The Christmas Spirit

January 19, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

spirit“The Christmas Spirit” by Brian James Freeman

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This seasonal short story was provided free by Cemetery Dance as a Christmas present for their customers. I can’t pass up free, especially when it will only take a few minutes to read, and it’s from Cemetery Dance. It has to be good and creepy, right?

Well, not always. This story is about a family who embraces Christmas, and this is the year they plan to win the neighborhood decoration contest. The main character is described as someone who had a rough time as a younger man, but who has embraced life and positivity thanks to a kind stranger who gave him a button at his darkest point that reads, “Remember the reason for the season!” He does (he still wears that button, in fact), so the beginning of the story comes off as a bit preachy. By the end, we realize he’s playing with us, but it was a bit off-putting at first.

Freeman does a decent job of setting up the expectations for the story before turning it on its head, but nothing else about the story makes it worthwhile. There’s zero characterization here. The characters are broadly drawn, and are described more than they’re presented. The family is an idyllic one, but we don’t know that through their interactions; we know that because Freeman tells us so.

The ending is sudden, and feels rushed, and it seems overly graphic. I think Freeman was trying to create a dichotomy between the pleasant Christmas season and the violent end of the story, but it felt forced to me. It felt like a bad episode of The Twilight Zone, and I can see this being a perfect story for the show, but as a story, it doesn’t make much of an impression.

Sure, the story is free, but it’s not really worth the time. Freeman can capture atmosphere well, but this story feels like an outline for a larger work and not a story in and of itself. Skip it.

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Myth-Told Tales

December 28, 2016 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

toldMyth-Told Tales by Robert Asprin & Jody Lynn Nye

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Take a look at that cover over there. It’s horrible, isn’t it? It takes several seconds to figure out what’s going on there, since it’s muddy and washed out. You might think that the resolution is due to it being a poor image, but no, the cover actually looks like that. For a series that has been graced with colorful, vivid, humorous illustrations, this introduction to the new books, with a cover like this, is questionable.

The foreword to this book explains how Asprin and Nye, facing the prospect of writing additional books in his series, opted to start out slowly, writing a few short stories to test their styles together. The book contains three short stories, one narrated by Skeeve and featuring him helping Bunny in a beauty pageant, one narrated by Chumley and featuring him, Tananda, and Guido running a beauty parlor, and one narrated by Aahz, featuring him and Massha helping locate the source of some strange goings-on surrounding a dragon-princess hunt.

The writing is reminiscent of “M.Y.T.H. Inc. Instructions”, the bonus story included at the end of Something M.Y.T.H. Inc. that was written by Nye. They manage to maintain a similar style, though they’re definitely different. Having read all of Asprin’s solo books back-to-back like I did, it’s easy to see the difference in style, though it still feels familiar. I’m not sure it would have been as noticeable had I not read the others so closely to the time that I read this one, but it’s definitely different. How could it not be, though? It’s including a whole new writer!

I hadn’t planned on reading any of the Myth Adventure books beyond Asprin’s original twelve books, but after talking about the series with a friend, and him telling me that these co-written books “aren’t as bad as you think”, I decided to give them a read, too. This is an auspicious start, but then again, I disliked the short-story nature of M.Y.T.H. Inc. Link, too, and this book is also comprised of stories. Maybe they’ll pick up with the actual novels that follow.

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Six Scary Stories

November 16, 2016 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

sixSix Scary Stories selected by Stephen King

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As part of a promotion of the British publication of The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, Stephen King picked the winner of a scary short-story contest. Out of a pool of over 800 stories, editors winnowed them down to six, from which King picked the winner. He found it tough, tough enough to think that the stories needed to be published together. Six Scary Stories is the end result of that contest. Being the horror nut (and King fan) that I am, of course I was going to read this.

“Wild Swimming” by Elodie Harper was the winner, and is also the story that opens to collection, as well as serves as the inspiration for the cover. I thought that was a little strange. Why not lead up to the (supposed) best story in the collection instead of opening with it? Regardless, the story has a nice eerie feel to it, though I don’t know if I would call it scary. I think it suffers a bit for being written in an epistolary style; the characterization feels lacking, and it forces the conclusion to come from a different narrator.

“Eau-de-Eric” by Manuela Saragosa follows, and is, to me, a creepier story than the winner. Taste is subjective, of course, but I found the idea of a teddy bear that smelled like the memories of a dead father more effective than something still living in an underwater village. It ended rather suddenly, enough to make me wonder if the contest had a story length limit in place.

The next story is “The Spots” by Paul Bassett Davies, and is a different story than what I would call “scary”. It’s unnerving, to be sure, in the same way that fascism is. It’s a more realistic look at what scares, and in the current political climate, it’s even relevant. I guess when I think of scary stories, though, I think of horror, and when I think of horror, I think of the supernatural. This is more a cautionary near-future science-fiction story to me.

