Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Wide Game

by Michael West


this is The Wide Game: on Senior Ditch Day, seniors at the local Harmony, Indiana high school race each other through a cornfield to a quarry. the rules are simple: put some money in; if you or your group spot anyone during the game then you must trade personal items and then team up; first individual or group to the quarry wins all of the money. simple! it becomes not so simple when an accident forces eight students to slowly travel back together through the cornfield carrying the accident victim. night falls and it becomes apparent to the little group that there are things lurking in the cornfield on this special evening, shapes in the corn and figures in the fog, things that whisper in your mind, things that want to play with you, things that stalk and hunt and kill. or force you to kill.


10563088there is a lot that I found to be surprisingly and personally enjoyable in this one. the senior class in question is class of 1988. so was I! they listen to songs like Oh Yeah by Yello. so did I! our protagonist wants to direct thrillers when he grows up. so did I! the neighboring South Bend, Indiana is considered a Big City, heh. I lived in South Bend!
the book has some problems. there is at times a cringe-inducing and rather amateurish clumsiness to the writing. supporting characters who are flattened into caricature. a character who is eliminated by a murder of crows (nice one) just disappears from the story. where's that body?

but none of that matters during the book's lengthy central portion, it's pièce de résistance: the increasingly ominous then terrifying nighttime journey through the cornfield by our band of protagonists. all the problems with the prose fall away during the middle of the book; the story had its hooks into me and wouldn't let go until the end. West creates a wonderfully spooky and menacing atmosphere, indulges in some over-the-top gore, and even plays a couple narrative tricks on the reader to ratchet up the suspense and horror. it all worked perfectly during these chapters. I was absorbed and frightened. if you like to be scared, I highly recommend the central part of The Wide Game. it's awesome and would make a great horror flick.

some spoilers in the next paragraph but I will try to keep it ambiguous

I have to make mention of a repulsively fundamentalist twist in the book. it made me so furious that I nearly deleted the book from my e-reader. teens who commit suicide suffer in hell forever? emphasis on suffer, emphasis on forever? teens who have been terrorized, abused and mentally tortured, made genuinely unstable? they are condemned to suffer in hell forever, really? I don't hate a lot of things (outside of, say, genocide or child molestation or rape), I try to keep an open mind about context and personal perspective. but I think I can honestly say that I don't just loathe that particular point of view's cruelty, I loathe any person who genuinely thinks that way. I think it is an evil perspective. I hope this is not the author's actual viewpoint but the religious framing within the novel makes me suspect otherwise. when I come across such a loathsome, unempathetic, cruel way of looking at life and the afterlife, when I have the misfortune of meeting someone who actually thinks this way... I only want to do one thing.


Sunday, December 8, 2013

That Which Should Not Be

by Brett J. Talley

Brett J. Talley offers up a buffet of Lovecraft-inspired tales in a novel full of stories that are contained in one overarching narrative. the structure often reminded me of old omnibus films from Amicus Productions like Torture Garden and of course that great classic Dead of Night from Ealing Studios. I appreciated the reminder.

the main tale concerns a student of Miskatonic University sent to find an ancient tome in a remote village. the story itself is quite involving and leads to a fun climax set in R'lyeh (a place we should all visit at some point for its architectural attractions alone). but that is really only a part of the novel: while at the village, the student is almost immediately regaled with three supernatural adventures; soon after, he is told another story, and even later he reads an ill-fated ship captain's journal.

for me, familiarity does not breed contempt, so I have no issue with familiar scenarios. I had different feelings about each of the stories. the retread of Algernon Blackwoods' awesome The Wendigo felt unnecessary and did nothing to improve the original; still, even though I thought it was the weakest, it was definitely enjoyable. my favorites were the story set in an insane asylum and especially the captain's journal - the former was quite intriguing and atmospheric, the latter used a nicely unsettling narrator (and I felt it could have gone on even longer than it did, which is always a good sign for me). one of the things I particularly liked was the slight interconnectedness of those stories - I could have used more of that. overall the novel felt like a love letter to the classic writers of Weird Fiction and also a somewhat cocky introduction to the author's skill at writing in that classic vein. I have no problem with cockiness and appreciate it when an author is confident of his abilities.

this was the second novel in a row I've read that linked the Cthulhu mythos to Christian mythology. wait, should I have said "mythology" when talking about Christianity? please, trolls, stay away. anyway, I think that link is really fascinating and I'm surprised it never occurred to me before. I particularly enjoyed the connection to Gog and Magog. those two are always trouble.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Hull Zero Three

by Greg Bear


Mystery in Space!

Poor Teacher. He wakes up cold and naked and without a memory, his only companion a mean little girl, on board a gigantic spaceship called “Ship”… whatever should he do? Why, he should move forward of course, forward, ever forward! Otherwise gigantic monsters out of some monster’s imagination will collect and/or devour him. He needs to figure out who he is, what his purpose may be, and what the heck is happening with Ship, or he’ll die. And so begins his brief and rather frenetic adventure. Or rather, his “adventure” – because this is less of an adventure and more like a nightmare that he cannot escape.

Greg Bear is one of the most respected ‘hard science’ writers of science fiction currently working. He’s probably some sort of genius scientist in his spare time, like Alastair Reynolds. But I didn’t really get a sense of hard science being central to the story. Nor, unlike other reviewers, did I feel this was an exploration of a Big Dumb Object. All the pleasures of both things are there, certainly. Fascinating science that makes my head spin and a BDO that is awesome in scope and also functions as a terrible haunted house in space, full of deadly traps and creatures just waiting to kill off poor Teacher. Again and again. Sorry, that last sentence was spoilerish – but in an ambiguous way that makes you want to read this book, right?

Despite the hard science and the BDO, I think the author is mainly interested in exploring things like Identity and Memory. The novel and its protagonist continually contemplate what makes us who we are – whether it is how we act in the here & now or whether it is about what we have done in our lives, our context, our relationship to ourselves, and how those things impact how we move forward. Ever forward! Teacher is a tabula rasa, which can prove frustrating at times and amusing at other times – particularly when he realizes he has just said or thought a word that is new to him. But I think that Teacher, whether frustrating or amusing, is mainly a blank slate so that the reader can contemplate what is needed to fill in those blanks.

The novel is fun but it is also surprisingly cerebral. It has action and wonder and mystery and it has some endearing characters and it has plenty of fearsome beasts, all of that fun stuff. But this is more of a novel of contemplation than one of adventure. The protagonist is ever moving forward, trying to survive… but I spent most of my time musing on all the moving parts that make up a human, that create the human condition itself. I think that that is exactly what Bear intended when writing Hull Zero Three.