Post Mortem: New Tales of Ghostly Horror

July 19, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

mortemPost Mortem: New Tales of Ghostly Horror, edited by Paul F. Olson & David B. Silva

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The next book in my Abyss project is Post Mortem, an anthology of short stories. I’m not particularly fond of anthologies. I’ll usually find a few gems, but, save for the rare exceptions like The Best of Pulphouse, I’ve never read an anthology where I find more good stories than bad ones. The good news is that ghost stories tend to work best as short stories, since they tend to leave off with the main character being haunted, and don’t need lengthy conclusions.

The opening story, “Each Night, Each Year” by Kathryn Ptacek, is the perfect opener, as it was evocative and personal. Gary Brandner’s “Mark of the Loser” follows, and it felt more gratuitous and pointless, and was too predictable. It didn’t leave me with the kind of feeling Ptacek’s story did, but it helped set the stage for what kinds of stories were to come.

Charles de Lint’s “Timeskip” feels a little forced at first, but when I looked back on it, I found it was organic. De Lint defines his world, populates it, and sets the rules, and then lets the story play out as it will. That it’s spooky is just the icing on the cake. Steve Rasnic and Melanie Tem’s “Resettling” follows, and was, of course, top notch. They understand horror well, and balance personal relationships with ghosts remarkably well, and not just with this story.

“Servitor” by Janet Fox was a bit more on the gratuitous side, but was more thematic. Thomas Tessier’s “Blanca” was the same, though it’s more brooding and cultural. It reminded me somewhat of “Ma Qui” by Alan Brennert. “Nine Gables” by James Howard Kunstler was another story where personal relationships parallelled the haunting, but I didn’t find it to be as effective as the Tems’ story.

Charles L. Grant’s “The Last Cowboy Song” was the one I most wanted to read, and I wasn’t disappointed. Aside from being a quiet horror story, it was more about the positivity of ghosts, instead of about being haunted. It runs counter to “The Ring of Truth” by Thomas F. Monteleone, where the ghosts are hunters with a vengeance.

“Eyes of the Swordmaker” by Gordon Linzer was the outcast of the book, for being set in ancient Japan, and for being the most evocative of all the stories. It’s genuinely spooky, and it makes the hauting a personal choice. This might be my favorite of them all. Ramsey Campbell’s “The Guide”, on the other hand, just doesn’t make sense to me. I feel like I should appreciate Campbell more, but I never can figure out what’s happening in his stories, or what’s supposed to make them frightening.

P.W. Sinclair’s “Getting Back” was decent, but nothing spectacular. The same could be said about “Walkie-Talkie” by Donald R. Burleson, “Major Prevue Here Tonight” by William F. Nolan, and “Brothers” by David B. Silva, which is a shame, since these stories made up a large part of the end of the book. Melissa Mia Hall’s “The Brush of Soft Wings” was a nice, moody respite, and the final story, Robert R. McCammon’s “Haunted World”, is a vivid, concerning story, even if it’s not really about being haunted. I remember this story from the first time I read this anthology, and I think it also showed up in Blue World.

The book concludes with an essay by Dean Koontz about ghosts, which is a shame, since I don’t consider Koontz to be an authority on horror. Yes, I know he got famous for writing it, but his horror fiction has never scared me, and never made much sense to me. He’s a fine enough writer, but horror? Please. He’s more a suspense writer than anything. I guess they couldn’t get Stephen King to write it.

Post Mortem bucks the trend for me by being an anthology with more good stories than bad. Plus, considering how bad some of the other Abyss books are, the book also stands out for being one of the better books from the line. Overall, I’d recommend it to readers who like decent ghost stories, though it’s still a bit of a mixed bag.

Started: June 14, 2018
Finished: June 29, 2018

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Time for the Stars

July 18, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

starsTime for the Stars by Robert A. Heinlein

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I’m not new to Heinlein, but it’s only been recently when I decided to read more of his work. I recently listened to Sixth Column on audio, and found it to be decent, but nothing spectacular. That one isn’t considered to be one of his juvenile novels, though, and Time for the Stars is. I was surprised with how much I liked this book, though I guess I shouldn’t be; everyone else has known for decades how good a storyteller Heinlein was, so it’s finally time for me to discover him.