“The Unpicking” by Michael Button was the best-written of the six stories, even if I didn’t find it to be as effective as the others. It had the best narrative, felt more self-contained than the rest, and seemed like it had the most to say. If I hadn’t figured out how the story was going to end as soon as the possibility entered the story, I might feel differently about it overall.

“La Mort de L’Amant” by Stuart Johnstone reminded me a lot of “The Near Departed” by Richard Matheson, which is both unsurprising (the author mentions Matheson’s influence in his introduction) and positive. I’ve always had a soft spot for that story, as it’s short and effective, right up to the last sentence. Johnstone does a wonderful job with this story, which was written as a response to “avoid clichés like the plague”.

“The Bear Trap” by Neil Hudson concludes the collection, and it’s interesting to note that three of the six stories here feature stuffed animals. Hudson takes a turn into The Stand territory with his story here, since it’s set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, but it’s not a copycat story by any means. It’s a short, sharp punch to the jaw.

This collection is slim — 126 pages, counting the frontispiece, with wide margins and full pages dedicated to the about-the-author and how-King-influenced-me paragraphs that introduce each story. I’m sure the authors are thrilled to be published alongside King’s name, but readers may find themselves wanting more. Certainly, there are other short-story collections at this price point that offer more than this one does.

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The White People

October 27, 2016 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

whiteThe White People by Arthur Machen

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I see a lot of reading lists pop up while browsing the web, and since I’m always looking for a good book, I pay attention to them. One was a list of stories to read if you liked Stranger Things, and since I did (and who didn’t?), I thought I’d check some of them out. “The White People” was one of those stories, and since I haven’t read anything by Machen, I thought this would be a good introduction.

“The White People” is an early weird story, which starts off reading like a philosophical treaty on sin, namely because that’s exactly what it is. Two men discuss the nature of sin, and the conversation leads one of the men to lend him a book he has, written by a sixteen-year-old woman who was drawn in to a world of mystery and mysticism through her nurse. None of what she sees or experiences is named; in fact, as the story enters into the big reveal, it ends, leaving us scrabbling for answers. The narrative evokes an ominous dread, especially as the young woman describes the uneasy reactions of other people to what she sees and tells.

I liked this story, but not because it reminded me of Stranger Things; that link is tenuous, connected only by way of parallel universes. Instead, I liked it for its use of atmosphere and unnameable horror. It evokes an unknown sort of response from the reader, one that’s as nebulous as the horrors that populate it. I understand Machen’s The Great God Pan is another exemplary piece of his work, and I look forward to reading it, as well.

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Dreamsongs

October 14, 2016 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , , )

dreamsongsDreamsongs by George R.R. Martin

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As far as bargain purchases go, Dreamsongs was the second-best one I made in 2016. I signed up for a free three-month trial membership to Audible on Prime Day, and picked this up (retail value: $63.00) for one of the free credits. It’s 52 hours long. In print, it’s over 1200 pages long. Had it not been for my picking up the signed, limited edition of Joe Lansdale’s The Drive-In omnibus for 75% off, this would be the big winner of the year.

I especially like the introductions to each section, where Martin himself tells the history behind the upcoming stories. I’m one of those people who likes to know the behind-the-scenes stuff for most everything (movies, music, books, even Disney rides), so those pieces were enlightening, and right up my alley. It’s kind of remarkable how much detail Martin can remember for each section.

The first section highlights stories he wrote early in his career, when he was still more a fan than a writer. The first story, “Only Kids Are Afraid of the Dark”, is notable because it was Martin’s first published story. Frankly, it shows. Like Gaiman’s “Featherquest”, this story shows us a few flashes of Martin’s style, but is otherwise a pedestrian story. It was written to feature characters that were included in a comic fanzine in the 1960s.

Next is “The Fortress”, a story he wrote for a history assignment in college. It tells the history of a key concession in the history of Finland, and is compelling, if a little heavy-handed in how it presents the facts. As a story, it seems abrupt and anticlimactic, but it has a nice flow, and again you can see the birth of Martin’s style.

“And Death His Legacy” is a story about politics and revolution, anarchy and martyrdom. There are a lot of stories like this out there, and there’s not much to set this one above the others, but it has a good pace, and should keep the reader engaged.

The next section showcases stories he wrote as he was breaking into the field. “The Hero” is the first story, and is about a space soldier who has served his time and wants to return home to Earth. According to Martin, he submitted this story along with his application as a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War, which he believed helped his odds in getting that designation. Reading the story, one can believe it.

The second story is a ghost story titled “The Exit to San Breta”. It’s nothing particularly original, as far as ghost stories go, but it’s set against a futuristic backdrop which gives it a touch of originality. It’s not particularly creepy, but it’s well-written and engaging.

Next was “The Second Kind of Loneliness”, a science fiction/horror story that fits right in with the fiction that was being published in the ’70s. If the two earlier stories didn’t indicate that Martin was coming into his talents, this one certainly did.

