Monday, June 30, 2014

Midnight Sun: The Complete Stories of Kane

by Karl Edward Wagner

Karl Edward Wagner was many things: originally trained as a psychiatrist (a profession he ended up rejecting), a longtime editor of the influential Year's Best Horror and Fantasy series, a poet, a writer of dark horror, an alcoholic (it eventually killed him), and - perhaps most famously - the author of a series of odd stories and novels featuring the immortal Kane. this iconic character is widely considered to be the most successful of all the Conan-esque creations to follow in Conan's footsteps.

715273Wagner writes his Kane stories using a dark but vibrant palette of throbbing colors. his pastiche of the classic Robert Howard style manages to stay true to the form while injecting his own brand of despair, various hallucinatory elements, and a deeply cynical outlook on life. these tales of 'adventure' often read as gripping horror stories (plus swords & sorcery, 'natch) that are informed by a very modern nihilism and a free-floating feeling of ambiguous menace.

Kane himself is none other than that infamous brother-slayer, Cain, cursed to immortality for his crimes by - as Wagner sees fit to describe - "a long dead god." it is interesting to see an author use a biblical character while completely rejecting the religion that created that character. it is even more interesting to see how that immortality plays out, story by story. events and places and people that Kane encounters in one story become historical tales told by people in other stories - no doubt with Kane silently smirking at the mistelling of those stories. ah, immortality. what a cross to bear!
Wagner cheats a little bit in these tales. at different points in his career, Kane is a Machiavellian courtier, a bloodthirsty warlord, a murderous sorcerer... his history is that of an immortal, capital-V Villain, one who causes kingdoms to fall and cities to be sacked and towns to be plundered, happily manipulating events for his own obscure goals, an infernal architect of countless plans that result in the deaths of countless people. he's not tragic or noble - he's a monster. the cheat comes in that we never actually see that particular Kane, those different villainous aspects - at least not in the stories collected in this compendium. instead the reader meets Kane between his notorious misdeeds and misadventures. we don't see the cruelty or the devious machinations; we see those presumably rare moments when Kane is on the run or is revisiting the scenes of his crimes or is just having a little side adventure that actually isn't hurting anyone. we see Kane when he is kind - when he protects the weak and rescues the innocent. an odd but usually very effective strategy. I came away from this book feeling pretty sympathetic to the character.

the first seven stories amazed me! thrilling, often sinister tales that portray a compelling antihero and atmospheres full of sorrow & regret, or hot-blooded but misguided vengeance, or the threat of sexual violence, or intangible dangers, or all of that combined. "Undertow" cleverly uses parallel narratives to illustrate why Kane's girlfriend is someone we all should just avoid pursuing. the bittersweet "Two Setting Suns" details Kane's journey with a giant as his companion attempts to reinvigorate his dying race. "The Dark Muse" is very Clark Ashton Smith with its drug-taking poet and interdimensional threat and scary journey through the ruins of a dead city. the remaining stories of this first seven ("Raven's Eyrie" & "Misericorde" & "Sing a Last Song of Valdese" & "Lynortise Reprise") are all equally compelling.

the stories that follow are less compelling. I don't know what happened here. "Reflections for the Winter of My Soul" (that title!) and "Cold Light" have so much promise and do such an excellent job at creating an intriguing premise full of eerie atmosphere... but they are done in by the terrible anachronisms of the dialogue - it gets genuinely laughable at times - and the extreme overuse of exclamation points!!!!!!!!!!! "Mirage" and "The Other One" are not bad, but are also rather flimsy and unmemorable. the less said the better of the Kane-meets-Elric adventure "The Gothic Touch."

there are three modern day stories of horror featuring Kane in his new guise: a drug-dealing man of extraordinary wealth engaged in a battle against the forces of evil. or just engaged in drug dealing. frankly, these three stories are terrible. the modern elements are eye-rollingly awkward, with the exploitative use of 'alternate sexuality' feeling particularly forced. the protagonists are pathetic and irritating. also... an Elvis dildo, really? ugh. the experience of reading "Lacunae" & "Deep in the Depths of the Acme Warehouse" & "At First Just Ghostly" was repellent, to say the least.

