Saturday, October 31, 2009

Happy Halloween Everyone!

I'll be back tomorrow with two Lovecraft stories to round out the week, but I'm too busy enjoying Halloween for now. Hope yours is fun as well!

Friday, October 30, 2009

"The Quest of Iranon" by H. P. Lovecraft

Lovecraft Week Keeps on Trucking. . .

Hmm, today's selection from Lovecraft just left me a little flat. It's a interesting enough Greek-esque myth about a singer who searches for years for his lost homeland, kept young by his hopes and dreams. It also has a sort of moral aspect to it relating to excess (unsurprising, really, since Lovecraft was apparently a known Teetotaller*), which is mildly interesting, but kind of heavy-handed. Ultimately, the story seems to explore the power of hope in sustaining someone, and what happens when this hope is taken away. It's not a particularly revolutionary sentiment, but a good one. I just wish that the story that illuminated this idea was a little more interesting.

* Or so say the notes to the Penguin Edition of The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird Stories, which were edited by S.T. Joshi, a Lovecraft critic and biographer. This also makes it kind of funny that there is a Lovecraft Drinking Game.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

"The Tomb" by H.P. Lovecraft

Lovecraft Week Continues. . . (insert spooky music here)

What struck me most about this short story is it's claustrophobic feel and the tense and somewhat terrifying atmosphere that that claustrophobia creates within the story itself. Set on a doomed U-boat during World War I, we read the last words of the Captain of said U-boat, who is also it's last surviving crewmember. He calmly takes us through all the horrors that have occured on the boat that have, ultimately, left him alone, without power, at the bottom of the ocean in an ancient ruined city. Lovecraft is brilliant at giving the reader a feel of the futilityand claustrophobia of the crew's situation, even having one character choose to kill himself by stepping out of the airlock instead of slowing dying of deprivation.

Also, in true Lovecraftian form, we can't quite trust the narrator, as he no longer trusts his own senses. In turn, this means that you're never sure if everything happened as he says it happened. You're not sure, for example, it he actually "had" to shoot six of the crew because they went insane and started to tear up the boat, or if he just shot them because he himself is insane. This only adds to the spookiness of the situation, and heightens the atmospheric terror that permeates the story.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

"The White Ship" by H.P. Lovecraft

Lovecraft Week Continues. . .

With a uncharacteristically un-scary story, to be quite frank. Of course, I don't think Lovecraft intended it to be scary, just strange (and strange it is), but it, unfortunately, makes it kind of a bad pick for a week where I'm trying to read and write about scary stories.

Nevertheless, Lovecraft's very unconventionally cautionary tale about the grass always being greener on the other site is still an engrossing read. The dream sequence that takes of the bulk of this short story includes some beautifully described passages of wonderfully imaginative locals. There is also a strong recurring theme that things aren't always what they seem, and may, in fact, often be too good to be true. For instance, we learn that Tharlarion, the "'. . .City of a Thousand Wonders, wherein reside all those mysteries that man has striven in vain to fathom.'" is a terrible place, where anyone who has entered have either died, been driven mad, or turned into a daemon by what they have seen. Similarly, while Xuria, "Land of Pleasures Unattained" seems beautiful and idyllic, it smells of the plague and of open graves.

What Lovecraft seems to be getting at here is the need to be happy with what you have, and that getting what you think you want may in fact be worse than what you already have. It's a bit heavy-handed, and I'm not sure that it's a sentiment that always rings true, but it's a valid point nonetheless.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

"Beyond the Wall of Sleep" by H. P. Lovecraft

Lovecraft Week Continues. . .

With this little number about a unnamed doctor reporting on his potentially psychopathic patient, a middle-aged man from the Catskill Mountains named Joe Slater. Slater has been having strange dreams frequently wakes in a violent rage, ranting about being a being of light and about how he needs to destroy his adversary, and will burn anything that gets in his way. The doctor tells us that, at one point, these rages became so violent that Slater beat a man to a bloody pulp. Since it appears Slater is unaware of what he says or does in his rages, the authorities assume that he is completely insane. However, the narrator believes that he is actually tapping into something else: a dream-existence that is incomprehensible to us in our waking lives.

This whole concept makes for a terribly interesting story in itself. However, I still had a hard time with this story because of the overt disdain the narrator has for Slater. There is a real racism and classism at work here, with the narrator repeatedly calling Slater a "degenerate" and a "decadent" that is typical of the people of the Catskill mountains. In fact, the narrator goes so far as to say:

Among those old folk, who correspond exactly to the 'white trash' in the South, law and morals are non-existent; and their general mental status is probably below that of any section of the native American people.

