BOOK REVIEW: The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe

The Complete WorksThe Complete Works by Edgar Allan Poe
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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There are quite a number of volumes entitled “the complete works of Edgar Allan Poe,” or something to that effect. It’s almost always inaccurate, but most include more than the casual Poe fan would enjoy reading. The book I read included Poe’s one novel (some include a partially written 2nd novel,) many of his essays, all of his short stories, and all of his poems (in that order.) Note: I’m not complaining that the book didn’t include every single piece that Poe published. That would include a large amount of literary criticism of writing that has long been forgotten (in most cases, for good reason.) It does include a biographical sketch of Poe’s life and a “History of Horror” essay by an unnamed individual as ancillary matter.

The ideal reader for such a work has an interest in Poe as a person or an interest in literary history (and, particularly, the history of stories of the weird, dark, or surreal.) That isn’t to say that there is no value in reading beyond Poe’s greatest hits (i.e. stories: “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Gold-Bug,”“The Pit and the Pendulum,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” and “The Cask of Amontillado” and poems “The Raven” and “Annabel Lee.”) I found some treasures among the lesser known works (e.g. for story “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether,” for beautiful writing “Landor’s Cottage,” and for insight into Poe as a writer “How to Write a Blackwood Article.”) That said, such “complete” works include pieces that: a. have not aged well; b. are experiments that didn’t turn out spectacularly; or c. beat to death one of Poe’s obsessions (e.g. being buried alive.) This is particularly noticeable regarding his essays, which largely violate item “a.” If you just want to read the very best of Poe’s stories and poems, you can probably find a more selective volume. (Though I would recommend reading his novel.)

Poe only completed one novel, entitled “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket.” It’s my contention that this book would be much more widely known and read if it had a title that was less wordy and more exciting. It’s the gripping tale of a young man who stows away on a ship that suffers a mutinous and ill-fated journey. It can be broken into two parts. The first part, which I found the most intense, covers the period from when the ship launches until it becomes unseaworthy after a storm. The second part takes place after the protagonist is rescued, and the rescue vessel eventually experiences its own dire fate involving crossing paths with indigenous people.

The essays are – as one might expect – the least engrossing part of the book, but there were only eight of them. There is an article on a chess machine hoax and other happenings that might have been quite well received in Poe’s time. There are also some pieces on philosophy and theory of literature that might be of interest to literary historians, but few others. There’s an essay on “Philosophy of Furniture” that I have a hard time imaging was of interest to any one in the past, or in the present, but I could be wrong.

Poe is most well-known for his short stories (even the poem “The Raven” tells a story,) so unsurprisingly this is the biggest section with about 67 stories. Besides his many spectacular macabre and strange tales, Poe is known as the inventor of detective fiction. Poe’s Dupin predates Sherlock Holmes by about a half a century, and the two sleuths are veritable twins – excepting the former is of Paris and the latter from London. It’s not only that Dupin has the whole, “from the flour dust on your cuff I can tell you were near the La Vie en Rose bakery last night at nine o’clock” thing going on, the two stories are told in a similar fashion (Dupin has his own less well-developed Watson to tell his tales and serve as a foil.)

The final section of the edition I read was Poe’s poetry. As was the norm at the time, the poems were rhymed and metered. (Whitman didn’t publish his first edition of “Leaves of Grass” until about six years after Poe died, so “free verse poetry” was still considered a nonsensical oxymoron.) Many of Poe’s poems are intermediate in length, though “Al Aaraaf” is fairly long and there are several that are sonnet length or thereabouts.

Apropos of his time, Poe’s writing can be wordy and needlessly complicated. You’ll find a lot of untranslated quotes that assume any reader will be fluent in French, Latin, and German. I enjoyed reading the “How to Write a Blackwood Article” in part because I learned that Poe’s pretentiousness wasn’t just his preference. In that article, he rails against some of the practices that he uses copiously because it was the only way to get his work published. I don’t necessarily buy that Poe was completely opposed to pretense (he wrote a “Philosophy of Furniture” for heaven’s sake.) He was no Mark Twain. But at least he recognized that greater simplicity was possible ideally, and he was by no means one of the more ponderous or plodding writers of his day.

