Tag Archives: dark fantasy

Stephen King’s ‘The Bazaar of Bad Dreams – A Review

I hadn’t read any new Stephen King fiction—new for me anyway—since taking on From a Buick 8 three years ago. (I did reread The Shining at the end of last year, of course.)  I have a particular soft spot for King’s shorter fiction, so a new collection of his stories was certainly something to look forward to. Let me tell you, I don’t buy new books very often, but I shelled out the money for this thick, oddly-shaped paperback volume at my local Walmart with nary a second thought, and I’m pretty glad I did.

I’ll be honest: early into the book I had my doubts that these stories were going to offer me the chills I so expected from the king of horror. Aside from Mile 81,  a wicked little number about a man-eating car from outer space (no one does evil cars quite like Stephen King) that served as the book’s opener, the first few tales, while interesting and well-written, were not all that disturbing. Premium Harmony, Batman and Robin Have an Altercation and A Death are more meditations on mortality and human nature than horror stories proper, and The Dune and Bad Little Kid felt like decent if unremarkable Twilight Zone episodes, complete with Shyamalan-sized twist endings. Not that I mind either of those types of fables if done well, and these certainly were. It’s just that in a book titled The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, I rather hoped there would be more frights for my buck, but up till that point it had been more like The Market of Mild Thrills.

But then the book really took off, and with a couple of exceptions (Blockade Billy, about a mentally unstable baseball player, didn’t do much for me, though to be fair I am not a fan of the sport, and That Bus Is Another World, following a businessman in NYC who may or may not have witnessed an act of violence in a nearby bus while on his way to meeting, was a little too generic), the remaining stories—and a pair of poems—were quite good. Of the two poems, the first, The Bone Church, is my favorite. It’s about a group of men on an ill-fated jungle mission, and it could easily have been fleshed out into an actual story, yet it feels perfectly vital and intriguing, stark and pared down in verse. It also marks the transitional point where the book finally shifts into high gear. The other poetic composition, Tommy, concerns a young man who died of leukemia in 1969. The titular character is apparently based loosely on someone King actually knew, thus giving the poem a keen personal edge. On display here are all the telltale codes and signposts of an era King has long excelled at evoking in his fiction. The author is equally at home framing that era in lyric form. Indeed, this almost feels like it could be part of a larger cycle of 60s-themed poetry, and that wouldn’t be a bad thing at all.

The Bone Church is followed by Morality, one of the strongest stories in the collection, containing as it does one Reverend George Winston, possibly the book’s most memorable character, a man all too disturbingly normal in his monstrosity. The act for which he is willing to pay his financially struggling young nurse Nora $200,000 is truly shocking. The other standouts in this collection are Mister Yummy, in which an elderly gay man sees his death personified as an attractive young man he once encountered in a dance club, The Little Green God of Agony, featuring another questionable clergyman (one apt to remind you of that demonic minister from Poltergeist II), Cookie Jar,  in which a dark secret is buried beneath the eponymous item’s unending supply of gingersnaps, macaroons and snickerdoodles, and my favorite piece in the book, Ur, starring a very special Amazon Kindle that can access books and newspapers from multiple realities.

All in all, The Bazaar of Bad Dreams was a fascinating collection, not least of which because it demonstrates that King’s writing skills have improved immensely over the last few years. While the book is short on traditional scary stories, it shows off the author’s tremendous range as a writer, and for that reason this collection would be a good sampler for readers who may otherwise shy away from his work, as well as a nice book to give to your snooty friends who prefer literary fiction to genre work.

Grade: A

Ramsey Campbell’s ‘The Hungry Moon’ – A Review

ix-ramsey-campbell-the-hungry-moonIt’s true I’ve gotten a little behind on my reviews lately, so I will try to remedy that from here on out. Which brings me to Ramsey Campbell’s The Hungry Moon. I know Campbell primarily as a short story writer, and in that field very few modern horror writers can touch him. In my review for the horror anthology Cutting Edge, I pointed out that my favorite story in the book was Campbell’s The Hands, where a freaky urban church is the source of the horror. Campbell definitely knows how to tap into the darker side of religion. That is amply demonstrated in The Hungry Moon.

The novel is set in a little British village called Moonwell, so named because it contains an ancient cave said to house a demonic being with some connection to the moon. Long ago local Druids managed to trap the creature in the cave and keep it there with magical rites performed on the same day every year, a tradition that has continued on to present day with nary a problem. Enter Godwin Mann, a young evangelical Christian from California, who has come to Moonwell to win their quaint little British pagan hearts over to his distinctly American brand of Christianity, and he does so by vowing to descend into the cave and confront once and for all whatever satanic presence is lurking down there. The problem is, the being in the cave has absolutely nothing to do with any Christian devils, but is rather something that descended to Earth from the stars many millennia ago, a monstrosity more akin to Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones than to anything out of religious lore.

