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Saturday, May 23, 2015

Review: Mystery, Inc. by Joyce Carol Oates

Mystery, Inc.  
Joyce Carol Oates
Open Road Integrated Media
Bibliomysteries are an ongoing mystery series from Open Road and  Mysterious Press (which offers a numbered edition of this book) about books and their places of habitation.

Mystery, Inc. is a fictitious bookstore that the narrator, who bills himself as "Charles Brockden*," is crazy about, jealous that the owner, Aaron Neuhaus, is able to weather bad times and good yet have a section dedicated to art, even. How does it weather tough financial doldrums?

As Brockden has done before, he concocts a murder, a poisoning, to buy the bookstore. But this bookstore has its own mysteries in store.

Mystery, Inc. is a novella, lovingly detailing a clear passion for classic mysteries and bookstores. The narrator is unsympathetic in the tradition of Iago. But Oates has a trick or two to play. First, the narrator sounds like Oates commenting on the writing of the story:
"I am very excited! For at last, after several false starts, I have chosen the setting for my bibliomystery."
It takes the readers a moment to reorient our perspective from reading about the author's production to the narrator's. Perhaps the idea here is that murder, in the eyes of the narrator, is its own creative act. He, too, is a kind of author.

This is less a literary classic to pore over, than a reader's pleasure, an entertainment. But a few games are afoot, including pop culture. Mystery, Inc. is the name of the Scooby Doo Mystery van and bookstore.

* Charles Brockden Brown was an early American novelist.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Fallout (book excerpt) + Cloudy with a Chance of Destruction

Lois Lane: 
Gwenda Bond  

Lois Lane: 
Cloudy With a Chance of Destruction 
(an official teaser short story)  
Gwenda Bond  
This novel has already received a big push on NY electronic billboards and Wal-Mart. From the looks of the excerpt, it should be a fun one.

Lois Lane, daughter of a general, is a new student, who no sooner sets foot in the school than she's meddling. She overhears and witnesses a kind of mind manipulation via a mob of students. The student's nonsensical complaint falls on deaf ears. Lane speaks up in the girl's defense.

Her meddling gets her in trouble with the principal but also lands her a job at the school newspaper.

The novel builds up her trouble-making antics--most of which make sense when she gets to explain her end of things.

The short story, found online here, relates how Lane foils the plot of a young man trying regain the love of his ex-girlfriend. He tries to impress her with his father's tabletop cold fusion experiment.

Like the other story teaser, Lane's troubles are actually someone else's. This is typical in detective fiction, but personal involvement in the tale tends to increase reader involvement. The story ratchets up more suspense than the last.

The stories (the other, "Lois Lane: A Real Work of Art," reviewed here) are interesting teasers, but reading the novel may be the best starting point and these stories a place to relive the novel, for those enchanted with Lane's world and can't get enough.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

At the Mountains of Madness by H. P. Lovecraft

First appeared in F. Orlin Tremaine's Astounding (now Analog). Reprinted by August Derleth, David G. Hartwell, Robert M. Price, John Gregory Betancourt, Colin Azariah-Kribbs. The following reading lists recommend the novel: Anatomy of Wonder, The 5-Parsec Shelf, Fantasy: The 100 Best Books. Read online.

The narrator, Dr. William Dyer of a geology professor at Miskatonic University, treks with several men and dogs to the Antarctic. They discover a stone with unusual striations and see strange mirages. They uncover the bodies of the Old Ones and try to dissect. When the narrator and Danforth investigate what happened to one camp, their own camp is destroyed.
They discover a mountain range catacombed with tunnels and cave carvings. They read the history of the Precambrian aliens who lived there. They had their own animals brought during a time when Earth was thought only to have unicellular life. The Old Ones fought the Cthulhu lost--some moving undersea--and later won. The narrator and Danforth encounter giant albino penguins and other strange monstrosities. A greater evil lies just beyond. Danforth may have witnessed it.

The narrator and Danforth's goal is to steer away a new expedition headed down here--not to mention saying that humans are nothing in the cosmos.