If you decide to read the complete works, you might want to pay attention to the book’s organization. As I said, the version I read was organized: novel, essays, stories, and poems, and, within each category, alphabetically. I have no problem with the macro-organization (though I would have shunted essays to the back.) However, there are more useful ways to micro-organize than alphabetically (chronologically by publish date, for example.)

I have bizarrely eclectic tastes and interests, and Poe is one of my favorite authors, so I enjoyed this volume immensely and found it well worth reading (enough to read a “Philosophy of Furniture.”) If you just enjoy Poe as a storyteller and weaver of dark tales, you may want a more selective volume.

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BOOK REVIEW: Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang

Stories of Your Life and OthersStories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This collection of eight smart short stories is most well-known for the eponymous story that served as the basis for the movie “Arrival.” The stories are sci-fi, but in the broadest sense of that word. “Speculative fiction” is probably a more apt descriptor. At any rate, the pieces all have nerd appeal and offer philosophical food-for-thought as well as entertaining stories.

1.) “Tower of Babylon:” The Biblical myth re-imagined. What if god didn’t sabotage construction by introducing varying languages and spreading humanity to the four winds? What if, instead, the tower did eventually reach to the heavens?

2.) “Understand:” A man who suffered severe brain damage due to a fall through thin ice, is put on an experimental medicine that begins to stimulate neurogenesis on a massive scale. The protagonist becomes preternaturally intelligent, realizes that such super-intelligence is considered a threat, but is able to keep one step ahead of the ordinary minds who pursue him. That is until he runs into another patient who had a similar accident and treatment. A thinking man’s “Lucy” (referring to the Scarlett Johansson movie), this piece considers the question of how different people would use such a gift, and whether differences could be reconciled.

3.) “Division by Zero:” If a scholar’s life was invested in an idea or way of thinking about the world, but then the scholar proved that that way was in error, might it cause a descent into madness and even a crumbling of one’s world?

4.) “Story of Your Life:” This is the story that the Amy Adams’ movie “Arrival” is based upon. The protagonist is a linguist charged with helping to communicate with a newly arrived alien species that has a very different approach to language. In the process of learning their language and interacting with them, she begins to see the world as they do – time being an illusion. Stories from her daughter’s life, which the lead character has seen in full before conception, are interspersed with the description of her work with the alien language.

5.) “Seventy-Two Letters:” This is a golem story. In this world, names have the power to animate matter and golems can be created. (A Golem is a living being created from inanimate matter; the idea comes from Jewish folklore.) The story ads a layer to the question of what would be created if humans could make a simulacrum of themselves – e.g. Frankenstein’s Monster style – and asks the reader to consider what would be the reaction to the dawn of an era in which the golems might be able to make themselves.

6.) “The Evolution of Human Science:” This is one of the shorter pieces and is also the least story-centric entry. It considers philosophical questions around the development of meta-humans.

7.) “Hell is the Absence of God:” This story is also not as story oriented as most of the others, but it is thought-provoking. It revolves around a support group for people who’ve lost significant others in tragedy and asks one to consider the various approaches to belief in the wake of tragedy.

8.) “Liking What You See: A Documentary:” This clever piece imagines a technology that prevents wearers from being able to recognized beauty (and ugliness as well.) As the subtitle suggests, it’s presented as if it were a documentary that is following a college’s debate over whether to require the student body to use said technology.

I enjoyed this collection of stories. “Understand,” “Stories of Your Life,” and “Seventy-two Letters” are gripping stories, and all eight are thought-provoking and well-written. I’d highly recommend this book for readers of short fiction, particularly speculative fiction.

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Around the World in 6 Myths

6.) Thor & Loki in the Land of Giants (Norse): There’s no shame in putting a mere dent in the impossible.




5.) Rama & Sita (Hindu / from the Ramayana): Careful with your assumptions. You may end up looking like a jerk even if you’ve proven yourself generally virtuous.




