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___MINI-VIEWS #3___

EXTREMELY INADEQUATE THUMBNAILERS OF BOOKS I'M TOO LAZY OR TROUBLED TO ACTUALLY REVIEW, OR, TOO BORED, DISTRACTED, MADDENED TO EVEN FINISH READING.

 

THE KRAKEN WAKES by JOHN WYNDHAM, c.1953.

As in The Day of the Triffids, it starts with an anomaly in the night sky. But, unlike Wyndham's debut novel, nobody goes blind. In fact, the fireballs in his second book seem so innocuous that, after a month or so, people explain them away and ignore them. They are falling into the ocean with no apparent harm, after all. Observers notice that they descend at only the deepest parts of Earth's oceans. A bathyscope is dispatched. Concern re-emerges when the lowering cable comes back up as “a blob of fused metal” (The John Wyndham Omnibus, second edition, Michael Joseph Ltd UK, c.1969, p.224).

Let the fun—and horror —begin.

Again, Wyndham mixes shudders with whimsical snorts as page-turning commences in earnest. After America very predicatively and to no avail drop hydrogen bombs down on these outer space leviathans—remember, this was written in 1953, a significant year in the Cold War as we executed the Rosenbergs for selling the atomic bomb to the Commies—they retaliate by sinking every ship within their reach, then sending “sea-tanks” (p.304) to grab humans off islands. These attacks are somewhat contained, but, the ironic reversal of fortune is best illustrated when one characters says, it's “as if they were sort of—shrimping for us” (p.310).

But the real terror—and mankind's comeuppance—is when they start heating the seas and the oceans rise, and rise, and rise.

There is discussion on whether or not we can share the planet with another intelligent species. Subtextually, fill in whales or dolphins, but, more importantly to contemporary times, these actions and the Cold War parallels trigger our very real ecological trepidations. And when the Big Apple's cityscape looks like half-submerged “tombstones” (p.369), the disgruntled complaining about living in the “Age of the Ostensible Reason” (p.322) turns into the hysterics of “we never did anything to deserve all this” (p.373). At this point, Wyndham grudgingly plots a course to safety, but not before he gives us the solution to all our problems:

“It's going to be a very strange sort of world, with only a fifth or an eighth of us left,” I said, meditatively.

“There were only five million or so of us in the first Elizabeth's time—but we counted,” she said .

—p.382

Amen, eh, Dr. Strangelove?

02/28/10

THE CROSSINGS by JACK KETCHUM, c.2003.

Jack Ketchum is a writer not to read if you've got a proclivity to bile blow when confronted with images like: “the top of his head was sawn away just above the eyebrows and it was into this cavity, empty now but for rainwater, that the men were pitching their stones.” (Cemetery Dance, ISBN 1587670674, c.2003, p.92). That's one reason this novella is small-press published to 1500 copies and is only 100 pages in length. Another is its Western format, whereas Jack's much better known for Horror. But, make no mistake; this is not a realistic oater like Blood Meridian or Blake's In the Rogue Blood. This is SplatterPunk wearing chaps.

The plot is your typical feed bag of historic Arizona hyperbole seasoned with modern-day excesses and absurdities. It's 1848 and a besotted reporter named Marion T. Bell—our 1st person protagonist—witnesses a saloon cardgame gunfight where both pistols mis-fire, leaving the loser burned not shot, and Bell hooking up with a couple of vatos to go break Mexican mustangs to sell to the upcoming Gold Rushers crossing the Colorado. However, the lawfully-intentioned trio rope in a coupla beat-to-shit young girls—one almost dead, the other there—that buckle down the direction and morality of this tale. Elena wants to rescue her still-captive sister from the savage Valenzura Sisters and their gang of murderers/rapists/sadists/pagan zealots. It's pretty much Death Wish among the tumbleweeds from here on.

Leone/Eastwood fans will enjoy the carnage, but not the motivations. Our trio of heroes are not psychopaths chewing up the greed carrot. In the names of Family, Loyalty, Honor, and Decency, led by a horribly-maimed, barely-civilized Mexica teener with the bearing of a coyote bred with rattlesnake, our revengers ride into the slave/concentration camp and sadomasochistic brothel that Bell describes as “straight out of Dante's Inferno ” (p.63). Slaughtering every living thing there—and losing two of their numbers in the process—seems to set right the pain and suffering and wrongness in among the suffering of the righteous. J. C. Hart (didn't miss the allusions with “J.C.” and “Hart”, did ya?), dying, says, “there's nothing I'd have wished to do differently” (p.97). Elena eulogizes him with, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your father which is in heaven” (p.100).

Ever doubt that Horror is a thinly-disguised apologue?