I hate to end my review of such an interesting and idiosyncratic author on a sour note, so I'll repeat myself: those first seven stories were FANTASTIC. so good that they have helped me pretend that those other stories don't even exist. I am really looking forward to reading the three Kane novels, all thankfully set in archaic times.

Thursday, June 5, 2014


by Zoe Archer


he is an EX-SOLDIER!

she belongs to a SECRET SOCIETY!

this is a ROMANCE!

but it has a lot of ADVENTURE!

and MAGIC!


I liked all of that MONGOLIA!

she's no prude she wants to be an ADVENTURESS!

and also his WIFE!

he's your basic decent studly alpha male STEREOTYPE!

his eyes, his skin, his hair are colored in shades of GOLD!

he apparently smells like the WIND!

she is an accomplished ARCHER!

she really knows how to use a GUN!

also, she sure knows how to ride a HORSE!

the story was like a classic fast-paced ADVENTURE MOVIE!

the feel of this book is decidedly OLD-FASHIONED!

except he frequently mentions his stiff COCK!

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Let's Go Play at the Adams'

by Mendal Johnson
I don't believe in the world of this book, nor in its worldview.
1777308three children and two teens, ages 10 - 17, trap a 20-year old babysitter; over the course of a week, she is repeatedly tortured and raped. in the end, they torture her to death.
I'm not a glass half-full kinda guy. I know that children can often (usually?) have little to no moral compass. more importantly, I know how the world can be a cruel and relentless place; I've seen the horrible things it can inflict on people. thank you, work history. but there is always context for why people do the things they do. not context that excuses those things, but context that allows an understanding of why they occurred.
5 kids are not going to quickly turn into psychopaths able to systematically abuse and murder a person within a week unless they were already deranged. only one of them is characterized as having mental issues; none have traumatic backgrounds or guidance from a disturbed adult. there is no believable context to why they do the things they do, unless it is mere coincidence that brings these 5 deeply disturbed individuals together. that's a hell of a coincidence. no, I don't believe in the world of this book.
477801on a formal level, the writing is excellent. really, quite top-notch. the perspectives of all six major characters are interestingly depicted. interestingly, not believably. surprisingly enough, the intellectual, clinical, yet oddly dreamlike manner in which Johnson views his subjects reminded me of writers like Duras or Ballard or film directors like von Trier or Fassbinder or Lynch. but you do not often approach those authors or directors as if they were depicting actual reality, real life there on the page or up on the screen, breathing and bleeding and genuine. instead their works have an almost ironic distance from the material that encourages contemplation of - rather than engulfment by - that material. one could try the same approach to this book. good luck! Let's Go Play is not an extended metaphor; it shows the actual thought processes involved during this situation, how escalated forms of projection and objectification and role-playing can lead to atrocity. the author brings a certain sardonic detachment to the material, but this is no stylized dream odyssey. it attempts realism but tries to paint human nature as inherently monstrous, psychopathic. that is not reality.
there are reasons given for the kids' actions. "It's all a game" ... "There always has to be winners and losers" ... "The world is all about hate" ... "We voted" ... that old bugaboo, violent media ... etc. the reasons provided are not convincing enough for me to believe that 5 kids (ok, let's not count the lil' psychopath) - 4 'regular' kids without traumatic lives or the guidance of a disturbed adult - are going to be able to slowly and dispassionately torture someone to death, and then methodically cover their tracks like supervillains. I call bullshit on that. I don't believe it. there needs to be context for such actions because all humans are not all monster. well, perhaps I am a glass half-full sorta guy after all.


Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Running Wild

by J.G. Ballard

70236          1243390

Experienced nannies wanted for care of 13 children ages 8-17 in the safe, comfortable, and perfectly controlled upper class environment of the exclusive Pangbourne Village.

