BOOK REVIEW: The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury

The Illustrated ManThe Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is a collection of 18 science fiction short stories by Ray Bradbury, featuring: space travel, androids, time travel, and alien invasions. However, many of the stories use science-fiction – space travel most extensively — to investigate down-to-earth subjects such as: religion, marital relationships, war, and race relations. The fact that the collection deals in everyday subject matter allows it to retain its relevancy. The sci-fi is definitely dated, from the fact that “Martian” is used as a synonym for alien to the Cold War themes, but the stories are still worth reading because they are well-crafted and continue to be thought-provoking.

The stories of this collection are integrated by the titular story. The Illustrated Man is a character who had his body covered in tattoos to continue his employment with the carnival, but the witch who tattooed him made shape-shifting images that told stories. The story of “The Illustrated Man” is the last in the collection, but there’s a prologue that sets it up. It’s not a novel-in-stories, however, as the stories aren’t connected — other than being collected into a universe of this character’s flesh. The end of several stories feature a quick reference to the Illustrated Man narrative arc, but generally there’s no other connective tissue to the stories.

Here is a brief overview of the stories:

“The Veldt”: spoiled kids are given access to a technology that goes one step beyond virtual reality to what might be called mentally constructed reality. They create an African savanna, and things go awry.

“Kaleidoscope”: An accident causes astronauts to be scattered into space, not dying immediately, but knowing the limited resources of their spacesuits will not last long. This is among the more popular stories in the collection.

“The Other Foot”: A white man is forced to take refuge on a planet that minorities had long-ago been relocated to, because now a war has made the Earth uninhabitable. The story deals with the tension between those who are willing to welcome him and those who think he should be treated as they once were.

“The Highway”: A man living and working near a desolate stretch of highway meets a rare visitor who tells him that war is upon them. One of the Cold War end-of-the-world scenario stories.

“The Man”: The Captain of a spaceship is disappointed to find that none of the locals come to see them when they land. Little does he know, they were just visited by a Messianic figure the day before. The tension is between the non-believing, skeptical Captain and one of his men who is a true believer. A commentary on faith and belief.

“The Long Rain”: Space explorers are demoralized by the unceasing rain on a planet they are exploring, a rain that threatens to send them into madness.

“The Rocket Man”: The son of a space traveler wants to follow in his father’s footsteps, but doesn’t know how hazardous a life it is.

“The Last Night of the World”: This story asks one to contemplate what if one knew it was the last night before doomsday. Another Cold War-era sci-fi piece that hinges on atomic apocalypse.

“The Exiles”: A crew of space explorers is falling to inexplicable illness. This story has a great deal of literary allusion with Ambrose Bierce, Edgar Allan Poe, and Charles Dickens each playing a part. Like Bradbury’s most famous novel, the story considers the issue of censorship.

“No Particular Night or Morning”: This story considers the question of how one knows anything is true. It does so through the lens of a spaceship crewman afflicted with solipsistic delusions – or so his crew-mates assume.

“The Fox and the Forest”: In this time travel story, a couple has escaped a dystopian future into Mexico, circa 1938, but the authorities of their time don’t intend to let them get away.

“The Visitor”: The story of a man with powerful psychic abilities who is coveted by competing factions.

“The Concrete Mixer”: A Martian pacifist is forced to participate in an invasion of Earth, only to find that it is an ill-advised endeavor for reasons entirely different from he’d thought. The story revolves around the centrality of materialism and consumerism in American culture.

“Marionettes, Inc.”: One man gets a look-alike android to cope with a wife who hates him, and another gets one to contend with a wife who is smotheringly needy.

“The City”: Explorers find that the abandoned city they’ve been sent to explore isn’t as free of sentience as they’d thought.

“Zero Hour”: Alien invaders find an unexpected ally in the impressionable youth.

“The Rocket”: A man wants his family to see the stars, but lacks the resources to make the dream come true. So, he gets creative.

“The Illustrated Man”: As referenced above, this story tells the tale of carnival tattoo’d man whose body-art mysteriously tells stories through its images, with special focus on two special designs.

I’ve never found a Bradbury work I didn’t like, and this one is no exception. The writing is beautiful. The story-telling is skillful, and, even when the sci-fi details are dated, there are themes that remain relevant. I’d highly recommend this collection for readers of sci-fi, particularly those who like classic sci-fi.

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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

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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: Iron Man: Civil War by Brian Michael Bendis et. al.

Civil War: Iron ManCivil War: Iron Man by Brian Michael Bendis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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With the “Captain America: Civil War” movie set to come out this year, one would have to be living under a rock to be unfamiliar with the basic premise of the Civil War story line. (Not that the movie will—or even can—follow the comic books exactly. But the gist is the same.” The government passes a Registration Act that would require superheroes to be registered, regulated, and trained. This splits the Marvel universe of heroes into two battling factions. (In the movies, it’s just the Avengers, but the comics include members of the Fantastic Four, X-men, etc.) One side, led by Tony Stark—a.k.a. Iron Man, supports the Registration Act. The other side, led by Steve Rogers—a.k.a. Captain America, staunchly opposes the new law. The four issues collected here offer insight into the mind of Tony Stark.

The four issues in this collection are: “Civil War: The Confession #1,” “Iron Man #13,” “Iron Man #14,” and “Iron Man / Captain America: Casualties of War #1.” Putting the issues in this order contributes to the somber tone of the storyline, as the chronological end of the events is put up front in the form of Stark’s confession. The start is a little like the very beginning of “Saving Private Ryan” (before the battle scene begins.) As with “Saving Private Ryan,” this opening does little to detract from the story and in fact builds immediate intrigue.