4.) Anansi the Trickster (Ghanan / Akan): Don’t do favors for tricksters.




3.) Arachne the Weaver (Greek): Don’t be arrogant, even if you’re the best.




2.) Izanagi & Izanami (Japanese [creation myth]): Hell hath no fury…




1.) White Buffalo Calf Woman (Native American / Lakotan): Don’t let your lust get away from you and be careful in your assumptions.

A Conversation of Mutual Disenchantment

“I remember being born.”

“No. You don’t.”

“How would you know?”

“Well, let’s start from the assumption that you’re human…”

“I’d like to think so, but what are my options?”

“I don’t know. Humans don’t have that neural machinery at birth… So nothing from Earth remembers its birth.”

“And yet, I do.”

“Mightn’t you have cobbled together the scene from your mom’s stories, the family photo album, et cetera?”

“Nah! It’s too detailed. Feels too real.”

“I find your ignorance exhausting.”

“I find your certainty perplexing — not to mention irritating and slap-worthy.”

“Let’s agree to be mutually disenchanted.”

“Agreed.”

POEM: A Khasi Myth: or, Rodent, Lightening, and Sword

In a sacred forest

a Rodent roamed

who owned a sword

it freely loaned.

This was no hacking

machete blade,

but made of metal

of unmatched grade.

One day Lightening

made a request:

To borrow the blade

believed the best.

Lightening zigged,

sliced, and zagged.

Claiming ownership

 in its boastful brags.

The rightful owner

requested its return.

But the rodent’s

plea met only spurn.

So the critter devised

a clever, sensible plan

in order to bridge

the requisite span.

It needed to climb

from Earth to the sky

because it had no

wings with which to fly.

But it wasn’t just wings

which Rodent lacked.

It had only one item

 to be skyward stacked.

So it piled its poop

as high as it could,

from the base of a tree

past the top of the woods.

Stacking and piling, the

poop nearly touched cloud.

When a thunder crack

struck ear-splitting loud.

Lightening saw rodent

would reclaim the sword

that Lightening had come

to so ardently adore.

Down fell the Rodent

to a pile of fried dung

that had once been its

steps and its ladder rungs.

 You may think that

Lightening got its way.

But the Rodent piles

its poop to this very day.

Someday when Lightening

is momentarily distracted,

Rodent’s sword will be

surreptitiously extracted.

BOOK REVIEW: Ruby Slippers, Golden Tears ed. by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling

Ruby Slippers, Golden TearsRuby Slippers, Golden Tears by Ellen Datlow
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

This anthology consists of 22 pieces of short fiction written by 21 authors and connected by the theme of “fairy tales.” These are variations on traditional folk and fairy tales written for adult audiences. Some are more recognizable than others either because they follow the original more or less or because they start with a more or less well-known tale. (Make a note, these aren’t for bedtime reading for the kids– unless you’re willing to shell out for therapy. Some are dark and some deal in adult sexual themes.)

 

“Ruby Slippers” by Susan Wade: A modern, journalistic hearing of the “Wizard of Oz.”

 

“The Beast” by Tanith Lee: What does a woman’s new husband do when he goes out, and where does he go? A variation on the theme of “Beauty and the Beast.”

 

“Masterpiece” by Garry Kilworth: This is a deal-with-the-devil story in which an artist must make a perverse decision between his masterpiece or something else dear.

 

“Summer Wind” by Nancy Kress: This is the first of three pieces that play off the Briar Rose / Sleeping Beauty concept. A prevailing theme is one of making a less passive sleeping princess.

 

“This Century of Sleep or, Briar Rose Beneath the Sea” by Farida S. T. Shapiro: This is one of the few poetic pieces in the anthology. It reconsiders the Briar Rose [Sleeping Beauty] fable.

 

“The Crossing” by Joyce Carol Oates: This is the last of the stories built around Sleeping Beauty. It’s a period piece set neither in ancient times nor the present day.

 

“Roach in Loafers” by Roberta Lannes: This is a humorous retelling of the tale in which the elves come each night and save the over-burdened cobbler.