The last story in that section was “With Morning Comes Mistfall”, one of Martin’s more famous stories. It’s a poignant story about mystery and fact, environment and urbanization. It speaks to people who enjoy genre fiction, and it also highlights the importance of fiction having something to say. Stories that are just story, or just character are just fine, but when a story can be both of those things and have something to say at the same time, it’s even better.

The third section highlights his earliest science fiction stories, and includes some of his best-know works. The first story, “A Song for Lya”, is a story of love, humanity, and religion, and shows that Martin has been “doing it right” for a long time. This story was originally published in 1974, and still has an emotional resonance and theme that could convince you it was written just this year.

“This Tower of Ashes” follows, and is about relationships and love. It’s an odd story that seems like it would have a nice emotional punch, but it backfires in the way Martin presents the narrator. But maybe we’re not supposed to like him; maybe we’re just supposed to pity him.

The next story is “And Seven Times Never Kill Man”, an ambitious piece about the religion of violence. Colonizers from Earth have adopted a religion that justifies their Ethnocentrism and manifest destiny, treating any other sentient creatures as subhuman, subject to execution for not cooperating. It has the right kind of punch, similar to that of “A Song for Lya”, but its theme is much different. One can feel the frustration coming through the story.

Following that story is “The Stone City”, which follows an abandoned crew in a city populated by fox-people (and many other types of aliens). Most of the story follows the main character as he tries to keep his other crewmates alive, but then it devolves into … something. I listened to the ending twice, and then went and read it for myself, and I’m still not sure what happened at the end of the story. It was like the ending of 2001.

“Bitterblooms” follows, and reads more like a fantasy story than a science fiction story. It’s a gentler story, and like “With Morning Comes Mistfall”, it’s a story about the allure of fantasy over reality. It also has a neat nod to Arthurian legend, and has a fun reversal of the adage about advanced technology and magic. It’s not a favorite from the collection, but I liked some of the things the story did.

“The Way of Cross and Dragon” concludes this section, and shows how long Martin was developing the idea behind A Song of Ice and Fire before he even thought about writing it. He already used the names Robb and Lyanna in “A Song for Lya”, but here he features legends of dragonriders, and I swear I heard the name Arryn, and one that was close to Targaryen, while listening to this story. It’s hard to tell from just listening to it, though; in “The Second Kind of Loneliness”, the story featured a woman named Karen and a station named Charon, and I kept getting them confused.

The next section is devoted to Martin’s fantasy stories, and is remarkably slim compared to the other sections; it’s made up of just three stories. The first, “The Lonely Songs of Laren Dorr”, is about a woman who walks between worlds, and meets up with a gentleman who has been expecting her. It’s a gentle sort of story

The second story, “The Ice Dragon”, almost has a Song of Ice and Fire feel to it, in setting and character. It’s a sad tale of warfare and family, though it’s sad for different reasons than one would expect.

“In the Lost Lands” rounds out the section, and it’s an intriguing look at religion and its purpose. Hint: Martin uses the word “lie” a lot in the story.

The next section is the one I looked forward to the most, since it comprised his horror/sci-fi stories. Unfortunately, it started with “Meathouse Man”, a story that’s as unlikable as its main character, and should come with its own trigger warning. I think Martin was intending to highlight how violence desensitizes people, but I would have liked it had he approached it from a different angle (though I suppose I should feel relieved that the story disgusted me, proving that I’m not yet desensitized).

“Remembering Melody” isn’t quite as visceral as the preceding story, but it’s another tough read due to its unlikable characters. It has a better theme — a burnt-out hippie reunites with an old acquaintance — and is better presented, but it evokes more pity and frustration than the disgust of “Meathouse Man”. It lives up to its genre, though, creating a nice, spooky atmosphere and an ending that should create a shiver or two.

“Sandkings” follows, and is likely Martin’s best known work, outside of A Song of Ice and Fire. There’s a good reason. If you haven’t read it, find it and do so. I’m not going to spoil anything about it here.

The next story is “Nightflyers”, a long piece about paranoia in deep space. I had a hard time following it, due to the number of characters and their interactions, though I blame that on listening to the story as opposed to reading it. I have this in print, as well, and expect to get a better understanding of it when I get around to actually reading it. Something to note is that this story was broken across four chapters, and the second one was of a notably poorer recording quality than the other three.

“The Monkey Treatment” follows, and it’s one of my favorite stories. I’ve never read something as equally horrifying and hilarious as it. I believe this was my first exposure to Martin, and it’s a story that holds up well.

Following that story is “The Pear-Shaped Man”, which won Martin a Bram Stoker award, and is a story I had never read before. I think the story is effective, if a little off-kilter. I find it interesting that Martin uses similar imagery in both this story and “The Monkey Treatment” to evoke horror in the readers and central characters.

The next section highlights Martin’s Haviland Tuf character, who features in the book Tuf Voyaging. The first story in that section is “A Beast for Norn”, a fun story that hearkens back to Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, though with a lighter touch. I had a feeling the story was heading where it wound up, since Tuf seemed to be a more empathetic character than the story led him to be, but it was still a fun read. Er, listen.