This isn’t the most action packed collection, but it is an emotional story line. Tony Stark is serious, somber, and sober (in both senses of the word.) This isn’t the cocky, witty playboy philanthropist one associates with Iron Man. It’s a man whose convictions are forcing him to fight his friends and comrades in arms. The irony of the situation is that Stark is certain the Registration Act is necessary because of people like him. In other words, if everybody was like his friend-turned-enemy Steve Rogers (i.e. a pinnacle of virtue) then the Act would be unnecessary.

There is some awkward expositional dialogue / monologuing in this book—a common problem among serial comic books. However, overall the story is engaging. If you want battle scenes, you may be disappointed, but this book makes one sympathize with Stark—even if you’ve previously thought him an arrogant douche.

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BOOK REVIEW: I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream by Harlan Ellison

I Have No Mouth and I Must ScreamI Have No Mouth and I Must Scream by Harlan Ellison

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This collection of short fiction by Harlan Ellison consists of only seven stories. It was originally published in the late 1960’s and a second edition was released in 1983—the latter being the edition I read. Despite a bit of Cold War zeitgeist–most notably in the title story—this collection holds up well to time.

I’ll proceed by discussing each of the seven stories.

1.) I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream: It’s after World War III, the Soviets, Americans, and Chinese had built artificial intelligences (AIs) to help prosecute the war. The AIs ganged up against humanity and exterminated all humans—excepting five individuals (4 men and 1 woman.) The AI finds a way to indefinitely extend the lives of the five so that it can keep its playthings around. The AI is kind of like a sadistic child with an ant farm. The story is told from the perspective of one of the five remaining humans.

2.) Big Sam Was My Friend: A folksy narrator tells the tale of how a fellow interstellar circus performer met his ends. The deceased, Big Sam, was capable of teleportation, like the character Nightcrawler (Kurt Wagner) in the X-men. Ellison does an excellent job of creating a unique character and tone in this story.

3.) Eyes of Dust: On a planet of beautiful people, there remains a family of uggos–and the child is the ugliest of all. However, ugliness isn’t the boy’s only unique trait. This is one of the weaker stories of the collection in my opinion, but it’s not bad.

4.) World of The Myth: The three-person crew of a spaceship crashes on an unfamiliar planet. The planet is inhabited by ant-like creatures that can form complex shapes, and through such displays the creatures can reflect the essence of who a person is back at them. This proves more than the despicable captain of the small crew can bear.

5.) Lonelyache: This story is more realism than speculative fiction—or at least I interpreted it that way. It’s about a guy who’s gone through a divorce recently, and is living alone. The story intersperses recurringly-themed dreams in which men are trying to kill the lead character, with waking sequences which revolve around the man’s troubled relationships with women.

6.) Delusion For a Dragon Slayer: In the Introduction, we are told by Theodore Sturgeon that the description in this story is very much how people on hallucinogens experience the world. I can see what Sturgeon is saying. The story begins with a series of vignettes about people who died for no logical reason and at the least likely times. The story then tells an extended tale of one such death, that of the lead character, in a way that mixes dream and reality in a way that’s hard to differentiate.

7.) Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes: A man in Las Vegas hits the jackpot on a slot machine. He feels compelled to engage in the very sucker-like behavior of playing the same machine again, but he wins again and then keeps winning. The casino obviously suspects foul play with the second jackpot, but they can’t find anything wrong with the machine or any way in which the man might be cheating. All their investigation reveals is that a woman had died playing that machine some time before.

I’d recommend this book for those who like short speculative fiction. The best of the stories are outstanding, and the worst of them are still intriguing and readable. I will say that it’s not a collection for readers with delicate sensibilities–including young readers. (e.g. Rape is a theme that repeats in a couple of stories.)

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BOOK REVIEW: Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

NeverwhereNeverwhere by Neil Gaiman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Neverwhere taps into a reader’s imagination and the fantasy that beyond closed doors and locked grates, beyond the prying eyes of common men, lies something magical—not just the mundane sewers and conduits our rational mind tells us exist there. This magical world is “London Below,” and–to a lesser extent–rooftop London. It’s a world that exists below the workaday London that we know. It’s a London of angels and cutthroats, witches and warriors. It’s a London trapped in time, but unconstrained by the laws of physics or men as we know them.

The lead character is Richard Mayhew, a perfectly normal resident of London Above. He has a fine—if boring—job in the business world, and a fiancé isn’t right for him, but who he believes is close enough for an imperfect world by virtue of her being pretty, smart, and capable.

Mayhew is living an ordinary and comfortable life until he and his girlfriend come across an injured young woman on the street. While his fiancé, Jessica, steps over the girl because the couple are on their way to meet Jessica’s VIP boss, Richard refuses to leave the girl. The injured girl is a resident of London Below, and had collapsed to the sidewalk after escaping from the two London Below master assassins who killed her family. It turns out the girl, Door, is from a family whose magical gift is the ability to open doors—even doors that are locked, sealed, or that no one even recognizes the existence of. As no good deed goes unpunished, Richard’s assistance of Door pulls him into the world of London Below, and he soon finds that he’s almost invisible to the residents of London Above and that he’s been forgotten by Jessica, his friends, and his coworkers.

The rest of the book is a hero’s quest in which Door is trying to discover who ordered the assassination of her family and why, and Richard is trying to find out whether (and, if so, how) he can get back his life in London Above. Because the fates of Richard and Door are intertwined, they travel together along with a bodyguard named Hunter and a Marquis / conman in the debt of Door’s father named the Marquis de Carabas.

I enjoyed this book immensely. It’s highly readable and the reader will be drawn to the fate of the characters. It has that page-turner quality. I’d highly recommend this book for anyone who reads fantasy / speculative fiction–or who doesn’t but is willing to give it a try.

Neil Gaiman is, as always, the master storyteller. When the story calls for humor, it is genuinely funny. When it’s time to be scary, it creates shivers. The storytelling was good enough that I was willing to overlook an ending that—in less capable hands—would have felt flat and too easy.

