England with his sleuth named Charlie Parker. His cases usually turn up supernatural events. His novels are set in present time; however, The Wanderer in Unknown Realms recalls the past as it was after the culmination of WWI. Obviously, it occurs on another page of the Fractured Atlas, possibly as it burns away in poor old Maulding's fireplace.

 

1) I am referencing the GoTo novel for all stories about searching out rare, powerful, lost tomes: 1993's The Club Dumas, by Arturo Perez-Revente, made into film by Roman Polanski as 1999's The Ninth Gate.

 

Copyright 08/15/2014 by Larry Crawford

A MAZE OF DEATH by PHILIP K. DICK, 216 pages, c.1970

 

For qualification, I'd like to say I've considered Philip K. Dick to be the best of his generation that branded themselves writers of speculative fiction. Meaning, I guess, he is the greatest Science Fiction writer of the last half of the 20 th Century. I have read all of PKD's works in chronological order with the exception of his short stories around the time of his death in 1982. I hold 1981's Valis to be his magnum opus, followed closely by 1962's Man in the High Castle and 1969's Ubik. Traitorously, I do admit to admiring Scott's Blade Runner of 1982 over its source material, 1968's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? That said, I have not re-visited his quirky genius in decades. I decided to re-read 1970's A Maze of Death because in one of the latest of an endless onslaught of Dickian re-marketings—this one edited by Jonathan Lethem—calls it a foreshadowing of the final works known as The Valis Trilogy. I have never been able to tackle The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick, but then I am egotistical enough to want to keep my thoughts and imaginings from his brilliant, fictional inventiveness pure unto myself.  

Well, after some 80 pages, this is probably not the book to re-enter PKD's topsy-turvy world. Plot strings 13 people landing in one-way pods on apparently uninhabited planet. No one knows why they are here. No communication with outside world. PKD jumps his third-person PofV through different character's eyes and his opening protagonist—Ben Tallchief—is murdered by page 70/216. It's bulked up with dialogue and exploration embellishing a reality where God walks the earth and prayers are answered as long as they are sent through the proper channels. The dozen or so castaways seem wrenched from some obscure Greek tragedy, as they don't feel like they could exist outside of the novel, and are only there to serve the purposes of the novel, which, I suspect, is certainly congruent with the novel's intensions. The problem is that it is tough going for the reader, especially this one, because I tend to read beyond the words on the page, following allusions, symbols, imagined subtext, and references I discover along the way. And, unfortunately, I do not have allotted moments to read like that at this particular time.  

Another time, and maybe another novelistic springboard for the dive into Philip K. Dick's forever-astonishing turbulence.  

Dead at 89/216.

 

Copyright 08/15/2014 by Larry Crawford

THRESHOLD by CAITLIN R. KIERNAN, 259 pages, c.2001

 

Why do I keep trying to read this author? Because The Dry Salvages was incredible, that's why. She also has quite an oeuvre, with toes in all genres, while the footprint deepens in supernatural outline. Some kick her into the New Weird alley, but I have yet to see true Cyber- or Steampunk roots. This novel, her second—although some sources claim it was written before Silk—is buried in Gothic tradition. It is fixated in flights of fancy, as if winging through verbose paragraphs adds atmosphere or important details, when what it really says is the author is in love with her craft and treats words like savoring candy.  

For me, this one melts in your hands, instead of at ingestion. There's just so much angst, stated over and over, until it feels more like petulance instead of true sorrow. Sure, you got the creepy house, the teenaged batcaver female protag who's still deciding if it's all hallucination, insight, or Memorex. Yeah, Chance Matthews is holding the shitty end of the world's rectal thermometer. Her parents are dead. Now, her grandparents are dead. Looking backwards, her friends are dead, or they might as well be. I gotta feelin' she's gonna get picked up by another lonely child, who is, of course, a lot more than that.  

Dead at 18 out of 259 pages.

 

Copyright 08/15/2014 by Larry Crawford

AMAZONAS by ALAN PETER RYAN, 124 pages, c.2012

 

Although known as a genus of tropical parrots, Amazonas is the largest estado in Brazil, housing primarily the Amazon River Basin. I can't comprehend why author Ryan would settle for such a non-evocative title when the name of this novella should certainly be The Slave Tree. Yeah, it's a journey up the Amazon set at the end of the Age of Exploration. Immediately, amazonas vittata start chortling, Heart of Darkness!, Heart of Darkness! but this story is as similar to that one as it is to Poe's The Gold Bug, but without the cipher's conclusion.