Michael Chabon writes of At the Mountains of Madness as “One of the greatest short novels in American literature, and a key text in my own understanding of what that literature can do.”

When editors like David Hartwell, trying to capture the foundations of the horror field, reprint a short novel this long, it's got to be good. The chief rewards for those who admire sense of wonder come as the explorers enter the labyrinth of caves and examine the cave paintings around chapter six.  It gives some of the best description of Lovecraft's cosmology.

Reading his work, one appreciates a few literary attributes: brooding atmosphere and imagination. Lovecraft slammed Henry James's works of horror because of their lack of horrific atmosphere. James, though, was a master of character--something that Lovecraft runs low on. What do we know about our protagonist? How is his life shaped, transformed by events and other characters? Well, he's horrified, just as his companion Danforth and most of Lovecraft's characters.

What about plot? The shape is fairly simple. One encounters the strange; horrifying strangenesses pile up until the universe irrevocably horrifies the narrator. One reads Lovecraft for the same reason that readers read Olaf Stapledon: The writers are good at a few narrative traits--good enough that readers overlook flaws.

In his introduction to the Modern Library edition of the novel, China Miéville writes, "Genre writers, it is often claimed are uninterested in characterization, theme, or nuance, and instead vulgarly subordinate everything to the exigences of plot. This, of course, is nonsense. In fact many writers don't do plot either."

Miéville's point, besides humor, is that the genre has something unique outside of plot and character. In this field, writers like Lovecraft and Stapledon reap a bountiful harvest.

Miéville also claims that Lovecraft was on the cutting edge of science, pointing out his mentions of continental drift. Unfortunately, as S. T. Joshi points out in his annotations, continental drift had no proof at the time. Moreover, Lovecraft also mentioned ether, a hypothetical medium that light supposedly propagated through. The Michelson–Morley experiment decades earlier had proved this hypothesis false. Besides, Lovecraft's real point was to lower our estimation of human science and to suggest that universe contained more than puny humans can know.

And that's okay. Humans do sometimes overestimate their understanding of the universe. Moreover, Lovecraft's mind grasped onto the unusual, the stranger fictions--reality be damned. In fact, he treated his own, Edgar Allan Poe's and Clark Ashton Smith's fictional works as true within the fiction.

This is one of Lovecraft's cleaner works, told in a semi-academic style. Still, though many Lovecraft narrators are educated, they fail at words as soon as they confront the horrifying ineffable. Nonetheless, the writing is dotted with "things" difficult to see or experience. Note all the very different monsters illustrators created based on this novel (it may be, however, that the illustrators did not read the text in question).

Lovecraft often employs archaic spellings and words--not to mention neologisms--meant perhaps to create a dark, brooding atmosphere of the unknown. It not only makes for tough slogging, but also makes one wonder.

Miéville notes that "Lovecraft has... the transmogrifying vision of hysterical nihilism, from which his racism is inextricable."

Isn't Lovecraft's penchant of strange words, spellings like a foreign language, used to conjure horror--not unlike the speech of a foreigner? Now that I've stated the conjecture, someone will latch on to it as truth without further evidence, but it is a possibility worth considering.

Even when his writing seems concrete, we may still not know what he means. For example, what does a "tempest-scarred plateau" look like?

I analyzed this text for adverbs (actually, the "-ly" ending) versus Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, and versus Ernest Hemingway's (roughly a contemporary of Lovecraft) "The Snows of Kilimanjaro". I chose the comparisons since Hemingway is roughly a contemporary of Lovecraft and Shelley is about a hundred years older than Lovecraft and writes in a similar genre as Lovecraft. Also, Lovecraft tries to write in an antiquary style, so it'd be interesting to see how closely he resembles the thing he imitates.