I didn’t realize that Neverwhere was based on a BBC miniseries. In other words, for a change the book is based on the movie rather than the other way round. However, the book does concisely but vividly portray setting—a task that one might imagine being easier having gone in this developmental direction. And, of course, setting is extremely important in this book. The distinct feel of London Below, London Above, and Rooftop London must be conveyed.

Here is a link to a piece of said BBC miniseries:

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BOOK REVIEW: Futureland by Walter Mosley

FuturelandFutureland by Walter Mosley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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As suggested by the subtitle, this is a collection of nine short stories about a dystopian world. What makes it a particularly intriguing read is that the stories take place in one world, and the events all exist within a greater context that could qualify the book as a loosely plotted novel had the writer not defined it as a story collection.

Some characters recur in different stories. For the most part the recurring characters are cameo appearances (e.g. Folio Johnson, a detective and the lead in one story, commiserates at a bar in another). However, the character of Ptolemy “Popo” Bent is a critical character in both the first and penultimate chapters.

Race and politics aren’t subtle in this book. Given the [sad] proclivity of American readers to only read / enjoy politically charged works with which they agree (unless the book in question is making fun of the opposition), it’s safe to say that—on the whole–those at the left-end of the political spectrum will find this book more palatable and on-point and those to the right-end will find it unbelievable and overbearing in its message.

Having said that, I’m of the persuasion that finds Mosley’s dystopian vision strains credulity, and yet I thoroughly enjoyed this collection of stories. This book’s dystopia is characterized by global domination by a corporation and a religion called the “Infochurch,” both led by the same man. The corporate control of the world storyline is a little hard to swallow. A monopoly can’t enslave people (or even enforce its monopoly status) unless it has a monopoly on force, and it’s hard to imagine a path by which a private business gets the people to give them a monopoly on force. That being said, Mosley’s stories are engrossing, creative, and readable.

The nine stories are as follows:

1.) Whispers in the Dark (6 Chapters): A man makes the ultimate sacrifice to help nurture a brilliant child’s special gift.

2.) The Greatest (9 Chapters): A female boxer becomes the world champion while seeking to help her father, whose addition to a drug called Pulse has left him in dire health. (The father’s story, Voices, appears later in the collection.)

3.) Dr. Kismet (4 Chapters): The man who is, for all intents and purposes, Emperor of the World tries to co-opt the co-chair of the 6th Radical Congress—a leading member of his opposition.

4.) Angel’s Island (5 Chapters): A hacker, sent to prison for Antisocial Behavior, has a device called a snake-pack installed that can control him by administration of drugs and shocks. But the ultimate hacker might not be the most easily controlled using technology.

5.) Electric Eye (4 Chapters): Folio Johnson, a private eye with an electronic eye, is hired to find out why young International Socialists are dropping dead left and right. Johnson learns that any hardware, even his eye, can be hacked.

6.) Voices (8 Chapters): Professor Jones, father of the female boxer from The Greatest, undergoes a transplant of neural matter to repair damage from his Pulse addition. After having dreams and memories that are not his own, Jones discovers that his treatment is not all that it seemed.

7.) Little Brother (3 Chapters): Frendon Blythe is on trial before a computer that acts as both judge and prosecutor. He pleads his own case, and finds he was a pawn.

8.) En Masse (12 Chapters): A worker gets sent to a new division only to find that it’s nothing like his previous divisions. Instead of strict rules, GEE-PRO-9 has no rules. He wonders if it might be a test by the management. It turns out that it is a test–just not of the type he imagined.

9.) The Nig in Me (6 Chapters): After a plot to destroy certain races backfires, a surviving man finds himself missing those with whom he was closest.

There’re no stinkers among these stories. They are all intriguing and readable, but a few of them stood out as being particularly good. These were: Whispers in the Dark, Angel’s Island, Voices, and En Masse.

I’d recommend this for readers of soft science fiction.

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BOOK REVIEW: Cabinet of Curiosities by Preston & Child

The Cabinet of Curiosities (Pendergast, #3)The Cabinet of Curiosities by Douglas Preston

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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Cabinet of Curiosities features many of the hallmarks of a Preston and Child novel. First, the lead is FBI Agent Pendergast. Special Agent Pendergast has three things that no FBI Special Agent in the history of the FBI has ever had: 1.) a fortune, 2.) the ability to pick and choose both his assignments and the jurisdiction he works in, and 3.) about 200 vacation days a year to learn things like ikebana and to read random scholarly publications in disparate fields such that he is an expert on the known Universe.

Regardless of the incredulity his character may inspire, Pendergast is a fascinating character. He has a New Orleans accent and an almost albino complexion, which intrigues–and puts him outside the New York / Chicago/ LA nexus in which cop fiction frequently gets stuck. (Don’t worry; the NYPD quota is still met.) Furthermore, his encyclopedic knowledge of everything allows him to constantly get the better of any and all unlikable characters in the book—and, in these books, you are either likable or loathable. It also features other Preston & Child familiars, including Nora Kelly and William Smithback Jr.

Second, it features the supernatural, preternatural, or at least the appearance of the aforementioned. This is all part of a dark and mysterious tone they have down to an art. This goes back to their first book Relic.

Third, one of the likable characters gets killed off.

The title, Cabinet of Curiosities, refers to collections of natural anomalies that were all the rage in the 19th century, and which served as mini museums of natural history. These cabinets (sometimes also called “wonder rooms”) might feature genuine exhibits, fakes, or some combinations thereof.

The novel begins with Agent Pendergast seeking Nora Kelly’s expertise to assist him in investigating a 19th century mass murder. The remains of the deceased were found in a building that’s being torn down to put up a high-rise, but it used to be the basement of a cabinet of curiosities.