Frankly, as a modern reader, I found this pretty shocking, and kind of offensive. Of course, I realize that, when this story was written in 1919, and certainly for the time it is set (1900-1901), these wouldn't be unheard-of sentiments. The word "Hillbilly" came from somewhere, right? Still, it ends up rubbing me the wrong way. Throughout the story, I couldn't help but laugh at the narrator whenever he would make some sort of assertion that what Slater was saying in his rages had to have come from somewhere other than Slater's own mind on account of the "fact" that this degenerate hillbilly couldn't possibly be capable of such feats of imagination. It just seems like such a ridiculous argument for "proving" the presence of a supernatural force. As a result, the narrator comes across as a bit of an ass.

Monday, October 26, 2009

"The Tomb" by H.P. Lovecraft

Looks like a guy who'd create Cthulhu, doesn't he?Okay, now that I'm caught up on my reading, it's time to announce what I'm doing for the next week in honour of Halloween. To commemorate one of my favourite non-holiday holidays, I decided that it would only be appropriate to read some scary stories, and who better to go with than H.P. Lovecraft? So, for the next seven days (including Sunday, aka "All Saints Day,"), I'll be reading and writing on one Lovecraft story a day. And who might be the lucky first contestant, you might ask? Well, it's:

"The Tomb"

I personally think that this story perfectly showcases why H.P. Lovecraft is considered a master of creepy fiction, and it doesn't even contain a single Cthulhu reference. It's a first person account of Jervas Dudley, a young man who has been driven mad by his obsession with an old tomb in the woods near his home, the final resting place of the once great Hyde family. What makes this story great, however, is how Lovecraft makes you question whether the "facts" Dudley recites to the reader are the result of his existing psychoses, or if they are the cause of his current state. He makes the reader ask whether Dudley was mad to begin with, or if there was something else that caused his madness (or if he is even mad at all. . .). It's a creepy, atmospheric read, and a great way to start out Lovecraft week.

"The Man Who Was Heavily Into Revenge" by Harlan Ellison

This story is an elaborate revenge fantasy, and, let me say this right now, I pity anyone who has ever or will ever cross Harlan Ellison, because this is possibly the most inventive revenge fantasy I've ever read (I havn't read many, but nonetheless). It revolves around the idea that sometimes, just sometimes, the cumulative impotent anger of the entire planet (around 4 billion at the time of the writing of this story), reaches such a critical mass and has to find a place to vent; a "lightening rod" who has been so personally wronged and is so deserving of justice that he/she can siphon off some of that rage.

The "lightening rod" in this story if one Fred Tolliver, who has been wronged by William Weisel, as crooked contractor who took Tolliver for thousands of dollars in exchange for a shoddily made guest bathroom. What follows from this cosmic siphoning off is incredibly elaborate and strangely cathartic, although also at times deeply disturbing.

"Would you do it for a Penny" by Harlan Ellison and Haskell Barkin

I have to say, I recommend anyone who hasn't read Harlan Ellison before to go out and pick up a copy of the Shatterday anthology right now, if only for his brilliant introductions to each piece. It's okay, I'll wait. . .
. . I say that the intros alone make it worth it specifically for stories like this one. In the into, Ellison explains how this collaboration with Haskell Barkin is what finally got him published in Playboy, which, at the time of the publication of this story, was one of the highest paying markets for fiction (and what does that say about the state of modern society?). It's an entertaining anecdote to say the least, and it helps illustrate a bit about how author collaborations come to be.

As for the story itself, it's funny enough. The main character, Arlo, a self-styled "Great White Hunter" of women, is oddly endearing despite being incredibly slimy, and his "prey", a woman named "Anastasia" is wonderfully witty and sarcastic as well. It also includes the best string of explicatives ever put to page. I won't ruin it to you, but, if you have the Tachyon edition of the anthology, skip to the bottom of page 84 to find out.

What I don't like, however, is how the story turns out. I won't ruin it, but, suffice to say, it's very Playboy, so you can guess where it goes. Somehow, I expected a little more from Ellison and Barkin in this respect, especially since every other aspect of the story excels.

"On the Road with Fiamong's Rule" by Sherry D. Ramsey

So I have, once again, been remiss in my posting, which means it's time for another posting marathon. I have four days worth of stories to catch up on (including today's), so I better get started.

"On the Road with Fiamong's Rule" by Sherry D. Ramsey, is kind of clever, but not incredibly deep. It's a sort of unconventional road trip story involving a stranded alien, a bored housewife, and a minivan. It has it's funny moments (the stranded alien's faulty translator is pretty hilarious, actually), and it's a nice, light read which was perfect for a Friday when I read this. There's also an interesting use of smell on the alien's part to get what he/she wants. But, like I said before, there isn't much depth here. It's a good road trip comedy, and that's about it.

