Casual Debris

Michael Blumlein, Keeping House

From Casual Debris.



Following her appointment as Associate Professor of Classics at the nearby university, a woman, along with her husband and their baby daughter, move into their new home. Rather than taking on the challenges of the shabby, broken down yet affordable house on the block, they settle on the more costly, yet renovated house beside it. What is quickly set up as a ghost story becomes something entirely difficult, relying on the psychological rather than the paranormal to illustrate an intelligent and hard-working woman's mental decline.

The story toys a little with the conventions of haunted house stories, referencing some of its tropes, like unpleasant scents and mirrors that reflect things that don't appear to be present at all, but instead of being a ghost story, it is far more akin to Charlotte Perkins Gilman's excellent psychological tale of deterioration, "The Yellow Wallpaper" (1892). Like Gilman, "Keeping House" is told through the point of view of a new mother in a new environment who begins to believe that her surroundings are coming alive. Rather than believing someone is living trapped in the wall or its paper, Blumlein's unnamed heroine believes that threatening spirits are trying to infiltrate her home, entering from the adjacent, broken down eyesore of a house she chose not to purchase. To prevent this threat from destroying home and family, she does battle via an obsessive cleaning/cleansing routine.

Though the story can arguably be read ambiguously, there is enough evidence in the text to indicate that the visions and scents stem from the woman's overwrought mind. Possibly following postpartum, as is the case in Gilman, the un-named narrator goes through various extreme mood swings, which eventually culminate in her taking on all aspects of a family provider, and believing there is a threat attempting to pervade the house and harm the order and harmony she is struggling to maintain. She fights back by increasing the need for order and cleanliness to a dangerously obsessive degree.

Our narrator finally snaps as she begins preparations to have sex with her husband. This is the only indication in the story of any form of intimacy between them, hinting that they have not been physical sine conceiving their only child. Like her obsessive cleaning routine, her preparations for sex become ritual-like, and the story hence makes a connection between the couple's intimacy and the invading spirits, at least in the woman's mind. As she fights to prevent threats to invade her home, she is fighting to prevent her husband's invasion of her body. Following this scene we are informed that the husband is grumpy and increasingly absent due to work, though likely he is staying away from his wife in response to her increasing obsessiveness ("You are sick," he tells her), and perhaps also out of basic sexual frustration. The consequence is simply that mother-wife, as in Gilman, becomes increasingly isolated in response to the husband's unsympathetic assessment of her condition.

Thematically the story can be read as a modern woman struggling with the pressures of a career and balancing the traditional mother and wife requirements of home. Husband is absent from much of the story as he is struggling at a new job, or so the narrator presumes, and in a sense re-living the postpartum environment as mother is trapped at home with baby. Whatever we wish to read behind the woman's deterioration, it is the process itself that is the focus of the story. Again as with Gilman, our heroine is at the outset of the story already in her isolated state at home, though Blumlein's narrator does have the freedom of escape as she goes to work. The latter portion of the story, however, takes place during the summer, and as a teacher she drops her summer work option and remains at home to battle the demons behind the walls. The ending lacks the pure creepiness of Gilman's final scene, but does give us quietly depressing final act of cutting oneself off entirely from the world that surrounds.

Casual Shorts: Stephen King, The Revelations of 'Becka Paulson

From Casual Debris.


Published during his extraordinary commercial peak in the 1980s, "The Revelations of 'Becka Paulson" is an as yet uncollected short story by Stephen King. First published in a special double summer issue of Rolling Stone magazine, The story was later incorporated into the novel The Tommyknockers (1987), in which Rebecca Paulson was a secondary character (or perhaps tertiary; I have not read the novel). Outside of a limited edition Skeleton Crew by Scream Press, it has not yet appeared in a Stephen King collection, and has only been anthologized in the highly readable Michele Slung-edited I Shudder at Your Touch. As an adapted screenplay, it was produced as an above average episode of The Outer Limits.

In the short story, a neglected and isolated housewife accidentally shoots herself in the head, and consequentially receives odd visions and, as per the title, revelations. As visions and memory begin to bind. disrupting her daily routine, her fate will certainly be locked in to how she handles this new perspective.

With all the story's quirkiness, King focuses primarily on character, to the story's benefit. 'Becka's life is controlled by a dominating masculine trinity, made up of Jesus Christ, her husband Joe, and her late father. Interestingly, her connection to all three is via some form of insurmountable distance. Her connection to Jesus is through her devotion to her religion, and she communicates with him through a photograph of Jesus as shepherd that has become animated. Her connection to her father is through her memory of his domineering ways, as he passed away years before but continues to deploy a daily influence. Finally, her husband Joe is at work during the day, and entirely absent to her when at home, preferring to play poker with his buddies or sleeping with a new co-worker. In addition, their house is located in a desolate rural setting, so that 'Becka has no immediate neighbours, and Joe must drive a ways for his job.

This is an indication that it is not only her stagnancy she is attempting to escape, but also the grasp of faulty masculine influence. She is essentially the sheep that animated Jesus bats away within the photo frame. Jesus tells her he is her saviour, and this is the point at which she listens. Through her revelations, 'Becka becomes aware of her actual situation, the unhappiness of her unfulfilling life, and as she does not have the capability for change, she opts to simply put a halt to the status quo. Without revealing the ending, it is appropriate to the story and her character, since 'Becka is not one to just pack up for the big city for fame and fortune.

Ellery Queen, The Lamp of God (1935)

The Lamp of God - Ellery Queen

From Casual Debris.



Published 32 years ago this month, the Ellery Queen novella "The Lamp of God" is technically a supernatural story. The premise finds Detective Ellery Queen invited by lawyer acquaintance Thorne to help escort a young woman, Alice, to her father's isolated house to retrieve her inheritance. Arriving at the isolated Victorian "Black House," they spend the night in the adjacent "White House" where the deceased man's remaining kin have settled. Upon waking the next morning, the black house has entirely vanished!