We don’t get any clue as to why an active duty FBI agent would take an interest in 19th century murders until late in the book. [Of course, we never find out why Pendergast is allowed to investigate it.] I’ll leave it to readers to determine whether the ultimate explanation makes any sense or not. Needless to say, the murder and mayhem come to the present day over the course of the novel.

While I might sound down on both this book and the series, I’ve read seven of the books jointly authored by Preston and Child (and one or two from each as solo authors.) It’s, therefore, unreasonable to say that I dislike their work. However, I will say that I didn’t like this one as much as some others (e.g. Relic and Still Life with Crows.) I’m not entirely certain whether this one was just not as good, or whether I’ve become a bit jaded from over exposure to their formula. (Maybe doing so many book reviews of late has made me over analytical, and commercial fiction—like popular movies—are easy pickin’s for criticism.)

That said, I have three major criticisms of this book:

First, there’s a critical happening that requires someone so brilliant (yet unknown and working solo) that they could invented a technology in the 19th century that modern scientists couldn’t even fathom duplicating. This is sort of a common theme in some steampunk works (e.g. the Will Smith Wild, Wild West movie). However, steampunk creates its own world, distinct from the world as we know it. I can buy some kinds of “lost knowledge” lines, such as the idea that some plant-based medicinal compounds have been lost due to deforestation and loss of the experience of native peoples (this was the premise in Preston’s solo work, The Codex). However, in Cabinet of Curiosities there is a scientific discovery critical to this novel which is of a complex nature. It’s impossible to believe that it could be done by someone without modern equipment or access to the vast scientific literature of the intervening century.

Second, while I don’t want to sound like someone who poo-poos cross-genre novels, there’s a problem with this book not knowing whether it’s a mystery/thriller or supernatural/horror. In general, I love cross-genre work. However, a thriller needs some sort of realism to pull us in and mysteries call for some sort of rules or the game. If anything can happen (or if we don’t know the rules of what can happen) it’s a bit unsatisfying to try to noodle out whodunit.

Third, the reveal of the villain seems a bit forced. It’s not quite Scooby-Doo because they create several despicable characters to choose from—and not just one grumpy old man who you know is going to be the guy. However, it seems a little like they rolled dice to determine which detestable character would be the villain. In retrospect one can find foreshadowing, but no more for the actual villain then for the others one might suspect.

If you’re willing to suspend a truckload of credulity this is a good read for beaches, airports, and trains. The authors know how to pique your interest and build tension. It’s not their smartest book, but it’s a fast and fun read.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Color of Magic by Terry Prachett

The Color of Magic (Discworld, #1)The Color of Magic by Terry Pratchett

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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The Color of Magic is a hero’s journey tale done in comedic fashion. It’s the first book in Prachett’s disc world series. An incompetent wizard, Rincewind, becomes the guide to a goofy but wealthy tourist named Twoflower. However, as it happens the events that confront these two on their journey are part of a game being played between gods. I loved the humor, liked the story, but wasn’t a fan of the organization of the book.

I should admit up front that fantasy is–hands down–my least favorite genre, and I can’t say that view didn’t jaundice my perception of this book. However, it’s a testament to Pratchett’s humor and readability that I continued reading it.

What is my beef with fantasy in general? First, once one introduces magic, how does one maintain tension in an environment in which anything can happen effortlessly? Obviously, fantasy fans find plenty of tension to keep them reading, but I just don’t get it personally. I know that one retort is that the same could be said of other speculative fiction genres. To the degree that is true, I also don’t care for those other genres so much either. However, sci-fi (for example) has a basis for constraints that can be widely agreed upon. Second, the appeal of feudal society for setting perplexes me. I guess there is a certain romance to these periods for fans (perhaps because they imagine themselves in the statistically-unlikely role of king or knight as opposed to the much more likely position of serfdom, but whatever), but I see this type of society as backward and unsustainable (a ten millennia old kingdom maybe possible in a world of magic, but not in a world as we know it.)

I know fantasy fans will be able to come up with examples of how their favorite authors avoid both of the pet peeves mentioned. In truth, Pratchett does a good job of negating these pitfalls. With respect to the magic problem, he makes the protagonist wizard really inept and, therefore, easily in situations over his head. Simply put, he makes his lead weak relative to those confronting him. With respect to the setting issue, Pratchett creates an entirely different kind of world, the disc world. This is not Charlemagne’s Europe with wizards.

Prachett is often compared to Douglas Adams. In fact, if you Google “the Douglas Adams of fantasy,” you are sure to pull sites pertaining to Pratchett. One can see the same type of absurdist humor in Prachett’s work. Here’s a compilation of a few of my favorite lines:

“Being Ymor’s right-hand man was like being gently flogged to death with scented bootlaces.”

“No, what he didn’t like about heroes was that they were usually suicidally gloomy when sober and homicidally insane when drunk.”

“Yah. I outnumber you one to two.”

“He wondered what kind of life it would be, having to keep swimming all the time to stay exactly in the same place. Pretty similar to his own, he decided.”

“But the captain had long ago decided that he would, on the whole, prefer to achieve immortality by not dying.”

“Your affected air of craven cowardness does not fool me.”

Pratchett appeals to the downtrodden in all of us. This can best be gleaned from the tale of Goldeneyes Silverhand Dactylos. Dactylos is a superb craftsman who is blinded, has his hand cut off, and suffers ever greater indignities because the Emir wants him to never again produce anything as lovely. It’s like the myth about Shah Jahan having the hands cut off Taj Mahal craftsman, except Pratchett’s Emir keeps asking the same man of increasing handicaps back to construct ever greater marvels of engineering.

The book is arranged in just four chapters. This is a bit of an oddity for commercial fiction, and I don’t really care for the sparse employment of breaking points in this book. Again, if I was enough of a fan of fantasy to read this in a single sitting (or even a few sittings) I would likely not find this to be an issue. However, I read it over time and interspersed with many other books (a lot of which were more captivating to me personally.) This might seem like a ridiculously nit-picky point, but for those of us who have a lot of reading up in the air at once, being able to readily put a book down and pick it up seamlessly later without losing the story is of great benefit.