The book sets up Mann as a typical charismatic preacher who manages to whip the town into a religious frenzy, complete with book burning and purging of some of the more liberal elements of the town. That alone would be bad enough, but then Mann makes good on his promise and confronts the thing in the cave . . . which promptly possesses his body, escapes from its long-time prison and proceeds to take advantage of the powerful influence its evangelist host has already established over the townsfolk, mesmerizing and manipulating them for its own ends. By the time the handful of people with the good sense to steer clear of Godwin Mann’s cult realize that something is very, very wrong in Moonwell (I mean, besides the fact that an outsider has come in and turned nearly everyone into Bible-thumpers in no time flat), it’s pretty much too late. The village has been cut off from the outside world, and a permanent darkness has settled over it. With all electricity severed, the only source of light in town is now the Godwin Mann-thing, a sort of giant glowy spider with Mann’s face, and all sorts of weird-ass stuff starts coming out of the woodwork to boot.

One thing I hate with a passion is when horror authors simply substitute gross-out stuff for real horror. Luckily this is something Campbell masterfully steers clear of at every turn, going instead for the slow build-up that’s much more rewarding in the end. And as usual, Ramsey Campbell writes beautifully intricate and thoughtful sentences, which I happen to prefer over Stephen King’s short and choppy point-blank style (your mileage may vary). Campbell’s writing feels baroque and pregnant with dark possibility whereas King tends to just hit you over the head with everything, using his words like a blunt object, which, depending on the story, either works spectacularly or has a flattening effect on the writing, depriving it of much-needed nuance and emotional resonance.

The story also works as an allegory of the destructive power of religious fanaticism, with particular emphasis on the way true believers can be easily manipulated by anyone who wears the mask of a holy man and tells them what they want to hear. Campbell even manages to sprinkle the book with some well-timed humor, a difficult feat in a horror novel, especially one that deals with such a contentious topic. One scene where a couple of stand-up comic’s on-stage personas manifest as actual people in the backseat of a car was especially fun, managing to be both hilarious and creepy as all get-out at the same time. Another tricky issue here is how the author pits a stalwart English spiritual tradition against flashy Hollywood-style American evangelism, making it essentially a tale of conflicting national cultures that could easily have been offensive in the wrong hands. Personally, I’ve seen enough Pat Robertsons, Creflo Dollars and Jim and Tammy Faye Bakkers to know that Godwin Mann is actually pretty restrained as these guys go, and I’ve never been a fan of their type anyway. But it’s clear that Campbell has more in mind here than cheap shots at America. Hell, he even makes his main heroine a transplanted New Yorker just so you can be absolutely sure that this isn’t intended to be anti-Yank.

To be sure, the book is not without its flaws, the main one being that there are a lot of characters in it, and Campbell doesn’t do quite enough to keep them distinct from one another. This is particularly problematic in the early chapters, where I found myself more than once trying to sort out who was who. It does get easier as the book progresses and the various connections between the characters are slowly clarified, but they still could’ve done with more backstory, or just some general fleshing out of their personalities. The other big problem is the resolution, which is just a little too deus ex machina for my taste, not to mention that the way the monster is defeated is laughably absurd and far too wussified for such an awesome antagonist. There are also some subplots that go nowhere, including one in which the creature is planning to gain possession of nuclear weapons stored in a bunker just outside of Moonwell. Too bad this ultimately became little more than a disappointing afterthought. The idea of a Lovecraftian monster taking control of nuclear weapons is a good one.

But even with these problems, The Hungry Moon is measured, cunning and scary enough to entertain most fans of the genre, I think, particularly those who gravitate toward the Lovecraft school of horror literature. It’s not the most original of ideas perhaps, but there’s enough style and Campbellian strangeness here to make for a worthwhile read for hardcore horror buffs and especially Campbell fans.

Grade: B

‘Dark Forces’ – A Review

IX-kirby-mccauley-dark-forcesIn the late 70s editor Kirby McCauley solicited every writer in the field he could think of for a new short horror fiction anthology he was putting together. Dark Forces was the result. When I read this book for the first time back in 1990 (a full ten years after its initial publication), I put little X’s by the stories I really enjoyed. Twelve tales wound up with these marks, a little over half of the twenty-three pieces included in this massive anthology. Now, I know what you’re thinking: twenty-three stories doesn’t sound that massive. Yes, but what other horror anthology includes Stephen King’s novella The Mist, which weighs in at 130 pages in the Signet paperback just by itself? That’s a bit over one-fifth of this 538 page tome, excluding the introductory pages.

And speaking of The Mist, for some reason it failed to get an X from me, which in retrospect seems insane. It has since become one of my favorite Stephen King stories, owing not just to the cool monsters but also to its pitch-perfect study of the fractioning and breakdown of humanity when crammed together in a pressure cooker environment. This is the kind of story King really does best. In a way, it is an extension of his early work like The Shining and Cujo. Those books deal with young families trapped at a particular location while dealing with a looming threat—the author builds on that concept here and ups the stakes considerably. Another thing I’ve always loved about this story is that it ends quite ambiguously, a rarity for King, who tends toward upbeat endings. Not here. Indeed, the 2007 Frank Darabont film based on this story ended on an even bleaker note, and I still think it’s one of the best films based on King’s horror work. Anyway, I can only assume that I was so flabbergasted and wearied after reading the Dark Forces opener that I just plum forgot to mark it, though more likely I saved the longest story for last . . . and forgot to mark it. Either way, it is a grievous error that has since been corrected. I mean, I do have my pride.