The second Tuf story in this section is “Guardians”, a curious story about sentience and co-existence. It wasn’t quite as engaging as “A Beast for Norn”, but it maintained the character of Tuf and kept me wondering. I liked how he used the names of the kittens in the story to symbolize what was happening.

The following section is about Martin’s time in Hollywood, and the introduction gives an overview of how he got involved with it, and how he stayed in it. It also includes two teleplays, which weren’t included in the audiobook. In a way, it makes sense. A straight reading of the script would be dull, but at the same time, a script makes a perfect opportunity for a multi-narrator production. They put sound effects in the Aftermath audiobooks, but they couldn’t do it for two shorter works? I checked out a copy of the book at the library so I could read them.

“The Road Less Traveled” is an episode he wrote when he worked on The Twilight Zone reboot, and it’s moving and effective, though nothing new in the world of fiction. In fact, it read like a truncated version of Time and Chance by Alan Brennert, who also worked on the show.

“Doorways” is the script for the pilot of the show Martin pitched to the networks, which has a lot of similarities to the later show Sliders. Interestingly, he pitched his show to Fox, who didn’t pick it up, though he makes no mention of Sliders in his introduction. The story is engaging, and has a few elements I didn’t expect, though it contains a handful of cliches.

Following that section is one that highlight’s some of Martin’s contributions to the Wild Cards series. The first story, “Shell Games”, is the origin story of one of Martin’s characters, but the books are called mosaic novels, because they’re written by different people, all using each others’ characters. Martin includes a character who was a main character in another author’s story, and I felt like I was missing a lot of his backstory to get a good feel for him. The story is more or less self-contained, but I don’t think it works out of context of the larger work.

“From the Journal of Xavier Desmond” is an interlude story that takes place among the main stories in Aces Abroad, and is a look at prejudice through the eyes of a Joker, which is a superhero with a deformity (the superheroes who still look human are called Aces). It’s also a look at all of the social issues that were prevalent in the 1980s — AIDS, hunger in Africa, and the Ayatollah. Again, I feel like the piece would work better in context with the story that would surround it.

The last section of the book comprises a handful of stories that refuse to fit in one genre or another. In his introduction, Martin talks about how fiction, no matter what the genre, can be boiled down to just being stories. To prove it, he gives us “Under Siege”, a science fiction retelling of the same story he wrote for “The Fortress”, way back in the first section of the book. The changes are substantial, though the beginnings of both are, as near as I could tell, identical.

The next story is “The Skin Trade”, a novella I read once years before. My only memory of it was that it involved werewolves, so this re-read was a nice surprise. It’s a big story, comprising at least four chapters in the audiobook, and it does a good job of combining horror with noir. It alternates between two different characters’ points of view, male and female, so the producers had two different people read the alternating sections. I liked the story and the presentation, though it was unfortunate that a disabled tertiary character was continually described as “crippled”.

“Unsound Variations” is a chess story, which is about as exciting as it sounds. Martin manages to tell a compelling enough story (which isn’t all about chess, but serves as its backdrop), but he populates it with unlikable characters. The antagonist was less a complex character and more a petty shell, and that pettiness brought nothing of value to the story. The message of the story redeems it, and once I got to the end of the story, I realized it was one of the stronger stories in the collection, despite its inauspicious beginning.

“The Glass Flower” follows, and is about a game of minds between a Wisdom, a cyborg, and a third character who didn’t seem all that important to the story. I had a hard time getting into it, namely because it was mostly trying to set a futuristic scene, which seems to be more difficult when someone is reading it aloud. Once events were set in motion, it was easier to follow the story, but it was tough getting into at the beginning. I kept getting lost amid all the description.

“The Hedge Knight”, which at the time of this collection’s publication was previously unpublished, is well-known now as the first of the Dunk and Egg stories set in Westeros. I’ve reviewed this story before, and still like it a great deal. I’ll like pretty much anything that expands on the mythology of Westeros, on principle alone.

“Portraits of His Children” is a darker story, with a hefty theme. It looks at a writer who sees other people’s lives as material, and how it can come back and hurt him as much as it hurts the people he uses for inspiration. The ending makes the reader question what has actually just happened, but not in a good way. The story makes perfect sense until the last paragraph, and now I wonder: What was the point?

This is a tremendous collection of stories, most of which are good, and highlight Martin’s distinctive style. I was surprised at how much Martin seems to tell instead of show, though without losing the impact of his stories. He likes the word “wan” a lot, I noticed, and he sure does like the word “song”: DreamsongsSongs the Dead Men Sing; “A Song for Lya”; A Song of Ice and Fire. Like most collections, the stories are hit or miss, but there are more hits than misses here, and the hits that are here are strong enough to overcome the weaker stories. This is probably a collection best suited for the more hardcore fans, but it’s a good overview of Martin’s career, good and bad.

