Casual Debris

John Saul, Asylum

Asylum - John Saul

 

And the hexalogy closes with a whimper. The final book of Saul's Blackstone Chronicles completes the serialized work as expected, since throughout the series there has been only one logical suspect behind the distribution of the asylum artifacts. I did not mind the explanation and can even forgive the sickeningly overt sentimental closure as it is in keeping with the rest of the text, but there is an immense flaw in this final entry that I cannot overlook.

The revelatory explanation for the strange events that have occurred in the town of Blackstone is altogether rational, and yet the events themselves are depicted as being supernatural. Therefore, the explanation contradicts the events they are attempting to explain.

I won't elaborate further as the elaboration includes spoilers. You can find the spoiler-filled details here.

Source: http://casualdebris.blogspot.com/2018/08/john-saul-asylum.html

John Saul, The Stereoscope

Day of Reckoning:  The Stereoscope (Blackstone Chronicles, Part 5) - John Saul

From Casual Debris.

 

So far the strongest entry of the series. Despite some suspense fiction cliches, Part Five of John Saul's serialized The Blackstone Chronicles is better paced and more focused than the previous books. It is through the focused narrative of this part that I became conscious that the presence of the mysterious, evil figure is distracting, adding little to the narrative, and actually decreasing the mystery element of the work as a whole, and I wonder what kind of read we would have if the scenes with the figure were excised.

Plot-wise, the main focus is on Bill McGuire, who unknowingly takes the cursed gift of a stereoscope into his home. His family is quickly (and forcefully) set up as ultra loving, with overly supportive wife Bonnie and sweet 'n innocent daughter Amy, along with the over-sized loving puppy. (Yes, yes, we can immediately foretell the fate of the beloved family pet.)

Side plots feature Oliver Metcalf learning more about his deceased twin sister's death, and on his wish to exorcise the demons of his past. Whereas Rebecca has been kidnapped and locked away in a cold room of the asylum. As these segments are brief and well interspersed, they come across as more effective than the sub-plots in previous volumes, and do not interfere with the main plot.

This level of focus should have been achieved by part four, since by then the formula of these little books have become too predictable and tired, and thereby part four comes across as the weakest; I for one hurried through its pages and paused before picking up "The Stereoscope." The denouement of "The Stereoscope" is, with slight variation, essentially the same as each predecessor, but does, with its elevated structure, act as a better precursor to the final volume than any of the previous books.

Source: http://casualdebris.blogspot.com/2018/07/john-saul-stereoscope-1997.html

John Saul, The Handkerchief

In the Shadow of Evil: The Handkerchief - John Saul

From Casual Debris.

 

 

 

The fourth part of John Saul's serially published The Blackstone Chronicles focuses on a handkerchief. If italicized prologues are to be believed, this cursed item is embroidered with a fancy R by an asylum patient who deliriously believes she is living at society's upper social echelons. Drama ensues, which includes the less-than-pleasant nurse using the handkerchief to wipe spaghetti sauce (I'm assuming tomato) from her uniform, and, tossed in for good measure, some old asylum water therapy/torture.

Enter our buddy Oliver Metcalf, editor of Blackstone's local paper, The Chronicle. Arriving at the office he learns from his assistant that local gossip Edna Burnham has been spreading theories related to the recent trend of violent deaths. Burnham connects the three deaths to the mysterious gifts each household received shortly before tragedy struck, and in addition links it all back to the asylum. Editor Metcalf refuses to believe there is any connection, is not aware of any mysterious gifts, and generally scoffs at the woman's ideas. Yet the reader, aware of the all-too-obvious connections, is left to wonder if perhaps town gossip Burnham should depose Metcalf and serve as The Chronicle's, and Blackstone's, top investigative reporter.

Following her aunt's death in Part Two, Rebecca is taken in by librarian Germaine Wagner and her wheelchair bound mother, "Miss Clara." As I discussed in my review of "The Dragon's Flame," Germain is only one of two negative characters in the series (this was before we were introduced to Clara), both being unmarried women. In her previous home Rebecca was likened to Carrie, whereas here she is treated like Cinderella, with Prince Oliver delivering the cursed handkerchief as though it were a glass slipper. Germaine usurps the gift, passing it onto her mother who seems to know something of its history. Germaine takes it back and begins to hallucinate, and the predictable occurs.

Our side plots include Oliver rummaging through old asylum case files, and bankers & contractors & lawyers (Bill McGuire and Ed Becker and a woman, all interchangeable) visiting the asylum to help assure themselves the investment is sound. There Becker comes across a chest of drawers he decides to purchase (a presentiment of things to come?).

