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.”
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
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
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
07/15/2014 by Larry Crawford
RUINS by SCOTT SMITH
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.
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
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
06/15/2014 by Larry Crawford
by MELANIE TEM,
“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.
08/10/2011 by Larry Crawford
by M. D. LACHLAN,
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.
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.
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
08/26/2014 by Larry Crawford
by M. D. LACHLAN
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
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.
08/30/2014 by Larry Crawford
OF SLAUGHTER by M. D. LACHLAN, c.
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.
09/18/2011 by Larry Crawford
by NIC PIZZOLATTO,
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.
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.
09/18/2014 by Larry Crawford
by CAITLIN R. KIERNAN,
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.
Spyder is a demon and recruiting human
blood bags like Robin into her “mesmerizing world of ritual and
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.
10/10/2014 by Larry Crawford
LIFE by RAY GARTON,
This is a sequel to Garton's spot-on Live
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
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
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.
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
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.
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,
10/25/2014 by Larry Crawford
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.
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
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
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.
11/15/2014 by Larry Crawford
DRY SALVAGES by CAITLIN R. KIERNAN, 123 pages,
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
On Piros, the team splits in twos, and
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
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.
11/17/2014 by Larry Crawford
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
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
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
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
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.
08/04/2014 by Larry Crawford
WANDERER IN UNKNOWN REALMS by JOHN CONNOLLY, 96 pages,
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
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
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
book is rewriting the world.”
“But . . . it is men who . . . change the world. Books
may inspire them, but they are passive objects, not active
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.”
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
But behind that, the third possibility
enters his head as “the sky is darkening, and it will not be
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.
08/15/2014 by Larry Crawford
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
Dead at 89/216.
08/15/2014 by Larry Crawford
CAITLIN R. KIERNAN, 259 pages, c.2001
Why do I keep trying to read this author?
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.
08/15/2014 by Larry Crawford
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
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
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."
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
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,
08/15/2014 by Larry Crawford
GIRL WHO LOVED TOM GORDON by STEPHEN KING, 224
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.
08/15/2014 by Larry Crawford