Though readers can deduce early on that a rational explanation will be available to explain the house's disappearance, the fact that the plot hinges on the possibility of a ghostly house categorizes the story as supernatural. In fact the story can potentially be categorized as a ghost story, if one were to be inclined to argue that vanishing house is a ghostly object, but since the plot does not reflect it being an apparition, only that it disappeared, I would refute the claim. The story was, however, originally titled "The House of Haunts," whether by the authors or publisher, but despite this detail the supernatural element is not directly investigated, nor speculated upon, so nothing in the text claims that a haunting is a possibility.

It is only at the story's denouement that the supernatural element is entirely and indisputably removed.

Though it appears that by employing the supernatural as a possibility, the authors are challenging their own conventions, along with challenging the conventions of early detective fiction. However, they are taking safe refuge with how the supernatural element is presented. The story opens with a brief segment that establishes Ellery Queen as a strictly rational man, so that no fanciful ideas can act as potential realities in his mind. When the house disappears Queen is flabbergasted, as are the other, more impressionable, witnesses. Though Queen does, on occasion, comment on the fact that God's world is shaken and there are some minor comments on his faith in the rational being challenged, his thoughts are kept conveniently away from the reader and we later discover, though it is obvious, that throughout the plot his rational brain is picking up clues and piecing the evidence together. The questioning of Queen's reality is simplistic and certainly not terribly existential; Thorne and Alice are the ones whose cores are affected, but they are secondary players in the plot so their realities are further removed. Because even much of Queen's portrayal is distanced, and though we might receive the glimpse of a thought along the lines of his worlds being shaken up, his investigative mind is kept wholly secret, so that we are left to wonder what in fact was spinning in that head of his.

As a mystery story it is a product of its time. It features stock characters and is high on melodrama. However, it is quite entertaining, and the explanation of the house's disappearance is a good one. Some might figure it out; I admit that I did not.


Horace McCoy, They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (1935)

They Shoot Horses, Don't They? - Horace McCoy

From Casual Debris.


A minor anecdote in history, the marathon dances of the 1930s, proves to be an appropriate setting through for examining the individual's place in the world. Having worked in such a setting, Horace McCoy makes vivid not only the torturous experiences of the event, but helps to illustrate the desperate reality of suffering during the Great Depression, as people storm to the humiliating dances in order to obtain bed and food, to seek the illusive fame and fortune of Hollywood, or simply to get away from a bleak day-to-day existence. Yet even the era of the Depression is secondary to the individual's inability to make a place for oneself in the absurd world in which we live.


The novel focuses on a passive and naive young man who aspires to become a film director, and a pessimistic and aimless runaway, who are trying to earn jobs as extras in Hollywood productions. Gloria convinces Robert Sylverton to enter a dance marathon starting up on the waterfront, and the unlikely duo join up. The rest of the novel is a fast-paced view of the inner workings of the event as we follow the pair through the various trials, physical and emotional, of the event.


Aside from the vivid portrayal of the reality of the event, author Horace McCoy equates the futile and desperate struggle of the marathon event with the equally futile struggle of daily life. The world is likened to a merry-go-round, and Gloria stresses that there is no purpose in what we choose: where we get on is where we get off. Moreover, a strong connection is made between people and horses. In the marathon people suffer through the ordeal of the derby, where dancers must rush around an oval track, much as merry-go-round horses rotate in an unending circle. People just like horses must work hard and often suffer for their livelihood, and in essence their fate is the same, illustrated with the shooting of Gloria as it is contrasted with the shooting of horses. The life of man and the life of beast are equally irrelevant. Like horses we are forced to perform for a master and when we are no longer useful we are put down. Additional comments are cleverly inserted by McCoy to elevate this comparison, such as Robert's comment "I didn't have a leg to stand on," implying that that when a horse breaks a leg it must be shot dead.


They Shoot Horses, Don't They? is an innovative crime novel whose genre is seemingly incidental. The murder element is not the focus of the plot, and the plot is progressed by it only structurally. We know from the start who did it and what he did do; the mystery lies in the why. Though the novel fits the categories of crime fiction and its later descriptor, noir fiction, because its focus on character and situation trumps the criminal element, it stands out. The killing itself is also different: a mercy killing with no gain for the killer; the criminal is sympathetic and driven by sleep deprivation, not villainy. He is essentially an incidental murderer.

The Night Sister by Jennifer McMahon

The Night Sister: A Novel - Jennifer McMahon

From Casual Debris.


Jennifer McMahon's The Night Sister is a construct of two prime elements: plot and character. The two are entirely intertwined; just as character relies on plot for its development, characterization is also limited as a result of plot requirements. This produces unevenness as some characters are required only for certain specific aspects of the plot, and remain flat throughout many sections. Regardless of these shortcomings, the novel is a highly enjoyable dramatic suspense story.


The novel opens with the apparent murder-suicide of Amy Slater and her family, with the exception of her daughter Lou, who is found hiding on the roof. A former friend of the killer's, Piper, returns to London, Vermont, to grieve and to help take care of her emotional pregnant younger sister Margot. Finding herself back in the town of her youth, Piper becomes involved in the mystery of the killings and uncovering secrets surrounding Amy's family.


The novel is split into three distinct time periods: the present, a summer in 1989 when Amy, Piper and Margot were young teens, and 1959-1961, focusing on Amy's mother Rose when she was teen. The timelines are clearly indicated (a little too clearly), and though each period revolves around a central mystery, each section has a distinct story-line, which is an achievement. The present is somewhat less interesting than the two pasts and takes up less of the novel (excluding the framing sequences). In the present plot moves slowly as Piper, and on occasion Margot's cop husband Jason, pursue the mystery in brief spurts as each event leads us back to one of the two pasts. Moreover, characterization in the present is limited, as even Piper focuses mostly on her youth and youthful obsession with Amy, while Jason is stock and Margot is present and pregnant only to intensify the eventual climax.