Of course, is there anything wrong with a story that lacks depth? I don't think so, as long as it was the author's intent to create a "fun" story, and I think this is what Ramsey has done here. The characters are well fleshed-out and interesting, and, like I said before, the story is funny. Really, what more could you ask for on a burnt-out Friday night.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

"Golden City Far" by Gene Wolfe

I know, I need to to some catch up, again. I have the stories read for the last few days, but I just havn't had the time to write about them. I only have enough time for one right now. The others will have to follow later today, or maybe tomorrow.

I love a good story where you're not sure if the the main character has lost his mind. Seriously, Fight Club is one of my favourite novels. I think that's partially why I enjoyed Gene Wolfe's "Golden City Far" so much.

In this story, Wolfe works with the not-uncommon idea of a teen protagonist who lives a fairly uneventful life, but dreams of a being a hero in a fantasy world at night. Through the story, the teen comes to success in real life through the strength and skills he gains in the fantasy world. While few particular examples are coming to mind right now, I've seen this story hundreds of times before.

However, the twist here is that Wolfe makes it unclear as to whether his protagonist, William Watcher, is actually visiting a fantasy world in his dreams, or if he is just going insane. The fantasy world bleeds heavily into the characters real world and vice versa (Bill's neighbour's dog starts talking to and follows him around, both in and out of his dreams, a black-haired woman named Dinah from his dreams keeps appearing to him at different points, and so on. . .). Ultimately, it appears that Bill is transported to his dream world, but it's still unclear as to whether this really happens, or if it's all in his head.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

"Sleepover" by Al Sarrantonio

Sarrantonio's story is a tightly written, incredibly creepy little piece that plays off of the regret that some parents sometimes feel about having children, and how horrible it would be if, somehow, those parents could go "back to the way things were before." To make matters worse, he writes this from the perspective of the children, making the reader relieve the sort of deep abandonment that would go along with such a change. The result is emotionally draining, but beautifully written. An excellent piece of short fiction.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

"Bill, the Little Steam Shovel" by Joe R. Lansdale

We have a new champion in the category of "weirdest story!" And, boy, this one is a doozy (that's right, a "doozy." I like odd words. So sue me."

In "Bill, the Little Steam Shovel," Lansdale takes the well-known children's story trope of anthropomorphic machinery and rewrites it for adults. Think Cars, or Thomas the Tank Engine, except that it hasn't been written for six-year-olds. Just like any number of these types of children's stories, Bill, the titular Steam Shovel, is new to the construction crew, and smaller than all the other steam shovels. Unsurprisingly, he's bullied by the local thug steam shovel, is befriended by the old coot steam shovel, falls for the girl steam shovel, and ultimately proves his heroism despite his small stature. However, unlike other stories of this type, Lansdale's story is filled with crude language, psychoanalysis, some musings on the Steam Shovel God (and Jaysus, "the Steam Shovel Who Had Died for [Bill's] Sins and all Steam Shovel's sins by allowing himself to be worked to a frazzle and run off a cliff by a lot of uncaring machines of the old religion"), and graphic violence. Oh, and graphic steam shovel on steam shovel sex. Yep, steam shovel sex. That's not an image I'm going to get rid of soon.

Despite the weird machinery sex (can you tell I'm a little bit traumatized?), this is actually a pretty good coming of age story with overtones of heroism in the face of adversity. And it can be pretty funny, too (see "Jaysus"). In the end, it's definitely worth a read.

Monday, October 19, 2009

"Jupiter's Skull" by Jeffrey Ford

"Jupiter's Skull" reminds me a lot of Neil Gaiman's short fiction. It has that wonderful feel of the fantastic amidst the mundane that is so often present in Gaiman's work. Also, like Gaiman's work, Jeffrey Ford's story centres on the importance of stories and the act of storytelling. In Ford's story, the act of storytelling is a transformative one. It allows the protagonist, who is burdened with his own sense of failure in life, to escape from the meaningless rut his life and become something more. Through the agency of an old woman named Mrs. Strellop, he and a young prostitute named Maylee tell the story of Zel and Jupiter, two young lovers. It is through the events of Zel and Jupiter's story that the protagonist is allowed (forced?) to leave behind his "life" in the Bolukuchet (a run-down district in a nameless city filled with people who have given up on life), and move on to telling his own stories.

So what does this say about stories in general? To be frank, I'm not entirely sure. Is Ford saying that all stories have the power to inspire people, to allow them to escape from their own lives? Or possibly that a well-told story pulls the reader in to such an extent that they almost become one with the main character, and are changed by the character's experiences? Maybe. It's something I'll have to think about.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

"Tots" by Peter Schneider

In "Tots," Peter Schneider takes the reader into the seedy world of Totfights, kind of an ultra violent version of "Boy Fights" from Arrested Development in which two four-year-old boys fight to death. In Schneider's story, the narrator refers to it as a "logical extension of the vastly more popular cockfighting - though, truth be told, totfighting probably originated long before mankind had domesticated roosters." Yeah, it's a weird story. A very weird story.