In fact, after my recent re-read, most of the stories that didn’t get an X in 1990 got one this time around, and the entire volume has been upgraded in my esteem. This stands in direct contrast to the Cutting Edge anthology, which hasn’t aged quite as well. I suspect that I simply wasn’t mature enough to appreciate these stories when I read them as a teenager. Take, for example, The Peculiar Demesne by Russell Kirk. Initially I rejected it as a throwback to the traditional ghost story with little to justify it as a modern incarnation. Moreover, I may have simply soured at the notion of reading the fiction of a well-known conservative philosopher, even if thoughtful and well-written, but such is the thinking of an adolescent. This piece is essentially a blatant Christian ghost story, but a beautifully crafted one. A person could argue that there are uncomfortable elements of colonial Africa here which may strike some readers as racist, but I feel the story artfully transcends this simplistic assessment. And whether you agree with his politics or not (I don’t), Kirk remains a fascinating figure, an Old Guard conservative from an era when conservatives were still pretty classy.

 Another story that I initially did not like but has since become one of my favorites in the collection is The Bingo Master by Joyce Carol Oates. Many would be hard-pressed to call this a horror story at all. No one dies, no monsters or psychopaths lurk in the shadows, nothing supernatural or particularly gruesome happens, though there is an act of violence in it. And yet, by the end we experience the full force of the humiliation and devastation wrought against the tale’s witty but naive middle-aged narrator, Rose Mallow Odom, who stands as one of the most well-drawn characters of any short story I’ve ever read. It is truly incredible how much personality and detail Oates packs into this piece, and because of that the finale has every bit of the force of a death or a rape. It is, in short, exactly the kind of story a teenage horror fan with a hunger for strange beings and bloodletting would shuck off as not worthy of his time. The more fool him!

Some things, however, have not changed. My favorite piece in this collection, then as now, is Robert Aickman’s Mark Ingestre: A Customer’s Tale. Although I was only passingly familiar with the Sweeney Todd legend when I first read this piece, I knew there was something special here. And yet, again, there are no monsters or murders, though there is plenty of menace and enough claustrophobic atmosphere to choke Ann Radcliffe. What really sets this story apart, however, is the deftly handled sexual weirdness. It is one of the most overtly erotic of Aickman’s stories—not to mention one of his last before his death in 1981—and it stands as a surprisingly straight-from-the-shoulder (for Aickman anyway) story. Anyway, I love these sorts of expansions on established fictive universes.

And, of course, Ramsey Campbell’s contribution, The Brood, is likewise one of the strongest pieces here. There’s something almost Lynchian about this fable of a London-based veterinarian who finds himself drawn, with the intentions of rescue, as any good animal lover would, to the distressed mewling of some infant critters in the abandoned building next door to his apartment, only to discover that they aren’t quite what he expected. Other highlights include Edward Bryant’s Dark Angel, which explores the concept of the voodoo doll in a rather shocking way, Clifford D. Simak’s The Whistling Well, where a writer camping on an abandoned Western settlement encounters something ancient and terrifying, Robert Bloch’s The Night Before Christmas, the tale of a madman’s jealousy over his wife’s infidelity with one of Bloch’s trademark punch-in-the-gut endings (complete with pun), and Lisa Tuttle’s Where the Stones Grow, proof positive that a skilled writer can make anything horrific, even rocks.

Yet even the stories I didn’t care for—Charles L. Grant’s A Garden of Blackred Roses feels  a little disjointed and half-baked, despite a strong concept which could easily have been expanded into a novel, and in Where There’s a Will, the father-son team of Richard Matheson and Richard Christian Matheson give us their take on the premature burial theme with a twist ending worthy of M. Night Shyamalan’s more middling efforts—still feel like vital inclusions here, perhaps lifted up by the sheer quality of the volume’s other material. Both of these stories were interesting experiments that didn’t quite work for me, but I certainly don’t have any regrets about having read them.

As a sampling of the horror field at a particular time in history, it is hard to imagine a more satisfying volume than this one. McCauley certainly knew good fiction when he read it. And there’s not a single vampire story in the bunch. Go figure. There’s even a short Edward Gorey cartoon and a darkly humorous Gahan Wilson entry, and oddly, neither feel out of place here. Really, all of these pieces are so fundamentally different from the others that the book stands as a pretty fine survey of the breadth of quality horror fiction being crafted in the late 70s and early 80s. As a teenager, I had specific expectations on what I wanted from my spooky stories. As a middle-aged man I am open to anything that can chill me, disturb me or just generally creep me out, which means I am in a much better position to appreciate this collection for what it truly is: an excellent reflection of all the shapes, sizes and patterns that horror can come in. Trust me on this: if you’re in the market for a single 80s-era horror anthology, this is the one to get.

Grade: A

Ramsey Campbell’s ‘Dark Companions’ – A Review

IX-ramsey-campbell-dark-companionsMany horror fans would agree that Ramsey Campbell is the quintessential British modern master of the genre.  If not, they should give this book a try.  Dark Companions is one of the author’s earliest short story collections, but also one of his best.  Campbell uncommonly and artfully bridges the Old World Gothic-style tale with the modern horror terrain exemplified by Stephen King and later Clive Barker, and Dark Companions is a prime example of that.  These are mostly ghost stories of a sort, and the majority of them are a unique enough riff on that theme, but what really gives Campbell’s yarns their wallop is the absolutely superb writing on display here.  Even the less successful pieces in the collection are a worthy investment of one’s time for the sheer beauty of the sentences alone; but luckily, the majority of the tales in Dark Companions are brilliant.