Characterization is strongest in 1989, where we focus primarily on the charismatic, impatient and unlikable Amy, mostly from Piper's point of view. As the girls interact in their corrosive relationship, they stumble on some fragments of Amy's family's past. Amy lives in the motel that her grandfather owned, the Tower Motel, named after the tower he had built for his British wife. Being also the central time period, 1989 is the link between present and the distant past, where the actual mystery begins to unfold. We learn in the 1959-1961 sections that Amy's mother Rose was jealous of sister Suzie, and moreover believed her to be a mare, a changeling able to take on animal form. Rose would follow her sister out to the tower late at night where she would be sneaking around, and hence giving us the novel's title.


The ending is expected but there is nonetheless mystery along the way, as McMahon for the most parts builds upon suspense. The pacing is effective, generating momentum from complication to the climax. The final sequence I found lacking, but this is a symptom of the genre and not poor construct on the author's part. A requirement for the thriller, in book and particularly film, is that after the final reveal there is some kind of action, which rarely plays up to the rest of the work.


Setting also plays key a role. The bulk of the novel is set at the motel and its accompanying tower, with limited time spent in other town spots. Like other elements, setting is important in relation to plot, since the movement of characters and their locations at specific points of the story are defined by the plot.


Academy Mystery Novellas Volume 2: Police Procedurals

Police Procedurals: Academy Mystery Novellas #2 (Academy Mysteries Novellas) - Bill Pronzini, Martin H. Greenberg

From Casual Debris.


In 1985 Academy Chicago Publishers released a four-volume series of books featuring rarely re-printed novellas by popular mystery writers. The books were divided into four mystery sub-genres and included four novellas apiece. The volume titles and themes were: Women Sleuths, Police Procedurals, Locked Room Puzzles and Great British Detectives. The series featured sixteen stories by sixteen different authors, with no writer appearing more than once. Though labeled as novellas some were actually longer short stories, or novelettes. Many of the stories saw little print, which is not surprising as it has always been difficult to publish and re-print stories of such awkward length. The series itself was later reprinted, in 1991, as a boxed set by The Readers' Digest Association.

Volume two in the series is well balanced in that it features two strong stories and two average ones, two real novellas and two novelettes, and though each work follows police procedure, the stories themselves are diverse within the sub-genre. The better works are the first two: McBain's "The Empty Hours" and Westlake's "The Sound of Murder." While the Simenon and Pentecost stories are not bad, they are not memorable and, with so many stories out there, questionable in their re-print worthiness.

McBain's "The Empty Hours" is a cold, distant telling of the murder of a young woman who, despite her modest situation, lived in an expensive apartment with expensive things. The mystery expands and reveals itself very much through official procedure, and culminates in a tragic denouement. Westlake's story is similar in that it too is genuinely tragic, but while McBain's tragedy is brought on by the gritty reality of the urban landscape (specifically New York City), Westlake's tragedy in "The Sound of Murder" is internalized and the petty needs of humanity are reflected in a neurotic and sensitive middle-aged detective.

Georges Simenon's novelette "Storm in the Channel" is a far lighter story than the first two. It involves a recently retired Jules Maigret on holiday with his wife, stranded in a rooming house during a rainstorm, where one of the employees gets murdered. Though there are procedural elements in the investigation, much of the focus is on humour so that it reads more like a cozy than what a reader might expect a procedural to be; paired down to its investigative elements and removing the lightness could have led the story toward its own dramatic tragedy, but instead the death and motivation feel almost incidental. Similarly Hugh Pentecost's "Murder in the Dark" is an uneven story that reads like a fusion between different sub-genres, with the procedural aspect being not among its most notable. In an interesting change the detective is relegated to observer as a secondary player, an initial suspect, abducts the narrative and investigates in a clumsy, inefficient way. Add a love story and other tidbits from assassins to the locked room ("where in the hotel are those diamonds?") and the mish-mashing is complete. The story's greatest achievement is in the confessional written out by our protagonist, and the details in diamond-smuggling, appraisal and retailing that I found fascinating.

With the exception of Pentecost's piece, the investigators themselves play an important part in the story itself. The gritty down-to-earth qualities of McBain's detectives are very much a part of the dark New York landscape. Westlake's detective is a self-questioning and neurotic late middle-aged man whose awareness of his own mortality makes the reader aware of general human mortality, and his self-concern is in striking contrast with the waste in which human life is eventually equated to. Finally, Simenon's detective is more comical and unaffected by the tragedy of the victim in his story, and to me this unfortunately diminishes the characters themselves. In Pentecost the characters are more pastiche, and the detective is a bit player who stands grinning in the background.

Though overall the anthology is somewhat above average, it is certainly an interesting overview of the procedural, at least for the twenty-five years leading up to 1962. I'm certain there are other, more comprehensive anthologies out there dealing with police procedurals, though perhaps not devoted on the longer short form.



Vincent Eri, The Crocodile

The crocodile - Vincent Eri

From Casual Debris.


The first novel in English to have been published from a native of Papua New Guinea is Vincent Eri's The Crocodile. Set before and during the World War II New Guinea campaign which saw the invasion of the nation by Japanese forces, the novel centres primarily on a young man, Hoiri, and his growing awareness of the colonial world in which he lives. Though Hoiri is the main character of the work, the story focuses primarily on the broad effects of Australia's occupation, and on the co-existing world views of traditional Papuan culture and Christianity within a small community.


The novel is structured in an episodic format; there is no linear plot, and the reader witnesses an evolving society through the major events in Hoiri's life. This is important since the purpose of the novel is to illustrate how a traditional culture has been affected by the modern rationalism of the west. Though the locals have adopted financial economics, there is still a good deal exchanged through trade; while Christianity's tenets are tossed about in common conversation, the belief and fear of traditional spirits nonetheless drives people's actions. The pairings of the old and new systems are so interwoven that the world Eri describes both fascinates us and makes us uncomfortable as our own western ways are being indirectly challenged. The disturbing aspect is that as Hoiri and his society age, and as they experience a war brought to them by the occupying west, it becomes clear that the original customs are, rather than intermingling with the new, being replaced by them.