 

“Naked Little Men” by Michael Cadnum: This time, instead of a cockroach, it’s naked little men that come to do the work.

 

“Brother Bear” by Lisa Goldsmith: Part Goldilocks and part tale of marriage in the animal kingdom.

 

“The Emperor Who Had Never Seen a Dragon” by John Brunner: An arrogant, despicable, and dense Chinese Emperor summons an artist who draws dragons, insisting the artist introduce him to a dragon. This story goes in the “be careful what you wish for” file. It’s among my favorites of this anthology.

 

“Billy Fearless” by Nancy Collins: Another outstanding story. Billy is fearless and he’s suffered for it because his father and others think he doesn’t have any sense. (He’s not the sharpest tool.) But one day he finds himself in a situation in which his fearlessness might work to his advantage.

 

“The Death of Koshchei The Deathless” by Gene Wolfe: This is based on a Russian folk tale of the same name, but shedding the superstitious / supernatural elements to give it a bit of realism.

 

“The Real Princess” by Susan Palwick: The story’s basis is “The Princess and the Pea.” The story is built around a sadistic king of an impoverished kingdom and the “Real Princess” who comes to live with him.

 

“The Huntsman’s Story” by Milbre Burch: The Huntsman from the Snow White fairy tale, but in a brusk style and with a key difference.

 

“After Push Comes to Shove” by Milbre Burch: A poem on the Hansel & Grettel theme.

 

“Hansel & Grettel” by Gahan Wilson: This short story re-imagines the two children not as impoverished waifs but rather as wealthy trust-fund kids who travel the world, ending up at a fancy resort that represents the siblings’ second brush with stumbling into some place that could be bad for them.

 

“Match Girl” by Anne Bishop: A little abused orphan girl finds her fire. This is a prime example of a story not for the kiddies; it’s got a bit of an S&M undertone.

 

“Waking the Prince” by Kathe Koja: This is a variation on “Sleeping Beauty” with an obvious change in gender roles and the modern outlook that comports with said change.

 

“The Fox Wife” by Ellen Steiber: Based on Japanese folklore in which foxes are clever and conniving souls. A samurai’s trophy wife becomes possessed by fox spirit. This was among my favorites. It’s also one of the longer pieces.

 

“The White Road” by Neil Gaiman: A poem based on the English fairy tale of “Mr. Fox.”

 

“The Traveler and the Tale” by Jane Yolen: This one is a bit different. It’s a sci-fi tale that suggests fairy tales are injected into society in order to have some effect on behavior.

 

“The Printer’s Daughter” by Delia Sherman: This is also one of my favorites. It’s a take on the Pinocchio story. What’s fun about this version is that the totem brought to life is made out of proofing sheets. Since the printer mostly prints booklets of bawdy tales and, on the other hand, religious tracts, the girl that comes to life can only speak in two ways: one that would make a sailor blush and the other is quoting scripture.

 

Short story anthologies usually don’t included much in the way of ancillary matter beyond an introduction (and sometimes an epilogue,) but this one has a several pages of recommended reading at the end for those who are interested in learning more about fairy tales and how they come to be translated into modern forms.

 

I’d recommend this book for those interested in fairy tales of a form suitable for adults.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Cat’s Pajamas by Ray Bradbury

The Cat's PajamasThe Cat’s Pajamas by Ray Bradbury
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

This is a collection of 20 short stories by Ray Bradbury written between 1946 and 2004. Bradbury was the master. Besides his imaginative gift for storytelling, he was a torch-bearer for language that was both beautifully crafted and highly readable. Bradbury often used words poetically but without detracting from story. I believe he did so through sparing and careful use. I also appreciate the way Bradbury smoothly moved between genres, and the fact that his stories could have a moral without being moralistic.

I’ll list the stories in this collection with just a few words about each.

 

1.) “Chrysalis”: An unlikely friendship develops. A story about race.

 

2.) “The Island”: The dangers of isolation. Tension skillfully ratcheted up.