Actually, I can't help but think that the Totfights/Cockfights allegory is a bit of a tip of the hat to A Modest Proposal, showing the horrific nature of the actions of real-world people through the logical extension of those actions. While I don't think anyone would equate chickens with toddlers (chickens are nasty birds, while many toddlers can be quite pleasant), the analogy largely works. There are some other interesting things here as well, such as the future of Totfighters as VPs in fortune 500 companies, and the oddly caring relationship of a Totfighting handler for his "boys."

All in all, it's a weird little read of a story that reminds me a lot of Chuck Palahniuk's work (and not just because of Fight Club). The morals presented seem a little broad, but Schneider never decends to the point of preaching to his audience.

Phew, there we go. I'm all caught up on short stories for the week. Hopefully, from now on, I can get back to a regular schedule with a response per day. So far, staying on track for the readings have been the easy part. It's getting to these responses that seem to be tripping me up.

"Watchfire" by Raymond E. Feist and Janny Wurts

Feist and Wurts (which, incidentally, sounds very funny together) put some major twists on the traditional "regular-person-pulled-into-a-different-world-that-he/she-is-destined-to-save" fantasy trope* in this story. Instead a plucky young pre-teen or teen, the character here is "Old Jake" a half-mad old wino whose only companion on a wet December night is Gran, an even older homeless woman that seems to be suffering from severe dementia. This is enough of a twist to make things interesting to begin with, but Feist and Wurts (again, funny) add the extra twist that Jake, for all the time that he ends up spending in the fantasy world he's pulled into, never really knows if it is real or just a vivid dream brought on by a cold, wet winter's night. This is in turn woven into the role he plays in the alternate world as "the doubter." By the end of the story, neither Jake nor the reader really knows if any of the events from the alternate world "really" happened, or is it was all in Jake's head.

Of course, I think that it isn't important to the story whether what happens to Jake is real or not. Instead, what's truly important is what it all reveals about Jake's character, about how he came to be homeless in the first place, and, more importantly, how he came to care so much for Gran. The story itself ends on a incredible down note, but not one that seems inappropriate.

*What I also like to call "The Narnia Plot."

"Keeper of Lost Dreams" by Orson Scott Card

Card's story of Mack Street, a young orphan boy growing up the inner city who grows up dreaming other people's dreams, is a real treat of a story. The characters, especially Mack, are well rounded and believable, and the plot is subtle and nuanced. Mack is the consummate "strange" kid, and suffers from waking dreams which he knows arn't his, but are actually the dreams of other people in the neighbourhood. Between these dreams and the fact that he was even alive today was nothing short of miraculous, given that his birth mother had tried to abort him at seven months, Mack has come to believe that his life has a purpose. Most of the rest of the neighbourhood seems to think he's crazy, and suffers from epilepsy, but Mack himself nevers loses faith that there is a reason he's alive today.

What I think makes this story great, however, is that this "purpose" isn't some grand teenage wish-fulfillment fantasy. It's something much simpler than that. It's closer to home, but important nonetheless, and far more beleivable. As to what it is, I'll leave that to you to find out for yourself.

"Coming Across" by Harry Turtledove

Harry Turtledove is know for his alternate-history fiction, which, while not my thing, I have heard is quite good. So I guess that I shouldn't be surprised that, when I came across a fantasy short story by Turtledove that it would be highly focused on this type of speculation. In "Coming Across," Turtledove establishes a parallel world to ours that is inhabited by elves. The elves themselves are pretty interesting, actually, and it's clear that Turtledove has put a lot of thought into what an immortal race would really be like.

However, the true focus of the story is on a single elf that travels to our world in 1979 San Fransisco, and, after an affair with a man there, ends up contracting HIV. What follows is an exploration of how HIV would spread through the Elven community once he comes back, taking into account that elves had never previously really experienced sickness (or, at least sickness that they couldn't heal). It's clear that Turtledove thought a lot about this, and the results are fairly engaging, but I couldn't help but wonder what was the point. Okay, yes, it would be terrible for these elves if they contracted AIDS. But, I can't seem to figure out if Turtledove is using the plight of the Elves as some kind of metaphor or not. They're so fundamentally different from people that it doesn't seem like the story could serve any kind of allegorical purpose. Ultimately, it just seems like an exercise in "what would happen if," which is interesting, but kind of unfulfilling as a narrative.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Falling off the Wagon

So I havn't posted in a few days. I don't really have a reason, except that I've been lazy. I have been keeping up on the reading, though, so expect a whole slew of updates tomorrow.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

"Perchance to Dream" by David Morrel

There's not much I can tell you about Morrel's short story. It's an engaging, psychological "horror" about one man's descent into madness as seen through the eyes of a doctor that specializes in sleep disorders. I put horror in quotation marks here, because it isn't horrific in the sense of axe murderers, homicidal ghosts, or supernatural monsters. It's more horrific in the sense of what happens to the man. The story is very Hitchcockian in style, actually.