The opening story in this collection, Mackintosh Willy, won the World Fantasy Award in 1980, and deservedly so. In it, a young boy’s crime against a homeless man is avenged from beyond the grave.  Other standouts are Down There, where an office building’s sub-basement  houses something monstrous, Out of Copyright, in which an anthologist of obscure dark stories finds his holy grail . . . an unwittingly releases an entropic evil into the world, Little Voices, where a priggish childless teacher finds herself haunted by the spirit of a puckish but desolate infant that tests her patience and her sanity, and The Companion, which finds its protagonist braving an abandoned fairground ride with unexpectedly creepy results.

But undoubtedly, the real star of this collection is The Pattern, about a haunted field whose evil is not bounded by time.  Rarely does a story truly shock me, but the ending of this one caught me right in my quivering heart, and I found myself only vacating my bed to void my bladder quite reluctantly, and then returning to it as quickly as I could.  Maybe it was because the main character was, like myself, an artist, or maybe it had to do with me being somewhat agoraphobic.  But I think it owed more to the fact that an evil which could freely violate the laws of physics (namely the impossibility of traveling back in time) seemed like it would hardly be constrained by something as paltry as being a mere piece of fiction, and that it could spring wholly into existence simply for the fact that I had opened the pages of Mr. Campbell’s book and read about it.  Beyond the tale’s scare factor, its title also has multiple levels of meaning, all the more so for its protagonist being a painter.

A few of these pieces left me with more questions than answers, but they were no less scary for that.  The Puppets, for example, is undeniably about a haunted Punch and Judy show (which are pretty creepy to begin with, it must be said), but the question I had at the end is, was Mr. Ince, the proprietor and operator of the show, the poltergeist behind the scenes or simply another puppet?  And perhaps that was the point.  That kind of thing is hard for veteran horror writers to pull off, much less one only about a third of the way into his career as Campbell was when he penned this.  Another such story was The Show Goes On, which had a vague and claustrophobic ending that somehow works despite the confusion.  Campbell even manages to inject some dark humor here and there, such as in Heading Home, where the title, it is gradually revealed, is quite literal.  And in Baby, an old alcoholic is relentlessly followed by the baby carriage once used by the bag lady he murdered.

Out of the twenty-one stories in Dark Companions, there were really only two that I didn’t care for, both near the back of the volume.  The big revelation at the end of Conversion, as well as the second person point-of-view (an unusual choice), felt a little too gimmicky.  And The Chimney, after a pretty solid set-up, doesn’t quite deliver on the menacing possibilities of its premise.  Even these were enjoyable enough though, and as always, Campbell’s dazzling way with words makes each story a gem to read.  These two just didn’t quite have the sparkle of the others.  But for my money, two semi-duds out of twenty-one stories makes this collection a real treasure chest for fans of British horror stories in general and Ramsey Campbell fans in particular.  If you can find it, this collection is not to be missed!

Grade: A 

‘Cutting Edge’ – A Review

IX-cutting-edgeIn the late eighties and early nineties, horror anthologies were being released (or re-released, as the case may be) right and left, and having only recently discovered my love of the genre, I picked up several of them.  One of my acquisitions of this period was Cutting Edge, edited by Dennis Etchison, who went on a few years after this was published to become president of the Horror Writers Association.  Well, I have decided to re-read these anthologies—at least the ones I’ve kept—and review them for the blog, beginning with this one.

As is customary with these anthologies, Etchison offers an introduction, wherein he laments the sorry state of the genre during the seventies and early eighties.  But horror fiction was definitely beginning to mature by this period, and volumes such as this one are the proof.  Specialty markets like Cemetery Dance were still largely on the horizon, but the new wave of horror had arrived, ushered in by the advent of splatterpunk and by the phenomenal success of Stephen King, who would drop his atom bomb of a novel It the same year that Cutting Edge was published: 1986.

This book is broken into four loosely-connected sections: Bringing It All Back Home, They’re Coming for You, Walking the Headlights and Dying All the Time.  The first section opens with Peter Straub’s Blue Rose, the first piece in what would ultimately become an intricately connected universe spanning several novels, novellas and short stories, anchored by the Blue Rose Trilogy of novels—Koko, Mystery and The Throat.  One of the themes that runs through the Blue Rose stuff is child abuse, and that is true in this story as well, though here it’s about the assorted cruelties siblings can inflict on each other when left with little parental guidance.  Harry Beevers is a nine-year-old child who enjoys tormenting his younger brother, but it’s clear that it’s cyclical, as Harry’s older brother abuses him, and  on up the line.  When Harry discovers a book on hypnotic suggestion and finds his little brother to be the perfect guinea pig, his experiments become more and more sinister and send him on a path that will culminate in the vile acts he commits during the Vietnam War, well-documented in the novel Koko.  This is unquestionably one of the best pieces in the anthology, and a great choice to set the tone for the rest of the book.

Unfortunately, the other two stories under this heading, Joe Haldeman’s The Monster and Karl Edward Wagner’s Lacunae, are among the weakest entries in Cutting EdgeThe Monster is another comment on the atrocities of Vietnam wherein the author plays with the concept of split personality, and it not only doesn’t work as horror but feels dated and borderline racist, while Wagner’s Lacunae offers an interesting premise but ultimately fails to deliver on it.