Time for the Stars is about a pair of twins, Tom and Pat, who learn they’re psychic after they’re tested for a long-term science experiment. See, speaking psychically happens instantaneously, which makes it easier for communication to take place between Earth and deep-space ships. The two of them are recruited for a space journey to look for other planets to populate, one of them to travel into space, the other to stay at home to receive their messages.

Heinlein captures character and setting well, and the story features an interesting interplay of science and psychology. The story is compelling, namely because of the characters, but it has a strong “What’s going to happen next?” feel to it. Heinlein examines the time dilation that occurs in ships traveling near the speed of light, so as Tom, the space twin, only ages a few years through the story, Pat ages decades. Heinlein’s themes work well, too, especially considering this book was published over sixty years ago. He looks at the bonds of family, and how loving and liking your family are two different things. This being a Heinlein book, it starts off with a strong anti-tax, anti-government angle to it, but luckily that’s not the point of the story.

Of course, the biggest critcism of Heinlein is his view of women. They may be smart, capable, and strong in his stories, but they’re still evaluated first and foremost on their attractiveness. This could be a product of the time in which the story was written (women are also relegated to roles of cooks, caretakers, seamstresses, etc., even on a space ship), but for Heinlein to be progressive in other ways, it’s disheartening to see him be backward in this one.

I’m eager to read the rest of Heinlein’s juvenile works. Oh, OK, I’m interested in reading his non-juvenile books, too, but given how I remember Stranger in a Strange Land as a ponderous, overwrought, male sexual fantasy story, I’m more interested in the juveniles right now.

Started: June 19, 2018
Finished: June 25, 2018

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Rolling in the Deep

July 17, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

deepRolling in the Deep by Mira Grant

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I didn’t intend to read two McGuire books back-to-back like this; it’s just the way my reading list shook out. I like her style, so it’s not like I don’t want to read her stuff, but I usually try to space an author out more than this. Interestingly, I’ve read several of her novellas, but none of her novels as yet.

Rolling in the Deep is about an ocean expedition, ostensibly to discover mermaids, but funded by a network known more for its B-grade monster movies and questionable documentaries (think the SyFy Channel). The ship is filled with ship personnel, cameramen, hosts, scientists, and fake mermaids, so of course personalities clash, long before the secret of the mermaids is actually revealed. Characterization is Grant’s strongest skill, since she creates characters who you root for or against so strongly that it’s impossible not to get caught up in the story itself. I just wish there had been more to the story here.

A good three-quarters of the story is the setup, where we meet the characters, and then the last quarter of the story is a fast-moving conclusion where everyone dies (no spoilers there; this is noted in the first few pages of the story). There’s a lot of potential to the story, where characters could be heroes or villains once the chaos erupts, but it feels wasted as Grant rushes through the final act.

There’s a full-length novel that follows this story, and I’ll jump right into it next. I’m hoping the greater length will allow for a more measured conclusion, since I enjoy Grant’s style enough to want to keep reading her, even though I’ve only read one book that thrilled me (Down Among the Sticks and Bones). I’m looking forward to seeing what she can do with a full-length novel.

Started: June 18, 2018
Finished: June 23, 2018

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Beneath the Sugar Sky

July 16, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

sugarBeneath the Sugar Sky by Seanan McGuire

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The Wayward Children┬áseries is everything a good fantasy should be. It has interesting characters, all of whom could play the lead role in their own story, and all of whom play an important role in the mysteries that are unique to their home. As much as I loved the conceit of Every Heart a Doorway, though, I wasn’t thrilled with the story. McGuire won me over with Down Among the Sticks and Bones, so of course I was going to read Beneath the Sugar Sky. In the end, though, I didn’t like the story as much, even though it worked perfectly well.