If you like humor, this book will appeal to you. If you like fantasy, I suspect you’ll doubly like it–as long as you have a sense of humor. If you don’t like either, this book will not be for you.

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How to Kill a Rogue Yard Gnome, Part 3 of 4

Part I can be read here.

Part II can be read here.

[Notes: a.) Sorry, I meant to do this in three installments, but this one was getting long.  

b.) For the best reading experience, assume all of the continuity gaffes in the dream sequence are on purpose and intended to convey the capricious and surreal nature of a dream—most of them are ; ) .]

Attribution: Colibri1968

Attribution: Colibri1968

I cringed when I heard my voice on tape. I always thought I sounded sexier, less like Ferris Bueller’s teacher. But what brought on the nausea was hearing me describing events of which I had no recollection. It was difficult to fathom that such drama could unfold in my dreams without me having any memory of it.

I should take a step back to say that I’d sought therapy immediately after returning home to find the scowling gnome. It was a decision made after a sleepless night. I didn’t dare destroy the scowling gnome for fear I’d end up with a glowering golem in my front yard when I next came home.

Logically, I recognized two possibilities. The first was that someone was playing an elaborate hoax upon me. I couldn’t figure out how, but this was what I wanted to be true. But watching the tape repetitively had given me no clue about how the trick could be perpetrated. The vanishing gnome and the self-propelled gnome were tricks worthy of David Copperfield. The second possibility was that I was out of my mind— but in a manner that was localized to my front yard. That was equally hard to explain. The therapist was my attempt to explore all options, but I didn’t tell her the details.

My therapist said hypnosis would be a good idea, presumably because she’d just gotten her hypnotherapy license and needed the registration fee to pay for itself. As you might suspect, I was skeptical. Lying on a brown leather divan, fingering the brass upholstering rivets along its edge, I listened to fantastic words spew from my own voice as she played the tape back for me.

I’m standing in front of a mammoth mansion made of rough, gray stones. It looks like a castle—like something out of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. It’s dark out, but yet I can see. It’s as if the moon is shining bright, but yet it’s dismally overcast. So much so that I feel like I could jump up and touch the thick, gray clouds. I’m staring at an ornate carving on the door. It’s an elaborate mountain scene. How can I see it? There’s no porch light. Something is wrong here.

I don’t want to go inside, but inexplicably I know I have to. I hear bleating and cowbells. Turning around, I see a herd of goats strolling up the drive. I’m curious about the goats for a moment before a T-rex-like monster darts its head out of the tree line and clenches one of the goats in its jaws. The T-rex’s teeth puncture the goat like a bite into a wonton, and the beast shakes its head from side to side until the goat stops thrashing. I want to save the other goats, but even more so I don’t want to be eaten.

I watch the T-rex; he doesn’t seem to notice me; his chin is covered in crimson. The T-rex looks at the flock of goats like one might look at a box of sampler chocolates, searching out the most desirable morsel. He raises his head, sniffing the air, twisting his thick neck to point his face toward me, and then he begins to run at breakneck speed towards me. I realize that I am the last solid milk chocolate in a field of dark chocolate-covered marzipan.

I spin around and, losing all sight of politeness, begin to twist frantically at the doorknob. The cold, metal knob cuts into my palm, but doesn’t budge. I pound on the door with my fists.

“One moment, Sir.” A voice replies dully from inside. How he knows I am a sir, I don’t know.

“Help me. Please hurry.” I’m too scared to turn and look at the lurching beast, but I hear its footsteps getting closer as the tremors they create run together. I shake the door knob frantically, but the door doesn’t so much as rattle— it’s like a solid piece of wall.

I shut my eyes. I’m sure that the T-rex is now within lunging distance, and in a nanosecond I will feel agony followed by whatever lies beyond agony. I tense up, awaiting my demise. The tremor of a loud thud reverberates up through my feet. I stand there a minute in shock before realizing that all is silent.

I turn around to see the T-rex lying on its side, a gash torn through its throat. There’s a man, a knight, cleaning a large broadsword with a piece of cloth. He discards to cloth and it disappears into thin air. The knight wears chainmail armor under a tunic that has a red and green crest on the chest. I can’t make out the detail in the crest, though I’m looking right at it. It’s as if it has been pixilated, like news stations do to faces when they are talking to an endangered witness or basic cable does with boobies in movies.

“Thank you.” I say, adding, “Who are you?”

“I… I am your protector.” The knight says, looking himself over as though he were surprised to see that he is dressed thusly.

“Do I still need protection?”

“Probably. That remains to be seen.”

The door opens, and I find myself loomed over by a man who is tall, gaunt, and sallow. His black coat has tails like maestros, but there’s a small towel draped over one arm. I conclude that he’s a butler. I turn around to look for my protector, the knight, but he’s not there. Neither is the T-rex.

I turn back, almost surprised to see that the butler hasn’t abandoned me. He speaks, “Right this way, they are waiting for you.” He makes an ushering gesture with his hand as he steps aside inside the foyer.

I eagerly enter, still afraid the wounded T-rex might be around the corner. I start to ask a question, but pause when I realize that the servant’s unusual gait is due to the fact that he is stepping over vipers that are slithering across the rough stone floor. I can hear their hissing, but it doesn’t seem I should be able to.  

I stop, petrified, but the butler turns and waves me forward with what I recognize as uncharacteristic urgency. I walk onward slowly and with great care. I step over the black, shiny snakes, and they seem to take no notice of me. When I finally reach a snake-free patch of floor, I look around. The ceilings are high, and the windows are about two stories up. The moonlight breaking through the windows illuminates a row of gargoyles. I stare at them. I’ve never seen gargoyles on the inside of a building.