In terms of percentages, Lovecraft doubled Shelley's output and quadrupled Hemingway's (who also used his within quotes). I searched for the vague noun "things," and Lovecraft doubled Hemingway's output (also found in dialogue) and had fifteen times as many as Shelley. To an extent, this is what Lovecraft intended. The unknown and foreign are terrible (variants of "vague" appears twenty times in the text):
  1. "The effect of the monstrous sight was indescribable, for some fiendish violation of known natural law seemed certain at the outset."
  2. "[S]omething about the ridgy, barrel-shaped designs stirred up oddly vague, hateful, and confusing semi-remembrances in both Danforth and me."
  3. "[T]here was something vaguely but deeply unhuman in all the contours, dimensions, proportions, decorations, and constructional nuances of the blasphemously archaic stonework."
  4. "[T]he revived memories and vague impressions acting in conjunction with his general sensitiveness and with that final supposed horror-glimpse whose essence he will not reveal even to me - which has been the immediate source of Danforth’s present breakdown."
  5. "Something about this whole place, with its polished and almost glistening floor, struck us as more vaguely baffling and horrible than any of the monstrous things we had previously encountered." 
  6. "For a second we gasped in admiration of the scene’s unearthly cosmic beauty, and then vague horror began to creep into our souls."

Brian Aldiss parodies the style as swollen by adjectivitis in "The Adjectives of Erich Zann, A Horror Story":
"I was aware of fear welling up inside me in a cascade of adjectives."
Lovecraft's style has its defenders. Nick Mamatas, whose eloquent defense is worth reading, is buried somewhere in his blog. I cannot find the article at present. Indeed, Lovecraft does have his poetic moments, but usually when his prose solidifies in the concrete.

My only point, though, is that Lovecraft's prose strives to create a literary past that never existed. His prose reads nothing like Shelley's. His protagonists, too, were his contemporaries. So why were their writing and speech patterns antiquated? True that even into 19th century, some folks cultivated a King James speech pattern, especially when it came to piety and churches that used the King James Bible as their text, possibly even into the twentieth century. But Lovecraft does not follow King James. Who his antiquary literary antecedents are, remains unclear. Perhaps creating a literary past that never existed is his point. But for readers who prefer a smoother style or character or plot, it might make for challenging reading. If possible, one has to park one's notions of narrative at the book cover's front door.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

The Callahan Chronicals: pt 4 Callahan's Secret by Spider Robinson

Other discussions of The Callahan Chronicals:
  1. pt 1 Callahan's Crosstime Saloon
  2. pt 2 Callahan's Crosstime Saloon
  3. Time Travelers Strictly Cash 

Summaries and Commentaries with spoilers:

  • The Blacksmith’s Tale: First appeared in Analog. When no one is at the bar (a strange new staircase has appeared),  Jake ascends to stand naked in the rain on the rooftop. He runs into Mary--also standing naked in the rain--and, after uncomfortable pleasantries, makes love. They join the regulars below. Mick Finn is glum, not having a lover himself.
Commentary: Mary offers herself to the alien bot, to Jake's chagrin. Mary is Callahan's daughter. Mick Finn's story begins with "The Man with the Eyes" and "Unnatural Causes." It concludes with "The Mick of Time" below.
  • Pyotr’s StoryFirst appeared in Analog. Reprinted by Greg Cox, T. K. F. Weisskopf, Stefan R. Dziemianowicz, Robert Weinberg and Martin H. Greenberg. Jake mourns the loss of his girl. Because of the last story, we assume it's Mary, but no, it's his guitar. He mourns the loss as it was a rarity. The only man who could work on it is dead. Meanwhile, Pyotr selflessly cares for drunks. And it's Jake's turn as he mourns and gets sloshed. But Jake, who normally doesn't get hungover, is. Are Pyotr's motives pure?
Commentary: Eddie kidnaps Domingo Montoya, master guitarist who is supposedly dead. He has been hiding because people ask him to repair their cut-rate guitars. But he does Jake's. Pyotr, as you may have guessed from the sore neck, turns out to be a vampire. He filters Callahan regulars' blood, often preventing hangovers, but Jake's metabolism is different. When discovered, the regulars take up a collection--blood.