McGuire takes the characters she created in her first book and writes an adventure story that uses all of their different skills, but it doesn’t have the kind of impact Jack and Jill’s story did. I think it’s because the story of Sticks was personal, while the other two books are more ensemble stories, so we don’t get to stay focused on any one character. What characters are here are sympathetic, and we get a good sense of their motivations, but I’d prefer to read Cora’s story instead of going on an adventure to help Rini (who, to be honest, was a bit of a prima donna).

Like the other books in the series, Sugar has great characters, diverse characters, great ideas, great themes, and a strong narrative. I just wish it had been another standalone story instead of a group adventure. I feel like McGuire created her cast of characters in the first book, and now it’s time for us to read their individual stories. Of course, without an ensemble book every so often, we’d run out of characters, so I can’t complain too much.

Started: June 20, 2018
Finished: June 21, 2018

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Tales from the Empire

July 13, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

empireTales from the Empire, edited by Peter F. Schweighofer

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Before Timothy Zahn restarted the Expanded Universe with the Thrawn trilogy, West End Games did a lot of expanding themselves, not just with their Star Wars RPG. They published stories in their own magazine, with the intention of shedding more light on characters, settings, and races that were featured in the game materials. Tales from the Empire is the first of two collections Schweighofer put together using some of those stories.

Like any anthology, Tales from the Empire is a mixed bag of quality, with some well-written stories (Patricia A. Jackson’s “The Final Exit” and Michael A. Stackpole’s “Missed Chance” stand out) and some other stories that are less interesting. In his foreword, Schweighofer discusses how he collected stories by well-known authors (Timothy Zahn and Stackpole, for example), but he also collected stories by lesser-known authors. I liked Erin Endom’s “Do No Harm”, since it was written by a medical doctor, and had a lot of medical detail, but the other newbie stories were just OK. I didn’t actively dislike any of the stories (save for Side Trip, a novella co-written by Zahn and Stackpole; it just didn’t live up to its potential), but there were only a few stories I expect to remember years from now.

One thing I did like about the anthology is how the stories focused on characters outside of the Skywalkers. There might have been a reference or two here and there, but for the most part, we had a chance to see other people who played an important role in the universe. By the same token, the stories weren’t able to rely on character development from other sources, so it took longer to get a sense of them, in what were already shorter works. Still, I like that the authors recognized that there were other characters in the universe worthy of their own stories.

I can appreciate what West End and Schweighofer did for the Expanded Universe, especially in keeping the license alive, but I can’t help but feel like these stories would be better for players of the RPG. They rely so much on material created by the company, other readers will miss some of the references. Plus, unlike the anthologies edited by Kevin J. Anderson, the stories aren’t based on a famous event, making them more esoteric. As a result, it felt like the collection missed the mark with me.

Started: June 10, 2018
Finished: June 20, 2018

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Sixth Column

July 12, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

sixthSixth Column by Robert A. Heinlein

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First written in 1941 and then revised in 1949, Sixth Column is a product of its time, and it’s important to keep that in mind while reading it in the 21st century. The bulk of the US’s involvement in WWII makes up a large part of the time in which the story was written, so the idea of the country having been taken over by Pan-Asians was a threat in that time. The perception of Asians at the time would lead to the perception of them that exists in this novel. That being said, it doesn’t handle that threat with any subtlety or grace. If there’s a pejorative word to describe Asians, it’s used in this novel.

Aside from the language, the representation of Asians in the novel is a little disturbing. They’re regarded as savages and animals by the main characters, blue-blooded Americans with the savvy and intelligence to fight back against the invasion of the Red Menace. It’s very much a US-centric, “God Bless America” kind of story, with anyone opposing the country being nothing more than vermin to be exterminated. To be fair, the Pan-Asians have a racist view of White America, but the book is a conservative’s wet dream.

