Gorilla in My Room

September 14, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

gorillaGorilla in My Room by Jack Ketchum


January 24th of this year was a sad day. It was the day Jack Ketchum died. I didn’t get caught up with his novels until a few years ago, and I found so much thoughtful and meaningful (and also brutal and violent) fiction there, I knew I would read anything he wrote. I had pre-ordered this collection in late 2017, but it took me several months to get around to reading it.

The collection opens with “Gorilla in My Room”, an ultra-short story (less than one page) where Ketchum uses a gorilla living in his room as a metaphor for life. It definitely fits the thoughtful and meaningful categories of his fiction, and it hints at the brutal and violent categories, as well.

“The Western Dead” follows, and it’s a story about zombies set in the old west. It’s an interesting idea (Ketchum notes in his afterword that he wrote the story as part of an anthology that sought to place the origin of zombies far back in the past), and it makes me wonder why we don’t see more zombie stories set in older eras. Are zombies intended to be a modern construct? Regardless, this is a characteristic Ketchum story with the concise prose and disturbing imagery.

Next is “Bully”, and now we’re getting into the usual Ketchum storytelling. It’s about a man who stands up to his abusive father, years after having grown up out from under his shadow. This is a compelling story, made original by the way Ketchum writes it.

“Listen” is a story that covers usual territory for Ketchum – pedophilia. In this story, it’s narrated by one, and he’s tracking down his survivors, hoping to get them to kill him. In the usual Ketchum-revenge style, he doesn’t quite get what he wants.

“Polaroids” is another ultra short, which reminds me of Richard Matheson’s “The Near Departed”. It packs the same kind of queasy punch, but with much more economy.

Edward Lee’s introduction to the collection made me expect “Squirrely Shirley” to be funny, but the events of the story were too horrifying for me to find the humor in it. I’ve been coming to terms with the fact that the kind of horror I like is more subtle and suggestive than what’s usually on offer in the genre, but I still like Ketchum in general. This one just didn’t do much for me.

In “Group of Thirty”, Ketchum imagines what it’s like to finally meet the people who don’t like his fiction. The main character is a thinly-veiled version of Ketchum himself, and he comes up with a good way for him to get out of it.

“Winter Child” is a prequel to Offspring, which just isn’t a favorite of mine. I get that cannibals are horrifying, but when that’s the whole source of the horror and the story, it loses its effect. Here, Ketchum gives us a different perspective on the theme, which helps make the story more relatable. For one thing, the story isn’t just about the cannibalism.

“Cow” is another story set in the Dead River series, and this one is a sequel to The Woman. That story was good, since it showed how much more horrible regular people are from the cannibals, but Ketchum flips the script again and makes it about the cannibalism and the survival. It’s engaging, but doesn’t have the same effect as The Woman.

Ketchum writes a parable with “The Transformed Mouse”, which is interesting, since it doesn’t quite follow his usual type of story. It does make a cool point, though, and it’s written in the lean style Ketchum is known for.

“The Right Thing” is another ultra-short story, about a couple getting rid of a child to keep a pet. It’s an interesting take on the usual “get rid of the pet for the child” dilemma, but probably resonates more with people who actually have kids.

Ketchum returns to pedophilia with “Awake”, an okay story about an aging jazz musician who rapes his daughter. He ends the story in his usual fashion, in grisly revenge.

“That Moment” is an uber-story story (story starter, really; it’s two sentences) about the death of a pet. Ketchum packs a lot of punch in such few words.

“Oldies” is horrific in a different way, as it’s a story told from the perspective of an Alzheimer patient. It’s not graphic or gruesome, but it’s an accurate look at how it is for someone suffering from dementia to deal with the rest of the world.

The collection concludes with “Seconds”, a story about a woman who stops aging after her abusive husband dies. She finally meets someone who cares for her when she’s over seventy years old, but still looks like she’s in her early thirties, and the story goes from there. On the one hand, it’s a poignant story, but on the other, her not aging seems more like a reward for the person who cares for her than one for her. It’s odd, but it’s a different sort of story for Ketchum, which highlights his skills with tenderness.