They’re Coming for You begins with W. H. Pugmire and Jessica Amanda Salmonson’s Pale Trembling Youth, a punk ghost story that’s moderately better than the two stories preceding it, though it could’ve done with some fleshing out.  Marc Laidlaw’s Muzak for Torso Murders steps it up a couple of notches with a darkly funny tale of a serial killer outdone by dear old mom.  Roberta Lannes’s Goodbye, Dark Love is one of those stories where the twist at the end inspires you to read it again with the new knowledge in mind (like how you search for all the clues with a second viewing of The Sixth Sense) though the subject matter may put some readers off from another reading.  Definitely one of the more disturbing stories, and quite graphic, but all-in-all a solid entry.  Charles L. Grant’s Out There is a quietly metaphorical tale of body horror, while Steve Rasnic Tem gives us one the book’s best offerings in Little Cruelties, in which the narrator notes how the city inflicts its little cruelties on him . . . with a heavy dose of irony.  In George Clayton Johnson’s beautifully written piece The Man with the Hoe, the narrator justifies his brutality against the neighborhood cats by meditating on Charles Markham’s titular poem.  They’re Coming for You is rounded out by Les Daniels’ story of the same name, another piece of black humor in which a man who fears vengeance from the spirits of his murdered wife and her lover gets something far worse instead.

The opening piece of the third section (Walking the Headlights) is Richard Christian Matheson’s Vampire, and it can be classified as either a poem or a story, though in the end it has little to recommend it beyond that novelty.  At least it’s brief; I’m not sure I could’ve taken more than a couple of pages of it.  Chelsea Quinn Yarbro’s Lapses is also structurally innovative—not to the extent of Matheson’s piece, but it’s far more successful with what it does.  Yarbro explores the terror of memory lapses that grow ever more pronounced, drawing them out to their inevitable conclusion.  William F. Nolan’s The Final Stone is a modern-incarnation-of-Jack-the-Ripper story that starts off with a good dose of humor but quickly veers off into standard territory.

Irrelativity by Nicholas Royle (whose work I’ve never encountered outside of this collection) is the winner here for sheer suspense, as it follows a teen boy who trails after his girlfriend into her creepy old school building one night in the hopes of losing his virginity and encounters something quite disturbing there.  But it’s the next piece, Ramsey Campbell’s The Hands, that wound up being my favorite story in the book.  A man decides to take refuge from the rain in an unassuming city church one day, but things immediately take a turn for the surreal, and it only gets weirder . . . and darker . . . from there.  This is how you handle religious-themed horror,  folks.  Campbell is a true master of the genre, arguably the best living horror author produced by Britain, and that’s saying a lot.  This story is one of his masterpieces.  He makes this stuff look effortless.  I recently picked up a collection of Campbell’s short stories called Dark Companions, which just got bumped to the front of my reading pile thanks to this story.

The Bell, Ray Russell’s take on ye olde pact-with-the-devil tale, is modest and mostly forgettable, while Lost Souls gives us an all-too-short episode in the ongoing saga of Clive Barker’s supernatural detective Harry D’Amour.  It feels pleasantly anti-Hollywood and down-to-earth, or as down-to-earth as a story about a demon-hunting detective can be.  I really wish the author would give us more Harry D’Amour stories like this one; this awesome character is criminally underused.

The last section of the book, Dying All the Time, like the first section, consists of only three stories, of which Robert Bloch’s Reaper is the best of the three.  Bloch manages to capture just the right balance of humor and horror in this tragicomic parable of an old man who strikes a deal with the Grim Reaper to postpone his own demise with predictably horrible results; the twist at the end is note-perfect.  However, Edward Bryant’s The Transfer—about a woman with an unusual power (I think)—has an alluring premise but ultimately was confusing and unsatisfying.  Which brings me to the final story, Whitley Strieber’s Pain.  Strieber claims this was the last thing he wrote before he became aware of his repressed memories of alien encounters.  Okay.  Starting off like the darker side of your uncle’s wacko conspiracy theories (the Vril Society gets a shout-out), it then shifts 180 degrees and becomes a lesson in just how relative pleasure and pain can be, as a beautiful young woman who may or may not be an incarnation of Death introduces the protagonist to an experiment that teaches him to see his dreary life in a whole new light.  It’s a surprisingly emotional story that, against all odds, somehow succeeds in landing its message.

Overall, this collection was not as strong as I remembered.  Funny how one can experience the same stories very differently twenty-five years later.  I did recall the Campbell story being one of the better ones in the book, and that turned out to be the standout here.  Straub’s story too had an impact on me when I read it as a teen; indeed, it was this piece, along with the novel Ghost Story, that made me a lifelong fan of this author, and it’s easily my second favorite story in Cutting Age, followed by Nicholas Royle’s Irrelativity, for me the scariest story of the bunch if not necessarily the most disturbing.  Beyond that, there are about six or seven really good stories, most of which can probably be found in better anthologies or collections.  Several of them can also be found online now.  Etchison’s intro is interesting but not particularly enlightening, and it comes off a little whiny.  Unless you’re a completist, I would pass over this in favor of better anthologies of the same era, like Kirby McCauley’s Dark Forces or David G. Hartwell’s The Color of Evil, as well as the collected works of the authors themselves.