Incidentally, this Hitchcock-esque style is also why I can't say much about it, as any real analysis of the story will completely ruin it for anyone that hasn't read it before. The story itself relies on the surprise of the ending to make it a good story, and revealing that ending would be doing too much of a disservice to readers. So all I can say is: find it for yourself, and give it a read. I'm sure you'll enjoy it.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

"Death's Door" by Terry Bisson

Turkey Day Marathon Part Five: I'm too tired to say something even remotely clever

I really liked this story, which generally brings the Turkey Day Marathon score to four out of five, which isn't a bad streak at all. In if, Bisson asks the question of what it really would be like if death just took a few days off. In short, it would be horrific. Since people and animals still become injured, but just won't die, the hospitals become overfull in a matter of days. People that are blown apart in horrible accidents still suffer through the pain, and even a little girl's dog that is hit by a car just won't pass away (although cats somehow still manage to get around the "no death" thing, which seems to be such a cat thing to me).

In a way, the point of the story seems to me to be that, in many ways, we should appreciate death. That, in many cases, death is a relief from pain and suffering. Bisson also seems to be trying to tell us that death is what really helps us appreciate life. That, without death, somewhat ironically, life would be pretty horrible.

There, I'm done. Five posts in one night. Not five quality posts, I'm sure, but the point is that they are complete, and that I have kept up my commitment to the rules. From now on, it's back to a normal post-a-day schedule. In the meantime, I'm going to take a nap.

"The White Man" by Thomas M. Disch

Turkey Day Marathon Episode Four: A New Turkey

Story number four is kind of unusual. In it, Disch deals with how one culture can be woefully misinterpreted by another. It also deals with the exploitation of immigrants in America. It follows a Somali teen, Tawana, who lives with her family in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Through a string of events, and with the encouragement of a local minister, Tawana comes to believe that "White Men," which appears to be an variant on vampires that uses syringes to take your blood and kill you. This belief leads to some very disturbing results.

Equally disturbing, however, is what you learn about Tawana's life, and, through her, the life of a refugee family (Tawana herself doesn't appear to be a refugee, although it is clear that her grandfather and her parents did flee from Somalia to the U.S.). There are several instances where, I think, the reader is supposed to be equally horrified about the everyday things that happen to Tawana as they are horrified by the playing out of the vampire plot. It's an unsettling story, and not one you really want to read while on a long car trip where you have a lot of time to think.

"Out of the Woods" by Patricia A. McKillip

Turkey Day Marathon Part Three: Turkey Day Revolutions

Another good story comes out of my post-Turkey Day catchup! So far we're two for three, which is not bad at all. Into the woods is an interesting story of crushing normalcy which seems to take place in the background of a Medieval Romance or Arthurian Legend-type world (which are actually one in the same, but anyway). It's the story of a peasant woman, Leta, who spends her days keeping house for a local wizard, and her nights trying to reconnect with her increasingly distant woodcutter husband. She feels the boredom an monotony of her mundane life acutely. To make matters worse, Leta is witness to several fantastic events, one of which I swear is a scene between Merlin and Nimue, a.k.a. the Lady of the Lake, although no one seems to listen to her when she recounts these events.

Ultimately, I think the story shows the power of fantasy to help people escape from the mundane. That the fantastic is ultimately Leta's escape from her life; that it is more compelling and, well, real, than her own life has become. In the end, I'm not sure if you should be happy for Leta at the end of the story or not. You certainly don't feel good for her during the story, but the conclusion is intentionally left vague. You feel that it is an escape, but you're not sure to where.

Anyway, I should stop there. I still have two more stories to write about tonight.

"Tourists" by Neal Barrett, Jr.

Turkey Day Marathon Part Deux.

I enjoyed this story immensely, even though (perhaps because) it is so weird. You can kind of tell that it's the kind of story where the author had an interesting concept or question that she wanted to explore. In this case, the question is: "What would it be like to be a tourist in Hell?" This, of course, leads to the not only the chance for Barrett, Jr. to establish his own view of Hell*, and to ponder what it would be like to take a bus tour to Hell, but also to ask what kind of tourist would voluntarily go to Hell. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised by the results.

Okay, so I don't think I have much more to say about this one. In short, if you like off-kilter fantasy, look it up. It's an enjoyable read.

* Which is incredibly and unconventionally creepy, by the way, not to mention way better than L.E. Modesitt's version. At least in my opinion.

"Relations" by Nina Kiriki Hoffman

Okay, I'm back, and I've got five separate stories to write about, so these will be brief.