As I walk, looking upward, I suddenly feel a panic attack as it occurs to me that I might step on an errant snake. Just as I level my gaze, I run straight into the butler, who has come to a stop. Dust flies off his coat, which had earlier seemed impeccably clean.

“Pardon.” I say.

He glowers at me.

I ask, “Who’s waiting for me?”

He turns and walks silently onward. I can’t tell whether he is hostile or indifferent.

We walk past rusty suits of armor, each with a halberd, pike, or battle-axe positioned beside it as if it were being held upright. It occurs to me that there might be men in those suits, men who could swing those implements of death at will.  I moved closer to the giant butler.

Soon we are at the head of a stone staircase that spirals downward. It’s lit with flickering gas lamps. As we descend, it gets darker and the mustiness becomes more pungent. At the bottom of the staircase, I’m ushered through a large oaken door that is shaped like an inverted heraldic shield, which is to say flat on the bottom and coming to a point at the top. The butler leads me up onto a stage.

I look out into the auditorium and see the room is packed, but every audience member is wearing a goat’s head mask. It’s only then that I feel the cold air on my skin and notice that I’m completely naked. As if that weren’t bad enough, I realize that I have no idea what I’m supposed to speak to the creepy goat-man audience about. It’s like showing up to a test and realizing you forgot to crack the book. There’s no podium to hide behind, just a skinny mike stand center stage and a barstool that’s near the far wing of the stage. I approach the stool and notice that there’s a small remote on it. Turning around, I discover the bright white screen, and notice a harsh light is shining on to it. I consider doing shadow puppets to amuse the audience. They are now grumbling.

Instead I snatch up the remote and advance the slide, figuring that maybe I can wing the talk. Maybe it’s a topic that I know about, such as shadow puppetry. The audience is now laughing, and that doesn’t feel good when one is standing naked at the front of the room.

The first slide reads, “HOW TO GET AWAY WITH MURDER.”

I don’t have any particular expertise on this subject, and am a little dismayed that someone would choose me to deliver such a lecture. I figured there must be a mistake.

The knight strides across the stage, but he is no longer dressed as a knight, now he wears the same tux and tails as the gaunt butler. He extends a large overcoat out in front of him as a gentleman would hold a coat for a lady to slip into. I awkwardly wriggle into the coat and button a few strategic buttons. Now I just look like a flasher, which is—oddly enough— vastly preferable.

I whisper to the knight, “Do you know what I’m doing here? What am I supposed to talk about?”

“Furk wants to plant a murderous seed in your mind, but you should not let him.” The knight-butler says.

The audience stops laughing and grumbling, and makes a bleating sound like “mehhehhehhe!” I assume that this is the sound a goat makes. I consider whether the angry goat sound is preferable to laughter or not.

I turn back to my self-proclaimed protector, but he has once again vanished into thin air. A bell rings and it gets quiet as a grave and I know that I am supposed to start talking.

Keeping in mind the words of the knight-butler, I begin, “Obviously, this is not to be taken literally.” I gesture to the projected slide. “You shouldn’t commit murder, and you can never count on getting away with it.”

The stuttered goat cries become louder and louder. I don’t know how I’ve inherited knowledge of the emotional lives of goats, but somehow I know they’re getting angrier.

I continue, “I mean, imagine that I shoot a person,…”

A chorus of goaty cheers rises up.

“I’ll always be caught and punished.”

The audience turns on me.

Stalling, I advance the slide. In big block letters, it reads, “HOW TO DECIDE WHO YOU SHOULD KILL!” and then a subtitle in smaller letters, “sometimes it’s harder than you think.”

I couldn’t help myself, my notoriously ill-timed sense of humor came through, “Some key questions that you might consider are: Is your potential victim a lawyer, a bureaucrat, or a teenager? Does your victim contribute to society, or is he or she a politician? Would killing that one person lead to the need to kill again, as in the murder of a member of a boy band?” I notice that while I am amusing myself, I am whipping the crowd into a frenzy. The fun dissolves as I see myself as a warmongering dictator, stirring up hatred among a frothy-mouthed constituency.

I say, “I’m kidding, of course, one shouldn’t murder anyone.”

They turn on me once again. This time they’re really raging, as if I had led them on with my little joke. There’s a moment of stillness before the crowd charges the stage. I turn to run, but don’t know where to go. I look over my shoulder, and– as the first few of the audience members leap onto the stage— I can see that they have actual goat heads, not goat masks.

I freeze, but then I’m yanked by the arm. I turn to see the knight-butler, but now he’s dressed in a police uniform. He says, “Come with me; you are in grave danger.”

I’m pulled behind a curtain that skirts the back of the stage, and I see there is another door shaped like an inverted heraldic crest. I move through it. The police officer shoves it closed. A couple hooved appendages get caught in the door, but he slams his body into them and then lets up just enough for the wounded goat-men to retract their injured forelimbs. As they do, he closes and bars the door. There’s clawing, scratching, and knocking from the other side of the door.

The policeman lights one torch off another, and hands one to me. I don’t know how either of the torches materializes. The corridor extends into the distance farther than the torches illuminate. It looks like a sewer tunnel, but the stone floor is only damp, as are the walls. Beyond the torch light lies an inky shadowland that is only held at bay by the precarious, flickering light. We march into that claustrophobic unknown.

“Who is Furk?” I say, remembering the man’s earlier words.

“Furk is the one bringing you this nightmare. He is one of your yard gnomes,” the policeman says.

“Who are you?”

“I’m another gnome.”

“Why is one gnome trying to kill me and another to save me?”

“That’s a long story.”

“Was Furk the gnome by my driveway?”

“No that was me.”

 “Should I wake myself?” It doesn’t come as a surprise to me that I’m dreaming. Maybe I knew it all along.

“Unless you intend to never sleep again, that won’t solve your problem.”