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The Stones of Muncaster Cathedral

June 29, 2016 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

stonesThe Stones of Muncaster Cathedral by Robert Westall

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After plodding through some of the last few Star Wars books and then tearing through the last few non-Star Wars books (four in less than two weeks), I decided I needed to start mixing things up with my Star Wars reading project. I’d forgotten what it felt like to be helpless to a story, but Cronin and King reminded me that it’s pretty dang awesome. So I’m going to start flip-flopping between projects, reading one Star Wars book and then reading a random book from my backlog. At the very least, it should keep things interesting; at best, it will keep that backlog from getting too big while I finish up the Star Wars books.

The Stones of Muncaster Cathedral isn’t quite a random book. It went on sale through Amazon a few weeks back, and since I enjoyed Michael McDowell’s The Elementals, and since this book has the same publisher, I decided to give it a go. It turns out that it’s a very short book (129 pages), so I made the executive decision to read this one first. I had some slight reservations — Gothic stories tend to take me a bit longer to read, as they require more attention — but they were unfounded. The narrative is modern (the book was originally published in 1991, later than I expected), and the tension in the stories is palpable. Pausing in the middle of the story … well, it isn’t impossible, but it’s not easy.

The book is comprised of two stories, “The Stones of Muncaster Cathedral” and “Brangwyn Gardens”. The first is about a steeplejack, Joe Clarke, a laborer who works in stone high above the ground. Think chimneys and smokestacks and, yes, cathedral towers. He’s accepted a job to repair a tower at the local cathedral, one with an unusual history. Joe finds stone crumbling long before its time, and gets strange feelings whenever he passes a gargoyle high above the ground. Westall gives us plenty of time and space to get as uncomfortable with this place as Joe, and once that’s in place, he starts to give us the tragedy and history of the tower.

Westall excels at creating the atmosphere of the place, imbibing the setting with that uncomfortable feeling and menace most associated with Gothic fiction. He eschews the darkness and claustrophobia, though, instead using the height and isolation of the steeplejacks as the source of that feeling. Joe tells us that steeplejacks are a unique breed, but that once one of them loses his nerve, that’s it. There’s no coming back from it. Of course, when Joe first tells us this bit of information, he’s talking about folks gaining a fear of heights, but we find out as the story progresses that other factors can lead to one losing his nerve.

Of note here is that Westall may not have been a steeplejack in his life, but he’ll make you think he was. I don’t even know if the details he includes in the story are factual, but they may as well be, as genuinely as they feel. Either he did a lot of research, or his insights toward such a job were keen. Either way, it’s convincing.

“Brangwyn Gardens” is a gentler story, but not without its effects. It introduces us to Harry Shaftoe, a college student in the 1950s. He’s a misanthrope, a clearly unlikable fellow, but Westall still manages to make him sympathetic as he gets caught up in the story of a woman whose diary he finds, whom he presumes dead because of the suddenness of the ending of her entries. He’s haunted by her, in mind and in spirit, as he hears voices, finds anachronistic mementos, and discovers other evidence of her trying to break through the divide between them. The story is effective, even if the ending is easy to guess, and somewhat ridiculous.

Regardless, this was my first introduction to Westall, and while I may not rush out to find everything he wrote, I’ll certainly not turn down reading more of his work. His voice is natural and engaging, and he captures atmosphere effortlessly. I’m surprised to see that his fiction was considered juvenile fiction, not only because his choice of language in the two stories suggests he was writing for an older audience, but also because the eeriness of them suggests it, too. Regardless, the stories are effective, and well told, and this collection helps me to trust Valancourt as a publisher.

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The King in Yellow

May 6, 2016 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , , )

yellowThe King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers

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Like most people, my interest in this book went up after watching the first season of True Detective. Unlike most people, I took my time in getting to it, as I downloaded this book two years ago. So (as usual), I’m a little late to this party.

What’s already known about this book is that it’s a collection of ten stories, some of which center around a novelized play titled “The King in Yellow”, which has a reputation for driving its readers insane. It’s also known that Chambers influenced a lot of future Weird fiction writers, including H.P. Lovecraft. With that kind of reputation, it’s hard not to go into this book expecting a lot out of it.

“The Repairer of Reputations” is set in the author’s future (1920), where many advances have been made to improve society. Chambers peppers the story with these advances in a glib, horrifying manner, similar to the way Jonathan Swift did in “A Modest Proposal”. The story introduces us to the play, and the suggestion that it has undue effects on its readers. It also introduces us to Hildred Castaigne, a socialite who has suffered a head injury and is now an eccentric. His situation, along with how his brother responds to him, suggests that his version of events may not be accurate, though it takes a while to catch on to this fact, forcing the reader to question all of what Hildred has told us in this story. It’s an effective piece, even if I was confused in parts of it.

