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Reviewer: Emera
Dates read: The very end of December 2011
Read from: Vampire Stories by Women, ed. by Stephen Jones (2001).

“Venus Rising on Water” (1991), by Tanith Lee:

“Like long hair, the weeds grew down the façades of the city, over shutters and leaden doors, into the pale green silk of the lagoon. Ten hundred ancient mansions crumbled. Sometimes a flight of birds was exhaled from their crowded mass, or a thread of smoke was drawn up into the sky. Day long a mist bloomed on the water, out of which distant towers rose like snakes of deadly gold. Once in every month a boat passed, carving the lagoon that had seemed thickened beyond movement. Far less often, here and there, a shutter cracked open and the weed hair broke, a stream of plaster fell like a blue ray. Then, some faint face peered out, probably eclipsed by a mask. It was a place of veils. Visitors were occasional…”

Tanith Lee, you’re my favorite. Lee frames this story as a “clash between the future and the past” – I read it as something approaching cosmic horror, although here the cosmic is actually subsumed by more domestic monsters. Either way, Lee writes a humanity under threat.

A plucky girl reporter with the wonderfully foolishly exuberant name of Jonquil Hare goes exploring in a decaying future Venice, haunted by white rats, holograms of inhabitants past, and an ancient astronomer’s painting of a blue-skinned woman. (Lunar/aquatic blue-green, blue-yellow is the story’s sickly, unearthly color theme.) This not being the comfortingly rational universe of Tintin or Holmes, the irrational and unearthly win out, resoundingly declaring both their supremacy over and indifference to humanity. Jonquil is left in a destabilized reality. Sexual unease and gender ambiguity amplify the sense of murkiness, clammy fever dreams.

 —–

Another excellent name: Gala Blau’s 2001 “Outfangthief” takes its title from a Middle English term meaning “the right of a lord to pursue a thief outside the lord’s own jurisdiction.” This is the first splatterpunk – horror driven by extremity of violence, physical violence as emotional climax – I’ve read in a long while, and the effect does seem dated to me now. The villain’s cartoonish perversion takes away from the tragedy of the protagonist: a mother on the run from debts, who sees her teenage daughter drifting, and eventually, taken away from her.

Still, I was taken with Blau’s smoky, dire prose (“…Laura’s hand was splayed against the window, spreading mist from the star her fingers made. She was watching the obliteration of her view intently”) and Gothily surreal vampires (“The women were hunched on the back fence, regarding her with owlish eyes. They didn’t speak. Maybe they couldn’t”). I’ll be keeping an eye out for more of her work.

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I saved Caitlín Kiernan‘s “So Runs the World Away” (2001) for nearly last because, as with Lee, I admire and enjoy just about every one of her works. “So Runs…” introduces us to Dead Girl and Bobby, whom I first met (achronologically) in the collection Alabaster. As in “Les Fleurs Empoisonnées” in that collection, cruel, eccentric, clannish undead who dabble in taxidermy make an appearance; the emotional center is the kernel of less-dysfunctional family formed by Dead Girl and Bobby, and Dead Girl’s subaqueous stream-of-consciousness as she fumbles to distinguish her memories from those of her victims.

“And at the muddy bottom of the Seekonk River, in the lee of the Henderson Bridge, Dead Girl’s eyelids flutter as she stirs uneasily, frightening fish, fighting sleep and her dreams. But the night is still hours away, waiting on the far side of the scalding day, and so she holds Bobby tighter and he sighs and makes a small, lost sound that the river snatches and drags away towards the sea.”

The story ultimately hinges on Dead Girl’s choice to separate herself, and her chosen family: to cut them loose from paralyzing and toxic influences. Ultimately, she declares herself distinct, individual (though not solitary), and therefore valuable. Like many of Kiernan’s stories, then, “So Runs…” can be read as being about the negotiation of an abusive relationship.

– E

Go to:

Tanith Lee: bio and works reviewed
Caitlín R. Kiernan: bio and works reviewed

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Date read: April 2011
Book from: Personal collection
Reviewer: Emera

This is a mostly-rant entry.