Part Four is more of the same. It reads like filler in that nothing new is discovered, only some minor details regarding Oliver's father which we already suspected. Both build-up of the main plot and its drawn out climactic sequence are familiar. Saul tries to escalate suspense by pairing the climax alongside Olliver's realizations about his father, but since the former is predictable and the latter delivers no surprises nor conclusions, the effect is flat and I found myself rushing through it all. I expect the fifth book to be a similar filler-type entry, with part six being the most interesting, at least of the second half of the series.

Finally, amid all this drama, the most intriguing mystery is left unsolved. When Germaine takes the handkerchief from Rebecca, she notices it is "spotless and neatly pressed." (29) Now, how did the asylum staff get all that spaghetti sauce out of the fabric?

Source: http://casualdebris.blogspot.com/2018/06/saul-john-handkerchief-1997.html

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.
Source: http://casualdebris.blogspot.com/2018/06/michael-blumlein-keeping-house.html

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.

Prisoner 489

Prisoner 489 - Joe R. Lansdale From Casual Debris.

As the second installment of Dark Regions Press's series of novallas by established genre authors, Dark Labyrinth, Prisoner 489 welcomed Lansdale back to folds of traditional horror. The novella takes place on a small burial island near a maximum security prison, where the executed are laid to rest. Doing time for their own misdeeds, three men live and work the island, and are faced with an unusual situation when the corpse of the latest prisoner, labeled 489, is brought to the island for burial.

The novella can be broken down into three distinct sections: the premise, the tale of Prisoner 489, and the final ensuing island chase. The strongest third of the book is the first, where we learn of the burial island and its three inhabitants. The island setting and the repetitive routine of the three occupants is so interesting that the book, what is essentially a stretched out short story, could have been further stretched out to novel-length. For the state to invest so much in the burial of executed prisoners is a fascinating detail in itself, indicating that these prisoners are unique, a fact confirmed by the unnamed 489.

While Lansdale does well in serving up an excellent premise and landscape, the characters who inhabit this little island are a little too generic. While being serviceable, the climactic chase scene manages to somehow diminish them a little, rather than allow them to blend into the drama. The attempt at humour during the tense moments unfortunately does not help. Despite this aside the book is a good read, and gorgeously presented in layout, and particularly with the inclusion of the excellent artwork by Santiago Caruso. Generous in number, each illustration is worth its page. In fact, the little book's entire design is sleek and attractive, adding to the reading experience. For me the physical book itself can be as valued as its contents, and in this case it even enhances the experience of reading.

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.

Source: http://casualdebris.blogspot.ca/2017/10/ellery-queen-lamp-of-god.html

Ashes to Ashes: The Dragon's Flame

Ashes to Ashes:  The Dragon's Flame - John Saul From Casual Debris


The third part of John Saul's Blackstone Chronicles series is an improved entry over its pair of predecessors, as its formulaic bits are more focused and intertwined.

The italicized introductory pages present a disturbing account of a young woman being ostracized by family and community as a result of an accidental pregnancy. This is followed by the horrific loss of the baby while mother is still locked away at the asylum. Though the sequence is brief, it is effective primarily due to its content. In addition, the brief narrative is directly linked to the plot of this novella, as opposed to the random connection in Part Two's "The Locket."

"The Dragon's Flame" introduces us to Andrea, Martha Ward's prodigal daughter, and cousin to heroine Rebecca Morrison. Her employer/partner has fired her from her job and tossed her out of their apartment. Pregnant and abandoned, Andrea returns to Blackstone and to her mother's home as she has nowhere else to go. Unlike the previous recipients of possessed asylum memorabilia, Andrea lives not the perfect life of the financially comfortable, but is already a victim of life prior to getting victimized by whatever vengeance-seeker is spreading the asylum toys throughout the town. Because of her situation and the reader's natural empathy, we care more about her than we did about the McGuires and the Hartwicks of the previous books. Moreover, since the likable cousin Rebecca is deeply involved in this plot, we have another layer of interest and empathy dropped onto us.

Because the characters, though fairly two-dimensional, are better developed than those in the "The Doll" and "The Locket," the reader is more invested in them, and Saul, by accruing this investment from the reader, has thereby taken on the responsibility of delivering a better book. If we invest and the author flops out at the end, our investment will fail and we will be less likely to trust in the author in the future. However, a good return on our investment will have us rushing over to part four of the series. The ending here is two-fold, with Andrea's expected fate occurring rather early, followed by a not-too-surprising additional climax that leaves Rebecca homeless and the series delivered directly into the story-line of Part Four.