 

3.) “Sometime Before the Dawn”: Why does the neighbor cry late at night?

 

4.) “Hail to the Chief”: What if Senators wagered America at an Indian casino?

 

5.) “We’ll Just a CT Natural”: This is one of my favorites, but it doesn’t have a complex story or involve clever sci-fi elements. It’s just a woman waiting for a visit from a man who she used to nanny, but who’s made it big as a writer. Two simple questions keep one glued to this story. Will he show up? If not, how will she handle it?

 

6.) “Olé, Orozco! Siqueiros, Sí!”: This is a commentary on what is art in the modern art scene.

 

7.) “The House”: A couple buys a fixer-upper, but there are mixed feelings between them.

 

8.) “The John Wilkes Booth / Warner Bros / MGM / NBC Funeral Train”: How time travel would spawn a history-entertainment complex.

 

9.) “A Careful Man Dies”: A hemophiliac author who’s writing a tell-all meets his match.

 

10.) “The Cat’s Pajamas”: A couple of lonely cat people vie for ownership of a stray that they happen upon simultaneously.

 

11.) “Triangle”: As in, “love triangle.” A take on the story of X loves Y, but Y is indifferent to X; while Z loves X, but X is indifferent to Z.

 

12.) “The Mafioso Cement-Mixing Machine”: It’s a metaphorical cement mixer, but it’s useful for—as a mobster might say—“takin’ out da trash.”

 

13.) “The Ghosts”: The children are enchanted with them, but their father wants to drive them off. The difference between how children and adults see the natural world, in a nutshell.

 

14.) “Where’s My Hat, What’s the Hurry”: A man goes through his little black book to find a woman more responsive to the “city of love” than his wife has been.

 

15.) “The Transformations”: This is another story about race and walking in the shoes of another.

 

16.) “Sixty-six”: This is a prime example of the genre-fluidity of Bradbury. It’s a murder mystery, but not just a murder mystery.

 

17.) “A Matter of Taste”: Human space explorers travel to a distant world and meet a species that is wise, benevolent, helpful, but they can’t get past the alien’s creepy appearance.

 

18.) “I Get the Blues When it Rains”: The fickle nature of nostalgia.

 

19.) “All My Enemies Are Dead”: A man tries to console a friend who believes it’s time to die upon seeing the obituary of the last of his enemies.

 

20.) “The Completist”: Having everything may include things one doesn’t want.

 

I’d highly recommend this collection for readers of short fiction. While some of the stories are over sixty years old, they’ve aged well.

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BOOK REVIEW: Trigger Warning by Neil Gaiman

Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and DisturbancesTrigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

“Trigger Warning” is a collection of 24 pieces of short fiction and poetry written by Neil Gaiman. If you know what a trigger warning is (I had to look it up) you may be thinking this collection is darker, edgier, and/or more risque than it really is. (For those who don’t want to look it up, a “trigger warning” is a blurb that intimates that a work has words or images that may induce a traumatic reaction.) However, these stories are Gaiman to the core, which means they are humorous, clever, and often quirky; but they are unlikely to throw one into catatonia or an apoplectic fit. The pieces include Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Who stories, spin-offs from Sleeping Beauty and American Gods, as well as a few homages to other authors, including Ray Bradbury, Gene Wolfe, and William Blake.

 

Without further ado, I’ll give a rundown of the included works:

 

1.) “Making a Chair”: This is a poem about writer’s block.

2.) “A Lunar Labyrinth”: An homage to Gene Wolfe’s work, “Solar Labyrinth.” This short story is about a maze that was destroyed, and that wasn’t to be walked on full moon nights.

3.) “The Thing About Cassandra”: This is among my favorite stories in the collection. What happens when your friends and family start bumping into the girl who you made up as a girlfriend back in school?

4.) “Down to a Sunless Sea”: This was written for a water-themed event. It’s about a person riding in a lifeboat down the Thames toward the sea.

5.) “The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains”: This one was inspired by an island off Scotland called Skye, but the story is fantasy with magic elements. A man strikes out in search of revenge and closing, regarding a daughter who he thought had run away. This is one of the most engaging pieces in the collection.