While the novel is certainly educational and fascinating, it is, as a novel, highly flawed. The episodic format does not allow for strong character development, and most of the players are flat and underdeveloped. Leaps in time are sudden and awkward, and though we are following Hoiri on his life adventure, we learn many important details, such as his interest and engagement to the woman Mitori, almost in passing. There is no notion of point of view since we are inexplicably brought into the thoughts of secondary and even tertiary characters, and dialogue is used often as an expository tool, coming across as unnatural.


Despite these obvious flaws, the purpose of The Crocodile is achieved, and our sympathies for Hoiri extend to the entire Papuan populace. It is the notion of the crocodile and its dichotomy that directs most of the novel. The indigenous population respects and fears the crocodile. The creature is described as a powerful predator that nabs its victims and, before devouring them, displays their bodies as they are clenched helplessly between its teeth. Mirroring the crocodile are the white Australian officials who, in their own predatory fashion, manipulate the locals to support them in their own war. Caught between the predators of their natural habitat and those of the external ruling forces, the natives of Papua New Guinea have little choice but to adopt this new way of life, yet nonetheless remain instinctively bound to the old.


Georges Simenon, Storm in the Channel (1938)

From Casual Debris.

In this novelette, a recently retired Inspector Jules Maigret is on holiday in Dieppe with his wife when a fierce rain storm hits. Stranded in an inexpensive boarding house discovered by his thrifty wife, Maigret knows not what to do with himself, but, as often seems the norm for vacationing retired police inspectors, a murder takes place. The local police inspector arrives at the inn to announce that one of the maids, Jeanne Fénard, was shot dead in a nearby alley, and of course the guests are all suspect. As we expect, Maigret reluctantly helps out and eventually betters the local inspector, albeit modestly, in discovering the identity and motive of the killer.

"Storm in the Channel" is a mid-range mystery. Though the deduction, brief and simple, is interesting, the treatment of the material is a little awkward. Unlike Ed McBain's "The Empty Hours," the story is designed in such a way that we have little sympathy for either victim or killer. The tone is light and humourous, focusing largely on the whimsical characters, from the restless Maigret and his fussy wife, to the comical innkeeper Mademoiselle Otard. In fact, the comedy nearly trumps the mystery, so that the reader is distracted from delving too deeply in the story's underlying implications, specifically in the treatment of victim Jeanne Fénard.

Though her appearance in the story is brief, it is made clear in the last pages of the novelette that Fénard is a bad person--so late, in fact, that it comes across as an afterthought. She is introduced as a twenty-something single mother of a four year-old, and later revealed as an embittered man-hating woman opportunist. The reader is expected to accept this off-hand, a shake of the head and a "tsk-tsk," and otherwise revel in the story's comedic antics. However, if the reader takes a moment to consider the implication of this opportunist, we should instead be steeped with sympathy for her.

Offering up a bit of a spoiler here, Personally, I applaud Jeanne Fénard's opportunistic ways in light of the fact that she has been taken advantage of by a careless money-grubbing man and left to raise a child on her own in a small French town in the 1930s. Opportunities for work and social contact for a woman in this predicament, in the bowels of 1938, and particularly in a small town where one's unfortunate circumstances are judged and advertised, I would hope she was opportunistic, and as a result am saddened by her death. Had she succeeded in filching money from the guilty party she would at least have a chance to begin anew in an anonymous town and offer a future for her child. Moreover, nowhere does anyone seem interested in the detail of that four year-old, now motherless, who comes across as a detail less crystallized than the newspaper Maigret occupies his time with.

Simenon chose humour over tragedy and yet the social circumstances cannot be removed from the text. Unfortunately, though it is not a bad story and mostly enjoyable, it left me feeling inappropriately awkward.



Russell Banks, Affliction

Affliction - Russell Banks, Arturo Patten

From Casual Debris.


In Russell Banks's Affliction, small town New Hampshire police officer and local well digger Wade Whitehouse is having a crummy week. A crummy week following a crummy life. Overall a powerful novel, with some great characters, dialogue and absolutely fine writing.


Then why did it take me three weeks to finish this novel?


Told through the point of view of Wade's youngest brother Rolfe, who has pieced the events together in so horribly an obsessive manner that he can imagine what Wade was eating, thinking and feeling throughout these tragic events. Rolfe's obsession came about as a result of wanting to understand the horrible tragedy that Wade's life had become, and to come to terms with those final hours leading to horrible acts of violence. An ingenuous method and wholly believable, yet what slows down the narrative is the vast amount of detail, often repetitive, that I felt were not only needless, but intrusive.


Reading through these details I found myself skimming, my thoughts drifting off, wondering why the narrator is so desperate to pound certain points across, as well as certain minor details. The more he pounded, the less I was inclined to buy into his theories, as though we were kids in the schoolyard and he wanted so badly for me to believe his incredibly tall tale that to help convince me he was being insistent, nodding his head aggressively and staring at me as though daring me to disbelieve. Yet because I trusted him at the beginning, this insistence was simply annoying, and I wanted to tell him to just get on with bloody story already. How exhausting, to the point that I was longing for the schoolyard bell to ring and quiet the little bugger.


And yet it is a powerful novel with some great moments. In all honesty, my rant was exaggerated for effect; annoyed is a strong word and I will certainly hunt me down some more writing by Mr. Banks.


I might even check out the movie.


BĂȘte Noire #3

Bete Noire #3 - A.W. Gifford, Jennifer L. Gifford

From Casual Debris.

The third issue of Bête Noire features seven short stories, along with visual art and poetry. The stories are all half-decent, with no single standout and nothing terrible. Some of the stories could have been a lot better had they been better edited, and the unfortunate typos can be distracting, whereas the grammatical errors are downright embarrassing.

A Warm Place by William M. Brock 6/10
In what is seemingly the near future, humans are co-existing with an arachnid-like alien through a seemingly beneficial arrangement. This story is so short that a longer description would give too much away. Short is all this piece needs; a neat yet simple concept that works nicely. I wonder what the story could have been if told through the third person. We would have a little more distance and emphasis would like on the darker side of the presented reality, rather than the current lightness of tone. Moreover, this first person narrator is oddly presented at times, since the narrator describes a room sees on a daily basis. I can't imagine walking into my office and describing it's appearance; I'd naturally be taking it for granted. If there is a specific audience, the narrator would be detailing more about the situation, since much is only hinted at. A small point though some attention would improve the story; it is nonetheless entertaining.