Yet there is a familiar genre conceit missing here. It circles the wagons, but never manages to put out the campfire. In the grisly scene where the 3 crone sisters inflict the self-removal of a still-beating heart from their victim as sacrifice to Tezcatlipoca, there is really no supernatural element responsible. Such a ponderance would merely get in the way of the slaughter for Jack here. And the closest thing to revelation comes when Bell declares “that war was insanity,” and that what he “did not know what the exact nature of how that insanity was made manifest in a single soul” (p.77). He then likens his killing of a human being to “a cat lashing out after a mouse” (p.78).

Substitute “denial” for “insanity” and see if you can justify all that gut-shot prose and porn-torture imagery.

And don't forget the chicken-fucking scene (p.74).

02/05/2010

THE COMPANIONS by SHERI S. TEPPER, c.2003.

Opening on the newly-discovered planet Moss, there's heavy scrutiny using the guidelines of the Exploration and Survey Corps and Planetary Protection Institute, mainly to determine if indigenous, sentient life exists. This will set Earth's exploitation level depending upon the advancement of any existing civilization. The planet's a total banquet and the greedsters are rubbing their monetary mandibles together in anticipation. Problem is, everybody who has surveyed Moss sees apparitions like dancing flames that “seem to be hallucinogenic happenings, light and motion flung together by wind and imagination.” These “ecological animations” (EOS, ISBN 006053821X, c.2003, p.3) do not fit any known category, but, what's worse, recording instruments fail to acknowledge their presence, therefore Moss is about to be ruled uninhabited by intelligent lifeforms.

Let the chewing begin.

But after that fascinating tickler of an opening chapter, Ms. Tepper jumps back to overpopulated, anxious Earth to plot the battle between the pro-chewers and the con-chewers, introducing the heroine, Jewel Delis amid her restrictive and somewhat-twisted society in both macro- and microcosm.

It's lookin' like a clear case of TMI, TMI.

Yeah, the concs are a salacious kick. These “special friends” are future's animated blow-up dolls, the “companions” of the title, maybe. Overindulged and jaded, the wealthy even collect them into harems for their countryside “exempt estates” (p.24) that rim the overcrowded “urbs” where millions live crammed in apartment hi-rises. So the masses don't become mobs, separation conventions designate individual space with painted grids, flow arrows, and section marks in public. Robes and veils for anonymity forestall the animosity of affiliations. “They're the walls between survival and chaos” (p.13).

And now a Glen Beck type has declared that Earth's animals—especially pets—eat too much food and suck too much air and need to be wall decor.

So now Jewel's gonna get in harm's way.

Oh yeah, I forgot to mention Jewel's got a husband from a whimsy marriage who's disappeared, a mother-in-law who's a gentrified, old-money bitch, and a curiously-twisted brother who's flown all over the galaxy ‘cause he's a highly-demanded linguist. Then there's the fact that Jewel's an “arkist”—a radical group who's seeding planets with animals and happen to own Moss' moon, which they're using as a sort of canine evolution center.

Since The Companions opened on Moss, that's where it's headed, of course, with all the new introductions, including an outpost of Deracs—brutish bi-ped 'gators like the Mangalores from The Fifth Elementanother super-race who are galactic gameplayers called the Orskim, yet even more mongo-races who show up later called Zhaar or Phaina, who want to confuse things even more by solving the problems. Oh yeah, and the dogs, who can communicate, kinda.

On Moss, there's even more indigenous confusion. Apparantly, a spaceship from the Hessing clan—remember Jewel's M-in-L? She holds their cloth—crashed, and the survivors fought among themselves then split, and are now semi-warring around an inter-dimensional gateway to Tsaliphor or maybe that was Splendor. Plus, there's the aurora borealis beings that turn out to be sentient vegetable matter that are also psychically hooked to some hive-mind that's the planet Moss. A lolloping copse of trees can turn out to be a “willog”, or, in the case of self-named Walking Sunshine, a talking bunch of trees. There's Moss Demons that can transform things, too, but don't ask me how, ‘cause about this time the deus ex machina madness had turned my mind to blubber. I think it all turns out happy in the end.

Author Tepper appears to be a writing maniac. With so much work, things are bound to get sloppy. The Companions feels like scripting-as-you-go. It gets strained with too many soap opera complexities that string out, but not necessarily together or with any perceived purpose. That's not to say this isn't a fun read. It's wild; it's just not very inspirational. I especially like the diatribe about how humans are mere slaves to their pet animals, who are, possibly, vessels for more intelligent races. And, yeah, I get the bonding-with-animals concern. I just think this book needs to go to the groomers for a summer shave.

But I'll try Tepper again. I mean, man, she's bursting.

 

A review of Tepper's 1989 Grass can be found here.