Most collections I read are hit-and-miss, but this one has more hits than I usually find. It helps that I like Ketchum’s fiction as much as I do, but his style reflects the styles I’m used to from the horror fiction I read in the ’80s. It felt like the stories I remember, and that definitely played a part into how much I liked the collection overall.

Started: September 9, 2018
Finished: September 10, 2018

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A Little Gray Book of Shadows

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

shadowsA Little Gray Book of Shadows by William F. Nolan


I found out about Borderlands Press’s Little Book series way too late to get in on a full collection, but they’ve published some short story collections by some pretty heavy hitters, including Laird Barron, Joe Hill, Joe Lansdale, and Neil Gaiman. When the publisher announced their newest wave of Little Books, they hinted at getting one from Stephen King, so of course I jumped on the chance to get a set. A Little Gray Book of Shadows is the first in this latest line of collections, and it contains seven stories by the writer best known for co-writing Logan’s Run.

The first story, “Saturday’s Shadow”, was a little puzzling to me. It’s a story about obsessions, tied in with movies, but it was hard to say whose obsession this was, since the narrator is unreliable. He described the hallucinations as someone else’s, but it’s clear the narrator is unhinged, too. It didn’t do much for me, and it didn’t help that the style used a lot of parenthetical asides that threw off the pace of the narrative.

“Vympyre” follows, and is more a prose poem than an actual story. It’s about a vampire’s “life” passing before his eyes as he dies a true death, and he reflects back on all the history he’s seen during his existence. It’s fine, but it’s nothing spectacular.

The next story, “Lonely Train A’Comin'”, is a more traditional story, and starts out strong. He captures the emotion of a character whose sister has gone missing, and is grieving her loss. The story peters out toward the end, and rushes to a conclusion that’s not all that satisfying, but given how well Nolan captured his main character at the beginning of the story, it’s well worth the read.

Next is “The Partnership”, an odd story that, honestly, feels pretty pointless. It’s grisly and disturbing, but not for any particular reason. It’s not splatterpunk, but neither is it a subtle take on the genre that will settle with you long after you finish the story. It’s just kind of blah.

“The Yard” is the next story, and is fairly forgettable. I read it just last night, and had to struggle to remember the details just to write this review. If this had any point of meaning beyond just being a horror story, it went over my head.

Then there’s “Dead Call”, which is about a character receiving a call from a friend who died the previous week. It’s not an original premise, but what Nolan does with the idea is actually interesting. It doesn’t have a strong finish, but it’s a short, shocking story that manages to get under your skin without any violence or gore.

“Alex” concludes the collection, and is the only original story of the seven. It’s a strange story, because it’s either an homage to Stephen King, or a fictional gripe against the author’s success. The tone doesn’t make it clear, so it’s hard to tell what point Nolan was trying to make with the story.

Like any short story collection, Shadows has its hits and misses. For the most part, I’m not the audience for short stories, but I do appreciate a good, effective story when it packs the right punch. This collection just doesn’t hit that mark for me, but Nolan is a well-respected author, and the reprints were taken from well-regarded anthologies. I’m perfectly willing to admit that it’s just me.

Started: September 4, 2018
Finished: September 5, 2018

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Central Station

June 14, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

stationCentral Station by Lavie Tidhar


I tend to prefer novels to short story collections. I don’t mind a short story here or there when I’m in the mood for a shorter work, but I’m usually in the mood for the longer, deeper, more satisfying stories that come from a novel. It takes a lot for me to read a collection, and had I known that Central Station is, in essence, a short story collection, I probably would have passed on it.

To be fair, Central Station is a fix-up novel. That is, Tidhar took a series of related short stories and modified them enough to make them flow as a single novel. I’ve read some good fix-up novels (Foundation among them), but they never feel like a novel. Attention shifts a lot from one character to another, enough so that it’s hard to stay connected to any one character enough to get the connection to the story. Tidhar uses recurring characters and families to maintain a connection, but it doesn’t feel as strong as if he had used just one character.

The book focuses on Central Station, a space station in Tel Aviv around which space travelers have congregated. The story isn’t about space, though; it’s about those travelers and the residents of the town that remains. It takes us through the lives of a handful of characters who represent the best and worst of what’s left. Cybertech is common now, enough so that cyborgs and long-lived humans exist in the story, and Tidhar shows us what humanity is by focusing on what brings us together despite our differences. Robots preach; humans fall in love with cyborgs; data vampires can still be treated with compassion.