Charlie's House by Cody Rosevear 5/10
A mother is awoken by her daughter who claims there are sounds in the walls keeping her from sleeping. An effective little piece with a good ending is unfortunately marred by problematic prose and poor grammar. The opening sentence, "Susan's dreams crumbled away from her like sand turning to mud in the wake of an ocean wave," is nonsensical. The process of sand turning to mud has no relation to the act of crumbling, but instead is a form of dissolution. Many sentences are similarly over-written, and such a brief piece should be building tension which is better accomplished through brief and direct statements. "Susan awoke in the middle of the night" is a better option. "Susan awoke in the middle of the night. There was someone in her room." And so forth. Moreover, there are too many clunky details that also prevent mounting tension, with every "she said" accompanied by an action or a thought or a detail of some kind. Quick dialogue in the context of the plot would better serve the story.

"[H]er skin wrinkled with worry, like old paper." I didn't think old paper could worry itself to wrinkling. Aside from some grammatically ambiguous sentences, or where the subject fails to meet its predicate, are elementary tense switches. The story opens in the past tense and an early paragraph is suddenly in the present. Lastly, the story title along the top of each page is printed in plural: "Charlie's Houses."

Truly unfortunate as the story has potential, and I genuinely like the ending for reason I cannot discuss since it would spoil the work.

Lucky Buck by Jim Valenti 6/10
In a library book Buck finds a dollar on which is written "Lucky Dollar." From then on Buck receives all kinds of luck, but not the kind one would hope to have. (Reminds me of a great story I read years back, "The" by Name and Name.) A quick and amusing piece, with a neat title as it is an alternate way of saying "lucky dollar."

Crossfire by Tony Haynes 6/10
A crime noir private investigator piece, with our tough-talking hero Lasky being jerked around through a scenario in which he is clueless. Entertaining with some genuinely good lines, it is more parody as our hero lacks the brains of the likes of Sam Spade, seems never to get the girl, nor does he profit financially, which is what many of his noir counterparts rely on. Far less of a parody, however, than Robert Coover's excellent 2010 novel Noir.

Invasion by Lawrence Buentello 6/10
Farmer Otis is alone at his farm where he is determined to have a final stand against the locusts that are swarming his property. In fact, locusts are swarming several states, and neither farmer nor government can defeat them. (While the U.S. states are slowly being devoured, we never learn of the rest of the world, so I suppose here in Canada we are safe. A good consequence in a U.S.-centric story.)

Overall a good read, but there do lie a number of problems. Farmer Otis comes across less sympathetic than intended, but I couldn't always take him seriously. There are problems in logic as well: Since the locusts infested every interior, covering the insides of the barn and the truck's engine, how come there isn't a single insect in the house? Not a one. How could he sit in that house without a single locust? Instead of fleeing to the city, the entire city should take refuge in that house. Moreover, the locusts have eaten all the crops, so why are they still there? Normally they move over in search of more food, but these guys just hang around, and more even join the clan, despite the fact that is nothing left for them to eat. Why doesn't farmer Otis just wait it out in the house where he is safe, until the locusts just collapse from starvation.

Finally, some of the story is over-written, and that opening paragraph is not necessary. A better opening sentence would have been one taken from the second paragraph: "The Agriculture Department promised that the infestation would dissipate in a week or so." Now there's mystery for ya.

Despite the issues I had with the story, I nonetheless enjoyed the thing, and the author certainly did well in presenting these locusts as a threat.

Full Circle by Chrystalla Thoma 5/10
Fantasy told through the point of a huntress appointed by God to deliver fallen angels. The story is told via a conversation between our huntress Luna, and a minor angel and archer Ayil, a figure Luna has feelings for. These kinds of stories are really not my thing, but this one was well written, the necessary information well handled and delivered, so my interest was kept.

Funhouse Mirror by A.W. Gifford 5/10
A young couple visit a funhouse, the husband overly excited while the wife reticent, even fearful. As we expect, some kind of horror in the hall of mirrors will ensue. From the co-editor of Bete Noire, the story is fairly standard, though while we do expect the worse, we don't necessarily see the form in which it comes. Unfortunately, the numerous typos make for clunky reading.

Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, April 1964

Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, April 1964 -  Richard E. Decker

From the Alfred Hitchcock Introduction on the inside cover:


"Dear Friends: Just as the robin is the harbinger of Spring, so here, in this April issue, you will find robbin' and other crimes solved in mystery and suspense to presage hours of reading enjoyment."


"Other crimes solved" is an odd descriptor (and "robbin'" a terrible pun), particularly since more than one crime in the issue remains unsolved, at least from the legal point of view; the criminal revealed to the reader alone.


This introduction, penned no doubt by a staff member, perhaps even an intern, includes a blurb for "my new anthology, ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS STORIES MY MOTHER NEVER TOLD ME, which, by Jove, she never did." A reminder that these magazines served well in promoting related merchandise, including other magazines owned by the same parent company.


Marketing aside, this is an overall strong issue, highlighted by a clever Jack Ritchie piece, an excellent Lawrence Block story, and an obscure comedic treasure by David Mutch.


For my review of the individual stories, please visit Casual Debris.


Norman Bogner, Snowman (1978)

Snowman - Norman Bogner

Norman Bogner's 1978 novel Snowman is essentially an adventure story with some elements of horror. The Himalayan Yeti has made its way to the Sierra mountains in California, where he has transformed a brand new ski resort into a self-service snack bar. The snacks decide to rebel, but afraid of turning away potential visitors (i.e. re-stocking the snack bar), the head cheese decides to hire some mercenaries, led by Daniel Bradford and his Sherpa guide, leftovers of the legendary snowman dinner of 1966.