Position Description:

The nanny is a specialist working in the family's home, responsible for all tasks related to care of the children. The nanny will serve as a loving, nurturing, and trustworthy companion to the children. The nanny will carefully maintain at all times the liberal attitude enforced by the parents and society of Pangbourne Village. The nanny will avoid being shot, stabbed, electrocuted, and/or run over by the children. The nanny will avoid surprise strangulation by Vietnamese bamboo traps set by the children. The nanny will shower the children with hugs, kisses, and positive affirmation on an ongoing, continual basis.

Major Responsibilities:

*Create a stimulating, nurturing environment for the children;
*Supervise and monitor the children's activities at all times and provide a minute-by-minute accounting of all activities throughout the day and evening including in the bathroom;
*Prepare meals and bottles for, and feed, the children (regardless of age);
*Dress the children (regardless of age);
*Place the children down for naps and bedtime (regardless of age);
*Bathe the children (regardless of age);
*Change diapers (regardless of age);
*Discipline the children, when necessary, with a preferred disciplinary regimen that includes naps, hugs, friendly pats on the head delivered with a half-smile that combines subliminal admonishment with the understanding that the child is otherwise practically perfect in every single way, followed by handfuls of spending money to allow the child to maintain a positive self-image after the disciplinary regimen;
*Regularly remove bite marks left by children on wall corners, bannisters, headboards, and closet interiors; and
*Perform additional positive reinforcement activities as needed.

Job Qualifications and Requirements:

*High school graduate required; PhD preferred.
*Experience caring for children.
*Experience treating teenagers like children.
*English proficiency.
*Comfort with status level of service position; lack of interest in upward social mobility.
*Car, driver's license, auto insurance, and safe driving history. *Reliable, honest, and trustworthy.
*Ability to keep children from, as they say, "running wild."
*Ability to run very, very fast.
*Ability to plan, organize, and multitask.
*Ability to counter any plans and tasks organized by the children that could potentially lead to the violent massacre of all adults within Pangbourne Village. Safety first!

✰ ✰ ✰ ✰ ✰ ✰ ✰ ✰ ✰ ✰ ✰ ✰ ✰ ✰ ✰ ✰ ✰ ✰ ✰ ✰ ✰ ✰

Pangbourne Village
is a subsidiary of Ballard Microcosms Unlimited, Ltd™. Our model of absolute positive reinforcement at all times is delivered in the classic Ballard style, using the traditional Ballardian techniques of cool appraisal, ironic distance, postmodern pastiche, sardonic detachment, and small moments of gleefully vindictive humor at the expense of the affluent upper class and various soul-deadening institutions.

Pangbourne Village... Where Nature Is Unnatural!
Pangbourne Village... Where Nurture Rules And Nature Drools!
Pangbourne Village... Where Teh Children Come First!

As the saying goes: 'It Takes a Village'... Pangbourne Village!

9671467           1243386

Monday, June 2, 2014


by Lois McMaster Bujold

a colleague asked me a series of questions while we were out drinking the other night, questions like So what's next for you? and Is this all you are planning on doing with your career? and Is your current job how you want to be defined and does that actually give you satisfaction? I found myself annoyed then defensive then offended. what gave her the right to question me, I've accomplished a lot in my job and in my life, yes I am content with my career and why the hell shouldn't I be, blah blah blah. in the end I realized that I shouldn't have been offended because I think she was asking me those questions because she was asking herself the same. and so I calmed down and we continued to get drunk while philosophizing on the choices we've made and the nature of our existence blah blah blah.

I think some people like to live in boxes. I am such a person. I love my box, it's a safe and comfortable one and I've spent a lifetime constructing it. my box is one that gives me genuine satisfaction and the feeling that I am doing only what I want to be doing with my life. but I think other people resent and reject the idea of a box; they prefer to live in what can be called a "liminal space" - that space between, that place of ambiguity and movement and looking towards what comes next. you can look at your goals in life and try to come up with a plan or timeline to achieve those goals. or you can look at your goals and see them as constantly in flux, in movement depending on where you are, liminal. or you can look at yourself and realize that you are actually not a goal-oriented person. I think all of those are different kinds of boxes. I think my colleague may disagree.