(Yes, data vampires. This is a book that’s chock full of ideas that could be novels by themselves, but Tidhar peppers them throughout the story like a seasoning. I can see the other science fiction authors out there gnashing teeth or pulling hair at how many series of books they could have written with something Tidhar throws out there just to establish setting.)

Some of the stories are better than others, which is a shame, since the book is supposed to be taken as a whole. The later stories are better than the early ones, most likely because Tidhar is developing characters we’ve already met, which begs the question: Do I evaluate Central Station as a novel, or as a short story collection? As a novel, it works because we do get some closure and conclusions to the characters, and I can overlook some stumbling that occurs at the start, but as a short story collection, the early stories aren’t as effective. Plus, the later stories work better partly because Tidhar is relying on our already knowing the characters he’s introduced in earlier stories, but how are they as standalone stories? Would I be missing out on crucial details if I hadn’t read the earlier stories first?

I’m probably splitting hairs here, because Tidhar is a good writer, and he has a lot of things to say with his story (stories?). I just can’t help but wish this book had been an actual novel instead of this odd mosaic of novel and short story collection. It does remind me of comic book series, though, where the overall story is broken up into different arcs. Maybe I’m just being too particular.

Started: April 26, 2018
Finished: May 1, 2018

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Darkness Whispers

March 5, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

darknessDarkness Whispers by Richard Chizmar & Brian James Freeman


Darkness Whispers is actually a collection of short stories than an actual novella. The title story is novella-length, written by both authors, while the collection also features one story written solo by each author. Like most collections, it’s a mixed bag of quality.

The title novella is about a mysterious man who comes to town and wreaks havoc by granting some residents their heart’s desire, and others their worst nightmare. It sounds a lot like Needful Things to me, but where King’s book followed his formula of likable characters in unlikable situations, Darkness Whispers is just plain unlikable. The authors cheat their way through the story, building up a false tension by writing lines like “Had he known it would be his last day with his family, he would have spent more time with them at breakfast”, but then ends the story by having the whole family survive. It’s fine that the authors took the story in that direction, but they cheat by hinting that the story will end differently than it does. It destroys whatever credibility the authors have, and it means we can’t trust them any more. (And, frankly, the less said about the ending with Hitler, the better. It’s just cliched at this point.)

“The Meek Shall Inherit…” is Chizmar’s solo story, and is compelling, but by the time the story finally gets interesting, it ends. It reads more like a spec summary for a novel than a story into itself, and I felt disappointed with it. I don’t have to have a firm resolution to every story I read, but for this one, I needed more details, and needed to know how it would end.

Freeman’s story, “What They Left Behind”, is the best story in this small collection, but even it isn’t a five-star story. What makes it work is the atmosphere Freeman creates around the story, which imbibes the story with a just-right creepy feeling. I only wish he had been able to bring more of that atmosphere and subtlety to the title story.

Darkness Whispers isn’t a top-tier collection, but it does have its moments. I only wish that the title story had been more trustworthy, and that it had featured more of the best skills of each writer. As it is, it’s mediocre at best, and not something I would recommend even to the most hardcore of horror readers.

Started: December 25, 2017
Finished: December 26, 2017

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Bone Harvest

February 23, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

harvestBone Harvest by James A. Moore


I received this chapbook as part of a grab-bag of books from Cemetery Dance, and gave it a quick read one morning. It’s about a bone creature who resurrects himself through a gruesome process involving mushrooms and four innocent people. The story is part of a larger group of works, which Moore explains in the foreword to the chapbook, and which feels necessary to understand the context of the story; otherwise, it’s a brutal read that doesn’t serve a lot of purpose.

The story is told well, and is intriguing enough for me to be curious about the other works, but I’m not going to seek them out right now. Moore also notes that the story is intended to give the bone creature a backstory to make it more than just an evil creature doing evil things, but I’m not sure he succeeded with it. He gives the creature a moment of compassion, but it’s twisted up into something darker, and it doesn’t provide any compassion or sympathy for the beast. It’s just a beast.