Here begins the legend of the Turkey Day Marathon

The first story, which I read on Friday, was a little disturbing to me, but not in any way that I think was intended. On one level, it's the story about a woman that possesses hereditary magical powers who uses these powers to make random people fall hopelessly in love with her, then bend them to her will, discarding them once they, as she puts it, "break" and cease to be interesting. Somewhat unsurprisingly, she ends up coming across a man that she cannot make fall in love with her. Instead, she falls in love with him (it turns out that his family have similar powers). The only difference is that he appears to be kind to her while she is cruel to her prey, and there is no indication that he will leave her. Sweet, isn't it?

Except that, read on another level, this story could pretty disturbing. It could also be said that this is a story of a strong (but admittedly evil) woman who goes through life taking what she wants, until she comes across a man that is stronger than her, whom she falls hopelessly in love with. He even draws her into a traditional role of wife by giving her the one thing she could never have before, a child (she was previously barren). And, as we all know, all any woman really wants is a strong man and a child. Barefoot and pregnant!

So, to say the least, this story bothers me a little. I won't go so far as saying that it's sexist, since it was written by a woman, but I'm not sure I agree with the message it seems to convey.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Turkey Day Weekend

Like many other Canadians this weekend, I will be visiting family for Thanksgiving (aka "Turkey Day"). Now, my parents do not have Internet access, as they are not very technologically inclined. As a result, I won't be able to post over the next few days. However, as per the rules of the game, I will continue to be reading stories in my time away, and will batch post to catch up once I return on Monday/Tuesday. I was hoping to post today as well, but it doesn't look like that will happen. To all you Canadians out there, enjoy your turkey (or, if you're vegitarian, vegetable-based-turkey-subsitite) this weekend. I certainly will.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

"Demons Hide Their Faces" by A. A. Attanasio

Let me start this entry out by saying that not everyone can be Charles de Lint, and, A. A. Attanasio, you are most certainly not Charles de Lint. This is not a bad story by any stretch. The cyclical structure of the story in which the later parts of the story are told interspersed with the earlier segments is actually quite clever and plays into the ending quite well. It won't make any sense until you're almost done the story, but once it does, it strikes you as pretty clever. I don't particularly have anything against the story itself either. The idea that demons steal book to gain power is interesting, to say the least, and Attanasio's portrayal of Hell is nothing if not original.

What I do have against this story is Attanasio's prose style. His prose is just too, well, crowded. When he could say something in a few words, he instead opts for a whole heap of them, choosing complex and obscure terms when simpler ones would do. Now, there could be an argument here that this is done for the sake of poetic style; that Attanasio's choice of words are calculated to bring a more vibrant image to the reader's mind. However, it comes accross more like he's saying "Hey, I know a lot of obscure words! Watch me you them in sentences!" The end effect for me is a distancing from the story itself.

This is especially concerning when the first sentence suffers from this problem. Attanasio opens the story with:
Winterset in Egypt beside a rotting canal at Sidi Bishr, with the little, ceramic hashish pipe in her freckled hand, a thin thread of palpitant smoke twisting in the air before her, the professor faced her student and informed him seriously and with hollow impersonality, "The most avid collectors of books are demons. But they want only the old texts The oldest texts."

Not only does this sentence run on and on, its use of words like "palpitant" (pulsating) and "Winterset" (which, is not defined in any dictionary I can find, and is not "the professor's" name, so I can only assume it means "in the winter") distract the reader. At least they distracted me. The end effect is that I became more interested in deciphering Attanasio's strange vocabulary than the story itself, which I think is a major failing for any piece of prose.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

"Riding Shotgun" by Charles de Lint

I'm not entirely sure what to say about this short story because it is just so good. The characters are full and lifelike, the story is engaging (sometimes even heart-wrenching), and the central conceit of "going back and doing it all over again" is masterfully handled. This is easily the best story I've read during this whole self-challenge, and Charles de Lint in one of my new favourite authors.

Gushing aside, de Lint does some great things with his main character here, playing off his urges to save the people he loves, whether it is his dead brother, the ghost-girl Ginny, or his long time friend, Allessandra. These competing urges to make things better for everyone involved creates some great tensions in the story, as the character is forced to make tough decisions in order to do what he knows is right.

I won't say any more, because I don't want to ruin any part of this great story. Please, if you're actually reading this (there may be one or two you), just go out and find this story and read it. Don't worry, I'll wait.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

"Blood, Oak, Iron" by Janny Wurts

This short story reminds me a bit of "The Tale of Sir Bors," from Sir Thomas Mallory's Morte Darthur in that both stories deal with a main character that accepts a fate they cannot change. In the case of Wurts' story, Findlaire, the son of a dying king, comes to accept his fate as the next vessel for a demon that has plague his family for centuries. One of Findlaire's ancestors made a deal with a demon, presumably to guarantee his rule of the kingdom of Chaldir. In return, the demon possesses the king of the realm, and passes to the closest male heir as each successive king dies, leaving the chancellor and king's council to rule Chaldir in the place of its king. As the story opens, the current king is dying, and Findlaire is the next in line of succession. However, instead of trying to escape his fate; instead of trying to find a way out, Findlaire learns to accept it.