Henrietta—our post-'n'-proper Victorian protagonist—is worried her husband Edwin is going insane. Edwin has pretty much been shanghaied by a gorilla-like thug named Crown who has talked him into a woozy partnership involving harvesting a unique and special tree deep in the Amazon jungle. Greed is the hook and Edwin—a weak and loathsome failure of an egomaniacal wimp—is the bait, as Henrietta later becomes the fish. Crown's got a goon squad of half a dozen natives, a bungalow in the junglalow, and a "sack of guns"(p.83) to back his bullying plays. They manage to get to the tree, Edwin's hysteria flows into malaria, Crown skull-shoots his native gang 'cause they now know where the tree is, and Henrietta does whatever Crown wants, except sex, which would just muddle up the hidden motivations and covert hostilities.  

So, what the fook is the Slave Tree? Well, it looks more like a logo of a tree than a tree, and has pea-like pods six or so feet in length that drop periodically from its branches. Think Finney's 1955 Invasion of the Body Snatchers but with more botanical influence, because it does not make alien replicas of humans, it creates originals.  

 

"These things are worth a fortune. We'll collect them, harvest them. They'll be worth even more than rubber. Slave labor without slaves. No problem with laws. These things aren't men, they're not human."

—Crown, p.80

 

The problem is keeping these pod people alive, since they apparently can't make it without a little EMT. That's where Henrietta comes in; Edwin's now as dead as his dream, and Crown has always seen them as nothing more than chattel commodity. Things blow when Crown castrates their lone survivor-of-the-pod, Henrietta takes a mortal gut shot, but not before she gives Crown a Brazilian Necktie. Pod man? He bleeds out the final postscript, and the forest "began moving forward to reclaim the ground it had lost only briefly in its ageless span of time, its secrets still held deep and silent in its heart"(p.124).  

Admittedly, when there is no explanation for what's at the center of the maze when you find it, I have a tendency to think in allegorical terms. I actually like this kind of technique, as it engenders mystery and a search for contextual clues which make the read more expansive. The problem is falling into the deus ex machina pit, perilously so when you're dealing with possibly the Tree of Life. You know, God's tree. Fortunately, author Ryan keeps it close without flopping out some heavy symbolism or transparent allusions.

Just a little bigotry baiting, but nothing like snakes or apples or something, eh?

 

Copyright 08/15/2014 by Larry Crawford

THE GIRL WHO LOVED TOM GORDON by STEPHEN KING, 224 pages, c.1999

 

I was saving this novel to read while camping in the Cascades, on a dark and stormy night. I know it's well, kinda YA, but, hell, it's King, right? And what's more scary than getting lost in the woods, eh?

Well, tied to the bed naked while your lover molds into the floorboards is scarier.

Held captive by a crazed fan is scarier.

A pet cemetery in those dark and stormy woods is scarier.

Can you say Overlook?

But it's a fun and riveting read, even though I didn't learn much about surviving in the Appalachians. What I did learn was how to keep up an inner and outer dialogue, complete with realistic dreams, convincing hallucinations, recalling friends and especially fantasizing conversations with an idolized celebrity baseball player to wash out the hysteria that could drown you in fear and irrationality and leave you like a dead little 9-year old girl taking a long, long dirt nap.  

I doubt I have the indomitability shown by Trisha McFarland when, near the end of her physical, 9-day travail, she says "I've got icewater in my veins and I hope you freeze on the first bite. Come on, you busher. Batter-fucking-up!"(p.208). I woulda left my offering in the seat of my pants the minute I encountered the Wasp Priest with his "misshapen head . . . [all] jostling and buzzing"(p.144) in a face fulla hornets. But then the deus ex machina moments like finding the fawns so conveniently torn-up and placed, and—most of all—good ol' boy Travis scaring the creature away with a precise ear-shot at the precise moment he needed to arrive, well, that kinda balanced things out.  

Although I gotta say the inspirational ditty to the secret of winning a baseball game, a la Tom Gordon—establishing that it's you who's better . . . [and] it's best to do it right away (p.179)—is something I'll use on the next Grizzly I cross paths with in Glacier.  

Not! Hell, I'll run like a little girlie.

 

Copyright 08/15/2014 by Larry Crawford

 
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