Started: December 15, 2017
Finished: December 15, 2017

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Cold Hand in Mine

November 28, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

handCold Hand in Mine by Robert Aickman


This isn’t my first attempt at reading this collection. I tried it back in March of this year, read the first story, and then decided it wasn’t for me. A few months ago, I started my Valancourt Books reading project (while also working on my Dark Tower reading project and my Star Wars reading project), and saw that one of Aickman’s books was on their publication list, so I thought I’d try this one again with a fresh perspective.

The results are mixed. Some of the stories are good, others elude me, and one of them was surprisingly good. Aickman has a knack for atmosphere, which I would ascribe to the lengthy establishing scenes in his stories. Each of the stories started out with one, which helped in the long run, but was a bit of a struggle at the start, since I couldn’t quite get a sense of where the starting point of the story actually was. This is somewhat fitting, as the stories also lacked conclusive endings.

The collection opens with “The Swords”, an eerie erotic story about a man losing his virginity to a prostitute. Maybe. He definitely loses his virginity, but whether or not he loses it to a prostitute is in question. It was strangely disconcerting, not just due to the horror element, but also due to it being about sex, but reading like it was written in the 19th Century.

“The Real Road to the Church” follows, and I honestly don’t understand the point of it. My  best guess is that the soul walks a path with those who come before, but I could be wrong. I had difficulty following this one, but I see it’s a story that other readers didn’t quite get.

The next story is “Niemandswasser”, which is German for “No Man’s Water”, which is exactly what this story is about. There’s an unclaimed portion of water in the middle of a lake, where a suicidal prince has gone to grieve an ended love affair. He begins to obsess over it, especially after a friend is maimed by something in that section of the lake. There was on passage in the story that raised my eyebrows, though not for anything related to the story:

Women have no inner life that is so decisively apart. With women the inner life merges with the totality. That is why women seem to me either deceitful or elusive, or moralistic and uninteresting. Women have no problem comparable with the problem of merely being a man.

It’s a shockingly male perspective, blaming a woman for a man’s perception of her. It’s hard to tell if the passage is related to Elmo, the prince, or if this is some philosophy of Aickman’s that bleeds through. There’s a lengthy afterword written by a woman who knew Aickman, and she describes him as a jerk, even as she calls him a friend. Some people might call him “complicated”, but I’m inclined to say he was a bit of a misogynist. Luckily, this was the only passage out of the entire collection that was overtly so.

According to my research, “Pages from a Young Girl’s Journal” is the most well-regarded story from this collection, which is odd since it’s the most straightforward of all the stories, and least like the others in style and tone. It seems like the story is addressing class issues while being a vampire story, and there are nice touches here, like it opening with our narrator being bitten by bugs, and with the voice becoming more mature over the length of the story. It just doesn’t break new ground, either as a vampire story or as an Aickman story (limited though my experience may be).

“The Hospice” is probably my favorite from the book, and is easily a five-star slow burn of a story. A man’s car breaks down and he’s forced to find a place to stay the night. It’s easy to follow, maintains a quiet tension, and ends in an ambiguous manner. This story also shows off Aickman’s characterization skills the best.

The next story, “The Same Dog”, is almost two stories, each with its own way of spooking the reader. The first half is about our main character as a boy, and the second half is him after he’s grown up and returns to his home town. It’s a neat parallel in the story, and it also serves as a contrast to “The Hospice” in how Aickman develops character. The protagonist in “The Hospice” is relatable because he has something to lose, while the one in “The Same Dog” has already lost it. It’s interesting to see how I respond to them differently (more to “The Hospice” than “The Same Dog”), and I wonder if it’s due to those characterizations.

“Meeting Mr. Millar” follows, and is no easy story to read because the main character isn’t likeable. He’s stodgy and stuck in his ways, and after reading the afterword of this collection, I get the feeling this is the closest we get to autobiography in these stories. It has a lengthy build-up, which would be fine for an effective payout, but here it feels weak. It does have some eerie, atmospheric moments, but the story doesn’t support it as well as it could.

