BOOK REVIEW: Human Is? by Philip K. Dick

Human Is?: A Philip K. Dick Reader (Gollancz S.F.)Human Is?: A Philip K. Dick Reader by Philip K. Dick
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is a collection of 20 of Philip K. Dick’s short stories written between 1952 and 1973 that explore what it means to be human. Dick waxed philosophical on the question enough that a large collection could be assembled that examines humanity from many fascinating angles. While the age of these stories (and their Cold War taint) might make them seem obsolete, there is more than one way in which this collection is extremely relevant today.

First, artificial intelligence (AI) seems to be on everybody’s mind of late, and several of these stories feature machine intelligence as a means to understand what makes a human in a world in which there are other intelligent entities (in a similar vein, alien intelligence is also considered.) Second, Dick also asks us to consider the reality of a fictitious character who is alive in the minds of many and who might have more impact on the world than any living being. In our current phase of the information age, in which merchants of [dis-]information are becoming adroit at manipulating information and misinformation for their own desired effect, this seems a more crucial question than ever. Finally, there remains the age-old unresolved question of whether there is some x-factor beyond biology (i.e. a soul) that separates humanity from other forms of intelligence. While this is an old question, the fact that most people still believe there is a “soul” (by whatever name it’s called), even if most scientifically-minded people don’t see any reason to think so, means that it will continue to be a question with potential societal ramifications.

A sub-theme across these stories is the Cold War undercurrent of anxiety that the world could be turned into a dystopian wasteland at any moment. (In most of the stories, it already has been.) Again, if one can look past the references to the Soviet Union being cast as foe in many of the stories, one will find that the stories and the emotional zeitgeist aren’t as faded as they might at first seem.

The stories include some that movie-goers unfamiliar with Dick’s writing will know from Hollywood cinema (e.g. “Second Variety” (movie title: “Screamers,”) “Paycheck” (an eponymous film with Ben Affleck,) “Adjustment Team” (movie: “The Adjustment Bureau,”) and “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” (i.e. both “Total Recall” movies.) But it also includes some deep cuts and lesser known stories.

1.) Beyond Lies The Wub: The crew of a ship is divided over whether to make an intelligent alien a prisoner or dinner.

2.) The Defenders: Owing to high radiation in the wake of nuclear war, humans are living underground, leaving the war-fighting to AI machines. A group of military men make an expedition to the surface only to get a big surprise.

3.) Roog: A dog is more than the family pet they think him to be, it’s secretly a guardian against the Roog.

4.) Second Variety: The Cold War went hot and the US built AI metallic creatures to fight the Soviets. The problem arises when these intelligent machines developed their own ideas, building androids because a robot that looked human could get into the midst of humans for better killing. The Soviets – after taking heavy losses – discover from serial number placards on androids that variety 1 is a wounded soldier and variety 3 is an orphan boy, begging the question of what is the Second Variety? When Americans end up among the last survivors, the question becomes essential for them as well.

5.) Impostor: Police take a man into custody who they believe to be an android with a dead human’s consciousness loaded into it, along with a bomb that could do tremendous damage. Of course, the man thinks they’ve got it all wrong.

6.) The Preserving Machine: A scientist builds a machine to preserve music, which he believes is at risk of being lost to future generations, but ultimately he learns that life always adapts and changes in unanticipated ways.

7.) The Variable Man: In a world in which decisions are made based on statistical models, the decision to go to war is in gridlock because the odds of winning stay close to 50/50. When a man from the future with a gift for repairing devices shows up, he upsets the apple cart by making the models unstable.

8.) Paycheck: A gifted engineer gets his memory wiped as part of a deal with a huge firm so that he cannot disclose any secrets about the top-secret high-tech project he was working on. He’s irked to find out that before his memory was wiped he asked for an envelope full of odds and ends in lieu of his lucrative paycheck. However, after being picked up by police, he soon realizes that the junk in the envelope was actually a well-thought out collection of useful items – if he can figure out how to use them.