Though I am using adjectives along the lines of expected and anticipated, as there are no surprises and the linear plot is all too linear, this entry is a slightly better read not only due to our own empathy, but in the further development of the overall story. The players Rebecca and Oliver, protagonists involved primarily on the periphery, have now climbed over the plot border in order to take part in the main story. This usurping of the narrative by Rebecca and Oliver places conscious emphasis on the fact that this novella is not a stand-alone work but a chapter of a novel. As a novella there is no real protagonist since Andrea, Rebecca and Oliver serve that role at different points. Though the book promises, with its initial focus and premise, to be about Andrea, she is conveniently cast aside so that the focus shifts over to the larger plot's protagonists.

Twist of Fate: The Locket

Twist of Fate: The Locket - John Saul From Casual Debris.

"The Locket" is the second novella in John Saul's Blackstone Chronicles. It is weaker than it's fairly average predecessor, "The Doll," but the broader story is made more interesting as characters peripheral to the main plot are further developed, generating expectations for their own stories in later chapters of the series. In addition, the focus on the peripherals helps crystallize the community and develop readers' interest in the over-arching tale.

We saw in the first part of the Blackstone Chronicles that a doll stashed away at the local derelict asylum was reclaimed by a mysterious figure and planted at the home of the McGuires in an act of unspecified vengeance. The goal was to destroy family harmony, which was successfully achieved. In the second part a locket is obtained from the same closed off stores of the asylum by the same mysterious figure, and delivered to another happy home, that of banker Jules Hartwick and family. Clutching this locket leads Jules to develop an outwardly aggressive persecution complex, which escalates in a straight line until the expected climax.

Saul makes sure to set up his victim as an all-around likable rich guy. The family members, parents and one grown-up daughter, Celeste, love each other undeniably. Daughter is about to marry a super cool dude who works at dad's bank and daddy dotes on him. They are good, community-oriented bankers who do good for their fellow townsfolk and, despite being top dog, daddy wishes good morning to all them common folk, like the tellers and what-not. He never even asks his female secretary to get him coffee! A true modern male role model. (Arguably, Saul could have created a female manager and a male secretary, but perhaps that was too modern for the bygone days of 1997. Alas, despite the date of publication and setting, the community presented in the series is an old fashioned one that hearkens back to Bedford Falls.) The streak of good people we have so mat in Blackstone is unevenly balanced by the few (I count two so far) "bad" characters, both dissatisfied middle-aged women who lack a man in their lives. Character depth is certainly not something this series boasts.

The fall of good people is tied to heritage, as we learn there are familial ties between the asylum of the past, where treatment of patients was less than ideal, to the happy families of today. What we do not yet know is the source of the vengeance, who is conspiring against the good folk of Blackstone, and from where doth ye olde magic manifest itself from. We also know that the local journalist has a supernatural connection with the asylum's past, and receives visions and headaches whenever something is up. As his pa was once curator or director or some such at the asylum, we can suspect that he will likely uncover the plot of vengeance that is a-brewing, using his reporter skills and advice from the kindly uncle. Uncle aside, he has no family so perhaps will not be the object of an asylum trinket, or perhaps kindly uncle will meet an awful demise in Book Six.

Overarching story aside, the plot of locket is a straightforward tale of paranoia. It escalates in a straight line, without twist or any deviation whatsoever, and the trigger is the locket that its victim Jules clutches. At least with "The Doll" there was a tie-in with the object, while the locket is incidental; might as well have been a crown or a ring or a hot dog. Without the greater story riding astride this plot, as a piece of fiction it would be unnecessary and un-publishable.

An Eye for an Eye: The Doll

An Eye for an Eye: The Doll - John Saul From Casual Debris.

This first novella in the series opens with introductory italicized text sharing the backstory of a boy being brought to an asylum, separated from his mother, but not from his doll. We are then gathered along with the townsfolk to witness the demolition of that asylum which for nearly a century loomed over the small New Hampshire community of Blackstone, and that will now make way for the construction of a modern commercial complex. That night a figure enters the asylum via a hole made by the ceremonial first demolition strike, and takes from its storage a doll that once belonged to an inmate.