I enjoyed the first six chapters, totalling seventy-four pages of blood and amoral behaviour. When the local ski queen is torn to pieces, her remains left as evidence that she is only the appetizer, small town newspaper mogul Jim Ashby manipulates resort managers and the town sheriff to buy some time and locate former great Daniel Bradford. Our '66 survivor is now an outcast, since popular belief is that the nineteen victims of his tragic expedition to the Lhotse mountain face were disposed of not by the legendary Yeti, but by Bradford's own cowardice. Now Bradford wants revenge, and as soon as Ashby locates him on an Indian reservation somewhere deep in a dusty desert, I quickly lose interest in the entire adventure, and can hope only that the snowman has a healthy appetite.

At first I thought this was because I found Bradford comical, with his pop mysticism complete with peyote-popping and a bearded Yaqui buddy. Yet why should I lose interest over this? Why not instead hope that our famished snow creature uses him as a toothpick? I realized only after finishing the novel that what bothered me more than the badly conceived character was the extreme switch in setting. Bogner managed to get me all cocooned up in the icy mountains of Sierra, boarded in with the colourful resort staff he described at length, only to remove me from that grip and toss me into its complete antithesis: an open, sweltering desert landscape. When I was plopped back into the snow, I just didn't care for it anymore. Gone was the coziness; gone the icy excitement of silliness to come; gone was my interest.

Yet like our wintry hikers I trudged on, only to groan at the ludicrous page-and-a-half love story between Bradford and resort Public Relations officer Cathy Parker. The entire scene was an afterthought, possibly forced onto Bogner by his publishers ("We need a love story here, Normy. What we need is SEX!"). All of a sudden the penetrating cold is again heated up by the penetratingly bad writing and awkward breast fondling. There really isn't any heat here: the sex is dull and brief, yet long enough (pun intended) to inform the curious reader that rugged and manly Bradford is a tender lover, leaving us to wonder what genre we have unknowingly been tricked into reading.

[Tiny spoiler.] Cathy disappears through much of the novel, as do the colourful characters we meet at the still-entertaining beginning. Why should we be made to read about Erich, the German instructor who was hired despite a bad record because the company believed he might give the resort a European flavour? This is a good detail, but we never see the guy again. Additional afterthoughts are the sudden re-introduction of Ashby in the final chapter; he disappears throughout much of the latter novel, only to re-appear briefly in the final pages wallowing in guilt. This is an inappropriate comeuppance for the character: he needs to have been eaten up. Indeed, he should have been a fitting dessert!

Aside from early-Ashby there are no interesting characters. The mercenaries are stock: the white Vietnam war veteran; the black dude; the tall long-haired American-Indian; the Sherpa guide; the white American loner dude. Cathy Parker, who I initially believed would be the novel's hero, keeps changing personality page-to-page. And the snowman, with his heat-ray vision and animal call mimicry, is not too threatening. There is an early Kodiak-killing scene that is quite good, but I think since some portions of the novel are told through the monster's point of view, it does not appear as threatening to the reader as it does to the characters, who knows less of the creature than we do. And it doesn't help when you're cheering for the beast.

[Some more spoilers.] I am baffled as to why Bradford selected these men in particular for the snowman hunt. They are not terribly resourceful. The Indian is afraid of heights, the black guy won't step inside the cave, while the traumatized war vet rants on and on about being a peon in the war, and they are all actively argumentative. Even their limited talents cannot be utilized on the mountain: the explosives expert, for instance, can't bring along any explosives since it would cause an avalanche. Then why recruit the guy! Each freaks out at some point, and they all get killed. In fact, Bradford doesn't even inform his gang that the snowman can expertly mimic any living animal, so that one guy gets called away because he thinks he can hear someone, only to become a late-night bite. Moreover, Bradford doesn't seem to care about these guys; rather than call in the government he wants to bring these men up against the twenty-five foot monster because he wants vengeance. Yet revenge for what we do not know: the death of nineteen members of his team or the fact that he has since had to live in exile on an Indian reservation, discredited and humiliated? It is unclear what is driving this man, and labelling his drive in terms of "revenge" is too simplistic a way out. Captain Ahab he is not. He isn't even Captain Crunch.

From Casual Debris.


James Herbert, The Rats (1974)

The Rats - James Herbert

From Casual Debris.


There is nothing intelligent about The Rats: the social commentary is incidental, the writing is plain, and while the structure is interesting it is far from ground-breaking. Yet the novel is, without respite, highly entertaining.

"Without respite" is an easy claim as the book is quite short, but Herbert's structure, the short sequences, constantly changing locations, growing tensions and simple writing make for a speedy, tense-filled read. The novel is structured around various rat attack scenes interspersed with quieter moments. Tender scenes of love (sex) between our hero Harris and his lover Judy, or tender scenes of officials discussing (arguing) the vermin problem. (Seriously, nothing about this novel is tender: the sex is fleeting and unnecessary while the officials are portrayed as competitive and limelight hungry.) The novel progresses with a mounting rodent threat and the increased involvement of East End high school art teacher Harris, all of which come to a satisfying climax.


The rodent attacks begin in localized areas with a small number of victims, and progress to mass attacks such as a subway train and Harris's own high school. It is interesting that with the early attacks Herbert chose to give the victims quite a bit of back-story, then quickly had them consumed by rats. I'm not aware if this were at the time a convention, but I was fully immersed in the back-stories, from the closeted salesman Henry Guilfoyle to the once religious Irish girl now vagrant Mary Kelly. For whatever as yet unknown reason, I enjoyed the technique.


These chapters are set beside those of Harris's early involvement as one of his students appears in class with a rat bite, and the tension mounts until we find ourselves amid more large scale attacks. The structure of an active chapter followed by a quiet one allows the reader a bit of a breather between attacks, which is needed since each attack starts slowly and mounts nicely. If we were to jump from one maddening climactic moment to the slow quiet beginnings of pre-attack, it would be more difficult each time for the reader to muster up the required energy to get involved with the scene. The drawback is that some of the quieter chapters, such as when Harris and Judy visit the countryside, come across as a little dull, but really I believe this is because their relationship itself is a little dull.