Surprisingly, there’s an interesting story buried beneath the racism and xenophobia. The surviving military regiment (all six of them) take to creating a new religion as a smokescreen for a revolution against the occupying Pan-Asians. Heinlein uses that as a means to make commentary on politics, religion, human nature, and survival, while still pushing through his own agenda about libertarianism and Constitutionalism. I sort of expected that, based on all I’ve heard about Heinlein and his writings. This isn’t my first Heinlein book, but it’s been thirteen years since I’ve read Stranger in a Strange Land, and twenty-three since reading The Puppet Masters.

I listened to this on audiobook, and the narrator did a good job with the reading. He used accents to designate characters so I could differentiate between them, and he presented the story more than he read it. Unfortunately, the voices he used for the Pan-Asian characters were unfortunate in how stereotypical they were. On the one hand, he was capturing the characters in the same way Heinlein wrote them; on the other hand, they sounded offensive. I’m not sure if he could have managed them any other way, but it made me cringe.

Not being familiar enough with Heinlein’s greater body of work, I don’t know how this book compares to them, but I don’t know if I would recommend it. Conservatives would probably love it, but for the wrong reasons. For those looking for a mild skewering of religion (and possibly L. Ron Hubbard, who was a contemporary at the time this was written), though, it’s entertaining. You’ll just have to overlook the more unfortunate aspects of the story.

Started: June 14, 2018
Finished: June 17, 2018

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Time Was

July 11, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

timeTime Was by Ian McDonald

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I’ve seen a lot of reviews that gripe about how the story of this novella doesn’t match the blurb on the back of the book. I get that — you want to read about what’s on the box — but I went into this without knowing what it was about, other than a good introduction to McDonald. What I found was a fantastic story about love, history, and time travel, told as a mystery in some of the most beautiful language I’ve read. I can’t help but feel like those reviewers are missing the forest for the trees for not examining the story on its own terms, instead of how it was sold to them.

I’m very much a function over form reader, though I can appreciate good narrative when it doesn’t overwhelm the story. McDonald is a poet, creating succulent sentences that force you to slow down to appreciate them. He’s also a great storyteller who creates vivid characters to drive a compelling plot. In Time Was, he tells the story of a bookseller who stumbles across a letter in a book of poetry, which in turn leads him down a rabbit trail of history and science.

This is my first time reading Ian McDonald, but it won’t be the last. I’m curious to see what he can do with a full-length novel.

Started: June 14, 2018
Finished: June 17, 2018

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Spiderlight

July 10, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, )

spiderSpiderlight by Adrian Tchaikovsky

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This is one of those books where I wish I had live-Tweeted my reading experience, since when I started, I wasn’t impressed. At all. Admittedly, Children of Time had set me up with high expectations, but I wasn’t expecting a story that started off sounding like someone’s last D&D adventure, complete with rogue, mage, barbarian, thief, wizard, and prophecized quest. It felt so derivative and so common that I started wondering if Time had been a fluke. In my notes, I wrote, “it’s fantasy, it’s a quest, it’s irreverent … and it’s frankly not as engaging”.

Fortunately, that was just the first chapter.

The second chapter started out with an effective, evocative piece of horror, which brought my attention back. I hung on a bit longer, the story started to develop, I started to get a hint of something larger than the story, and then I realized exactly what Tchaikovsky was doing. He was taking all the standard tropes of fantasy fiction and subverting them. Completely. He makes the reader question the motives of any character in fantasy, and forces them to look at events from another perspective.

He also imbues his story with a sense of humor that borders on irreverence. It helps to get a better feel for the story when the powerful wizard just wants to set everything on fire, or when the thief can’t help needling the barbarian. Tchaikovsky also adds heavier themes to his story, like the rogue having to constantly deflect the barbarian’s advances because, after one tryst, he thinks she belongs to him. That helps us remember that this is still a serious story with important things to say. And then he adds his own commentary on the genre itself that makes us question what we’ve taken for granted:

… he was thinking about all those powerful men and women … sitting on their hands for decades, knowing that [evil] was out there, and defeatable, but feeling no particular inclination to go do it, because they knew that someone else would eventually take up the slack. Which is exactly the problem with prophecies.