This doll is delivered mysteriously to the house of the McGuires, Bill and the very pregnant Elizabeth, and daughter Megan immediately takes a liking to it. An unusual struggle for the doll develops between mother and daughter, which the doll seems to somehow be perpetuating. This struggle is the most interesting aspect of the book, as it keeps the story hovering between the psychological and the supernatural, but it is unfortunately under-developed and seems even incidental. This idea is a little reminiscent of Ramsay Campbell's little known but good Night of the Claw (St. Martin's Press, 1983), where the supernatural generates the psychological, and while Campbell establishes the supernatural element, Saul in his book skirts it. There is enough evidence that the doll has some kind of supernatural link, though there is no overt supernatural occurrence in the book; everything can be explained rationally. The evidence in the supernatural is the sudden change in the two characters, Elizabeth and Megan, with the appearance of the doll, highlighted by the lack of change in Bill. Perhaps Elizabeth, in her near delivery state, can accommodate such a shift in personality, but for Megan to believe that a doll is communicating telepathically with her is a stretch. There is no indication whatsoever that Megan has experienced any kind of psychological phenomena that would include hearing voices, but instead the entire family is presented as a solid, upstanding family. Elizabeth has been struggling with stresses around her pregnancy, such as the fact that this is her final chance at giving birth to another child, but these details are included for plot purposes only, since it is this pressure that leads to the community's later accepting the eventual events that I will not divulge, but that honestly are fairly predicable.

The story is not terribly original but interesting enough for its briefness. The piece is potentially creepy but the straightforward and light telling leaves it with little impact. The story reads like a young adult novel or televised horror story, with slight creepiness and no real horror. I have previously read only one work by John Saul, the novel Sleepwalk, which at the time I did not care for. Similarly that novel is equal in quality of both writing and plotting as "The Doll," in that it read like young adult fiction, and though it too contained little moments of interest, they appeared spottily throughout the book.

With "The Doll" I was more interested in the side story of the audit being conducted at the Blackstone bank, wherein the lending practices of the bank were being externally scrutinized, a practice that can have dire consequences not only on the bank itself, but on those relying on these loans for employment. This kind of reality is a far greater horror than a life-like doll, and I do hope this storyline is pursued in later segments of the series.

The Horror on the Asteroid and Other Tales of Planetary Horror

The Horror on the Asteroid and Other Tales of Planetary Horror - Edmond Hamilton, Gerry De La Ree For a review of the individual stories, please visit Casual Debris.

In the midst of the Depression, Edmond Hamilton was approached by publisher Philip Allan to put together a hardcover collection of his short stories. This was an unusual move by the British publisher, since few books made of stories gathered from the pulps were given the hardcover treatment. In fact, it would be another thirteen years before Hamilton would see his next hardcover publication: the novel The Star Kings (Frederick Fell, October 1949). Hamilton's blend of speculation and adventure was popular escapism for the time, and in the ten years from his first story publication in 1926, he had already published a vast number of works and saw print in most of the pulps.

Hamilton's popularity began shortly after his first story publication in August 1926 ("The Monster-God of Mamurth in Weird Tales), and his productivity in the next few years is impressive. His fiction was fuelled by ideas, interesting and often far-fetched premises that were brought forth most often in an adventurous setting. His stories were conventional and little effort was placed on character; instead he focused on elevating his fantasy-science premises through an energetic narrative. Most often he relied on the conventions of the period, such as using a framing narrative in which a reliable, rational and highly average third party re-tells the fantastic tale of an adventurer or mad scientist, or the Archaeological tale of lost civilizations. He included few female characters, admittedly few characters in total, and normally avoided romantic sub-plots: in this collection of six stories, only three women appear and only one is an active character while the third is the mother of the second who is only mentioned. The men are either mad scientists, mad adventurers, ambitious reporters, space men, or simply the average witness or re-layer of the incredible events. As such most of the stories read quickly, similarly, and offer little aside from the actual premise for a reader to recall post reading.

The stories presented in this anthology are each a mix of adventure and speculation. The interesting idea is weaved into a high octane plot, usually a combination of fantasy and horror more than of science fiction. The speculative ideas, based on facets such as evolution, the expanding universe and the arctic circle, have some scientific basis, but the technology and presentation help to date the publication of these works. Overall it is an interesting and somewhat enjoyable bit of pulp history, though there also exists some overwrought silliness amid the fun, and one story in particular that has over time become near enraging in its presentation.

The Bottoms

The Bottoms - Joe R. Lansdale From Casual Debris.

Eleven year-old Harry Crane and his little sister Thomasina "Tom" stumble upon the mutilated corpse of a black woman along the Sabine River in East Texas, 1933. The boy's farmer father, Jacob Crane, acts as the community's lawman, and through the boy's perspective we are brought into the investigation of brutal slayings amid a racially charged place and time.

Though I picked out the guilty party relatively early on, along with piecing together the mystery of the folkloric Goat Man, I nonetheless enjoyed the book tremendously. Lansdale's novel is elevated from basic mystery by its historical subject matter and, for the most part, the presentation of that subject matter.