Though I was invested with the early victims and their history, I didn't care too much for Harris or Judy. Our teacher's story is that he is originally from the East End and knows the rat area well, which gives him first-hand experience with the vermin and allows him, a simple school teacher, to become part of the government operative against these rats. While it was not strictly necessary for such a book to have a single protagonist, it lends the novel a sense of continuity which I liked, probably because the book is so short. Moreover, utilizing an average guy in the midst of the action can easily bring the reader into that midst as well. This is no fully-trained special forces rodent killer operative, but just some dude who happens to be quick-witted and concerned for his fellow Londoners. As for Judy, she is a non-character, present only so that our hero Harris can have someone discuss the stress of the invasion, and more importantly, so he can get laid.


Herbert's writing is nothing special but that is an advantage for such a fast-paced read. It would have been nice had he not used the same words over and over and over again, but that's a minor qualm. What did not work for me stylistically is his attempt at internal monologue. A few characters, from Harris to the required British official Foskins (who is a good deal more complex than Harris) had their internal thoughts brought out in the midst of the story in awkward third person narrative. When Harris and Foskins are at the pub together and Harris leaves, we are suddenly wallowing in Foskins's thoughts, an odd leap since the main character has just stepped away and I felt jolted by Foskins's unexpected voice. Another ill-use of the interior monologue occurs near the end, as Harris is rushing toward the novel's climactic scene. Here the rats are continuously being referred to as "evil," which bothered me. Simply put, they are not evil but animals acting on instinct. I believe the word is supposed to be attributed as part of Harris's own stress-filled perceptions, but it ends up coming across as a poor attempt to create drama and to increase the threat of these creatures.

I mention earlier that the social commentary is incidental. Apparently some people were upset at the portrayal of London's canals and garbage situation, but I did not find it accusatory. There is some direct yet brief comments suggesting these areas be made sanitary, but there is no alternative considered, no solution offered, no soap box beneath the author's feet, and no character that represents a better way of life. Moreover, the sanitation situation is necessary for the plot to unfold. There is in addition a scene depicting city workers using virus injected puppies as easy prey to the rats in an attempt to spread a poison throughout the rodent populace, and Herbert is careful not to offend animal rights activists by continuously explaining how Harris is sickened by this and refuses to actively participate. Repeats it often enough to irritate me, and even has Harris lifting a puppy and caressing it, giving it some raw meat as a kind of last supper and thinking moreover of what a wonderful animal lover Judy is... give it a rest.


Another strong aspect of the novel is Herbert's depiction of London. The city is a dark, filthy urban centre of heartache and lost opportunities. The poor community souls we meet have each found some sort of pre-rat infestation sorrow, even tragedy in the case of poor Mary Kelly. The tube stations, dingy churchyards, cinemas and even the zoo are all seen in the dark or, in the case of the high school, in the light while showing off the grilled windows, creepy basements (we don't see it except for the rats and the boot of some poor soul) and disorganized staff. Harris's own flat is located near the top of a taller building, feeling immediately that it is safe from the ground, and in a brief sequence we watch alongside Harris as the streets below are infested with hordes of the over-sized creatures. The only truly safe place appears to be the government buildings, where people discuss the situation openly and nobody thinks to look over their shoulder. London is truly the most complex among the characters, and the city adds a good deal to the narrative.

Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Bar The Doors - H.G. Wells, Martin Armstrong, Alexander Woollcott, Alfred Hitchcock, Ambrose Bierce, Francis Marion Crawford, August Derleth, DuBose Heyward, Peter  Fleming, Samuel Hopkins Adams, Wilbur Daniel Steele, Margaret Irwin, Alfred Noyes, McKnight Malmar

For my full review, and reviews of each individual story, please visit Casual Debris.


Bar the Doors is Hitchcock's second foray into the anthology field, and in my opinion among his strongest; certainly the strongest of the early books, though he likely had little or no input into this collection, ghost-edited by Don Ward.

I first read Bar the Doors when I was quite young, it may indeed have been my first Hitchcock anthology. The stories, for the most part, stand up well against today's standards; what they at times might lose to originality they have gained in writing. Reading these earlier suspense stories, whether they be of ghosts or strange island curses, it impresses me how much better our suspense writers were of old. Of course, at the time there were few stigmas associated with being a "genre" writer, so that Dickens and later Fitzgerald could create their own fantasies about haunted houses, railway stations or massive mountain-sized diamonds and people aging backwards, and no respected literary critic would roll his or her eyes. It is the attitude toward genre writing that has (partially, of course) helped to damage the quality of genre writing.

Whatever the cause for our literary decline, it is true that we must read the masters in order to learn the craft, or simply if we desire a cozy little fright.


I would like to reproduce the introduction in its entirety, but there's this thing called copyright. Many of the introductions in these AHP anthologies are brief and little more than introductory (and sometimes even less), yet this one is nicely detailed. "[T]he publishers asked me to bring together a group of tales which I admire because of their skillful handling of the element of terror." Hitchcock would be the person I too would turn to for such a grouping, and he (well, our ghost editor, really) does a fine job with the selections here, and in particular "The Storm," "The Kill," "Midnight Express" and "The Upper Berth" are perfect examples of the "skillful" treatment of terror and suspense. Some stories might appear a little dated in that their subject matter is by now all-too familiar, but I can imagine how in 1945 this little collection was such a great success for, as the blurb indicates, these are the "superlative" tales. Hitchcock/Ward points to the range of stories in the collection, acknowledging them as wide and hence not all readers might find each individual selection appealing, especially since the source of the terror is quite different in each of the pieces. He then proceeds to isolate the specific story elements that contain the terror, and this makes for a good read once the stories themselves have been read.


The Town - Bentley  Little

For my full review, please visit Casual Debris.