From the Magazine of F & SF, April 1987:

  • “Olida,” Bob Leman: Lovecraftian romp with undercurrents of class conflict. A representative of the local (Southern?) gentry faces off against ancient, sluggish Evil in the ancestral home of an unsavory backwoods clan. Both surprisingly creepy and surprisingly funny; the closing note of horror is amusingly prim.
  • “The Thunderer,” Alan Dean Foster: Variation #1098018 on “sneering (or wide-eyed and lib’rul, but still condescending) white people with guns and SCIENCE encounter terrifying supernatural force while venturing into uncharted territory” – in this case the Louisiana bayou – “against the advice of superstitious Native Folk.” Yawn. Useless except as an introduction to the eponymous folkoric figure, which I hadn’t heard of before. There’s probably a TVtrope for this kind of thing, but I’m too lazy to go digging for an exact match.
  • “Agents,” Paul di Filippo: If this is at all representative of di Filippo’s work I can’t say I’m much interested in following up. Characters are hastily erected scaffolds on which he hangs his wannabe-cyber-thriller plot; I found his depiction of a disabled character particularly odious. The speculative elements are consequently the only ones of interest: di Filippo posits an Internet only navigable by means of expensive virtual “agents;” this limit on access to information and computing erects an almost insurmountable barrier between rich and poor, which works well enough nowadays as an allegory for the social effects of il/literacy and access to resources, technological or otherwise. And then a hacked agent is accidentally set loose and ohnoes rogue AI on the run and the story ends with an ellipsis…!

Go to:
BBCF: MF&SF, June 1983
Time Warp 1987: F&SF and a couple of soggy old men

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2010 Shirley Jackson award nominees are out – which I’m selfishly extra-excited to see this year because Kakaner and I have scheduled a week this summer to go gallivanting off to Readercon, where the awards are presented. Awwww yeah. (This will be my first-ever con, for the record.)

Dribs and drabs of thought –

  • More title synchronicity (“A / Dark Matter”) – as with “Palimpsest” for the 2010 Hugo noms.
  • Joey Comeau!! Did not expect to see him there. (He’s better known as the word-provider for A Softer World, though Kakaner and I have been sorta following his standalone prose since he started with Lockpick Pornography back around… 2005?)
  • Clearly I really need to pick up Haunted Legends, though I’ve kind of spiralled out of my horror anthology phase.
  • I also need to look into Karen Joy Fowler at some point. See her name everywhere, know nothing about her work.

– E

Go to:

Shirley Jackson

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Date Read: 11.11.10

Book From: Personal Collection

Reviewer: Kakaner

Ugh. Father and son try to survive in a post-apocalyptic world that is apparently strewn with limbs, covered with ash, and– just in case we didn’t catch it the first 50 times on the first page– one that is repeatedly described as “bleak” and “gray”. The Road was highly unimaginative, riddled with stilted dialogue, contained no real character development, and lacked true substantive merit. Having never read Cormac McCarthy before (my only exposure being a viewing of No Country for Old Men), I was expecting an epic survival story in the ranks of Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead or something along the lines of Y: The Last Man. Nothing happens. The writing is wholly unspectacular, and the greatest annoyance was McCarthy’s inability to come up with new phrases to describe (in all fairness) a neverchanging landscape. Particular pet peeves were “smoothed his dirty/filthy hair”, “the landscape was dark/bleak/gray”, “there was ash everywhere”, and ending every. single. conversation with “Okay”. This next bit is mildly spoilerish, but for a novel all about the depravity of mankind once the restraints of society have been lifted, the ending is frustratingly inappropriate– almost a “deus ex machina” resolution. I will, however, grant that The Road was extremely cathartic in that I felt personally choked with raw suffering and despair after only 15 pages. But that alone was definitely not enough to save the book, and it was simply more of the same overbearing emotion for the next 150 pages. In conclusion, hype is a cruel thing and The Road was a waste of time.

Go To:

Cormac McCarthy: bio and works reviewed

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Date read: 8.24.10
Book from: Borrowed from my cousin
Reviewer: Emera

In brief:  ZOMBIE OUTBREAK etc. Global pandemonium ensues.

So I assumed at first that this was in novel form, and was mildly intrigued since I’d never read a novel-length zombie survival story. (ETA: Oh wait, I have: Warm Bodies.) Turns out it’s actually in the format of interviews with various survivors of “World War Z:” soldiers, community leaders, doctors, lone survivalists, a feral child, etc., brought to you by the author of The Zombie Survival Guide. Most of it is schlock, especially any part of it that aspires to any emotional or philosophical depth and the so-called “satire,” which amounts to making very obvious fun of Corrupt Politicians, Shallow American Suburban Housewives, and so on. (Also, I must salute Brooks for his incredibly creative choices in making two of the three or four total Asian characters, respectively, a blind samurai zombie-whacker and a former otaku turned “warrior monk” (barf).)