6.) “My Last Landlady”: This is a story, conveyed in poetic form, about a mean landlady.

7.) “Adventure Story”: In the Introduction, Gaiman calls this a companion piece to his novella “The Ocean at the End of the Lane.” However, I didn’t make that connection, (and I’ve read that story.) At any rate, it’s a great story about an intriguing artifact left behind by a [deceased] father whose stories were always painfully dull. It’s told by a mother to a son who is incredulous that his, seemingly milquetoast, father lived through such a fascinating event.

8.) “Orange”: Like several of the pieces in this book, this one is unconventional / experimental. However, it’s creative, and it works. It consists of answers to a questionnaire, from which the reader pieces together the story. One doesn’t have the questions, but most of them are fairly clear from the context of the answer.

9.) “Calendar of Tales”: This is what it sounds like, 12 stories each matched to a month. It’s another of the unconventional and unusual pieces. Each story was spun from a tweet response to a question about a given month of the year.

10.) “The Case of Death and Honey”: Few characters in the public domain have spurred as many offshoot stories as Sherlock Holmes, and this is Gaiman’s entry in the pool. Holmes’s interest in bee-keeping is central to the story.

11.) “The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury”: An homage to Bradbury. If one forgets a person, did they ever exist?

12.) “Jerusalem”: This work was influenced both by a poem by William Blake and a trip the author took to said city. The story is about a couple of tourists and the unique mental illness associated with this locale.

13.) “Click-Clack the Rattlebag”: A scary bedtime story told by a child about a different kind of monster.

14.) “An Invocation of Incuriosity”: A story about one of the strange and colorful people one might meet at a flea market.

15.) “’And Weep, Like Alexander’”: A lighthearted story about an “un-inventor,” one who keeps you from having flying cars and all the other promised technology from sci-fi.

16.) “Nothing O’Clock”: This is a “Doctor Who” story. It’s not necessary to be familiar with the series (necessary backstory is provided), but it could make it more appealing—i.e. the inside joke effect.

17.) “Diamonds and Pearls: A Fairy Tale”: This is from “Who Killed Amanda Palmer?” Palmer is a cabaret-punk singer/songwriter and Gaiman’s wife, and the aforementioned booklet consists of a series of photos of Palmer looking deceased with brief stories to go along. This is one of the stories that could stand alone. It’s a fairy tale of the adults-only variety.

18.) “The Return of the Thin White Duke”: Another fairy tale, this one about a Duke that strikes out on a quest for adventure in order to rescue a Queen who doesn’t need rescuing.

19.) “Feminine Endings”: A story about a human statue—by that I mean one of those people who deck themselves out and stand on a box in the town square in touristy places in many parts of the world.

20.) “Observing the Formalities”: A poem about one who doesn’t get invited.

21.) “The Sleeper and the Spindle”: A take on the story of “Sleeping Beauty,” but from a different point of view.

22.) “Witch Work”: This is another poem. I believe it’s the only one that’s not free verse. It’s about the life of a witch.

23.) “In Relig Odhrain”: This is a true story about a saint, written in free verse.

24.) “Black Dog”: This is a spin-off from the novel “American Gods” and it features that book’s protagonist, Shadow. You don’t need to have read that book, but you might have a greater affinity for the story if you have. It should also be noted that this is the one piece that is original to this collection, and it’s one of the most substantial pieces in the collection. i.e. it gives fans a reason to pick up the book even if they’ve read a lot of it from the original source.

 

I enjoyed this book. Gaiman is a masterful story-teller. Whether it’s one of conventional pieces based in established worlds (e.g. “Doctor Who” or that of Sherlock Holmes) or one of the off-the-wall, experimental pieces, these stories and poems are a pleasure to read.