It is that singleness of effect which Edgar Allan Poe wrote about that makes the short story such a potentially powerful art form. Horror fiction is best suited to the short form, as a single effect or the simplest idea can generate a thunderous impact. A horror novel, on the other hand, must employ a greater variety of effect, of mood and emotion, and certainly of suspense and mystery, in order to be successful in its medium. Along with comedy it is arguably the most difficult genre in the long form, and few lengthy novels are truly successful. It is difficult to maintain a single source of tension over two hundred and more pages as the reader will likely tire of the monotony; variety shifts the reader's attention, whether the variety is in plot or effect. It is not normally enough to populate a novel with numerous characters and stretch the singular idea through character diversity, no matter how many dimensions those characters might have. If the novel's focus of tension is left dangling from a single source idea, it will soon wear thin. This is the first failure of Bentley Little's The Town.


The Town is structured through a series of episodes involving a number of characters, though centred mainly around Gregory Tomasov and his family. After winning a substantial Los Angeles lottery and as a consequence feeling idle and inconsequential, Tomasov moves his family (wife, three children and practicing Molokan mother) to his childhood home town of McGuane, Arizona. We soon learn that their new home, along with the entire town, is over-run with "uninvited" spirits. The episodic structure does not suit this novel well, as the episodes are often not directly connected to the central idea, and many scenes do little in enhancing or revealing the mystery around the strange occurrences. The novel does have a clear direction, yet it has little in the way of plot, and this awkward, clunky format leaves the work uneven.


Some scenes are certainly tense, and we find ourselves climbing up a slope toward its climactic peak, while others are seemingly pointless or just plain silly, tossing a roadblock ahead of us and stunting that upward climb. In maintaining its good moments and excising the silly, The Town could have been a decent novella. There is a nice chapter involving a boy who takes a picture of the evil banya, quickly developing the film to reveal the empty and run-down bathhouse filled with the wrinkled forms of some elderly ghosts. Another good moment has Tomasov's wife volunteering at the local library, happily chatting it up with the other volunteers until she learns that each are hopelessly paranoid, believing that the government is concealing the truth about a meteor that is hurtling toward the earth and a doom-filled collision. This tense and surprising moment is shortly followed by a scene depicting a Molokan priest being attacked by his bible. I could not help but laugh and think of Bruce Campbell and the fluttering book in the sam Raimi film Army of Darkness.


Bentley Little seems to have had a fairly general and abstract idea, and rather than unite the small parts into a solid an cohesive whole, he simply fills 276 pages with as many creepy (or silly) scenes that fail to help ground the work. Just because something is supernatural does not mean it should not be governed by some form of logic. This is the novel's secondary flaw.


Despite these two major flaws the novel is strangely not terrible, and this is a mystery I have spent some minutes investigating. The characterization, including relationships, general interaction and internal thought processes, is quite good. There is here an unevenness as well, as some characters are inexplicably shoved to the background (not just in Odd disappearing but Tomasov's daughter Sasha is forgotten over much of the novel's middle while her two siblings are given a large amount of attention). There are some nice surprises near the end and the writing itself is competent. There is also some clunkiness provided by the publisher/printer in the unusual number of typos.The Town is the second novel by Little I have read, and without doubt The Store is a superior work.


Incidentally, On a side note, The Store is mentioned in passing: "There were no chain stores, no corporate gas stations... There was no Wal-Mart or The Store, no Texaco or Shell..." (20)

Classic Mysteries: A Collection of Mind-Bending Mysteries - Barbara Kiwak, Molly Cooper

For my complete review & reviews of individual stories, please visit Casual Debris.



It is a clever though not unique method to tempt a young audience to read classic authors, such as Chekhov, Twain and Poe, by collecting together a selection of their mysteries. This would also perhaps encourage them to chase down further classic works. This trick worked well on me as a ten year-old. I was first exposed to mysteries from those Alfred Hitchcock Random House anthologies geared to young readers, starting with Spellbinders in Suspense and quickly moving onto other titles. To add to my quickly growing interest in suspense stories, my elementary school English teacher, Mrs. Wise, read aloud some of the classics, and it was from her that I first encountered W.W. Jacobs's "The Monkey's Paw." A little later, as a twelve year-old in my first high school English class, I was first exposed to the wonders of Poe with "The Tell-Tale Heart," and to Shirley Jackson's masterful "The Lottery." There was no turning back.

Classic Mysteries: A Collection of Mind-bending Mysteries collects six such works, all originally published between 1844 and 1927. The stories collected here make up an odd but interesting mix. The title is a little much, though, as really only two of the selections can be called mind-bending, and not because they are beyond reason, but because they have enough plot twists to at least bend the course of one's thoughts. These are Mark Twain's "A Curious Experience" and Anna Katharine Green's "The Ruby and the Caldron." I wonder about the choice to include the weaker Clarence Rook piece; I suppose a young female sleuth would prevent alienating female readers. In fact, most of the stories do have a strong female element, which is refreshing, and likely a conscious consideration by female editor Molly Cooper.

Each author is introduced by Cooper and each story is highlighted by a pencil sketch from Barbara Kiwak. The introductions are quite good as they include some unusual tidbits amid the standard biographical fare we encounter in countless anthologies. The drawings are from an integral point of each story and are a nice addition. Drawn simply and thankfully without modern pretensions, sticking to their time periods, with not too much detail but enough to make the image real and whole. I like Kiwak's interpretations of both the situations and the characters.

Overall the book would entertain most youths, I think, though for adult readers some of the stories are a little tame. I have always enjoyed the works of Chekhov and Twain, and the selections by both are very good, particularly Twain's piece. I was also impressed with lesser-known Anna Katharine Green piece.


Currently reading

I Shudder at Your Touch
Clive Barker, Stephen King, Valerie Martin, Various Authors, Carolyn Banks, Michele B. Slung, May Sinclair, Stephen R. Donaldson, Thomas M. Disch, Ruth Rendell
Jeff Strand, Lisa Morton, Mercedes M. Yardley, Brad C. Hodson, Aeron Alfrey, Megan Hart, John Skipp, Scott Nicholson
Progress: 109/366 pages
Thieves Like Us: A Novel
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