The closer of the book is “The Clock Watcher”, a story about a man from the US who takes a German wife after time spent abroad in World War II. It was a tough read, especially when I came across “There was a great deal to be said in favour of Nazis, of course, in many other ways.” It didn’t help that I read that line the Monday after the events in Charlottesville, and I almost quit the story all together, but I figured this could be a way to establish his narrator as unreliable, and persevered. It’s hard to tell, but it definitely doesn’t feel like it’s how Aickman feels about them. The story works in some ways (Aickman hints at the conflict to come in the same way Shirley Jackson does in We Have Always Lived in the Castle), but fails in others (I’m still not sure what happened at the end of the story). It’s decent, but nothing like “The Hospice”.

Aickman belongs in the Weird camp, even though he doesn’t write about cosmic, nameless horrors, but he also has a room in the Quiet Horror house. He’s a bit hard to place, but he has his own style. Fans of other stylistic horror authors (Thomas Ligotti and David Nickel come to mind) would probably like his stuff the best. I wanted to like this collection, but it turned out to be an OK read, at best.

Unfortunate Musical Connection: “No Son of Mine” by Genesis.

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Blood and Lemonade

October 2, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

lemonadeBlood and Lemonade by Joe R. Lansdale


I started off reading Hap and Leonard Ride Again, an e-book-only release of Hap and Leonard, a collection of short stories only available in print. Contents were shuffled some between the two editions, but then when I compared the contents to Blood and Lemonade, I realized that the three books have a ridiculous amount of overlap. There are some nonfiction pieces in the first two books that aren’t in Blood and Lemonade, along with a couple of stories, but for the most part these three books have a lot of the same contents. In the end, I read the distinct stuff from Hap and Leonard Ride Again and then read Blood and Lemonade.

The stories are decent enough, but Lansdale does his best work with longer formats. “Veil’s Visit” (co-written with Andrew Vacchs) and “Death by Chili” from Ride Again are stories from when Hap and Leonard are adults, but the pieces in Blood and Lemonade are about the two characters as children. Some are about the two of them (along with “In the River of the Dead”, which I’m surprised didn’t get its own novella release), but a large number of them are about Hap’s childhood. Some of the stories are from Miracles Ain’t What They Used to Be, which brings me back to this book having a lot of overlap with Lansdale’s other collections.

That’s kind of my biggest gripe about Lansdale, that he reprints a lot of his stories from one collection to the next. A lot of them are to account for stories that were in collections that have gone out of print, but when I buy three books (MiraclesRide Again, and Lemonade) and find a lot of duplication, I get a little aggravated. I’d prefer there being distinctive works among all the collections, since I’m likely to buy them all, anyway.

Lansdale constructs this book as a novel, tying the stories together as Hap reminiscing on his childhood with Leonard, Brett, and Chance, but it’s a loose structure. Lansdale himself calls this a mosaic novel in his afterword, but to me it still read like a collection of short stories. Many of them (all of them?) speak on issues of race and class, making the stories feel similar and repetitious. The best of the bunch is “In the River of the Dead”, which reads like a usual Hap and Leonard adventure.

I wouldn’t consider Blood and Lemonade necessary reading save for the most dedicated Lansdale fans. Even Hap & Leonard fans might find it lacking, compared to the rest of the books in the series, and yes, I’m even including Captains Outrageous in that comparison. The book does collect the disparate Hap & Leonard stories, which will be of interest to some readers, but it might be better to read the stories one at a time, over several days. It might lessen the repetition of the stories.

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Dark Screams: Volume One

July 6, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , , )

screamsDark Screams: Volume One, edited by Brian James Freeman and Richard Chizmar


For the most part, I avoid short story collections unless they’re by authors on my Must Read. Everything. Right Now. Or As Soon as It’s Available. list. The last significant anthology by various authors I’ve read (not counting Six Scary Stories) is 999, from way back in 2000. This collection was only 99 cents, though, and it included a rare Stephen King story, and I couldn’t resist.