This plays a nice contrast to "Mirror/rorriM" where a character is suspected to be a vampire, but is not.
    • Involuntary Man’s LaughterFirst appeared in Analog. Try as they might, Callahan's regulars can't help laughing at a young man, Billy Walker, Tourette's syndrome--even as they cry in sympathy. Billy tried to call, looking for his place in life, but they thought it was a crank call. He sent a letter to show how serious he is.
    Commentary: They place Billy in charge of riddles on riddle night via computer modem. Robinson seems to understand human foibles due to nature. Despite sympathy and the regulars' desire to help everyone, he might have gotten an earful. 
      • The Mick of TimeFirst appeared in Analog. It was up for the Analog Readers Poll award. Mick Finn is sedated just as his masters arrive in the solar system. Callahan and the regulars join minds to feign that they exceed the Masters' power. But as they think faster, they see through the sham and isolate each mind from the others.
      Commentary: Callahan is a time-traveler himself and uses this to think up a solution. He pulls the regulars out of their mental isolation (literal and figurative). They detonate a nuclear bomb with a newly conscious Mick Finn to shield them from the blast. They save the day, but this blows up the bar. The Callahans must leave, and Jake is put in charge of the bar. They realize that Calahan has been training the regulars to be empathic/telepathic.

      This is the collection's high point that wraps up everything, albeit on a few sad notes. It may not work well alone but rests on the stories that went before. I say this because it seems one of the stronger tales in the collection, yet only Analog readers gave it a nod. Maybe they have longer memories.
        Series Commentary:
        "The Mick of Time" is where I'll end. The next story isn't really a story, so let's skip it. Interestingly, though, the author does make an appearance, just as he does in some illustrations. See hatted and sun-glassed figure raising his beer to the right.

        These stories do a good job stitching together relationships developed in earlier stories into something more complex, into something that feels like a novel. The characters get a little more personal, their thread weaving together more with the other characters in Callahan's.

        The stories are often dual plots, the taste of which we got in "Fivesight" where Jake and other characters told parallel tales.

        Taken as a complete series, as happened in Starseed and Starmind, one witnesses Robinson's perfect society, just on a smaller scale. The picture here has a little more clarity since we spend most of our time inside the society.

        It does seem ideal--empathy, acceptance of other's flaws so long as they attempt change ("Unnatural Causes")--but is this somewhat akin to our internet cliques where one is embraced, groups supported financially and verbally while "evil-doers" are bullied into submission? sometimes even to the detriment of careers. Robinson's is gentler. Even when criminals are hauled away--the faux Santa alien in "Have You Heard the One...?"--they don't punish him. Still, I couldn't help but feel that they overreacted to the minor swindler, when they often accepted those with worse crimes. Perhaps Callahan's isn't exactly perfect, but it's better than the society at present.

        Some folks want more and more: The quality can change--just keep 'em coming. Some want the pure quill, the best of the best. The completists, the former group, have their book. For the latter group,  I offer the essential or classic Callahan stories:

        1. The Guy with the Eyes
        2. The Time-Traveler
        3. Two Heads Are Better Than One
        4. Unnatural Causes
        5. Fivesight
        6. Dog Day Evening
        7. Have You Heard the One ... ?
        8. Mirror/rorriM, Off the Wall
        9. The Blacksmith's Tale
        10. Pyotr's Story
        11. The Mick of Time 

        * If "A Voice Is Heard in Ramah ... " were expounded/expanded upon, throw it in here, too.

        Thursday, May 14, 2015

        The Callahan Chronicals: pt 3 Time Travelers Strictly Cash by Spider Robinson

        Other discussions of The Callahan Chronicals:
        1. pt 1 Callahan's Crosstime Saloon
        2. pt 2 Callahan's Crosstime Saloon
        3. pt 4 Callahan's Secret
        Summaries and Commentaries with spoilers:

        • Fivesight: First appeared in Omni. Reprinted by Ellen Datlow. Two regulars tell rather embarrassing personal stories where they learned better. A gal tells her story where Cass, her soon-to-be husband, helps prevent a migraine from an accident he foresaw. He has limits. If he tries to avoid an incident, something worse occurs. They marry and he side-steps or ameliorates various incidents. She's happy until her son Bobby died in a bus accident. He knew in advance but did nothing.
        Commentary: She makes a date with a supermarket stockboy, and finds a gun brought into the house. Murder? Hers? the stockboy's? She runs to the bar. Suicide, they learn. They help her date escape with an alibi.