Grade: C+     

Anne Rice’s ‘The Witching Hour’ – A Review

IX-anne-rice-witching-hourAnne Rice—she of the famous Vampire Chronicles—had only recently returned to her beloved New Orleans when she began writing The Witching Hour, which is, among other things, a love letter to the Big Easy. Her descriptions of the city are gem-like in their clarity and beauty, as is much of Rice’s writing here. Perhaps more than anything else she’s written in this particular setting, The Witching Hour perfectly captures the tone of the city itself, with its languid pace and its positively baroque level of detail. Whatever you think of her, one thing you can always count on Anne Rice for is sumptuous writing.

Yet sumptuous writing alone cannot sustain a story, especially one of this length. So, is the story itself any good? We shall see. The first book of Rice’s second epic series (and it is epic, covering around three hundred years of European and American history) follows the long line of the Mayfairs, a family of witches who trace their origins back to Renaissance-era Scotland and a witch named Deborah, the first to summon the dark spirit Lasher, who subsequently haunts and torments each of Deborah’s descendants in turn. But what does Lasher ultimately want from the Mayfairs? That mystery is the heart of the novel’s plot, and it becomes clearer and clearer as the legend of the Mayfair witches unfolds, much of it told in epistolary form as collected by the Talamasca, a sort of early supernatural investigation team that watches and keeps tabs on the Mayfairs but tries not to directly interfere. Despite their best attempts to keep their distance, however, the Talamasca becomes fatefully intertwined with the family as one of their agents becomes sire of an important branch of the Mayfair clan.

All of this is framed by the story of the present-day Mayfairs, particularly Rowan Mayfair, a young doctor who was whisked away from New Orleans as an infant and taken to California for initially unclear reasons, so she has never really known her family. Into Rowan’s life comes Michael Curry, an architect with his own ties to New Orleans who nearly drowns and is rescued by Rowan. As the two become lovers, Rowan seems fated to return to the city of her birth, where she will finally confront the dark mysteries of the Mayfair clan and her own nebulous past once and for all.

At nearly one thousand pages (in the Knopf hardback), it is a massive tome, and with a large part of it being essentially exposition, some readers are going to be put off by the saggy middle of the novel. Personally, I found the history of the Mayfairs to be fascinating, and I almost wish each of the legacy Mayfairs, or at least the more interesting ones, had gotten their own book. Especially those who lived in the early to middle part of the twentieth century. To be sure, there are a lot of family members covered here—indeed, the book would’ve benefited from some sort of timeline chart or family tree to refer back to. Perhaps future runs of the novel will remedy that. As for the Mayfairs whose lives are presented in The Witching Hour, each one feels more decadent than the last. There’s enough drama and suspense in the Mayfair histories for three soap operas: wealth, murder, incest, madness, kidnapping, incest, violence, dark secrets, incest . . . it’s all here.

Did I mention there was incest? Yeah, there’s a lot of that. The thing is, there’s a pretty important reason for it, and it rarely feels gratuitous or exploitative the way it can in the works of, say, V.C. Andrews. But if incest bothers you, consider yourself forewarned. Despite their almost cliched level of gentility and charm, a goodly number of the Mayfair witches are not nice people. What? Bad witches? Whodathunkit? Of course, the aptly-named Lasher is often the driving force behind their wickedness. The Witching Hour is Southern Gothic writ large, and it mostly works. Still, it all unfolds at a pace many fans of more traditional horror fiction will find tedious at the very least, if not outright plodding. But the family is colorful and eccentric enough to be engaging even without the more horrific elements, which really don’t pop up until near the very end of the book. But when they do . . . hoo boy. As someone who grew up in a traditional Southern clan, with a grandmother who canned her own fruits and veggies, there’s one freaky revelation that felt so spot on that it was a pretty solid icicle to the heart of this reader.

Bottom line: This is quintessential Anne Rice. People either tend to love or hate her style. Some may feel it is precious and overwrought. For me, as an admirer of elegant, poetic writing, I could probably read a set of VCR instructions penned by her from cover to cover and be perfectly convinced by the end of it that I had read something amazing. That said, when you dispassionately separate Rice’s writing ability from her storytelling, you may realize that the latter doesn’t always live up to the former. Here, it comes close but falls a wee bit short. There’s a lot of information stuffed into the exposition, and it can be difficult to keep all of these Mayfair women separate in one’s mind. Moreover, given her resolve throughout the majority of the novel, Rowan’s sudden turn near the end feels more than a little forced. Finally, without giving anything away, let me just say that the ending is likely to drive some readers absolutely bonkers. But if you’re willing to follow Rice on this long and often torpid journey, you may be rewarded with some dazzling sights, sounds and smells along the way, and even a well-honed fright or two.

Grade: B

China Miéville’s ‘Perdido Street Station’ – A Review (and an Illustration)

I read The Scar several years before tackling Perdido Street Station, and although I enjoyed it immensely, I always felt I was missing something essential about the series by starting with the second volume.  Not that it’s necessary to read the books in order, but clearly it helps.  When I finally got around to the first volume in the trilogy, I realized almost immediately upon beginning it why I should’ve read them in order: because, no matter how far they get away from it geographically, the heart of these books has always been the port city of New Crobuzon, a kind of magically-poisoned Victorian London.  In Perdido Street Station this great city is front and center, and it’s an unrivaled destination in the history of fantastic literary metropolises.