“The Mask” is set in the same world as “The Repairer of Reputations”, and the play makes another appearance in the story. Here, we meet a group of friends, one of whom is a sculptor who has discovered a solution that will turn organic objects into marble, instantly. He demonstrates this with a rose, two goldfish, and a rabbit before it becomes more sinister. The motivations of one of the characters wasn’t that clear to me, though this story’s narrator was more reliable than Hildred, so I don’t think I was being played. Unless the play was part of what made the characters sick, I feel like I missed something.

The next story, “In the Court of the Dragon”, is less clear than the first two stories. The play features again, as the narrator had read it before attending a church service that goes awry. Whether or not what actually transpires is real or just imagined is questionable, and the ending is too vague for me to get a real sense of what was supposed to have happened.

“The Yellow Sign” is the fourth of the interconnected stories, giving us a little more detail about the play. The story is about a young artist and his model, both of whom stumble across the book after they have confessed their attraction to each other. It reminded me a little bit of Thinner, in that once of them has read the book, the other feels obligated to read it, too, so that she won’t suffer her fate alone.

“The Demoiselle d’Ys” isn’t about the play, and doesn’t even seem to be set in the same world as the first four stories. It’s about an American hunter lost in the French woods, and how he stumbles across a family who offers to help him. Like the preceding stories, this one is more than it seems, and Chambers does a great job of building up the atmosphere around the story, giving us small, unsettling details that prevent the reader from relaxing, even if he’ll likely figure out what’s going before the story ends.

“The Prophets’ Paradise” follows, and is less a story than a collection of prose poems. There are eight vignettes that make up this story, and all told the entire piece is about nine pages long.

The following story, “Street of the Four Winds”, is another shorter story, this time about an artist who befriends a stray cat. He discovers the cat’s owner, and returns the cat to her, but what he finds there is, of course, a little unusual. It had an appropriately chilling ending. This marks the first of the last four stories set in France and featuring artists.

“Street of the First Shell” takes us back to the longer stories, as the last three stories in the book make up over half of the book’s length. It doesn’t have anything to do with the nameless horrors of the preceding stories; instead, it’s about the horrors of war. It had an emotional ending, since Chambers focused on the characters surrounding the war, but the descriptions of war felt rather clinical. I wasn’t expecting splatterpunk, but it felt more like a summary of events than anything else.

The next story is “Street of Our Lady of the Fields”, and is about a naive American in Paris who falls for (I believe) a prostitute. It’s a gentle story, out of place against the preceding stories, but it highlights Chambers’ skills at characterization and setting. I wasn’t expecting a story from the 19th Century to feel modern in those aspects, but parts of it felt like it could have come from a story written just this year.

The final story, “Rue Barée”, is another story about artists in Paris, and also about love. It came as no surprise to me as I was doing research to find that Chambers himself studied art in Paris before writing this collection. What did surprise me was the subtle nod to the first story in the collection.

I raced through the first few stories, and then stalled out during the last four. Finally, I made myself finish the collection so I could move on to something else. Chambers definitely had the skills for telling a good story and engaging the reader, and I have an appreciation for him as a writer. I was also surprised at the wit he displayed, as evidenced here:

“… but now let me present you to two of the sights of Paris, Mr. Richard Elliot and Mr. Stanley Rowden.”

The “sights” looked amiable, and took vermouth.

Still, folks coming across this collection based on the otherworldly flavor of True Detectives would be better off skipping the last three stories. They’re good, but they’re lengthy, and have no hint of the weird that readers would be looking for.

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The Bazaar of Bad Dreams

November 18, 2015 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

The Bazaar of Bad DreamsThe Bazaar of Bad Dreams by Stephen King

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Ah, Stephen King. I am one of his Constant Readers. I used to rely on him for great novels and stories, but he’s veered into hit-or-miss territory, with the misses coming more frequently than the hits. King’s last short story collection was like that, but when he did hit it just right (“N.”), it made up for all the other lackluster stories.

King put a small foreword at the start of each story, telling a little about how he came up with the story. I like seeing how different people approach the creative process, so I enjoyed these little behind-the-curtain glimpses.

“Mile 81” — I didn’t re-read this one. I read it earlier this year as an e-book, and thought it was one of King’s more pointless stories. In a short foreword to the collection, King suggests that the stories reprinted here have been changed somewhat, but I thought so little of the first read that I didn’t see the point in subjecting myself to it again. You can read that review here if you’d like.

“Premium Harmony” — King notes in the foreword to this story that it came about after reading a lot of Raymond Chandler. That’s an author I haven’t read, so I can’t speak to how well King imitates that style, but I didn’t see the point to this story. It was perfectly readable (King!), but nothing special.

“Batman and Robin Have an Altercation” — Finally, a story with a point! It wound up being a little too neat and tidy for my tastes, and probably wrapped up too quickly, but it had an interesting narrative. It was sad and poignant.

“The Dune” — This story is reminiscent of old Richard Matheson stories. That’s certainly a good thing, even if King can’t quite reach the summit that Matheson reached so often.