02/09/2010

LORD OF THE FLIES by WILLIAM GOLDING, c.1954.

What can I say about a novel so entrenched into the Olympus of English Literature? And written by a Nobel laureate to boot? Nothing new, I can guarantee you that. In its rapid disintegration of propriety it becomes the reverse barometer of ordered civilization. As such, it is a petri dish for the primitive archetypes to grow and be recognized. It constantly reminds us of how frail our grip on sanity, decorum, and reason actually is.

The sow's head on the pike is the ultimate icon of this breakdown, but, for me, the most terrifying realization in the book comes when Ralph spies his pursuer brandishing his stick weapon with both ends carved to sharp points.

This is an example that, although the story is now pretty old and worn, the imagery is still as vivid as Jack's painted face, or the iridescent beauty of the conch shell destroyed “into a thousand white fragments” (Penquin PB, ISBN 0399501487, c.1954 p.181). It examples the genius needed to genuinely wed the visual to the symbolic.

I admit, there's too much noir in me to be comfortable with the all-of-a-sudden rescue in conclusion. But—I gotta admit —the billowing parachute of the Lord of the Flies is something I never, ever wanna come across in the woods alone.

 

02/19/2010

 

DESMODUS by MELANIE TEM, c.1995.

I need to give this novel another chance. Its reading was interrupted by many outside, unrelated events, and, as a result, Desmodus went into hibernation at page 183 out of 351. It is an intriguing, left-field take on the vampire mythos, told from the inside of their coven. All the characters are vampires, driven and ordered by instincts and genetic coding unfamiliar to modern students of blood-sucking lore. It is severely matriarchal in hierarchy, as the males are "weak, childlike, unreliable" and need "protection, caretaking, and structure. It was women upon whom the community depended" (Dell PB, ISBN 0440215048, c.1995, p.47). Once a year, the females go into what they refer to as “near-death” (p.86) and have to be transported from one secure location to another in “hibernaculums” (p.128), which are basically Mack 18-wheelers pulling special refer units in a giant convoy. Like the popular True Blood books and HBO series, these gypsy-like neckbiters have found a way to exist without slaughtering us, hence they move undetected through our world.

But this migration is being run by the capricious males; most of which are docile, yet rimmed by muttonheads on one end and out-and-out barn dogs on the other. Our 1st person protagonist is young at 50 years old and at about the Jr. High level in social and mental sophistication.

Whatdeyathink?

Is there gonna be trouble where the dudes prove their worth and the gals hafta re-think their scorn of them? Or maybe Ms. Tem is so far in the feminist trenches she'll bury the boys even deeper.

I know. A pretty daffy setup. But, at this turn, I'll read anything that's a stake and mallet away from the Twilight viewpoint.

 

 

WATERSHIP DOWN by RICHARD ADAMS, c.1972.

There are few books that resonate inside you long after they're read. Watership Down is one of them. Months after, I'm still greeting the cottontails I scare up in the desert with, “Hi Hazel, Hi Fiver. What's shakin', Bigwig.” These lapin characters seem as real to me as any fictional humans I've ever experienced this side of Dostoyevsky and Dickens.

In 1972, this was not really a children's book, although it was born out of Storytime for author Adams' children. The adventures of some rabbits questing a new burrow and their subsequent battle for survival was resoundingly adult-themed, as the violent encounters were not sugar-coated nor was the instinct for procreation downplayed. How could this juvenile package possibly appeal to a modern, sophisticated audience?

Its publishing saga is legend. Rejected by more than a dozen publishers, it was small pressed to overwhelming response at the hop of millions of copies. The rest, as they say, is carrots. It is curious that nothing—other than Adams' subsequent works—has come close to this anthropomorphic brilliance, although blatantly-didactic, socio-political allegories abound from Orwell's Animal Farm from 1945 to the graphic novel, Pride of Baghdad of 2003.

BTW, Jonathan Livingston Seagull fans are encouraged to take offense, along with those who must dig at the lack of female role-models by considering the does simple baby-making, Playboy bunnies. Gee, I've never heard the term “ball like bunnies”, have you? Besides, if Watership Down is allegory—I mean stretching beyond the epic motifs of Antiquity literature—then so is I Love Lucy.

02/15/2010

Addendum: Brian Jacques' death on Feb. 5, 2011 inadvertently reminded me of his Redwall series started in 1986 concerning the adventures of a roguish bunch of varmints. I have not read his work, but it was admired by noteworthy people and should be, at least, considered in this review's context.

Addendum #2: Here's a contenderLaline Paull, The Bees, c.2014. "The buzz you will hear surrounding this book and its astonishing author is utterly deserved."—NY Times Sunday Book Review.

Copyright 02/05/2010 by Larry Crawford

 

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