In New Crobuzon life is hell even before the monsters which serve as the central antagonists arrive there.  Unlike with most fantasy series, magic (or thaumaturgy as it’s called here) is not something awe-inducing and esoteric but rather just another natural resource to be exploited by the greedy and powerful, and it’s uses (and misuses) lead to new complex and horrific social problems.  Magic is often used hand-in-hand with the crude Industrial Age technology of New Crobuzon, creating weird physical/metaphysical amalgamations.  For example, a part of the continent was once devastated by a kind of thaumaturgic atomic bomb, leaving the land mutated in unthinkable ways that leak into other planes of existence.  And that’s just a minor background detail to this story, which deals with a plague of giant multidimensional moths accidentally set loose in the city that feed on the thoughts and dreams of sentient beings.  Okay, plague is a bit of an exaggeration: there are only five of them, but that’s enough to bring the city to its knees.  Trust me, these things are very bad news.

The central character of Perdido Street Station is Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin, an aging, overweight scientist.  Isaac is approached early on by a garuda, a birdlike humanoid whose wings have been severed from his back by his tribe as a punishment for the vague crime of ‘choice-theft’, which turns out to be much worse than it sounds, incidentally.  Every character of consequence in the story is broken or misshaped somehow, or will be by story’s end, and this keys into one of the book’s major themes: metastasis, upheaval, that point at which someone or something is in a state of in-betweenness or incompleteness.  All of the major species of Bas-Lag are viewed through this filter of transitionality, including humans (khepri–the beetle-headed species Isaac’s girlfriend Lin belongs to–see humans as half-khepri, half-ape).  Then there are the Remades, people who have been magically augmented with animal or machine parts or the parts of other sentient species.  The psychivorous slake-moths and the Weavers, the latter a race of gigantic, intelligent but insane spiders, reside in multiple levels of reality and are constantly moving in and out of them.  And, of course, New Crobuzon is a city consistently caught up in crisis.

Isaac’s life’s work is even about channeling something called crisis energy, which places Perdido Street Station in the realm of metafiction similar to the way The NeverEnding Story does, though not quite as overtly.  For crisis energy is really the power of impossibility, the life juice of fantasy fiction itself, and by figuring out a way to tap into it (as he eventually does), Isaac is consciously engaging in the task of reinvigorating the very genre to which he is relegated.

Meanwhile, an artificial intelligence has spontaneously manifested in a scrapyard in the city, a gangster who has become the ultimate Remade haunts New Crobuzon’s underworld, and the monstrous slake-moths terrorize the entire city’s dreams.  None of these horrors would be half as effective, though, if not for New Crobuzon’s devious and incompetent government officials, reminding us that even in the realms of fantasy the corruption, apathy and cruelty of government is inescapable, and that’s what grounds Miéville’s work and keeps it from becoming too alien.  Despite their exoticness, the characters still deal with real-world problems on top of the strange and magical ones that arise.

The book was originally released in 2000–a transitional year, I might add–and it was nothing short of groundbreaking. While the sheer number of ideas stuffed into the book threaten to push it into overkill territory, somehow Miéville manages to make all of it work as a sort of salmagundi of the fantastic.  And like all great works of urban fantasy, Perdido Street Station takes the reader on a grand tour of its city, including the titular station itself, but the setting rarely becomes obtrusive.  And when it does, the cleverness behind it renders all such breaches forgivable.  In fact, even at those points when the book doesn’t manage to make suspension of disbelief effortless (and there are a few of them), the cognitive estrangement that arises can be treated as a guideline of what is possible within the fantasy genre.  In that sense it should be regarded as required reading by anyone who wishes to write fantasy fiction, especially dark fantasy.  But really anyone who is interested in the literature of the fantastic must read this novel.  I promise you won’t regret it.

Grade: A+

And just for the hell of it, here’s my take on the slake-moths.  This is actually my second version of the moths, as the first had some deviations from the way the creatures were described in the book.  I liked this one better in the end.  It’s a bird’s-eye view of the moth with the smoke-laden skies of the city provided as a vague backdrop.  The wings of the moths are described as multidimensional and ever-changing, and the moths use them as a tool to mesmerize their victims.  This was all rendered in Photoshop.

Best of ‘The Snow Queen’ Art, Part 3

And so we come to the third and final installment of the Best of ‘The Snow Queen’ Art, and we definitely are going out with a bang.

Our first featured artist is Adrienne Ségur, a French illustrator most active in the mid-20th century and best known for her work on The Golden Book of Fairy Tales.  Speaking of which, Terri Windling has a lovely tribute to that book (and Ségur herself) here.  Although she came onto the scene during the tail end of illustration’s Golden Age, Ségur’s art feels fresh and contemporary.

Adrienne Ségur – The Snow Queen (1)
Adrienne Ségur - The Snow Queen (2)
Adrienne Ségur – The Snow Queen (2)
Adrienne Ségur - The Snow Queen (3)
Adrienne Ségur – The Snow Queen (3)

Anastasia Arkhipova is a Russian illustrator, and that’s all I know about her.