But what fun schlock it is! The interview format gives Brooks an excuse to play out as many obsessively detailed scenarios as his zombie-nerd brain can churn out, from panics fueled by the failure of a fraudulent zombie-virus vaccine, to reappropriated medieval castles under siege, to all the intricacies of anti-zombie warfare and weapon design. (Possibly my favorite section: a long interview regarding the training of military dogs to track, and sometimes lure, zombies. It tickles the part of me that insisted on using attack dogs when playing Red Alert against my brother.) There are also numerous satisfyingly suspenseful episodes and creepy moments: the narrative of an American soldier who is ejected from a damaged plane and lost, alone, in a zombie-infested forest; the realization of a submarine crew that that odd sound is the clawing of dozens of submerged zombies that have surrounded their vessel. (Brooks’ zombies survive drowning, and can re-reanimate if thawed after being frozen, which leads to the fabulously grisly image of a world with its polar regions abandoned to hordes of half-frozen zombies.)

All in all, World War Z made for some great summer reading. I suppose it’s a little late to be reporting that, but there’s always room for a little brainless (pun?) entertainment. If you’ve ever discussed zombie outbreak contingency plans with friends, you’ll likely enjoy this.

Go to:
Max Brooks: bio and works reviewed

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In which Christopher Lee is amazing

I’ve always wanted to see the 1973 drama/thriller/sorta-horror classic The Wicker Man, and it ended up being a rollickingly fun watch for last week’s summer solstice.

In the film, straight-laced Sergeant Howie is dispatched to investigate the disappearance of a young girl named Rowan Morrison on Summer Isle, a remote Scottish island, only to find that not only does every villager on the island deny any knowledge of Rowan Morrison, but that his visit coincides with the island’s highly enthusiastic and – to the devoutly Christian Howie – unwholesome May Day preparations. Cue an increasingly frenzied search by the valiant but humorless Howie, a collision of equally blind faiths, and more references to to Celtic folklore and fertility symbolism than you can shake a Maypole at. There’s an inn named the Green Man; a sweet shop stocked with pastries and chocolates in the shape of women, leaping hares, and what look like rams’ heads; lots of nubile gamboling in graveyards and stone circles; a lush estate encircled by phallic topiaries… Oh, and Christopher Lee as the island’s erudite neo-pagan lord, who enjoys nothing so much as wearing a kilt and soliloquizing about the joys of the animal world while intercut with footage of glistening snails intertwining and set over a soundtrack of hypnotically pulsating drums and recorder.

Christopher Lee, plus kilt

No, I didn’t have too much fun watching this movie, I don’t know what you’re talking about.

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Date read: 2.17.10
Read from: The now-defunct scifi.com, or listen online at MindWebs
Reviewer: Emera

I originally found “Descending” through Ellen Datlow’s wonderful online selection of classic sci-fi short fiction, and was aggrieved to discover that with the passing of the original scifi.com, it’s now only available online with the help of the Wayback Machine. But to get on with the real thing –

I’ve always been vaguely leery of escalators (where are those steps really going, when they sink into one another at the bottom? – I had a childhood fear that my feet would get sucked in with them if I didn’t step off quickly enough); Thomas M. Disch’s “Descending” has ensured that I’ll never trust one again. “Descent” begins with an unrepentant debtor’s delinquent spree in a department store, and ends in a state of perfect horror. It’s pleasingly precise and surprisingly rich in its details both of setting and character, packing a huge amount of atmosphere and subtlety into just about 4000 words, and the humor is wicked and ominous. Great stuff – I’ll have to look up more of Disch’s work.

John Schoffstall provides a wonderful reading and historical contextualization of the story here – also brief and rich – and Matthew Cheney at The Mumpsimus follows up with a quick consideration of how the story works as a piece of short fiction here.

Go to:
Thomas M. Disch

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Date read: 1.26.10
Book from: Borrowed from Kakaner
Reviewer: Emera

Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez - Locke and Key Volume 1

(Locke and Key Volume 1: Welcome to Lovecraft collects Locke and Key #1-6.)