“Bad Little Kid” — It’s interesting how King’s horror has developed over the years. What started with Carrie and The Shining became something a little more cerebral, and less explained. “Bad Little Kid” is a good example of that latter kind of story. It’s very easy to get wrapped up in this jailhouse confessional story.

“A Death” — This is an unassuming story about someone accused of murder. What makes it special, though, is how King clearly and distinctly sets in the Old West without writing about shootouts, saloons, and the Pony Express. His setting skills are deft.

“The Bone Church” — King writes poetry. I sort of forgot about that. Poetry doesn’t do much for me. Despite this one being more narrative than poetry, I still didn’t get a good sense of it.

“Morality” — King released a book five years ago called Blockade Billy. It included a bonus story called “Morality”. Why include a story that’s already been printed in one of your collections? I didn’t re-read this, but I did read and review Blockade Billy several years back.

“Afterlife” — Here we have an interesting look at the afterlife through King’s eyes. I’m not sure that I’d call it thought-provoking, but it was a little humorous to see his take on Purgatory.

“Ur” — This is another story where I’m a little peeved that it’s in the collection at all, since I was under the impression that this was an OMGKINDLEEXCLUSIVE. I read it earlier this year after buying it as an ebook, and didn’t think enough of it to re-read it, despite the fact that it’s been updated to reflect newer technology. You can see my original thoughts about it here, if you choose.

“Herman Wouk Is Still Alive” — The tie to Wouk is tenuous, but two of the characters in the story are poets. Though, the story really isn’t about them. This story is kinda weird. And depressing as hell.

“Under the Weather” — This story, however, is a nice inclusion. It was an additional story included in the paperback printing of Full Dark, No Stars. I don’t like cheap tactics to get folks to buy a book more than once, so being able to read it here is nice. It’s a nice story that hearkens back to what you might find in Skeleton Crew, even if the ending telegraphs itself about four pages from the end.

“Blockade Billy” — See my comments on “Morality”, above. I didn’t re-read this, either.

“Mister Yummy” — King writes a lot about old age. I get it — you write what you know, and he’s in his late sixties, and has survived a pretty near-death experience. Also, this is the second story in this collection to feature Alzheimer’s.

“Tommy” — More poetry. I still don’t get it.

“The Little Green God of Agony” — King channels his own rehabilitation after his accident here, but puts his own little twist on it. It seems to end a little too abruptly, but it was an interesting read.

“That Bus Is Another World” — Most of the stories in this collection feel more like vignettes than actual stories. This is another one. I’m always amazed at how well King can pull the reader in to one of his stories without much visible effort.

“Obits” — This reads a little bit like earlier King, especially “Word Processor of the Gods”. This one isn’t quite as hokey as its predecessor, and it’s certainly darker, but it still doesn’t quite reach what he used to do.

“Drunken Fireworks” — This story, for me, is the big winner of the book. It doesn’t presume to be anything deep or meaningful, but that might be why it works so well. It’s a humorous look at a fireworks battle that goes on for three years, and it has a solid start, middle, and finish, complete with some palpable tension over how it’s going to end. I’m not sure it’s worth the entire collection, but it’s a great story.

“Summer Thunder” — King also has a knack for poignancy, which exists in all of his stories, but is present in some more than others. This is one where it’s much more present.

So, I’m a little bummed that four out of the twenty stories — a full 20% of the stories, and 1/3 of the entire length of the book — were material I’d already read. I wouldn’t feel as ticked about the two e-books if I hadn’t been led to believe that they were e-exclusives, but why he included the stuff that had already been anthologized is beyond me. The writing in the stories is clear and compelling, as always, but there weren’t any stories that made me say, “This is the King I remember.” As I’ve said in previous reviews, you just can’t go back to what you used to do.

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The Black Carousel

June 24, 2015 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

The Black CarouselThe Black Carousel by Charles Grant

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I’ve always been curious as to why Grant dropped the “L.” out of his name later in his career.  You can’t see it on the cover for this edition of the book, but on the print edition you can see that he’s just “Charles Grant” there.  I noticed this on Robert R. McCammon’s I Travel by Night, as well, and wonder what drives that sort of thing.  Too much of a mouthful?  Or are the authors trying to separate their careers using the slightly different names?

With The Black Carousel, Grant wasn’t deviating from anything he had done previously; if anything, he returned to familiar ground.  By the time this collection was originally published, Grant hadn’t written anything about Oxrun Station for six years, and not only did he return to his familiar town, but he also wrote a book comprised of four novellas, like he did with Nightmare Seasons, The Orchard, and Dialing the Wind.  And yet he still left out that “L.”.  Curious.

Anyway, this is another re-read for me, and I was looking forward to this one because I remembered liking this one a lot, even though I didn’t recall many details about any of the stories.  I remembered the feeling I had while reading it, and even recommended the book to some others folks I knew who were into horror.  Plus, the theme of the dark carnival is reminiscent of Ray Bradbury and Something Wicked This Way Comes, so the collection had a lot to live up to just by association.