        Jake finally tells his story--how he caused the death of his wife and child trying to save money doing his own breaks--to help her see he can empathize with her sorrow. In fact, it's the fifth anniversary, which was why other regulars told their embarrassing tales.

        This is the first we get much background on our narrator, Jake. The title is a pun. Cass is likely a reference to Cassandra from Greek myth, who foretells events no one believes. 
        • Dog Day Evening: First appeared in Analog. It was up for the Hugo and Locus awards. A German Shepherd and a man enter bar.  The man wants to prove his dog can talk. Callahan allows the bet so long as it doesn't follow the famed joke [see below]. Callahan puts an apple in the man's mouth. And the dog talks.
        Commentary: Not only does the dog talk, but the man is mute. So the dog talks for him (not the opposite the regulars had anticipated). They can't make a living without conning people. The Callahan regulars come up with jobs for both: Radio talk show for the dog and typing for the mute.

        Play on the old joke about a talking dog that goes into a bar. The dog answers questions about what's on top of a house? "Roof" Who's the best baseball player? "Ruth," etc. The joke's barkeep throws the man and dog out, and the dog asks his owner, "Should I have said Jackie Robinson?" Robinson cleverly inverts this joke.

        Title refers to a 1975 film, Dog Day Afternoon, about a botched bank heist to pay for a lover's sex change. Some loose correlation.
          • "Have You Heard the One...?"First appeared in Analog. It was up for the Locus and Analog Readers Poll awards. A Santa pretender--he says he's an alien in a Santa disguise since no one would question Santa--brings gifts: The Universal Panopticon. He has a machine the improves one's mood, etc. All at the cost of pennies.
          Commentary: No trick about the pennies. That's what he wants because he's actually a time-traveler who needs copper pennies to navigate his machine since the future lacks copper. His inventions, though, are all an illusion. Josie, the time-cop lady arrests him--a ten-dollar crime. She wants to prevent paradoxes. It's not clear why the time-cop gal wouldn't allow the guy pennies to time-travel [after all, she explains what he's doing to the past--the explanation of which, one would think, might create paradoxes as well], or why she waited to reveal herself, but so it is.

          Still a fun and semi-sophisticated tale, especially compared to the earlier stories. The protag-/antagonist feels something like the disruptive harlequin in Harlan Ellison's "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman."

          The last two stories present interesting scenarios where three people, backed into a corner, perform minor swindles. The dog and the mute not only get away with it despite the Callahan regulars' knowledge, but they also get full-time employment. Santa, on the other hand, gets hauled away. It's not clear why the different treatments. I point out a similar predicament that occurs at the end of  Starseed where two criminals attempt the same evil deeds yet get treated differently.
            • Mirror/rorriM Off the WallFirst appeared in Analog. There are no mirrors in Callahan's [to prevent vanity--ha, ha], but one appears, anyway. Meanwhile, where a stranger sits in the bar, the mirror shows the stool empty. The regulars move away, nervous about vampires. The stranger, Trebor, willingly trades great liquor for poor. Seeing a trick clock with the numbers reversed, Trebor tries to jump through the mirror. Callahan catches the fleeing figure for not paying his bill and paying with phony money.
            Commentary: Trebor is the reverse of Callahan's. He tricks the "Trebor" of Callahan's world to take the fall for a crime in a different dimension. He wants to swap irritating pollutants for non-irritants, but just as dangerous. Through a trick, they push him into the correct dimension. Interesting that they stopped the guy from exiting then forced him into it, minutes later. Still fun, though.

            "Pyotr's Story" nicely reverses the vampiric expectations.