“What if I get rid of the bad gnome?” I ask.

As we quicken our pace, he answers, “You won’t remember to do that when you wake up. We are in the deepest recesses of your subconscious mind. It is a part of your mind that you are not aware of on a conscious level at all.”

I stop. “Wait a minute, if this is a dream, it doesn’t matter what happens—particularly if I’m not even going to remember it.”

“Unfortunately, that’s not so. Future behavior and moods often originate in the subconscious. Haven’t you ever been in a bad mood for no apparent reason, or, alternatively, been happy for no good reason?” he says, stopping for just a moment.

We resume walking, and I say, “I guess I have.”

From behind me, I hear a series of loud thuds. It sounds like they have a battering ram. I turn to look over my shoulder but can’t see the door anymore. We quicken our pace again. Soon I hear splintering. The policeman breaks into a sprint. I follow suit. I soon get winded and can’t figure out why I need air in a dream. More than burning lungs, it feels as if there is a belt tightening around my chest.

The imagined belt tightens further as I hear the echoed clack of hooves on the cobblestones down the corridor.

“You need to try to thin the herd.” The policeman says.

“What?”

“Only one of those goat-men is Furk, the rest are all projections of your mind. Furk may have conjured them, but they are dependent on your mind.” He says without breathing hard in the least.

“Oh, cool.” I say, and I stop and turn toward the onslaught of goatmen pursuing down the pitch black corridor. I concentrate. I will them to disappear. The hooves keep coming, unabated.

When the first faces break into the torch light, I turn and run, screaming, “It didn’t work. It didn’t work.”

“Yeah, I didn’t think it would.” The policeman says, his voice well ahead in the inky distance; he never stopped – some protector.

“What do you mean… you… didn’t think… it would?” I said, gasping as I ran hard to close the gap.

“This part of your mind is like a river that runs underground below your property, just because you own it doesn’t necessarily mean you can stop, or divert, it at will.” The protector says. He is not winded at all.

A door lies ahead. If we can just get through it, I can catch my breath. It occurs to me that I have no idea what will confront us on the other side of the door. Maybe there’s something worse than a flock of goatmen. The hoof clomps sound as though they are closing on us.

The two of us shoot through the door, slamming it shut, putting our backs up to it. Wherever we are, it’s bright. The sunlight assaults my eyes. I squint, trying to glean something about our new environs. The nameless police impersonator produces a heavy wooden beam that fits into metal hardware on the doorframe to form a bar. How he conjures such items, I don’t know. We are supposedly in my mind, and yet I seem impotent.  

“So why did you tell me to try to eliminate them if you didn’t think I could?”

“It was worth a try.”

We are at the base of a hill in grassy prairie lands, the knee high grass is tousled by a breeze. At the top of the hill is a big oak tree, it’s perfectly shaped and stands strong, the iconic tree of life. I turn around and the door from whence we emerged is nowhere to be seen.

“Are we safe here?” I ask.

“It’s your mind.” He responds.

We instinctively walk toward the tree. The ground shakes. The earth splits open. I am falling.

TO BE CONCLUDED (this time for real)

How to Kill a Rogue Yard Gnome, Part 2

[Don't overthink the symbolism]Attribution: loannes.baptista

[Don’t overthink the symbolism]
Attribution: loannes.baptista

[Part I can be read here.]

Five nights ago, as the sun sank below the horizon and the glow of vibrant colors faded, we three were visited by a fourth from our world. It was the Hargo Chetti. Like us, he had a long flowing beard and a pointy hat, but, unlike us, his face was twisted into a menacing glower. His shell was monotone brown, it was just a temporary husk pulled together from the earth for our meeting. There was no point in a permanent shell; Master Hargo couldn’t stay in the world of humans for long. (Humans thought of the gnome’s shell as the gnome, but to us it was just a container for our noncorporeal selves.)  It’s the scowl. The shell must reflect the gnome’s nature, and no one wants a scowling gnome in their garden. Well, there may be demented people who would like such a gnome, but those people are already beyond our assistance.

In gnomish, a language that doesn’t register in human hearing organs, Hargo said, “I come bearing orders from the Council. They want you to be more active in your man’s dream state.”

I was impressed by Hargo’s ability to project his voice to us, given our wide spacing. We three can only communicate in close proximity, or in the man’s dream state. I was less pleased with the content of his message. I bristled in my response, “I assure you that we are intervening when necessary to keep the man’s dream world from falling into darkness.”

Hargo huffed, “The Council’s orders go beyond maintaining the status quo.”

I said, “We’ve seen nothing suggesting the man needs an injection of cheer into his dream state. Surely, you’ve read our reports.”

Hargo replied, “The Council, which I needn’t remind you has more vision and wisdom than a mere worker gnome, isn’t requesting an injection of good cheer. They desire shadow-mares.” Shadowmares were like nightmares but the ones that cannot be remembered in the waking state. Humans imagine that a nightmare that they can’t remember is inconsequential and has no impact on their waking lives. They are wrong.

Furk, one of my peers, just said, “Yes.” Furk was bored. He thought three gnomes for one man was excessive, particularly when that one man wasn’t important. I suspect because one of the neighborhood cats liked to wee on his shell, Furk had soured on our assignment. Though correlation not being causation, I couldn’t eliminate the possibility that the cats peed on him because he was such a jerk.

I was momentarily speechless. Hookl was also speechless, but that was his usual state.

After a long pause, I said, “I would like confirmation that this is the will of the Council.”

Hargo’s scowl seemed to tighten. Icily, he said, “Are you calling me a liar?”

I felt a shudder rise up through me, but still managed to reply, “No. I just think such a rare and unusual order demands great care.”

“You have your orders.” Hargo said, and then his shell collapsed into a pile of dirt, which was then caught up in the breeze and spread over the lawn. By morning there would be no trace of him.