9.) Adjustment Team: In a world in which a heavy hand has to periodically make major societal adjustments without people knowing, one man unwittingly becomes witness to these secret machinations. (Like “Paycheck,” the movie uses Dick’s concept without sharing the same character details and story details. However, I’d say “Paycheck” is closer to the story than is this one. However, it’s worth reading both because neither is exactly like the movie.)

10.) The Father-Thing: What if aliens could take over the consciousness of a loved one? How soon would one recognize the difference, if your father looked just like your father, but his behavior became a bit… off?

11.) Foster, You’re Dead: The “Keeping Up with the Joneses” mentality is a central theme in this story. A son wants one of the latest high-tech bomb shelters both because of Cold War anxiety, because it would be cool for a boy to have a subterranean lair, and because would be a prestige signal. The dad, however, is reluctant to get caught up in keeping up with the Joneses.

12.) Human Is: A scientist, who happens to be married to a woman who finds him cold and distant, is body-snatched while he’s away on assignment on a different world. His wife is the first to recognize her husband has been replaced, but does she want the original back?

13.) The Mold of Yancy: This story is about a soft dystopia, but instead of Huxley’s vision of people being plied with drugs and free and easy sex, these subjects are kept docile by the folksy wisdom of a beloved character who’s a complete fiction (unbeknownst to everyone.) Everybody wants their kids to grow up in the mold of the great war hero, Yancy. [Note: Even with all the AI stories, this may be the most apropos for today’s world, information used to manipulate people’s behavior without any threat of force.]

14.) If There Were No Benny Cemoli: Like “The Mold of Yancy” this story explores the question of what it means to be human by considering the fictitious person as a societal touchstone. If you can make people believe in a person who isn’t, and to change their behavior accordingly, what have you created?

15.) The Days of Perky Pat: In a post-apocalyptic wasteland, people are passionately into playing a game which revolves around a character named “Perky Pat.” In a way, she is a surrogate for who they were before war transformed the world. What will happen when they expand out to play members of a neighboring enclave who have a similar “Connie Companion” game?

16.) Oh, to be a Blobel: In a war against an alien race, a former spy was genetically altered to appear like the enemy species. After the war is over, he discovers that he can’t be stably turned back to human form. He will revert to the amorphous form of a Blobel for several hours per day, and stressors risk causing spontaneous transformation. As he will never be able to be married and have children with a human woman – who would have him – a solution is suggested whereby he will marry a former Blobel spy who turns into a human form for several hours per day.

17.) We Can Remember It for You Wholesale: A white-collar worker, Douglas Quail, who wants to go to Mars, decides to go to a memory-implant clinic that can provide him with a vivid detailed memory of a vacation to Mars. But when they try to implant said memory, it’s discovered that he isn’t who he – or the company — thought.

18.) The Electric Ant: A man who thought he was human finds out that he’s actually an android. The identity crisis that follows causes him to contemplate suicide.

19.) A Little Something for Us Tempunauts: There’s an accident with the first American crew of time-travelers, putting them into a closed time loop (i.e. like the movie “Groundhog Day.”) The question of the meaning of life in this story revolves around the unclear question of whether the tempunauts are alive or dead.

20.) Pre-Persons: In a future dystopia, abortion isn’t only legal; the age until which it can be carried out has been extended to 12. There are forces in society who rail against the government doctrine that a soul is attained precisely on one’s twelfth birthday, but that minority is considered to be the lunatic fringe.

This is an exceptional collection of stories, offering plenty to consider about the meaning of being human. Dick takes on the questions from several angles with a level of creativity only he could. I’d highly recommend this book for readers of science fiction or those who enjoy philosophical fiction.

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BOOK REVIEW: Mad Country by Samrat Upadhyay

Mad CountryMad Country by Samrat Upadhyay
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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I’ve recently started reading at least one work of literature from each country I visit, and I picked this book up in Nepal as a first take on that country through the lens of literature. I couldn’t be happier with my selection. This book provided exactly what I was looking for in such a book, and more. What I want from such a book is insight into culture, lifestyle, and politico-historical context that can be difficult to witness through travel. Traveling a new country is like dating a new person; one doesn’t see the rough edges for some time. (Usually the relationship – in either case — is over before one sees into the murky depths.)