61880so this book, Memory, is about those sorts of things. despite opening with a character getting his legs shot off and ending with a high-stakes trap for a devious villain, this is far from an action novel. it is a thoughtful story about who we are, why we are, the boxes we construct, the identities we create for ourselves and the separate boxes those identities live in, how our identity/identities can become dominos or houses of cards falling if something or someone takes those boxes away. Miles Vorkosigan's dual identities of mercenary fleet commander and aristocratic peer of the realm have always been bubbling in the background throughout his stories; in this novel they finally come to a head. Bujold does a superb and moving job in delineating who Miles is, and was, and can be; she gives the mundane, all-too-common situations of making errors & trying to cover up your tracks, losing a job & so losing a part of your identity, a palpably emotional resonance. she does all of that and then she doubles down and gives us another ongoing character, Simon Illyan, going through a similar thing but in an entirely different manner. Miles is the sort of character who assertively rejects the idea of a box and who insists he lives in a liminal space - but who has actually been constructing two boxes to live in, and has actively not been living in the space between, in that liminal space. Simon is the sort of character who has constructed his own perfect box - one that makes his career equal his actual self - only to find that box dismantled and his sureness of purpose and self destroyed as he moves into a purely liminal space. it is fascinating comparing the two journeys.

in sum, this is a wonderful novel about figuring out that who you are does not equal your job or your birth name or any specific, singular role or title; rather, it is the sum of all such things, and your experiences, and your internal workings, your actions and your potential, your ability to change or not change, and so much else. you = not easily summed up in one word.

I love that this space opera is all about these 'mysteries' that every human experiences. I know when I pick up a Vorkosigan Saga novel that I will be enjoying some action and some intrigue and some political maneuvering and maybe even some romance. standard space opera pleasures. but I also know that I will be enjoying a human tale about actual human beings and the things that happen in life, to everyone. it is that last sentence, that particular quality, that makes this series so special.

The Silent Land

by Graham Joyce

8719737youngish married couple go on a ski trip. avalanche! when they extricate themselves from the snow they find that everyone at their ski village has disappeared and that time now moves differently. what the hell?
fortunately, guessing the (entirely predictable) twists that come at the halfway and end points should not ruin the experience of reading this lovely and affecting book. unless you are the sort of reader whose experience rises and falls on the twists and turns and purely narrative pleasures of a book. if so, stay away. if not, then there is a lot to enjoy in The Silent Land - a minor note but very thoughtful, very sweet (but not saccharine) experience.

it is a chamber piece, of sorts: two primary characters; one POV - a wife contemplating her feelings about her husband and their future together. I say of sorts because, surprisingly, the married couple are not particularly well-developed or given the sort of rich, deep characterization that you'd expect to find in a novel with such a small cast and such intimate concerns. they are real people, certainly, but the context behind their actions and the lifetimes behind them that helped make them who they are... not so much of that, not really. there is a dog that gives some context (context that actually made me tear up a little bit, but I'm a sucker for sentimental stuff around animals)... and there are two wonderful chapters that are concerned with the impact that death has had on each of their fathers. those two chapters were insightful and the fathers are depicted with both clarity and warmth. very, very moving chapters - but they are anomalies in the novel. what is mainly present are the thought processes of the wife and husband, how they think, what they think, how and what they think about each other. the book is very Here & Now & What Comes Next. I thought this was a really interesting and atypical approach, and helped an already dreamlike (sometimes even nightmarish) landscape become even more dreamy.

the prose is also quite dreamy. rather spare, rather elegant, subtle, careful, with the occasional dash of idiosyncrasy to spice things up now and again. the atmosphere moves between eerie and ominous and even strangely enchanting... again, dreamlike.

naturally there is a lot of sex. I assume that most couples stranded by themselves in fairly luxurious quarters, who don't have much to do and who are still deeply attracted to each other on both an emotional and a physical level... yeah, there will probably be a lot of fucking going on. and hey, some making love too. all mixed up together.

anyway, the book is about love. how we live with it, how it is a magical thing yet also an everyday sort of thing, how it exists beyond the here and now, how it can stay with us and all the myriad ways it can take shape.

it also has a Christmas tree that is adorned with memories rather than ornaments. awesome idea!