It makes you look at your favorite epic fantasy series a bit differently, huh?

The story is compelling, the themes are thoughtful, and the characters are vivid and likable. And the ending … well. I’m not spoiling a thing, but there’s nothing disappointing about it. My concerns at the beginning were unfounded, and after reading Children of Time, I shouldn’t have doubted Tchaikovsky. Spiderlight is fantastic.

Started: May 29, 2018
Finished: June 13, 2018

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Shadow Twin

July 9, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

twinShadow Twin by Dale Hoover

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For those keeping track, this is book eleven of my Abyss reading project. It’s also the eighth book that wasn’t completely worthless, but neither does it crack the top three. It’s a solidly mediocre book, and is ultimately forgettable.

The book started out well, with good prose and a strong start. It begged comparison to Koja’s The Cipher, since, like that book, Shadow Twin is about a mysterious hole that opens inside a house, but that’s the only thing similar to the two novels. Where Koja focuses on the two main characters and their obsessions and isolation, Hoover focuses in on the family and their inherent problems, projecting and enhancing them via the hole. I can relate better to Shadow Twin, but it’s not enough to make it the better book of the two.

Hoover doesn’t write like a typical ’90s horror author, with lurid violence and rampant sexism and misogyny. That’s definitely a plus, but she doesn’t capture her characters well, and her narrative rambles at time. It’s written in the first person, as a reflective look back on the main character’s decline, but she shifts to a third-person omniscient viewpoint at times, and makes too many references to the horrible things he is yet to do. It’s annoying, and doesn’t do much for foreshadowing since she keeps repeating that refrain, either at the beginning or end of her chapters.

Shadow Twin is a book that’s well written, but the story and plot aren’t that great. I prefer it to some of the other dreck that preceded it in the Abyss line, but I wouldn’t recommend it.

Started: May 29, 2018
Finished: June 13, 2018

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Kill Creek

July 6, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

killKill Creek by Scott Thomas

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I forget how I found out about this book. I have an ebook and an audiobook edition of the title, so there’s a good chance I found them through some deal, but I’m sure the summary of the book didn’t hurt: It’s about four well-known horror authors who agree to spend the night in a reportedly haunted house. What happens may be expected, or it may not. It depends on how well you know your horror fiction.

Kill Creek is a good throwback to ’80s horror. It has the same feel, through its pacing and its characterization, as some of the best horror novels from that time, while also being a more modern story. It also effectively plays with the reader’s expectations. It doesn’t quite go so far as to subvert the genre like The Cabin in the Woods did, but it does change up the sort of story you expect in a similar way that Psycho did. It’s a good plot, with excellent pacing and distinctive characters.

It’s not that well-written of a book, though. The narrative is a bit clunky, the style is a bit tell-y, and Thomas uses some ridiculous similes throughout the book. I was listening to the book in my car, so I couldn’t jot down any of the similes, but I do remember him describing rain running down someone’s collar like “clear, wet snakes”. They were all over the place, too, and they reminded me of The Troop by Nick Cutter, since he also used a ton of similarly overwrought similes. Is this characteristic of modern horror? It’s very distracting, especially when a novel like Alma Katsu’s The Hunger avoids using them, and comes across as a story that may not be better, but it flows more naturally.

Speaking of the audiobook, the narrator, Bernard Setaro Clark, does a fantastic job. He has a different voice for each character, and aside from a southern accent that doesn’t sound authentic, he captures them all well. Plus, he has a proper cadence to his speaking that makes it sound like storytelling or performing instead of someone just reading the text of the story. That kind of narration makes a big difference in me being able to follow the flow of the book.

The book reminded me a bit of The Martian, in that it’s a compelling, engaging plot, even if the story isn’t that well-written. Both books started out as self-published ventures, which is unfortunately evident, but they made it far enough to enter the mainstream, which is a plus for readers who like good stories. Older horror fans who pine for the glory days of the ’80s need to read this ASAP.

Started: May 29, 2018
Finished: June 11, 2018

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