Over the course of eight stories, Upadhyay not only gives one insight into the nature of life for a variety of Nepalis (e.g. rich, poor, and middle class as well as young / progressive v.) older / conservative), he also shows the life of a hippie ex-pat gone native as well as presenting the worldview of a Nepali abroad (i.e. in America for college.) Where this book exceeded my expectations was in the skilfulness of tension-building employed in the stories. Often a book that achieves the aforementioned objectives does so in a way that is flat on story because it takes the character-centric orientation common in literary fiction. These stories are gripping as well as insightful, and don’t abandon story for character. It dances a beautiful line in that regard.

The first of eight stories tells of the trials and tribulations of an editor of a hard-hitting journalistic magazine, and the dual challenges she faces in taking on a corrupt regime while at the same time she has a friend who is going through a messy breakup. However the editor juggles these competing demands, we know she won’t escape some guilt of failing someone important to her.

The second story is about a rich boy whose life is tormented by the fact that his mother abandoned him and his father and moved on to form a new family. The boy takes to impersonating a beggar, secretly hoping his mother will see him and will be shocked into change. The story is also about the young man’s wake up call to the fact that he’ll never have the killer instincts bred by necessity into those less fortunate that are arrayed against him.

The third story is about “the Sharmas,” a dysfunctional Nepali nuclear family in which the mother is pure shrew, the father is trying fumblingly to have an affair, the son is a dim-wit, and the daughter is dating a young man who everybody seems to think is out of her league.

The fourth story is about a girl in the early 1980’s Kathmandu who goes from the drug-addled life of a Freak Street hippie to going full native. Here we see what draws the foreigner to Nepal and to Nepalese people, as well as how attempts to escape into another culture can be as troubled as attempts to escape into drug-induced euphoria.

The fifth story is by far the longest and might be classed as a novella. It’s about a young man who becomes obsessed with an African girl that he rescues in Kathmandu. The piece has a very dream-like quality to it, and through much of the story one is left unclear as to what is real and what is the product of the lead’s mind. In fact, the title “Dreaming of Ghana” suggests this imagined state of affairs.

The sixth story is the shortest, and – as its title suggests – it’s about an “Affair before the Earthquake.” The story evokes the emotion of world events that cleanly bisect our lives.

The eponymously titled penultimate chapter follows a wealthy and powerful woman who is “disappeared” by a corrupt authoritarian regime when she tries to look into the similar disappearance of her son. It’s a fascinating tale about a prominent real estate developer who is disabused of the notion that she is too powerful to be man-handled by the State. We see her transformation as a prisoner as the wind is taken out of her sails until one wonders whether she would ever be able to cope in her old life after being cowed by prison life.

The last story, like the fourth, turns things upside-down a bit. In it we find a Nepali student abroad who finds himself out in the cold because of his strong views on race. He discovers he’s at odds with the other foreign students because he thinks they should be more outraged about the bias displayed against them. He identifies with the plight of blacks, but they don’t see him as one of them.

This is an intense little collection of stories and I’d highly recommend it. The stories are well-crafted and keep the reader intrigued.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Finger by William S Burroughs

The FingerThe Finger by William S Burroughs
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This is book #25 in Penguin’s “Modern” series. These short books (less than 100 pages) feature short works (poems, short stories, essays, speeches, and even a novella or two) from 20th century luminaries. In this case, the book consists of six short stories by the Beat Generation writer William S. Burroughs, who’s most famous for his novel “Naked Lunch” and for his affinity for heroin. I mention the latter not to besmirch Burroughs’ character, but because drug use (and the vices that sometimes travel hand-in-hand) is a fixture in Burroughs’ writing, and this collection is no exception.

Many, if not all, of these stories are in the same fictional universe, as suggested by repeated characters and locations — most notably the junky William Lee of “Naked Lunch” fame. [These stories were previously published in a collection entitled, “Interzone,” and the titular piece had an even earlier first publication in the book, “Early Routines.”] However, the stories are all stand-alone pieces and a couple of them show no evidence of being related. The one’s that do share common features don’t tell an overarching tale.