After their father is murdered by a disturbed former student, the three Locke children travel with their mother to start a new life in an unlikely haven: the Keyhouse, an ancient mansion on an island named Lovecraft, off the Massachusetts coast. Keyhouse, with its sprawling, dilapidated grounds and many doors, is where their father grew up, and where he insisted – with unaccountable prescience – that his family stay should anything ever happen to him.

Here, oldest son Tyler immerses himself in guilt over his tumultuous relationship with his father and his possible culpability in his death, while middle sister Kinsey struggles with her overwhelming fears and loss of sense of self in the wake of the violent attack. Meanwhile, 6-year-old Bode explores the house unattended, and soon discovers something of the curious properties of Keyhouse’s doors, and the keys that can be used to unlock them. Unfortunately, Bode’s explorations bring him within the reach of an unsavory force dwelling on the mansion’s grounds, with a particular interest in keys and what they can achieve.

First of all, books with ribbon bookmarks and nicely designed endpapers = win:

Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez - Locke and Key Volume 1

(might be a bit hard to see, but the papers have a pattern of black keys.)

For those who might not already know, Joe Hill is Stephen King’s middle son, but has eminently succeeded in making a name for himself outside of his father’s reputation. I’ve been meaning to read his first novel (Heart-Shaped Box) and short story collection (20th Century Ghosts) for a languishing Forever, but Locke and Key Volume 1 ended up being my first foray into his work, after I grabbed it off of Kakaner’s shelf last summer. I went in with high expectations, and came out jonesing for moooore.

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Date read: 12.27.09
Book from: Personal collection, via Vertical, Inc.
Reviewer: Emera

Natsuhiko Kyogoku - The Summer of the Ubume

Translated 2009 by Alexander O. Smith & Elye J. Alexander. Original title Ubume no Natsu.

“Concerning the Ubume –
Of all the tales told, that of the ubume is the most confounding. It is said that when a woman who is with child passes away, her attachment to the babe takes physical form. She appears then as an apparition, drenched in blood from the waist down, and crying like a bird, saying “wobaryo, wobaryo.” Presented with stories of people transforming into such creatures after they die, how can we truly believe in Hell? It is beyond understanding.
Report on One Hundred Stories
Yamaoka Motosyoshi, Junkyo 3 (1686)”

In the classic mode of the genteel ghost story, a man visits his friend, and shares with him a strange tale: the daughter of a distinguished family of medical practitioners has been pregnant for twenty-one months without giving birth – a pregnancy that was discovered soon after her husband inexplicably disappeared from a sealed room. Scandalous! Throw in Japanese folklore, Gothic dread, and way too much pop psychology, and you have The Summer of the Ubume.

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Date Read: 6.27.09
Book From: Personal Collection
Reviewer: Kakaner

I have finally waded out of a merciless sea of deadlines, grad apps, visiting parents, and other such nonsense to bring you a review of scifi crack in book form. So I apologize for my contribution to any recent TBL droughts.

Antibodies is the story of a pale anorexic woman, Diandra, who nurtures an unhealthy desire to become a machine. She is true in every way to the Antibodies cult– starving and draining the blood from her body to entirely prepare herself for mechanical integration. However, circumstances prevent her from completing her transition smoothly. She is captured by the notorious hedonistic psychiatrist Julian Nagy who runs a therapy clinic to heal, and eventually exploit, those of the cult. At the same time, her only guides through this process are vague and ominous directions from the Antibodies authority while contending with the resentment of the public.

I discovered this book through a Coilhouse link Emera flinged my way over a year ago and behold, it bobbed up to the surface of my 100+ TBR pool and I have actually managed to read it. Well, I was pretty hooked after Coilhouse described it as a “deeply disturbing, brutally unsparing book” which sounded right up my twisted alley.

Don’t be fooled by the summary. Antibodies certainly sounds fascinating– a solid mix of cyberpunk and cult fantasy with a generous dollop of scifi fetish braincandy– but it is altogether entirely horrific. It takes many elements of our current society and exaggerates and stretches them into a possible future universe in which people worship and want to become the technology they have created. The depravity of humanity is evident as its constituents are each proponents of some broken part of our very system. Let’s see what Coilhouse has to say:

That’s what Antibodies is, at its heart: a horror novel. There are no heroes here, only the deluded and the ruthlessly predatory. But for all its Gran Guignol touches, Antibodies hits home. In a rush to the future, it’s easy to forget or ignore the wreckage that draws in the alienated and insane into any dream that offers them easy transcendence from their previous lives.

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