To me, this acceptance seems very similar to Sir Bors' acceptance of his fate in Mallory's tale. In his acceptance of his fate, Findlaire is like Bors, who accepts that he cannot avoid the prophecy that states that he will kill his own brother, instead choosing to act as valiantly as possible despite the prophecy. However, Findlaire's acceptance of his fate and his resulting sacrifice goes much farther than in the case of Sir Bors. While Bors still retains a tinge of the tragic to his character, Findlaire achieves a sort of zen-like peace in accepting his fate. This allows him to accept what must happen without entirely giving up hope, while Bors simply goes on despite the absence of hope. Findlaire is able to recognize that, because life itself is temporary, his possession will only be temporary, and that, while the demon may pass to the next male in the line of succession upon his death, someone will someday be able to break the curse. In realizing the transience of his own life, and if the curse, Findlaire is able to accept his fate without even losing hope that, someday, life will be better for his heirs. It is this sort of grand scale, long-term thinking and the strength that goes with it that allows Findlaire to accept his fate.

Monday, October 5, 2009

"Wonderwall" by Elizabeth Hand

Despite being a child of the nineties, and thus having been overexposed to the Oasis song of the same name, I still had to look up the meaning of the word "wonderwall" after reading this story. Thanks to the Urban Dictionary, I now know that it roughly means "someone you find yourself thinking about all the time, or are infatuated with." Apparently, it is also the name of a German Pop Band, and a solo album by Ringo Starr, which, in turn, was the soundtrack to a 1968 movie of the same name. Thanks, Internet!

Getting back to the story itself, if we take the above definition of "wonderwall" to be the one applied here (which I am, since I havn't been able to find another definition anywhere), there seems to be two possibilities for the "wonderwall" of the story itself. The most obvious seems to be to be the narrator's friend, David Baldanders, since the story itself starts with the statement "A long time ago, nearly thirty years now, I had a friend who was waiting to be discovered. His name was David Baldanders. . .," and, in turn, ends with her meeting him several years later.

However, while the narrator's relationship with David sets the framework for the story, I'd personally propose that the "wonderwall" of the title is actually the nameless, skinny, lank-haired, blond boy that keeps appearing to the narrator, calling her a "poseur." I think this apparition, lets call him "poseur-boy," becomes the true object of obsession for the narrator in the story, as we witness her descent into a spiral of heavy drinking and alcohol abuse in the pursuit of what she sees as "High Art." In fact, I would argue that "poseur-boy" is a sort of physical manifestation of art, and that, through his violence towards her (he attacks her at one point in addition to shouting "poseur" at her every time she sees him), is trying to show her that the life she's living is not the way to get to a place to create art. He his trying to show her that, in the folly of her youth, she has perhaps mistaken the drug and alcohol abuse of her idols as fuel for their artistic brilliance, when they were, in fact, secondary to sid brilliance. More importantly, I believe the manifestation of "poseur-boy" it trying to show her that, while that life may have "worked" for others, it is only destroying her.

That's my take on it, at least. Maybe I'm wrong.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

"A Tower With No Doors" by Dennis L. McKiernan

It seems to be the "in thing" in Fantasy literature over the last few years to take exisiting fairly tales and folk tales and give them a new twist. I'm not sure who started the trend, exact, although the works of authors like Neil Gaiman (Stardust, American Gods), Sherri Tepper (Beauty), and Gregory Maguire (just about everything he's written), certainly all had a hand in its popularization.

Dennis L. McKiernan's short story is a particular good example of a retelling of a fairy tale. Told cleverly from the perspective of an immortal who claims to have seem the true events first-hand (you'll get a bit of a laugh once you find out who the immortal is), this is a fairly straightforward retelling of Rapunzel, with a bit of a twist that isn't uncommon to these sorts of stories. As usual, not everyone is exactly who the reader expects them to be, and the story doesn't exactly occur in the way you'd expect. The narrator, who, I think, is the best part of this story, also takes some jabs at some of the aspects of the traditional version of the story, like the idea that Rapunzel would have been give to the witch by her parents in exchange for some parsley (he notes that no parent would be that stupid). In the end, like many of these types of stories, it isn't an incredibly deep or challenging story, but it is fun.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

"The Following" by P.D. Cacek

Cacek's ghost story is one of my favourite types of ghost story, because it's really more about the lives of the people involved in the story than about murderous ghosts and cheap scares. The story is a slow, psychological examination of its main character, Lydia Terrell, who has the special ability to capture souls. Essentially, she's a ghost exterminator. But this isn't an episode of Supernatural*, or a similar ghost adventure/horror stories that happen to involve ghosts. It's more about how Lydia copes with her powers and their terrible after-effects.