              Series Commentary:
              Apart from "The Mick of Time," these may be my favorites in the series. Robinson combined idea well with milieu. He really hit his stride here.

              Tuesday, May 12, 2015

              The Callahan Chronicals: pt 2 Callahan's Crosstime Saloon by Spider Robinson

              Other discussions of The Callahan Chronicals:
              1. pt 1 Callahan's Crosstime Saloon
              2. pt 3 Time Travelers Strictly Cash 
              3. pt 4 Callahan's Secret
              Summaries and Commentaries with spoilers:
              • Law of Conservation of Pain: First appeared in Vertex. The meddler, a real time-traveler from the future [1995] arrives at 1974 Callahan's. He wants to save Bobbie Joy, a painful singer to save her from the destruction of the life, to spare her from future pain, which would also keep her from writing a famous song.
              Commentary: Consequences of his altering time may be that pain shows up. The bar flies come up with a peaceful solution to killing the cop that will rape Bobbie Joy. The time-traveling belt given to bar to destroy... although why he didn't do it himself isn't explained.
              • Just Dessert: Young men drink ungodly amounts of alcohol. Suddenly the ugly one barfs. His buddies eat it. 
              Commentary: Not SF. The barf is beef stew. Apparently, the act angers the barkeep. Doc, who guessed the outcome, happens to have a bottle of ipecac and slipped some to the boys. 
              • "A Voice Is Heard in Ramah...”: First appeared in Analog. A woman, Rachel, shows up at Callahan's. She puns and is accepted by the bar flies. She turns out to have lived 232 years. She weeps when she hears a toast to motherhood.
              Commentary: She says she's more aware of death since she's lived longer. Her case seems hopeless until Eddie offers that she clones via cryonics. This one has a great central conceit that could have used a few more specifics and development.

              The title quote comes from Jeremiah 31:15 and Matthew 2:18: "A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more." The context of Matthew is Harrod's slaughter of Jewish boys to kill, fulfilling Jeremiah's prophecy. Jeremiah, employing the voice of God, concludes: "Restrain your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears, for your work will be rewarded.... They will return from the land of the enemy."
              • Unnatural Causes: First appeared in Analog. Michael Finn returns, says he's been working in agriculture, using his advanced eyesight, which sees into the IR range. Michael spots an alien like himself. Tony, a Vietnam vet, deals with his past: how he became a cold killer. 
              Commentary: Tony turns around after hearing his pacifist buddy, Steve, had been killed in a military prison. Trancedental meditation and Callahan's turned him around. Meanwhile, the alien asks for absolution for creating dissension among the humans to breed them for chow (humans did the same with their food). Earth is a game preserve. But without actions, without penance, none in Callahan's would forgive him.
              • Wonderful Conspiracy: People come to Callahan's when they need to. The regulars actually pay attention to their families
              Commentary: Not really a story but rather a talk of how different a bar this is. It presents one of two references to Fredric Brown's "The Weapon" [link to discussion].
              Series Commentary:
              Explanations spring up, saying that Callahan's doesn't create alcoholism, but it's opposite: moderation, or even abstinence from drink altogether. Callahan doesn't allow drunkenness, at least not without a cab. One suspects that Robinson might have received complaints about glorifying alcohol and addressed the matter as stated above.

              These stories extend the series' camaraderie. They have a few surprises and unusual circumstances, but they're the nadir apart from "Unnatural Causes" which provides a nice contrast to "The Guy with the Eyes." Other stories have interesting concepts, but don't build them enough. The series improves after this.

              The stories have a rhythm to them. 1) Group shenanigans: jokes, puns, tall tales; 2) newcomer looks bummed and is asked why; 3) newcomer's tale presented; 4) Group resolves problem; 5) Brief joke/pun related to newcomer (sometimes). This might be related to 1) status quo, 2) inciting incident, 3) conflict, 4) resolution, 5) denouement. However, these stories tend to linger on step 1. Expanding the sense of camaraderie is clearly seen as critical as the presenting and solving the problem itself.