The six stories are:

1.) “The Finger”: An addict, Lee, cuts off his own finger (just the top joint) and is surprised by the reaction it incurs.

2.) “Driving Lesson”: An individual with no experience driving is asked to take the wheel, and given some bad advice to boot.

3.) “The Junky’s Christmas”: The spirit of Christmas overcomes an addict’s yearnings.

4.) “Lee and the Boys”: Lee and his various [non-sexual] interactions with young male prostitutes.

5.) “In the Café Central”: This isn’t so much a story as sketches of the various meetups simultaneously transpiring at a café. There is a table with: a.) a guide and a tourist, b.) a German expat and the annoying gossip who he uniquely tolerates, c.) a beautiful woman with bad teeth who is a wee bit sensitive about them.

6.) “Dream of the Penal Colony”: This hazy, little story is part a dream of being in a penal colony and part slurry of reality and the hallucinations of drug-addled drifter.

I enjoyed this little collection and would recommend it for someone who wants to sample Burroughs before diving into one of his novels. While the first story may have gotten the title role by virtue of its bizarre subject matter, I’d argue that “The Junky’s Christmas” is narratively the strongest. It’s not too hard to follow these pieces despite the fact that the stories virtually all feature unreliable narration by virtue of being told through the eyes of someone in the grips of substance abuse. Burroughs presents that mix of reality and drug-distorted world-view vividly and intelligibly. That said, if you’re expecting the world through sober eyes, you’re in the wrong place.

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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

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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

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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: Nightmares ed. by Ellen Datlow

Nightmares: A New Decade of Modern HorrorNightmares: A New Decade of Modern Horror by Ellen Datlow
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is an anthology of 24 horror short stories. Horror is a simplification; there are several cross-genre pieces (e.g. dark sci-fi, dark historical fiction, tales of the weird, etc.) as well as stories that have a realistic—but dark—tone. However, it’s all fiction linked by a visceral darkness.

These stories have all been previously published in various magazines or collections, and they were all written during the decade between 2005 and 2015.

1.) “Shallaballah” by Mark Samuels: A celebrity awakens in a hospital after a drunken crash that necessitated reconstructive surgery. It slowly dawns on him that the clinic isn’t what it seemed. This is an intriguing and distinctive tale.

2.) “Sob in the Silence” by Gene Wolfe: A horror writer has the family of an old friend to his house. He tells them that it’s the “least haunted house in the Midwest,” despite a gruesome history that suggests a place where evil comes to play. This was among my favorites. The horror writer character is well-developed.

3.) “Our Turn Too Will One Day Come” by Brian Hodge: It’s never good when someone calls you in the middle of the night and asks you to bring a shovel. But sometimes it’s even worse than expected. I’ve read this one before. It’s a great premise and an engaging story. This anthology includes both stories that feel like they are realistically set in the world we know, as well as speculative fiction pieces. This feels like the former, but makes a shift.

4.) “Dead Sea Fruit” by Kaaron Warren: There’s a myth among anorexics of the Ash Mouth Man, whose kiss robs its victims of the ability to taste pleasant flavors. A dentist of a different ilk takes up with this mythical man. I’d place this one more as a tale of the weird than horror, but it’s on the dark side of that sub-genre. It’s well-written.

5.) “Closet Dreams” by Lisa Tuttle: An abduction and abuse victim tells her story of being locked in a closet, but no one believes the part about her fantastic escape. This is a gritty and evocative piece.

6.) “Spectral Evidence” by Gemma Files: This is an unconventional approach to story. The information content is conveyed by way of a file from a parapsychology institute after a coroner’s inquest of a psychic medium’s death proves inconclusive. I sometimes like this approach. Reading through a file fills a kind of voyeuristic pleasure, and offers the challenge of piecing together events oneself. This story was solid, but not my favorite of the bunch.

7.) “Hushabye” by Simon Bestwick: A man out walking in the middle of the night stumbles onto the scene of a young girl under attack. Strangely, there seems to be a metallic substance pouring between the girl’s mouth and that of her attacker. This is crime fiction with a supernatural twist.