The first story — the headliner — is Stephen King’s “Weeds”, a story not reprinted since its initial publication in 1976. “Wait!” I hear you saying. “It was in Creepshow!” Well, yes, it was, but after reading this story, you’ll find they’re very different. Sure, the high points are still there — Jordy Verrill, a simple-minded handyman finds a meteor that sprouts grass on whatever it touches, taking over Jordy and his house — but the version in Creepshow is remarkably better. There’s something scarier about a passive threat to the planet than a thoughtful, malicious one like King presents in the original story. Still, it’s early King, when his style wasn’t quite as overwrought as it is now, and it’s fun to be able to go back and experience it again.

“The Price You Pay” by Kelly Armstrong is the next story, and might be better classified as a thriller than a horror story. It’s about toxic relationships, and how men and women react to them. It’s somewhat pedestrian, in that this is a story written and read time and again, but the author mentions that in the story itself, making me question if that’s the point. Stories like this are only relevant when they affect you in some way, otherwise they’re just “the same old story”. That alone makes it thought-provoking.

Bill Pronzini’s “Magic Eyes” follows, and is about a mental patient keeping a journal. He’s in the hospital because he killed his wife, but of course that’s not his take on things. This is another kind of story we’ve read several times (if we’re fans of horror, that is), and there’s not much to it to elevate it above all those other tales. At the very least, Pronzini creates an effective reliable narrator, while showing us that he’s the opposite.

Next is “Murder in Chains” by Simon Clark, a pointless story about abduction and survival. And mindless killing. It’s stories like these that remind me why I’m not as into horror as I used to be, and makes me question why I was into it as much as I was when I was younger.

Concluding the anthology is Ramsey Campbell’s “The Watched”. Campbell is a hit-or-miss author with me, with more misses than hits, but his short story “The Words That Count” is a favorite of mine, and is especially chilling. This story isn’t quite as resonant, but it’s definitely creepy. Campbell captures the proper atmosphere of the story, and creates some haunting imagery. It’s a bloodless horror story, and is more effective for it.

Armstrong’s and Campbell’s story are worth the price of the collection, and King’s story is an amusement, especially for his Constant Readers. The rest are just okay, though more hardcore fans of horror might find the stories more to their liking. The collection overall doesn’t inspire me to read the remaining volume, even though some heavy hitters like Peter Straub, Robert McCammon, and Jack Ketchum are among the featured authors.

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Ma Qui and Other Phantoms

May 3, 2017 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

maMa Qui and Other Phantoms by Alan Brennert


I read this collection before, in 1998, and liked it well enough, though when I sat down to re-read it now, nearly twenty years later, I couldn’t remember much about it. I hadn’t even planned on re-reading it, except after reading Time and Chance last year, I thought it might be worth revisiting the book to see if my thoughts had changed on it. Interestingly, the stories here are about the passing of time and how it affects how we feel and think about ourselves, so it was an appropriate feeling to have when I started reading.

The first story, “Ma Qui”, is about dying in Vietnam. The main character, our narrator, is a soldier who dies in battle and has his body stolen, preventing his spirit from moving on. He finds himself haunting the fields there, seeing other phantoms who have died in the war. He has to decide what kind of spirit he will be there, but sometimes those kinds of choices are outside of our control. It’s a moving story, as is the most horrific of the four tales here.

Next is “Ghost Story”, a fairly pointless piece of prose poetry. I don’t get a lot of poetry, and it turns out that prose poems are as incomprehensible to me as standard poetry. If not for this one story (and it’s a short one; it only runs about six pages), I might have given the collection one more star.

“Stage Whisper” reminded me of Neil Gaiman’s Signal to Noise, as it’s about an aging playwright who is struggling to find meaning in his life as he nears the end of it. It was written in the late ’70s, published in the early ’80s, and it has a fairly balanced look at being gay for its time, aside from its liberal use of the adjective “faggoty” (though it appears to be an attempt on the main character’s part to reclaim the word). It’s a piercing look at how people view their present through the lens of their past, and it’s likely the most effective piece in the book. That it’s also the longest is no coincidence; Brennert has room to let his character grow.

The collection concludes with “Futures”, a story about a man who keeps seeing the people in his life aged thirty years older than they are. I’m amused that a story about looking backward and valuing youth is followed by one that looks forward, with the same value, but the conclusion here took me by surprise. It’s as effective as “Stage Whisper”, which is impressive, since it’s less than half the length.