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BOOK REVIEW: Meeting the Dog Girls by Gay Terry

Meeting the Dog Girls: StoriesMeeting the Dog Girls: Stories by Gay Terry
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Amazon page

This collection consists of 30 pieces of short fiction that might be put in the bucket of speculative fiction. (“Speculative fiction” being defined as existing in a world unlike our own–i.e. sci-fi, horror, strange tales, and fantasy.) The stories are cross-genre, but “tales of the weird” is a common theme. Many of the pieces are too long for flash but on the short side of short story, though there are also a number that are of typical short story length.

It’s a mixed bag not only in terms of genre, but also in terms of the appeal. There were a few stories that I enjoyed, others that I didn’t care for, and—worst of all–a number that were utterly forgettable. Besides the strangeness, there’s another quality that might be called “quirky humor” that sparkles here and there throughout the collection.

Among the pieces that I found most interesting and readable were: “Spirit Gobs,” “Barbara Hutton Toujours,” “On Orly’s Border,” “Icon,” and “Meeting the Dog Girls.”

There’s a mini Tai Chi theme running across a couple of pieces, so I dig that.

If you enjoy tales of the strange and you can pick this book up at a good price, you just might like it.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Monstrous edited by Ellen Datlow

The MonstrousThe Monstrous by Ellen Datlow
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Release Date: October 27, 2015

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This is a story anthology offering tales of monsters—just not your everyday monsters. In her Introduction, Editor Ellen Datlow said her solicitation for stories asked for “unusual monster stories.” She wanted neither “human monsters” (i.e. no pedophiles or serial killers) nor was she interested in your classic Transylvanian Count Dracula. With this book’s 20 stories, the authors succeed in meeting Datlow’s request—in several cases spectacularly. Some of the stories are chilling, others are creepy, and two are even humorous, but all feature monsters that are out of the ordinary, or—at least—the monsters are in extraordinary situations.

Without further ado, I’ll offer a brief synopsis of, and comments on, the stories in this anthology:

1.) A Natural History of Autumn by Jeffery Ford: Set in Japan, a salaryman takes a girl-next-door escort to a remote onsen (thermal springs bathhouse and inn.) Neither of the main characters is what they seem, and, therein, lies the story’s appeal.

2.) Ashputtle by Peter Straub: A beloved kindergarten teacher describes her life and experience of the disappearance of a bright student. This story comes closest to violating the “no human monsters” proviso, but it creates a character so intriguing that you don’t necessarily care.

3.) Giants of the Earth by Dale Bailey: Miners stumble onto something unexpected deep within the Earth. This wasn’t one of the more engaging or memorable works, though it does have an intriguing premise.

4.) The Beginning of the Year without Summer by Caitlín R. Kiernan: A professor and a young, female townie chat by lakeside, and also a discovered book is returned. This is one of two southern gothic pieces, and is more engaging for the conversation between the intelligent professor and a more “common” young woman than for monstrous or supernatural elements.

5.) A Wish from a Bone by Gemma Files: An archeological team in a war zone stumble into more than they signed up for. Like a terrestrial Aliens movie with Sumerian evil spirits in lieu of aliens.

6.) The Last Clean, Bright Summer by Livia Llewellyn: A teenaged girl in a dystopian future travels with her parents to the sea for a rite of passage of an unexpected and haunting variety. This is one of the most visceral entries, and the author captures the teenage voice to great effect. This is in my top five stories from the anthology.

7.) The Totals by Adam-Troy Castro: A get-together between monsters to discuss quarterly figures and give out performance awards. This is one of the humor-oriented pieces—though not to the extent of the Monsters animated movies. The two humor pieces (the other being How I Met the Ghoul) offer two different angles on monster humor. This piece is set in a monstrous world, but juxtaposed against that eeriness is the work-a-day feature of a staff meeting. (The other story is set in our world—or at least a very mundane world reminiscent of ours—and draws its humor from the introduction of the monster into the midst in a very banal environment.)

8.) The Chill Clutch of the Unseen by Kim Newman: The last monster killer waits for the last monster to steam into town. This is one of the entries with a wild west feel to it. A common approach in this collection is to create unusual monster stories by putting monsters that may or may not be usual (in this case they aren’t) into settings and across from characters that one wouldn’t expect to see them.