I didn’t trust the Hargo Chetti. He looked like Santa, sans the jolly. What screams lie more than a scowling Santa. Yet, he is our only point of contact with gnome world while we are on assignment. I’ve always thought that was a weakness in our system.

As Furk began to plan and Hookl resumed being Hooklish (which is to say disinterested), I strained to propel my shell toward the driveway. I moved as swiftly as I could, but it was still a pace that would make a turtle proud by comparison.

A few hours later, I noticed lights stretching down the road toward the drive, the twin beams — with the car— decelerated. The car swung into the drive nearly crushing my shell. Had the shell been crushed, I would have been evicted back to our home world. Gnomes required a shell. I wasn’t powerful enough to summon a shell from the dirt, like Hargo had, not even for a short time. My plan had been to get onto the driveway and block access to the garage. In retrospect, it was not a well-thought plan, but it was the only warning I could give the man in his waking state. Once he went to sleep, it might be too late.

The man seemed to take note of my changed position, but he didn’t return my shell to its original position. He just shrugged and walked into the house.

I wanted to persuade Furk to hold off on obeying the order for now. Silently screaming gnomish across the lawn wouldn’t work, I didn’t have Hargo’s power of projection. The distance between us was too great.

I would have to subvert Furk in the man’s dream state. It would be difficult; Furk would have a plan by now, and I would have to improvise, injecting characters into the dream as needed to counter the shadowmare. In the dream state, I wouldn’t look dwarfish – unless that was called for. I could morph into any character that I could imagine. If you’ve ever had a dream and seen a face that looks totally unfamiliar, you’ve had a gnome dream. If you aren’t sure if you were the lead character in your dream, a gnome has probably been monkeying around in your noggin.

*

Four nights ago, I convened a meeting to the side yard. I wanted to be out of sight. Humans often won’t miss a gnome if it’s gone, but seeing three cavorting draws undue attention. I migrated across in front of the house, a two bedroom ranch, and nudged Hookl, who was positioned midway between my usual position and Furk’s. We then proceeded to meet up with Furk. This would put me at a disadvantage. Moving the gnome shell by force of consciousness is exhausting, and if I had to battle it out with Furk in the man’s dream state that night I would be weaker than usual.

For Furk, who was positioned near the corner of the house, the journey to the side yard and back would short. This was probably why he agreed.

I said, “As you well know, I want to hold off on initiating shadowmares.”

Furk said, “An order has been given by the Council. It may be unusual, but I’m sure they have a good reason, and it is not ours to challenge.”

Hookl said nothing.

I replied, “Maybe they do, and if they confirm their order I will comply. But this is serious, and if there is not an explicit order from the Council, then it is high crime against the Gnome Code of Conduct. You know what shadowmares can do to humans after a time. The humans might not consciously recognize the effects, but we know them well.”

Furk retorted, “If the Council didn’t give the order, then the Hargo Chetti is a liar. Are you prepared to make that accusation, because I’m not?”

Hookl said nothing.

I said, “I’m not calling anyone a liar. I’m just saying this is an extremely rare order and since there is only one gnome linking the Council to us, the possibility for miscommunication exists. If it were a less risky order it might not justify my concern. What if the man does something disastrous because of our mental mischief?” I was lying. I did think Hargo was a liar, but saying that would serve nothing.

Furk said, “It’s like Hargo said, you can’t see the whole picture.”

Before we could even begin our retreat back to our proper positions, we heard the car slow and turn into the drive. There was no use in moving now.

I said, “The man is home. Furk, it is clear that we will not be able to persuade each other. I want to hear where Hookl stands, and we will decide by majority.”

Hookl was not happy to be put in the role of tie-breaker. Making decisions was not his strong suit. “Gee, I’ll get back with you tomorrow.”

We three were well-attuned to the man’s brainwaves. We knew when he went into the house. We all knew that he noticed we were missing. We knew when he was about to come back outside with his flashlight. Soon he was shining the light on us. His forehead was crinkled and his lips pursed. It was an expression of puzzlement. He was trying to figure out how we had gotten into the side yard.

*

Three nights ago, one of us was ejected from this world. As darkness fell, in the feeble light, I approached Hookl to inquire about how he intended to vote. I had no intention of reconvening the group. Furk could come to us if he wanted. He did so.

Hookl said, “I mean, I don’t think we should be hasty. We should take our time, and figure things out. Rushing now won’t help any…” He just went on like that, noncommittally, for some time.

It must have sounded to Furk like Hookl was siding with me because Furk kept migrating, pushing into Hookl’s side. I don’t know if Furk just wanted to persuasively intimidate Hookl, or if his intentions were more nefarious. At any rate, there is a slope to the land in the front yard, and many loose rocks. This contributed to Hookl’s shell begining to tip; Furk did not let up. There was nothing I could do but watch as Hookl’s shell tipped.

There was a hole in the bottom of Hookl’s shell from the manufacturing process. It didn’t matter as long as the hole was sitting on the ground. If the shell tipped over, Hookl could maintain himself inside as long as there was only on hole in the container. It was the same principle as a bucket being inverted and pushed down into water. The bucket captures air inside. Add a second hole, and the water plunges in to push the air out. When Hookl’s shell tipped, its shoulder landed on a rock and the ceramic cracked. In a whoosh, Hookl was ejected and forced back to our world, to our dimension.

There would be at least one more night of battling it out with Furk

*

Two nights ago, my fight with Furk continued beyond the dream state and into the physical world. It ended with a gnome sumo match, and Furk was sent home much as Hookl had been.

I didn’t know how long it would be before someone showed up, Hargo or someone on the Council’s behalf. If I was right, and Hargo had gone rogue, it might be never. He might cut his losses.

I began to rest easy in the belief that I could protect this man’s dream state. And then the putz put a baseball bat through the side of my head.

TO BE CONCLUDED