Anastasia Arkhipova - The Snow Queen (1)
Anastasia Arkhipova – The Snow Queen (1)

Edmund Dulac, like Arthur Rackham, really needs no introduction, but I’ll provide one anyway.  A French and English Golden Age artist, he was a prolific book and magazine illustrator and even designed paper currency and postage stamps during World War II.

Edmund Dulac - The Snow Queen (1)
Edmund Dulac – The Snow Queen (1)
Edmund Dulac - The Snow Queen (2)
Edmund Dulac – The Snow Queen (2)
Edmund Dulac - The Snow Queen (3)
Edmund Dulac – The Snow Queen (3)
Edmund Dulac - The Snow Queen (4)
Edmund Dulac – The Snow Queen (4)
Edmund Dulac - The Snow Queen (5)
Edmund Dulac – The Snow Queen (5)
Edmund Dulac - The Snow Queen (6)
Edmund Dulac – The Snow Queen (6)

Emily Balivet is a contemporary painter and illustrator with a focus on feminine spirituality and divinity.

Emily Balivet - The Snow Queen
Emily Balivet – The Snow Queen

Esther Simpson is largely a mystery to me, but she seems to have been an exemplar of the late Art Deco style.  I’m not sure where I first encountered this piece, but it really struck me for its unusual choice of depicting the Snow Queen as nude (or nearly nude anyway); moreover, I do not believe it was ever used as a book illustration and appears to have been a stand-alone piece.  Whatever the case, it is an elegantly beautiful representation of these characters.

Esther Simpson - The Snow Queen
Esther Simpson – The Snow Queen

Tomislav Tomić is a Croatian artist noted for his contributions to the popular Ologies series of children’s books, as well as covers and interior artwork for many other books.

Tomislav Tomić - The Snow Queen (1)
Tomislav Tomić – The Snow Queen (1)
Tomislav Tomić - The Snow Queen (2)
Tomislav Tomić – The Snow Queen (2)

Anne Anderson was another Golden Age illustrator, albeit a minor one.  Her artwork is reminiscent of Charles Robinson and especially Jessie M. King.

Anne Anderson - The Snow Queen
Anne Anderson – The Snow Queen

Polina Yakovleva (a.k.a. Smokepaint) is a contemporary Russian illustrator who works in both traditional and digital media.

Polina Yakovleva - The Snow Queen
Polina Yakovleva – The Snow Queen

New York City native Julia Griffin has a heavy but nicely textured style, but what I really like about her art is her tendency to present the scenes she depicts from odd angles, lending dramatic effect to her illustrations.  The following piece is a prime example.

Julia Griffin - The Snow Queen
Julia Griffin – The Snow Queen

Jérémie Fleury’s work can be seen most prominently at DeviantArt, where he operates under the name Trefle-Rouge.  I think this illustration may be the most spot-on in terms of capturing the loneliness and desolation of Kai’s predicament.

Jérémie Fleury - The Snow Queen
Jérémie Fleury – The Snow Queen

Arthur Szyk is another star of the Golden Age of illustration.  A Polish-born Jew, Szyk was a sensitive, socio-politically conscious artist who escaped Nazi Germany by emigrating to England during the start of WWII.  He later moved to the United States, where he remained for most of his life.

Arthur Szyk - The Snow Queen (1)
Arthur Szyk – The Snow Queen (1)
Arthur Szyk - The Snow Queen (2)
Arthur Szyk – The Snow Queen (2)

Yvonne Gilbert has won awards for her design and illustration, including The World’s Most Beautiful Stamp and the Golden Stamp Award for her Nativity-themed stamp designs of the mid 1980s.  The following example, a theatrical poster, is a nice throwback to those classic Art Nouveau posters.

Yvonne Gilbert – The Snow Queen (theatrical poster)

And at last we arrive at my absolute favorite illustrations for this story, those of Estonian artist Vladislav Erko (or Yerko, as I’ve sometimes seen it spelled).  Despite the cold, grim promise of a story set almost entirely during a Scandinavian winter, Erko fills his drawings with vibrant colors and luxurious textures, making for a joyous and inviting set of images.

Vladislav Erko - The Snow Queen (1)
Vladislav Erko – The Snow Queen (1)
Vladislav Erko - The Snow Queen (2)
Vladislav Erko – The Snow Queen (2)

This next image was my computer wallpaper for awhile.

Vladislav Erko - The Snow Queen (3)
Vladislav Erko – The Snow Queen (3)
Vladislav Erko - The Snow Queen (4)
Vladislav Erko – The Snow Queen (4)
Vladislav Erko - The Snow Queen (5)
Vladislav Erko – The Snow Queen (5)
Vladislav Erko - The Snow Queen (6)
Vladislav Erko – The Snow Queen (6)
Vladislav Erko - The Snow Queen (7)
Vladislav Erko – The Snow Queen (7)
Vladislav Erko - The Snow Queen (8)
Vladislav Erko – The Snow Queen (8)
Vladislav Erko - The Snow Queen (9)
Vladislav Erko – The Snow Queen (9)
Vladislav Erko - The Snow Queen (10)
Vladislav Erko – The Snow Queen (10)
Vladislav Erko - The Snow Queen (11)
Vladislav Erko – The Snow Queen (11)

And the final image–to bring it round full circle–is by Charles Robinson.

Charles Robinson - The Snow Queen
Charles Robinson – The Snow Queen