I think this is really what the best ghost-stories, or stories in general, for that matter, do. They help the reader learn about the characters involved in the story. You get to know them, to identify them; watch them change and grow. So many stories of this genre are wrapped up in interesting conceits or scary sequences that they lose this idea that a story should really be about the characters. It's refreshing to see that Cacek doesn't fall into this trap.

*As a side note, I'm not disparaging Supernatural here. I love its comic-book take on horror and ghost stories. Plus, I think it ofter does just what I'm talking about here, revealing complex stories and characters beneath the top layer of action and gore.

Friday, October 2, 2009

"Fallen Angel" by L. E. Modesitt, Jr.

Modesitt, Jr.'s story is a unique take on angels, the Devil, and Heaven. The main character, Lucian deNoir (ostensibly the Devil), is called to heaven to work a spell of attraction. Because he is the only fully fallen angel, the only one to have willfully embraced darkness,he is the only one that can create this spell, which is required to, wait for it, encourage other angels to move into the new villas past the Elysian Gardens in order to maintain "ecological an aesthetic balance." So, basically, Real Estate.

The fact that Heaven in Modesitt, Jr.'s story works more like a modern city than God's paradise is, quite surprisingly, actually one of the smallest deviations from a traditional view of Heaven and Hell. In his cosmology, other angels are able to fall, and be redeemed. They seem to have a free will of their own, and act a lot like human beings. They also seem capable of sex and desire, which is a switch from the more traditional sexless servants of God. Oh, yes, and God. That brings me to the biggest change. In Modesitt, Jr.'s story, God is called the Maid, and, apparently, takes the form of a woman. Like God in most stories, the Maid herself doesn't actually appear in the story, but she is always referred to in the feminine sense, and she has priestesses instead of priests, in a obvious flip from Catholic traditions.

The overall effect of these changes is a distancing of the story from it's Judeo-Christian inspirations. Now, I hope that this is in an effort to allow readers to empathize with the character of Lucian (who, incidentally, is well fleshed out and nuanced). However, the cynic in me can't help but wonder if it was in an effort on Modesitt, Jr.'s part to create some plausible deniability for himself in the future. A way to say "see, that's clearly not the Judeo-Christian Heaven, so you can't give me slack for taking liberties with the details." Now, maybe Modesitt, Jr. felt that it was necessary to create a fantasy Heaven as a setting to the story in order to free him up to tell the story he wanted to tell. And maybe that is true. I, however, don't think it was entirely necessary. Sometimes I even found the effect to be a little jarring, as terms or names would be just slightly different from what you'd expect.

Despite this one complaint, I really did enjoy this story. It has great pacing,
wonderful imagery, and, as I mentioned earlier, the character of Lucian is brilliantly compelling. Overall, definitely worth the read.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

"The Silver Dragon" by Elizabeth A. Lynn

"The Silver Dragon" reads a lot like an except from J. R. R. Tolkien's The Silmarillion. It's really more of a legend from the fantasy world Lynn has, and much less of a coherent story in itself. It overtly chronicles the life of "Iyadur Atani," the titular "Silver Dragon," who was a powerful lord in Lynn's world and a changeling that could take the form of a dragon, although the true locus of the story is Iyadur's wife, Joanna Torneo Atani. It follows the trials and tribulations of the couple over the years, and hits many of the stereotypical high fantasy plot points. For example, Johanna grows up strong-willed and learns sword fighting instead of traditional "womanly" pursuits. She pretends to be a messenger to get close to Iyadur, and tells him at their first meeting that they will marry. Later, when Joanna is kidnapped, Iyadur , must make a deal with a sorcerer to get her back, not realizing the true cost of his deal, etc, etc. . .

Now, I don't have problems with an author using standard fantasy plot points. Many of these kinds of points have been around since fantasy was called "romance" in the middle ages, or, even earlier, in the days of what we've come to call "epics" (back in their day, I'm sure they were just called "stories), which, to me, means that they have some sort of resonance with people. But it bothers me that Lynn doesn't really do anything original or interesting with these plot points. I basically knew where each one was going from the moment it began. Also the "chronicle" feel of the story makes it so that many or the characters seem very flat and uninteresting and two-dimensional. The "good guys" are good, the "bad guys" are bad, and everyone acts exactly as you'd expect. In the end, I just couldn't bring myself to care about anyone in the story or anything that happened to them.

You know what really bothers me, though, is that I can't kick the feeling that some of the characters in this story, if they had been given space to breathe and grow, could easily have been compelling. In the end, this short story feels like it should have been a novella or even a novel, if only to give the author more time to develop her characters so you cared about what happened to them.* As it is, it feels to me like I was only getting a sketch of the overall story. To me, this story could have been so much more.

*After a bit or research on Lynn's work, it does appear that the world this story is set in is the same world she uses for her most recent series of novels, which doesn't surprise me at all.