8.) “Very Low-Flying Aircraft” by Nicholas Royle: A Royal Air Force air crew in Zanzibar shows off for some ladies with dire consequences. This one is in the realist vein. It feels like a story one might be told in a bar by a particularly gifted storytelling veteran.

9.) “The Goosle” by Margo Lanagan: This tale seems to take place in the Hansel and Gretel universe. An unsavory merchant of the illicit woos a witch, and, surprisingly, it doesn’t work out as he’d hoped. This is a compelling story in the dark fairy tale sub-genre.

10.) “The Clay Party” by Steve Duffy: This one has a 19th century vibe, not only because that’s when it’s set, but because it’s conveyed through documentation as was a popular approach of the era. In this case it’s a newspaper’s reprinting of the diary of an individual from an ill-fated cross-continental convoy. (i.e. “Clay Party” as in Donner Party.) The diary approach worked well, being both easy to follow and having an authentic feel.

11.) “Strappado” by Laird Barron: Two hip and cosmopolitan lovers attend the performance art event of an artist deemed trendy and edgy by the in-crowd. The performance doesn’t work out for everybody. This was evocative, and was, perhaps, a cautionary tale about being too up for trendy and edgy activities.

12.) “Lonegan’s Luck” by Stephen Graham Jones: A snake-oil salesman knows something that the locals don’t, and it’s not about the efficacy of his product. This is another of my favorites. It’s a Western with a supernatural twist.

13.) “Mr Pigsny” by Reggie Oliver: A Professor with some mobster relatives attends the funeral of one such gangster. The Professor is willed a Ming vase that he’d once admired, but ends up tangled up in the dealings between the deceased and a mysterious “spiritualist.” The spiritualist, Mr. Pigsny, is masterfully portrayed as both a quiet professional and spine-tinglingly creepy.

14.) “At Night, When the Demons Come” by Ray Cluley: A big, strong man and a little girl meet, and team up with, a party of four survivors in a demon-infested dystopian wasteland. Whether the odd pairing are truly allies, or, if not, what type of threat they present is not as was expected and made for a thought-provoking piece. I found this tale to be clever, and it revealed an unexpected theme.

15.) “Was She Wicked? Was She Good?” by M. Rickert: A little girl makes enemies by cruelly dispensing with little forest creatures–fairies, perhaps. Her parents debate what they should do to stave off the wrath of their neighbors of another species. The title says it all. This is one of those stories that tactically reveal information to keep the reader wondering.

16.) “The Shallows” by John Langan: It’s not so easy for me to describe this story. There’s a lot going on. It’s what I’d call busy. The part of the story that resonated with me was about a stray dog that a family adopts only to have its (apparently-negligent) owner come and retrieve it. This was among my least favorite entries, but it was solidly written.

17.) “Little Pig” by Anna Taborska: A newly-wed man waits at Heathrow airport for the grandmother of his Polish wife. That present-day event brackets a flashback from the grandmother’s youth that helps to explain what seems like inexplicable old-world behavior. This is one of the shortest pieces, but it’s an endearing tale–even with the dark events of the flashback.

18.) “Omphalos” by Livia Llewellyn: This is an intense story about a family of four who go on a vacation that’s a sham. The mom and dad pretend they are taking the kids to Canada in their RV only to detour into remote parts of the Pacific Northwest. The depravity quotient of this family is high. Much of the story is brutally realistic, but there is a supernatural element with regards maps, which appear to be marked up differently to each member of the family. The maps play an important role in the unfolding of the story. This story is well-written and gripping, but, unlike the bulk of the works herein, it’s not PG-13.

19.) “How We Escaped Our Certain Fate” by Dan Chaon: This is the story of a father and son living in a zombie apocalypse-ish—after the mother died. That may make this sound like one of the more derivative stories in the bunch, but the author creates a unique zombie “apocalypse.” This isn’t the dark and gritty world of Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road.” Here, the zombies are more of an inconvenience—like wild animals that get into one’s garden–rather than a swarming threat to life and limb. This is both an interesting take on the sub-genre, and an intriguing commentary on humanity.