There is a vividness to this novel that is important to its period setting, as the sights and scents of place and time come across clear and distinct. At no point did I feel that scenes had been inserted in order to deliver "local colour," as the plot was interwoven with each locale and character that steps onto the page. Nor did the novel feel at any time to be overlong or winded, so that even if Lansdale did include some pages for the sake of backdrop, he succeeded in weaving them into the overarching story-line. Perhaps because the plot is so tightly interwoven with each of the book's individual elements, much else can be forgiven. Despite this I would like to mention two points for thought.

While I enjoyed reading the characters of the novel, they are depicted with little ambiguity. It is suspect that any white person of 1933 would be so clearly one-sided in their estimation of persons of colour, since character is a product of its time, place and culture. I will stress that this issue does not detract from the novel nor did it from my reading the novel; the story precedes its presentation, and the plot is so tight that there is no need to complicate it with additional details. Regardless, those characters that are racist are full-fledged racists, which is believable, whereas those who are not racist are entirely without prejudice, which can be a little challenging. The only middle ground is offered by a minor character (when I locate my copy I will include his name here). A surprisingly sensitive portrait is given to this character whose function in the plot is clear and precise. He is trusted (practically forced) to watch over a black man who is brought in early as a suspect, and though, dim-witted as he is, he does try to do a capable job despite his obvious prejudices, which are enhanced by the fact that his daughter had relations with a man of colour, something if known publicly would be a death-call to the family. These details are not integrated into the plot and no resolution is offered, which is wise; but this detail complicates the hiding of the black man and, though the man entrusted with hiding him appears up front to be a pure racist, there are some touches that imply another side to his outlook on the situation, which I won't discuss here as it would reveal an important turn in the plot. In short, the bulk of the characters are defined with strict boundaries, as though the author were pointing at each one, saying "This one is good, we like her," or "This is a bad dude, we don't like him at all."

The other point I'd like to pause on is the representation of memory and voice. Without dalliance the reader is expected to accept that a dying man in his eighties is able to reconstruct, with an acute grasp of detail, events that occurred seven decades earlier. Collins recalls the minutest of details from conversation to observations, and has the added imaginative touch to describe his surroundings with the most visual of similes, such as the moon coming through the clouds as though it were awakening and peeking out from underneath sheets. Memory is inherently inaccurate and unreliable, and if we are to apply this reality to the narrative, we would be struggling with the idea that Crane is sharing an interpretation of events rather than the facts as he believes them to be. However, if we simply accept him at face value as a trusted narrator, we can immerse ourselves into the story.

The Bottoms received the 2001 Edgar Award for novel of the year (2000). The book is is currently in pre-production for a theatrical release that was originally slated for 2017. The man attached to directing the film was the recently deceased Bill Paxton, from a screenplay by Brent Hanley, who also scripted Bill Paxton's full-length directorial debut, the enormously entertaining Frailty. Sadly we will not see the results of a second collaboration between these two, though likely the project will continue at some point with another director attached.

Ghost Stories

Ghost Stories - Ales Haman, Irena Zítková, Jan Dungel From Casual Debris, including reviews of the individual stories.

Among the numerous twentieth century anthologies of nineteenth century anthologies, the lazily titled Ghost Stories mixes some overly-anthologized stories with a couple of lesser known works. As the stories themselves go, they are all worth reading, but the anthology itself is, despite its physical attractiveness, at times confusing due to its packaging.

The anthology lumps a bunch of supernatural and psychological tales together and claim they are about ghosts. Though the idea of ghosts can be broadened to include more than just the spirits of the dead, the collection is really about apparitions, including hallucinations and projections along with specters. Since of the nine stories included only four actually feature ghosts, the anthology should have been just as lazily titled Apparition Stories.

The other confusing packaging element is the art. Each story is complemented by one or two full-page colour illustrations and a handful of small black and white works. Artist Jan Dungel did read each story since the illustrations sometimes borrow from minor details, though his interpretations are sometimes outside the scope of the tale, particularly with the Maupassant story, where a hallucination is drawn with the head of a leopard-like humanoid that is an invention of the artist himself.

Regardless, though the anthology does not add to the numerous books of its kind, it was good to revisit each of these stories and I do generally like to see such works illustrated. The inclusion of the all-too-common (though excellent) Dickens and Poe stories, is balanced well with the introduction to a strong piece by Villiers de l'Isle-Adam and an amusing one by Doyle, both of which I first read here.

The translators here are not credited, and I can assume they are from the earliest translators of these stories as each should be in the public domain in order to publish something inexpensively.

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.

Source: http://casualdebris.blogspot.ca/2016/04/jennifer-mcmahon-night-sister-2015.html

The Night Sister

The Night Sister - Jennifer McMahon From Casual Debris.

(Really 3.5/5, or 7/10)

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.

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