I still think Brennert does his best work in novels, but these short stories highlight his writing skills. His characterization is like none other, and these stories (well … three of them, at least) show it. My first experience reading him was via “The Third Sex”, and everything else I’ve read by him has lived up to my expectations. Brennert is a writer who deserves a wider audience.

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A Fantasy Medley 3

April 28, 2017 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

medleyA Fantasy Medley 3, edited by Yanni Kuznia


Last year, I splurged on a Subterranean Press mystery box, where I paid a flat price and received several books from their back catalog. It was a fun experiment, and I received a number of odd books, some from authors I knew and liked, others from authors I knew but hadn’t read, and then others like A Fantasy Medley 3, where I only had a passing interest in them. I’m knocking out the novellas in my collection, though, and this one, at just 151 pages, qualified, so I spent much of a Sunday afternoon reading it. And it was … okay.

The first story, “Goddess at the Crossroads”, is a story set in the world of Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid Chronicles, which means nothing to me. I know Hearne’s name because he’s written a book in the Star Wars Expanded Universe, but that’s about it. The story is serviceable enough; it’s engaging, and it’s well told. It didn’t wow me, and I felt a disconnect with the outside characters. It’s a story told around a campfire, and the characters around said campfire are probably familiar to readers of the rest of Hearne’s series, but for me, they’re just a wrapping device. They seem lively enough, but they aren’t particularly defined. Plus, the narrator seems to be long-lived, since the story he’s telling is about how he saved Shakespeare from bandits and witches. There are more questions than answers at the end of this story, though I expect readers of the series would know the answers to those questions.

Laura Bickle’s “Ashes” follows, and it, too, is part of a larger series (Anya Kalinczyk), though it does a better job of showing the characters. You still get the feeling that Bickle is relying on her existing series to carry the bulk of the characterization and exposition, but the story feels more engaging because she still gives us the bare bones of her character and what she means to the world she’s created. In the story, Anya is racing to catch the Red Dwarf, a fire elemental that’s wreaking havoc in modern-day Detroit. She’s joined by her familiar, a salamander named Sparky (oh, I forgot to mention there’s a strong vein of irreverence running throughout the story), and Charon, from Hell. Again, it feels like this is a small part of a larger story that readers of the series would already know, and it feels most apparent in the ending. I feel like it should have been more emotional, and it likely is, for those who know the rest of the story. As it is, I feel like the ending is rushed and unemotional, and raises more questions that readers familiar with her other books already understand.

The third story, “The Death of Aiguillon”, by Aliette de Bodard, is yet another story that’s part of a larger arc. In this case, the story is a prequel to The House of Shattered Wings. Again, this is a book (and author) with which I’m unfamiliar, so I’m going into an established story without any point of reference. Compared to the other two stories, this one feels the most self-contained. It’s about a young woman who has survived a magical battle, and how she continues to survive in the battle-ravaged city of Paris. de Bodard spends more time on character and setting here, though she seems to sacrifice plot in their favor. The language is lyrical and provoking, but it doesn’t feel as much like a story as the preceding two stories. Honestly, it feels like the prologue to a novel, which is exactly what it is. It’s also intriguing enough to make me look into de Bodard’s novel.

“One Hundred Ablutions” is Jacqueline Carey’s contribution to the collection, and is the one stand-alone story out of all four. I haven’t read anything by Carey yet, but I do have Kushiel’s Dart in my to-read stack, and this was the one story I was looking forward to reading. It’s a short, fantasy version of The Handmaid’s Tale, where lower-class citizens serve as religious handmaids for the higher-class families. It captures the helplessness and despair of Atwood’s tale, but redefines the roles of the handmaids in the tale. It’s a powerful, effective story, and touches on themes of independence, responsibility, and rebellion. It’s the best story of the collection.

As the title of the collection suggests, this is a medley of different kinds of fantasy, from urban fantasy to alternate worlds, and like most collections, it’s uneven. The volume is a mixed bag, with the first two stories being the least interesting of them all, but the last two stand out, with Carey’s story making it worthwhile. I won’t be seeking out the previous volumes in this series, but I don’t regret reading this one.

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