9.) Down Among the Dead Men by Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois: A man discovers that his best friend in a Nazi concentration camp is a vampire. Referring to the previous entry (i.e. the Kim Newman story), this is an example of a typical monster (a vampire) given new life by placing it in a context that one would least expect to find it—a concentration camp. This was also one of my top five from this collection.

10.) Catching Flies by Carole Johnstone: A girl and her baby brother are removed from a household (by a DFACS-like entity) after their mother dies from mysterious causes. I mentioned a story done in the voice of a teenager. This is one of a few entries written in the voice of a child—which is very apropos for an anthology about monsters.

11.) Our Turn Too Will One Day Come by Brian Hodge: A man is called in the middle of the night, and asked to come and bring a shovel—which is, needless to say, never a good situation. The monsters, while fascinatingly described and unique, are almost superfluous to this story. The monsters appear only at the end, and it would be a highly readable story without them—though it would be in the wrong collection sans the monsters.

12.) Grindstone by Stephen Graham Jones: A man who’s been shot up is fleeing from something across desolate territory. This is the other entry with a very Western feel to it. This is also one of the shortest entries of the batch.

13.) Doll Hands by Adam L. G. Nevill: Set in a dystopian future, a laborer in a luxury building takes matters into his own (doll-like) hands when he can no longer accept the atrocities the super-wealthy patrons of the building are perpetrating. One of the great features of this story is that it creates visual imagery that one isn’t sure whether to take literally or just descriptively. For example, the lead baddie is an old, rich woman who’s described in avian terms. It’s clear that something has gone terribly wrong in this world, though there is strategic ambiguity as to what. This is in my top five.

14.) How I Met the Ghoul by Sofia Samatar: A reporter conducts an interview with a ghoul in an airport lounge. This is the other story that is more comedy than horror. The comedy is born of putting the monstrous creature in a mundane setting during a workaday interview. It’s not even the kind of hard-hitting story that a well-known journalist would take on, but more like a cub reporter doing a human interest featurette.

15.) Jenny Come to Play by Terry Dowling: A former Siamese twin, separated from her twin as a teenager, admits herself into a psychiatric hospital where her psychiatrist tries to separate fact from fiction and the twisted imaginings of insanity from reality. These Siamese twins shared no common organs, just muscle, and were ideal candidates for separation as infants. However, their father kept them conjoined (and much worse) so that they could be the main attraction in his cabinet of curiosities. Not only is this story in my top five, I’d have to call it my favorite of the bunch. It reminds me a little of the work of the novelist team Preston and Child at their best. It has the same combination of creepiness and dark foreboding, while keeping one in the dark as to what imaginable events have actually transpired.

16.) Miss Ill-kept Runt by Glen Hirshberg: A family drives through the night to go to stay with family as if fleeing an ill-defined threat. This is another of the stories done in a child’s voice and perspective, and it captures that voice well.

17.) Chasing Sunset by A.C. Wise: A young man flees across country in an attempt to escape a demonic father who is after his body. This story offers the most impressive use of language. It’s one of the most enjoyable pieces to read, and, while it didn’t quite make my top five, it definitely gets honorable mention.

18.) The Monster Makers by Steve Rasnic Tem: A grandfather teaches his grandkids the family magic of being able to make others turn into monsters. In a way this seems like a thinly-veiled allegory for how grandparents turn children into “monsters,” but it’s entertaining nonetheless.

19.) Piano Man by Christopher Fowler: A travel writer doing a story on New Orleans gets caught up in a local voodoo turf war. This is another Southern Gothic piece with post-Katrina New Orleans as the setting—with all its tragic, macabre undertones.

20.) Corpsemouth by John Langan: An American visits his ancestral home and old world family in Scotland and discovers that the “gibberish” last message of his dying father actually had a rather spectacular meaning. This story rounds out my top five. I found it to be engaging, highly readable, and with an intriguing premise.

This anthology is thrilling and readable, and I’d recommend it to anyone who wants to read about unusual monsters.

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