“Penny Tunes for a Gold Lion”, the first story in the collection, was a little predictable, but effective nonetheless.  The main character wasn’t completely sympathetic due to his being a little pathetic, but still, he wasn’t someone you wanted to see done wrong.  Once things started going down a dark road, though, I could feel the mood of the story change.  That’s another one of Grant’s skills, though — how he can change how you feel about a story with a short turn of phrase.

The second story, “Will You Be Mine?”, is the story I remember the best, because it’s just so chilling.  Grant was an expert at creating genuinely creepy moments, like the one from this story that actually made me shudder.  He didn’t use shock or graphic violence to convey that feeling; he just knew how to create the atmosphere and characters and set the scene to elicit the right response.  And that ending . . . man, he sticks it like an Olympic gymnast.

“Lost in Amber Light”, the third story, was odd in its imagery and its theme, but it used the idea of the carnival to full effect.  It hit a little too close to home for me, for various reasons, which made it even more disturbing, which in turn made the story successful, but I’m not sure it would resonate with other readers with different life experiences.  Regardless, it was an effective story for me.

“The Rain Is Filled with Ghosts Tonight”, the last story, is a melancholy story of ghosts.  Maybe.  It’s also a story about a man dealing with the onset of Alzheimer’s, so it’s hard to say whether the ghosts are real (in the sense of the story) or just old memories.  That question alone makes this story unnerving, which is just the right mood for it, ghosts or otherwise.

I continue to get frustrated with these e-books, too, since little care was put into proofreading them.  It’s clear that these were created by scanning in a printed book, since there are a lot of OCR errors scattered about the book: “dose” instead of “close”; “mom” instead “morn”; and so on.  Plus, paragraphs are created at the wrong place, or aren’t indented properly.  When I pay money for a file, I expect that file to be accurate, you know?  The errors just take me out of the story.

Regardless, this is the best Grant book I’ve read thus far.  I’m glad to see that my memories of this book hold up some twenty years later.  I can see how Grant’s skills developed over time, and how his style developed into something smoother and more accessible, and I’m happy to say that I would still recommend this book to someone looking for “good horror”.

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Dialing the Wind

June 23, 2015 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

Dialing the WindDialing the Wind by Charles L. Grant

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The next volume in Grant’s Oxrun Station novellas series is Dialing the Wind, a collection with an inscrutable title.  The first story in the collection is also called “Dialing the Wind”, and after reading it, you’ll understand the title, but whoever selected this as the title of the book must not have been thinking straight.  It doesn’t really tell you anything about the book, and it’s about as evocative as dry toast.

Each of these collections has had a central theme: Nightmare Seasons was about obsession; The Orchard was about madness; and Dialing the Wind is about alienation.  Each theme is common in the horror genre, and they work well as a framing point for the entire collection.  Each collection also has a framing vignette that bookends the four novellas, each one suggesting that Grant himself lives in Oxrun Station, and is just there to tell the stories.  In a way, I suppose that’s actually true.

The story “Dialing the Wind” is an odd story of a woman whose isolation leads her to receive a radio preacher show on her radio that’s not accessible from other radios.  She runs into another woman who is also receiving the show, and she has let it drive her a little off kilter.  I’m quite sure of the point of this story, to be honest.

The next story, “The Sweetest Kiss”, is about a man who is married with children, but suddenly becomes obsessed with an old girlfriend of his.  His daydreaming conjures her up, and he starts to pursue her again, but in true Grant fashion, she’s not what she appears.  In this story, the alienation is self-prescribed by the main character, but when he chooses to be unfaithful to his wife, he becomes unsympathetic.  I’m not sure if that was Grant’s intent, but the story didn’t engage me because of that.

“As We Promise, Side by Side”, the third story, is about a woman and her house.  She’s a divorcée who received the house in lieu of any alimony, and over the last four years, she’s taken care of it and made it her own.  When her ex-husband threatens to return, the house decides to protect her, but at a cost higher than she expected.  It’s a neat idea, but I felt like the execution was a little lacking, simply due to the lengths the ex-husband went in his revenge; it didn’t feel believable to me.  Plus, the story echoes “The Last and Dreadful Hour”, from The Orchard, only it’s not quite as interesting.

That bring us to the last story, “The Chariot Dark and Low”, where instead of focusing on how alienation brings horror, it uses the theme as the horror.  A young man finds himself suddenly alone in the same town that has always been populated, and it traces how that sudden isolation affects him, and why it happened at all.  It’s a well-told tale, and highlights what makes Grant’s stuff so good when it works.

So, the entire collection is a bit of a mixed bag, but at least one of the stories here is definitely worth reading.  “As We Promise, Side by Side” is an effective story, even if Grant doesn’t quite stick the landing, but “The Chariot Dark and Low” is the real winner here.  Fans of horror — quiet or otherwise — should definitely make an effort to read that one.

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