20.) “That Tiny Flutter of the Heart I Used to Call Love” by Robert Shearman: A girl requires the execution of her dolls from both her brother and later her new husband. She says she cannot love them fully as long as the dolls are there taking in her love. Creepy, that’s the word for this one. It has a lower body count (of living things) than many of the stories, and yet it’s as disturbing as they come.

21.) “Interstate Love Song” by Caitlin R. Keirnan: A couple of homicidal girls pick up a hitchhiker as they ride cross-country. There are some interspersed flashbacks that show that this isn’t their first rodeo, but, still, it doesn’t go like the others. This is a page-turner.

22.) “Shay Corsham Worsted” by Garth Nix: Wouldn’t it suck to die because the post-Cold War bureaucracy didn’t have institutional memory of one of its doomsday technologies—especially one that lived next door? This is one of my favorites. Besides the fear factor, this story has a dry humor that I found amusing. Like a few of the others, this story manages to make a commentary without detracting from its entertainment value.

23.) “The Atlas of Hell” by Nathan Ballingrud: A bookstore owner / occultist who used to work for a crime boss is strong-armed back into the life. What he stumbles into is even worse than he expected, but he makes a decision that will dramatically change his life. This was also an engaging story as well as a strong entrant in the anthology.

24.) “Ambitious Boys Like You” by Richard Kadrey: A couple of burglars badly overestimate the ease of robbing an old man and what will come of it. It starts out a bit like a creepy version of “Home Alone”–with an old man instead of an eight-year-old, but then takes a turn into territory darker than Wild Bill of “Silence of the Lambs” fame.

This is a strong collection. There are several stories that have that cinematic quality that make for gripping reading. There weren’t any pieces that I didn’t at all care for, and there were several that hooked me.

I’d recommend this collection for those who like dark fiction.

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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

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“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 Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories by Ernest Hemingway

The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other StoriesThe Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories by Ernest Hemingway
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

This book collects ten pieces of short fiction penned by Hemingway. Each of them is a stand-alone short story; though there’s indication that they all take place in the same universe. Notably, the character Nick Adams recurs in four of the stories (“Fathers and Sons,” “In Another Country,” “The Killers,” and “A Way You’ll Never Be.”)

The first and last stories present intriguing similarities that make them interesting bookends to the collection. The first, and eponymous, story—“The Snows of Kilimanjaro”—follows the last hours of a man who is dying of gangrene from an infected wound he sustained on Mount Kilimanjaro. The dialogue pits a wife in denial against the man who seems resigned to the inevitability of his death. The last story, “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” is also set in Africa and features a man and wife whose adventure goes awry. In this case the story begins with the man having been emasculated when he bolted in the face of a charging lion, and all in front of his harpy-esque wife. Francis Macomber manages to redeem himself only in the last seconds of his life.

Besides the aforementioned book-ending stories, among the most substantial and well-developed stories in the book include: “The Gambler, the Nun, and the Radio,” “The Killers,” and “Fifty Grand.” The first of these is about a gambler put in the hospital by a disgruntled competitor and the happenings in the hospital while he is on the ward. “The Killers” is about two hitmen who venture into a small town diner looking for a boxer who apparently owes someone money or decided not to take a dive. “Fifty Grand” is about an aging boxer who bets against himself (and will probably soon be in the same boat as the boxer in “The Killers.”)

There are a couple of stories that feel fragmentary, including: “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” and “A Day’s Wait.”

This collection features the usual elements of Hemingway fiction, e.g. punchy and spare prose, artfully constructed dialogue, tales of manliness and inadequacy. It’s a short readable book of only about 150 pages.

The stories included are:

1.) The Snows of Kilimanjaro
2.) A Clean, Well-lighted Place
3.) A Day’s Weight
4.) The Gambler, the Nun, and the Radio
5.) Fathers and Sons
6.) In Another Country
7.) The Killers
8.) A Way You’ll Never Be
9.) Fifty Grand
10.) The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber

I’d recommend this for readers of short fiction who haven’t gotten around to it yet.

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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

Amazon page

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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